Late one November night in 2007, a tall man in his early 40s hunched over his laptop, hesitantly tapping at the keyboard. He filled in a profile that described himself and his interests. Twice he grabbed the screen as if to close the laptop. He typed several sentences, then erased them, then started anew. Finally he sat back, sighed, and hit the enter button.
That man was me. I wasn’t at a dating site. I was a happily married man, and I wasn’t looking for that kind of relationship. I was creating a profile at Meetup.com, and I was giving tabletop roleplaying one last shot.
From Abundance to Scarcity
I started playing tabletop RPGs in the days when they were called fantasy roleplaying games. From junior high through high school and college, I spent countless hours playing and preparing to play. I ran an epic RuneQuest campaign, two lengthy Aftermath! campaigns, a tremendously satisfying Shadowrun campaign, and lots of other games in the margins.
Then it became difficult to play. After college I became an active duty Army officer, left my home state of California, and got married. I still snuck roleplaying into my life wherever possible, going so far as to run a couple of games of Shadowrun for soldiers in my rifle company while deployed to a combat zone in Somalia. But opportunities to play dwindled, and after leaving active duty other concerns pushed roleplaying into cold storage. I went through a painful divorce, relocated, attempted to figure out who I was and what I was doing with my life, and busied myself with a career and new friends.
The DOG Days
When I finally returned to California after a nine year absence, I reunited with old friends. The same people I’d played games with in high school and college were still interested in roleplaying. Everyone was far busier than we’d been as students, and we all no longer lived in the same town. But the desire to gather, throw dice, and immerse ourselves in the game was still there. So we created a scheduled gathering we called Days of Gaming (DOG), and for a few years it slaked my thirst for roleplaying.
We would meet for a long weekend every three or four months. One of my friends ran a lengthy Call of Cthulhu campaign, I ran a post-apocalypse Basic Roleplaying campaign, and we experimented with one-shots in between. It was fun, but as the years ground on, it became more difficult to make the quarterly schedule. The responsibilities of work, marriage and parenthood made coordinating schedules nearly impossible. Gradually the gatherings became less frequent, and when we did meet, we spent much of the time catching up and socializing rather than playing games. With a heavy heart, I pulled the plug on DOG.
Boxes of games, supplements, maps, folders full of ideas for campaigns that never came to fruition sat silently in storage, waiting for my return. I wanted to put them to use, to do more than occasionally flip through them. But I had a problem.
Some people go to game conventions. I’m not one of those people. Yes, I’d been to three or four game conventions, but the vast majority of my gaming time has been spent with close friends. I didn’t go looking for people to game with, because frankly I was nervous about what I’d find. About who I’d find, and how I’d react.
I was at a crossroads. I could pick up tabletop RPGs again, but the only way to do that was to take a step into the dark unknown and look for other gamers. I’d done this once before, with unsettling results. Not long after leaving active duty, I’d met a small gaming group via a 3“x5” card tacked onto the “Find Gamers” bulletin board at a game store in Pittsburgh, where I lived at the time.
They were truly welcoming and friendly, but I was judgemental of their play style. They hadn’t played as many different games as I had, and I considered their roleplaying skills inferior to those of my high school and college group. I didn’t say it their faces, but after three or four sessions, I bowed out. Instead of looking on this new group as an opportunity to share and learn, I acted like a close-minded jackass. It shames me to this day.
As I sat at that crossroads, flipping through the pages of aged RuneQuest supplements and reams of campaign notes, I wondered if the great times I’d had gaming with my friends were really even about the games. Was it purely about a time in my life, and the friends who were so important to me at the time? Ultimately I decided that no, the friends I grew up with were a big part of the joy of roleplaying, but the books and rules and dice, the implements of these games, were important in their own right. All pursuits are not created equal.
I realized that I craved the specific kind of interaction that roleplaying provides. For years as an adult I’d spent Sunday afternoons watching pro football, and it would have been easy to slide into one of the groups of men in my age cohort who bonded around watching sports. But it just didn’t appeal to me any more. I wanted something that stretched my imagination.
So in spite of my trepidation, I stepped into the unknown, and I found a local Meetup.com group devoted to Dungeons & Dragons. At the time I was uninterested in D&D, but I noticed more than a few of the people in the group had played a wide variety of games. So I created a profile and joined the group. The gnashing of teeth and the trepidatious profile creation behind me, I half wished someone would respond to my notice of availability, and half wished nobody would.
Into the Void
Thankfully someone did. The very next day, I received an email from a man in his 30s named Matt. He was running a Call of Cthulhu campaign, and one of the players had moved far away, leaving them short a player. Would I be interested in joining the group? After a couple of emails back and forth, I agreed meet them at their next Friday evening session.
To feel so nervous about meeting four people to play a game for an evening may sound ridiculous, but the feeling was real. I didn’t want it to go sideways. I wanted it all to work. I wanted to be able to somehow pull off the miracle of resurrection, to somehow find the spark that had illuminated the games of my youth, even though the thought seemed preposterous.
Long odds indeed.
But after we made introductions and the pizza arrived, we talked about our characters and started playing. I discovered something wondrous and awesome. Matt was an excellent gamemaster. I could feel it immediately. Emerson was immersed in his character, but not to the point that it derailed the game. Brie was a thoughtful, savvy player. That first game session was a genuinely delightful surprise.
I came back the following Friday, and though the mix of players has shifted, Matt, Emerson and I have been playing Friday nights ever since. We’ve played an even broader range of games and play styles than I did before, and we’ve become true friends. Where before it was friendships that led to games, this time the games led to friendships.
The Journey Continues
It was a stroke of good fortune that got me in touch with Matt and Emerson. It also made me realize that there really are common touchpoints that make it easier to connect with other gamers than I’d realized. I met enough people through work to introduce Dungeon World to a small group, and later play in my friend Steve’s Apocalypse World campaign and run an online D&D game for Mike and Riki. I taught, I learned, I made new friends, I had fun. I grew as a gamer and as a person.
The rest of my life still takes up so much time that I have very little for roleplaying games. But I cling tenaciously to that time, because it’s valuable to me. And I’m grateful that when I could have packed it all up and said goodbye to tabletop roleplaying, I gave it one last shot.