I thought I was done with this series when I wrote the last part about RPG group Stagnation, but recent event in my gaming group lead me to a painful decision and I thought that tackling it as an addendum to the series would be a good idea.
When I discussed a RPG group’s decline, I quoted from Kyle Aaron’s Cheetoism philosophy website where he tackled the decline of a gaming group. His solution was to get the ball rolling again by sending the group back into the storming stage through one (or several) of the following solutions:
- Change game system
- Change GM
- Change players
Aaron says that a group storming anew should either get over its stagnation issues and return into the 5 stage cycle or eventually collapse upon itself.
Mine fell somewhere in between… and I chose to put it down.
My RPG DNA, Last Chapter
When my group showed signs of stagnation way back in the Spring of 2008, we introduced a few changes, mainly switching to D&D 4e and adding a new player (up to 6, to make sure we’d always be at least 4 at every game). It worked well for a time, we went through the various “stages” and even hit the performing stage for a short while with the City Within campaign, this in spite of me going through a severe depression in the winter of 2009.
Not bad at all.
However, as we progressed through the game, hitting Paragon level (level 10+) numerous fun-dampening issues started creeping up. While none were critical, as a group we were unable to address individually nor resolve them, leading to more game sessions where the fun levels of old were harder to come by.
Some of the issues :
- The group’s 3rd wave of babies creating scheduling issues and game interruptions
- Length and complexity (in terms of choices) of higher level 4e combat
- High number of players making the above more pronounced
- Shorter periods of gaming on Friday nights with no possibility of playing on weekends
- Some players’ preference for playing previous editions of D&D
- Slight personality frictions between players seen in increased razing and occasional flareups
The further we went, I felt the various threads that were these minor irritants evolve into open irritation and frustration throughout the participants. This became more evident to me when we resumed our campaign after the self-imposed 2 month hiatus while I was working on preparing seminars.
To be sure, I started asking some of the players and my intuitions were confirmed, the group was fraying. Hell, when I half-jokingly asked one of them if I should nuke the current group before it imploded, he told me he was seriously considering quitting it! He informed me that he found the inefficiencies of our game sessions, coupled with the increased tensions made for too stressful an environment for him to spend his free time on.
Moving in with Very Sharp Shears!
This surprising declaration not only echoed my thoughts but made me realize that I had something more important on my hands than mere “group fatigue” or “DM Burnout”. I surmised that the “issues” themselves were likely symptoms of something deeper and I eventually came up with the conclusion that as a gaming group, the motivations that had brought us together every two weeks for the last decade weren’t the tightly wound bundles they once were.
While no individual gamer shares the same motivations, a functional group has a core that shares a significant subset of those and play games (or gaming styles) that cater to these motivations and preferences. In our case, it appeared to me that our interests, priorities and motivations had drifted over time without us ever truly addressing (or realizing) it .
Some players became more casual, staying around to hang out, without fully buying in the game system we played. Some longed for the olden days of slaying monsters, 3.5 style leveling up and getting randomized magical loot . Others, myself included, were more invested in the current system and wanted to squeeze the most out of it in the small amount of time we allowed ourselves. Yet another subset preferred not to be bothered with the added pressure of self-imposed efficiency and were openly vocal about it. Finally, some players longed for simpler a social structure like those of our earlier groups.
All these motivations were valid… they just weren’t as compatible as those we shared in earlier times. I discussed with the players, in groups and individually and my impressions were confirmed, we didn’t want the same things and I didn’t see how we’d pull things back together. If we all liked to hang out together in a more casual way, we could all save energy and play board games, hang around a swimming pool or play online games.
Finally, I acknowledged that RPGs will likely remain my preferred form of tabletop entertainment. Thus, I was going to keep playing them as the GM, a role that I still prefer to being a player. I therefore allowed myself to take all necessary steps to find my groove again and, by default, foster a groovy RPG group, including applying the potentially painful power to choose (and exclude) players.
I settled on dissolving the gaming group as it was and take a summer-long break from D&D, preemptively ending my Gears of Ruin campaign.
I informed all my players, explaining my reasoning. More importantly, I informed that they would not be all called back when I started my next gaming group/campaign. I’m painfully aware that there will be a social cost attached to this decision and I take full responsibility for it. I remain convinced that I did the right thing to shut the group down before it frayed into further friction among friends down the line.
When we get the next (smaller, more focused) group together, we’ll agree on common reasons to play and we’ll build our sessions on these common values. We’ll chose a game that fits our combined needs (likely D&D 4e again, at a lower level) and rebuild our social contract accordingly. For example, we’ll probably agree to play less often when we’re missing players and call back our friends for bigger, board game, beer & pizza nights.
Have you ever actively put an end to a gaming group, or at least dissolved it for some time to restart later, possibly with some of its original members? How did it go?
The Chatty Pilgrim
It would be way too easy to blame this on D&D 4e not being the RPG for us/me. It’s clear that if I DM any version/variation of this game, 4e will remain my main choice for the time being. However, the people I’ve met over the last year and the games’ I’ve played have reminded me again just how large and diverse the field really is.
I’d like the following year to be some sort of game pilgrimage for me. While I’ll likely have a new regular gaming group (with familiar and new faces), I’ll also likely do periodic “geek nights” exploring what the hobby can offer beyond the big ones (D&D/d20, WoD, Savage Worlds, Gurps/Hero,etc). While I feel a current pull toward Burning Wheel, I plan to push beyond that and see what there is out there.
Rest assured that you will read all about it here.
P.S. : This means I will not post my last Gears of Ruin session, I’m sorry. But stay tuned for my Mouse Guard character generation and first adventure session we played last weekend.