Monday, January 31, 2022

More Random Musings - the Scheduling Nightmare

 Almost a month and  I have only blogged three times in January! Good thing "more consistent posts" was not one of my 2022 promises. 

This has been a weird month already. Hard to find time to game due to a combination of work schedules, school (for my wife), COVID scares, regular illness taking out players and GM alike at random, etc. etc. and amidst all of this I have been keenly aware that I am wrestling with a combination of sleep-based fatigue making it tough to motivate myself to run games, and a level of GM burnout (akin to writer's block, I would say) that has made actually showing up difficult at times. More of the former (fatigue) than the latter, but still.

I also continue to question my systems of choice. Running D&D 3.5 last year has forced me to see that my problems with D&D 5E are deeper and more troubling than I had considered....I really like the deeper level of granularity in D&D 3.5, the level of customization and content, and its such a sharp contrast with D&D 5E that I just am not sure I can keep on with the latest edition. I started a new campaign which is only two sessions in and I'm already barely motivated to continue.

When I've gotten to this point in the past I often stop and take a moment to think hard about what has been motivating me the most, recently. When I look at what was successful in 2021 I realize I really enjoyed the one D&D 3.5 campaign which felt very energetic and fun. It was put on pause due to an absent player, but I'd like to get back to it. I also really enjoyed the Cypher System game earlier in the year, even though I had a persistent disconnect between my use of a world grounded in very D&D-style theatrics, but using a game system (Cypher) in dire opposition to that style of play. It's a case where I'd love to get back to that campaign, just not with that system....Cypher had already streaked past the more conventional level of play the story expected and left it all in the dust. Cypher is a wonderful game system, but its demands on the story telling are distinctly different from conventional D&D storytelling.

I technically had a great campaign with Pathfinder 2E that I quite enjoyed, but I wasn't actually enjoying running it as much as I should have, and felt at times not motivated. This is my tip that I am experiencing GM burnout: the plot was great, the players brought exciting characters to the table, there's a lot of interest in total, but my own desire to just show up and do it was lower than ever. Bad sign! 

Some of the problem is oversaturation: I am currently running a live game Tuesdays (D&D 5E), a virtual game Wednesdays (Mothership), playing in a Call of Cthulhu game on Fridays, and Pathfinder on Saturdays (Roll20). The reality is that I only have time for maybe two nights a week....and what is happening is I achieve that by cancelling, a lot. Sometimes its provoked by work schedules, sometimes by illness, but the net effect for the last couple months has been a harrowingly inconsistent mess of random game nights.

If I could dial it back to one night a week, which is realistically all I really have time for, I think it would be the best solution....but the problem is I have players who are friends that I like gaming with, and they are often quite spread out on which nights they can actually game. It is a no win situation! Worse yet, even if I picked, say, Saturday night to be the sole night for gaming that would be tough because the fewest number of players among all groups can actually game that night. Worse yet, I in theory can't game on Saturdays as often as I'd like simply because I periodically take weekend trips. 

Of all the nights for gaming, Fridays are least problematic because I am not the GM. In the old days of the before-pandemic times I often could find a reprieve for a while, sometimes for weeks or months, when one of the other players could step up and run games for a while. This let me recharge my batteries and get a break. But that stopped with the pandemic, ironically, as the process of a sub GM setting up a VTT room and putting the time in to a pick-up game is actually laborious and requires some careful planning. It doesn't help that no one I know, including those who used to GM, ever volunteer anymore. Put simply: if I don't GM, apparently no one else does, either. Gah!

So one thought I have is to make some nights deliberately bi-weekly and rotate. One week: Mothership Wednesday. Next week: Pathfinder Saturday. Tuesdays are a special issue which I have special considerations to address, that go beyond the scope of this post (or what I will stick into print in a public space). Long story short is: I may make Tuesday night the "chopping block" game for a bit, even though it is the live game. I don't want to....but I can then dial it back to the D&D 3.5 session I enjoyed, and move it back to a VTT environment for a bit, selectively picking the players I wish to continue with. Or I can just keep going with the live game and maybe disinvite a couple specific players. We shall see.

In a perfect world I'd get my A-Team of players all on one night, but I know that is impossible currently. And that night I picked would be the mysterious eighth day of the week, that mystery day that exists outside of time and space and on which I have a full night's sleep and am feeling my maximum level of creativity and engagement. What a day that would be!

The reality though is that I am treading water on the time/energy amounts I need to sustain three different games and storylines, and I only really have energy for one right now. A cruel situation indeed, one in which I drown in a bounty of excess. But because I try to juggle three games at once, all of them suffer. So I need to solve this by going back, ideally, to one game a week, and maybe one other game every other week, like I used to do in the Good Old Days. The problem is....which games?

Monday, January 3, 2022

2021 Gaming Year in Review and 2022 Gaming Plans

 Last year I only really talked about gaming plans and made no predictions....hell, last year was my lowest post count year-over-year since 2011 when I started blogging. At least some of this has been due to a lack of time, but some of it was also due to a gradual slowing down of the total creative content I had energy to post on-site. I might tick that up a bit this year, but if you look at the first 3-4 years of the blog I spent a ton of energy on posting existing world and lore content, sometimes just for fun, sometimes in a useable form for those who might be entertained by such. Cut to 2021, and I think the old era of "dense lore-packed fantasy gaming settings aimed at inspiring the imagination (or boring those who don't like dense lore-packed settings)" is a bygone era, and contemporary gaming are all about hitting the right ratio of inspirational reading to accessible content. Everything from current WotC products to Necrotic Gnome's OSE style of module making reflect a shift in design emphasis that moves presentation of a world or setting much closer to the "practicality" of the content in design. This has led me to think a lot about how I could do something like this for my own settings and scenarios, and that's not a bad thing; making content that is accessible to the average time-harried GM is a great idea, actually. 

Anyway, for 2021 I predicted some things then a couple weeks later noticed my predictions were all wrong already. In the end I ran several games: D&D 5E for a while, then Cypher System, then back to Pathfinder 2E. I dabbled in Call of Cthulhu for a couple months here and there, started a Mothership ongoing campaign somehow despite being overloaded, and then at last got to run live games again, focused on D&D 5E, D&D 3.5 and Call of Cthulhu. I had a two-session Gamma World 1st edition game in the mix, which was a trippy and fun experience for all. During all of this I got to be a player in a Call of Cthulhu game a friend of mine ran for much of the whole year using Astral Tabletop.

For 2022 I make no crazy predictions at all: there's going to be more Traveller this year with its 2022 edition fresh in mind; Mothership is here to stay, too fun to give up any time soon; D&D 5E will likely return, as I have a group that quite enjoys it and doesn't mind when I apply some gritty rules to make it feel more like I like things; Pathfinder 2E is likely not going anywhere, I suspect. Outside of that, I can't say for sure, but I may push to run some historical games soon, though whether I will use GURPS, Mythras or OpenQuest 3 I cannot yet say. I wanted to do this last year but there are limits in life. I could easily run something that is "mostly historical" anyway with careful use of D&D in either 3.5 or 5E, or Pathfinder would just require some serious caveats about the magic.

Still, I'm not much for tinkering with game systems so in the end I will run what I actually have time to mess with. That means pretty much D&D, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller, Mothership, and maybe if I am inspired to a certain weird campaign this year a return to Cypher System. I feel like a broken record player, but hey, I'm getting old and this seems to be what happens when we all get old. 

My biggest goal this year would be to move back to fully live gaming but the pandemic has permanently changed that to some degree, so I will settle for one live game a week for now. Where things are a bit wacky are in the current online Mothership game, which I am running with old gaming buddies from across the country and do not want to ever quit, and with Saturday, which has players who for various reasons that is simply the best way to handle it. I think I am fine with that. 

Roll20 looks like it will reign supreme, at least until or if I can figure out Foundry. I bought a copy, but it's kind of inexplicable to me as to what to do. I need to find time (and interest) to watch some videos and find out how to use Foundry, at like, even the most basic level. Foundry assumes a level of competence in handling the kinds of tasks it provides for, and I do not have any of that (even Roll20, outside of its basic fundamental usage model, is a bit of an enigma to someone like me who has a live-game experience informing my view on gaming).

I do have a wishlist for 2022, which is short and sweet:

1. I'd love to see a more user-friendly VTT enter the market, one which is more cost effective and provides for a more "table-like" experience with less fiddling over complex virtual maps and minis;

2. I'd like to find time this year to prep and play the Aliens RPG and Conan RPG (both from Modiphius), and maybe even the Star Trek RPG (fun fact: in the long-ago days I was a big Star Trek fan and ran a lot of the Star Trek RPG as presented by Last Unicorn Games);

3. I'd like to settle once and for all this year whether my obsession with the OSR games, especially OSE, DCC, MCC and other acronyms of similar nature, is mostly a fun trip through a wonderland I have no intention of seriously visiting, or if I can get some traction out of these titles. I am continually obsessed with the long-ago recapturing of the old days, but thwarted by the fact that the exact nature of what I enjoyed most about gaming back then is not quite in the same spirit as what most OSR manufacturers produce today, which is itself more of a nostalgia trip filled with a vision of nostalgic compliance that I was thwarting even in 1981 with AD&D. 

Beyond that I have no real idea.....there are some other things which will affect 2022 a bit, but nothing that merits mention in the blog. Will, for example, a game like Pathfinder 2E be a more satisfying experience at the live game table vs. the VTT environment? I suspect that it minimum because the GM has more positional control to "fix" things when they seem to be going severely south for the players, something which happens a nontrivial number of times in Pathfinder 2E, a game which due to its tighter balance means there's less wiggle room for the GM when it comes to the math on encounters.*

Also, we might be losing our resident rules lawyer in the games, at least for a little while. That tends to have an interesting impact at the game table. The GM gets to lean more heavily on the "rulings instead of rules" axiom, and there is less flipping through the rulebooks to figure it all out; the net result is maybe less mechanical accuracy but in exchange the pace and story elements pick up. In all honesty, I used to run games for a more relaxed and non-rules-lawyery group, so its been a long time since I had this sort of situation and its kind of exciting. Don't get me wrong, I will miss the player, but a game which move more seamlessly and allows the GM more leeway to do rulings over rules is ideal.

Actually....this is a thing I have considered. There are some games I like because their rules elements are "just enough" that they work fine without the need for complex elaboration mechanically. Then there are other game systems (of which Pathfinder 2E is one, and maybe Mythras is another) which often beg for mechanical alliteration and literacy, and the net result is that the game can, at times, bog down in such minutiae. I admit....I am really starting to spiral away from that approach these days. Not in a "I suddenly like OSR systems with no skill rules"** style of play, but more like a "I'd love to run GURPS again, but with all the mechanical bits set to minimum/zero" style. Or, you know, BRP but with none of the more complex optional rules in play unless it enhances rather than bogs down the experience.

I guess what I keep trying to say is, "Help, my players love our ongoing Pathfinder 2E campaign but I am so very, very tired of dealing with the mechanical tightness and predictability and wish I could have a more relaxed, freeform game using D&D 3.5 or 5E in its place," which is crazy, of course, to realize that the looser design of PF2E's predecessors is actually a superior play experience for everyone despite the generally more convenient GM elements in the newer game. But I embraced it two years ago so I guess I gotta see this ship through to its end, right?

*Some of the problem is showmanship; with VTT environments the players often have the books, tools and visibility to notice when a GM has just chosen to break a rule, "fix" a # (or roll in secret), or is willfully modifying or ignoring a stat block. You can run a game straight, mechanically, in Roll20 but the net result leads to arbitrary TPKs and scenarios where the campaign gets unintentionally derailed. This is less of a problem in games where the intent is to play as sandbox as possible, but I have been running a more story-driven and less sandbox-like campaign in PF2E and its been kind of a nightmare as a result.

**A lot of the OSR is obsessed with the B/X and BECMI era of D&D. I am not on that camp; class-as-race sucks, and limits what you can do and what stories you can tell (and characters you can play). Likewise, both AD&D 1E by the Wilderness Guide/Oriental Adventures era of books introduced a proficiency skill system, and the B/X era books had a skill system as early as the first Mystara Gazetteer set in Karameikos. Why does the OSR abstain from at least importing some version of these skill mechanics to the respective OSR editions they emulate? Why is AD&D 2E the only edition with any OSR emulation that includes skills? I had already made a homebrew skill system by 1982, chiefly because skills added lots of flavor to characters, and it let players (we were all kids back then in my group) to identify when their character, who was supposed to be a skilled adult adventurer, identify that he or she had a given skill that we as the player couldn't hope to live up to. 

I get that OSR design today leans heavily on the minimalist side of mechanics and play approach, but what I am trying to say is: my OSR experience was not the same as what is reflected today, and that leads to an eternal disconnect for me. At least OSE emulates the career/profession skill rolls from AD&D 1E in its books! And covers race with class mechanics in addition to race-as-class quite well, too.