That pivotal point between having one group dissolve and establishing another
Notes on the life of The Librarian: House hunting continues apace. There’s nothing quite so frustrating as devoting the time and expense of several months, only to have nothing to show for it. I’ve personally looked at dozens of houses, not one of which passes my most basic criteria for dwelling. There are a lot of interesting places that I would have thought about putting money down on, but none of which were reasonably priced for the subsequent effort or in a state that I would be comfortable with at the outset.
Simultaneously, my gaming group of the last several years has finally broken apart completely. The married couple has left the state for lucrative post-graduate employ, the mainstay player has left for grad school on the other side of the state and one of the remaining members got to the point with his mental health that he needs to either get counseling or a serious medicinal upgrade before he’s useful in a gaming context. I’d lost two of my other mainstay members about two or three years back, around the time I started seriously looking to get out and move originally. I still have two groups remaining, but they’re more or less part-time, catch-as-cat-can agglomerations that I have to head out of the house to throw dice with. (These are the problems with having a library. You never really want to leave it behind, and when you do, there’s a tendency to bring half of it with you.)
None of this would be a problem, were the housing dilemma able to resolve itself in a slightly more timely manner. I had assumed that, by the time the group coughed out its last, I would have been able to pack up and start looking to establish a new gaming group in a new town, but it hasn’t happened like that as yet. Instead, I’m stuck in the awful interim period while I wait for the transition to take place.
In the mean time, I happened upon this blog entry, where Derek recounts an instance when he joined a new group of utter strangers in order to run a fantastic game. It’s an interesting idea, given that I’ve watched groups advance from strangers to close, personal friends over the years. He seems to contend that there’s a certain value to keeping people at a distance, just to allow the games in question to flourish without distraction.
And to an extent, I see where he’s going with it. One of the best games I’ve ever run had that as its core. It was a strange continuation of a long-running game that I had taken over from two preceding game-masters. There was a heavy sense of continuity for those who had played in any of the former iterations, and as such, I knew that I had to change it up pretty drastically to make it even remotely palatable to a new group of mostly strangers. There were stories that I wanted to tell in this milieu, and without going into overmuch detail, I engineered a reset for the game in order to be able to go in new directions.
Like the first iteration of the game, I set it on the campus of the university we were all attending, using familiar places and landmarks as a guide to what I was doing. And I built everything from there. Since most of the room were strangers to me and to each other, it had the weird effect of making everyone more familiar with each others characters than they were with each other. It actually took several weeks for the players to sort out the identities of the other players, apart from who they were playing. And as such, it was a wholly immersive game for everyone involved.
In this instance, Derek is right one the money. It was a great game, and much of what made it work was that everyone was a stranger to each other. As time went on, and people got to know each other better, the game did suffer a bit for the familiarity. It didn’t kill the game, but there was a drift of priority as time went on.
The thing that I hadn’t mentioned was that it was a group of about twenty players. When they were mostly unknown to each other, they weren’t as likely to be distracted by other things or caught up in non-game events. They were there to game, and I was able to balance it out with that many people because the focus was so tightly adhered to. Once this had started to falter a bit, it became much harder to keep everything in line. Slowly, people started to splinter off, I had to get the game back on track when important and plot-centric players vanished, and by the end of the year, much of the mojo had been lost from what originally took place.
So, on that note, I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of Derek’s outlook.
For my normal purposes, however, I think he’s missing out on some very necessary implications. In my experience, I have had much better luck with established groups whose members I know what to expect from. This is why the slow dissolution of my current group is so troubling to me. I knew these guys and the various affectations or archetypes that they were prone to. One guy loved very intricate, well-defined tropes, but he hated any sort of social combat character in general. Another one was up to try most builds for the sake of personal experimentation, and he could be counted on to run a fast and loose cinematic game if the well ever ran dry on my part. Another one would try to build the biggest, dumbest creature to wield an axe and play it all to the hilt. And so on. I knew the sort of things that would entice them towards a plot in-game, so if I needed to drop a plot hook, I had an idea of how to shape it for maximum effect.
What this meant was that, on any given occasion, I could build a game to the specific tastes of my specific group. If I put together an adventure, I knew the sorts of things that I could put in to appeal to the players I knew would be sitting down at the table on a given week. By knowing the tastes and directions of the different people, I knew that this kind of game would work, where another kind would be shaky. A cerebral investigation game would fly with these specific players, where this group over here wanted high action and gunplay. I don’t think you would have as solid a read of the group’s tastes if they were specifically kept as strangers.
A girl I knew, back in the day, once said that, as soon as you have a solid crew together, you run as hard and fast as you can while the crew could hold up. Once it was gone, you wouldn’t have the same chances. She was referring specifically to Shadowrun, but the sentiment holds. When you have a gaming group that works together well and is able to take on the necessary roles within an adventuring party, be it an incarnation of Pathfinder or a rag-tag crew of smugglers in Edge of the Empire, you need to hold to that synergy. I grant that it could happen with a group that otherwise doesn’t know each other, but I’ve never found that sort of group to be able to hold together over the course of years.
And I certainly never found the same interlock in a group that keeps each other at a distance.