Getting back into the hobby

I recently got back into tabletop RPGs after taking a 16+ year break from this hobby. In this post, I’ll share my experience.

I first started playing RPGs in the mid-80s. Growing up in Germany, my first system was naturally Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye) - the most popular German RPG, easily beating out D&D. The Dark Eye just kickstarted an English translation of the 5th edition, BTW. Two of my high school friends started playing RPGs around the same time, and over the next few years, our circle slowly kept growing. We eventually felt that we had outgrown The Dark Eye, and moved on to various other systems. In addition, we mostly eschewed modules from that point, and primarily played homebrew campaigns.

As a GM, my go-to games through the mid-90s were Warhammer FRPG (I loved both the system and the setting) and KULT (a Swedish horror RPG that actually just completed a very successful Kickstarter for a reboot). We also played a lot of Vampire: The Masquerade. Other games we played occasionally include Paranoia, AD&D, Shadowrun, Runequest, MERP, Traveller, and a few more. I’ll get into these in more detail in future blog posts.

During the late 90s, I played less regularly than before, as “real life” took over (I was living with my soon-to-be wife and studying for my University diploma). In 1998, after completing University, my wife and I moved to California together, and my 16-year RPG hiatus began. We made new friends, had kids, and focused on our careers. I thought about RPGs a lot (even bought and read a few), but didn’t make any effort to connect with local gaming groups.

When my kids got older, I introduced them to RPGs. Our first game was Faery’s Tale, which was fun but didn’t last beyond a few sessions. (We later played some D&D as well, and I’m currently trying to get them to GM their own games.)

Fast-forward a few more years, to late 2014. D&D 5E had just come out, and I thought it might be a good time to find a new gaming group. In the San Francisco Bay Area, that really shouldn’t be too much of a challenge… On a whim, I searched on Craigslist for “Dungeons & Dragons”. Not only did I find an ad from a D&D group looking for another player, but it read as if it had been custom-written for me!

Like myself, the other players were mostly tech industry professionals that got together every two weeks (in the same city I live in) to play D&D, drink beer, and eat unhealthy snacks. Apparently they enjoyed both the story and tactical elements of D&D. They were just about to start their first D&D 5E game, so the timing was perfect.

After a phone call with one of the group members, we agreed that I’d join them for a trial session (yes, in some ways this felt very similar to a phone interview for a job…). I rolled up my character (a rogue) and met them a few weeks later. I should stress that this was a very unusual situation for me: I had never actively sought out a group like this, and while I can be fairly outgoing once I warm up to a group, I am introverted at heart. But the other players were very welcoming and on a similar wavelength to myself, so I quickly felt comfortable.

That first trial session was the kick-off for the Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign, GM-ed by L., which took us from October 2014 to May 2015. Our group’s consensus was that the module wasn’t that great, although the GM did his best to keep things fun. One of the players was also missing some of the crunch from earlier D&D editions particularly 4E. All of this led to plenty of discussions / retrospectives. As for myself: I was just happy to be gaming again. In addition to participating as a player, I helped schedule events, and created fun banners for each event in our private G+ community, which usually poked some fun at last session’s theme (I might share some of these in a future post).

After that campaign, I felt confident trying myself as a GM again. I had recently picked up Savage Worlds, and decided to create a homebrew setting and campaign (titled “Earth: Infiltrated”, a modern setting with an alien infiltration theme). This campaign lasted from August 2015 to January 2016, but our group’s schedule had become a quite difficult to reconcile, and we only got about 8 sessions in during that period. In the end, none of us were really feeling this campaign, so I decided to put it on ice. I think part of it was the system (Savage Worlds was just not crunchy enough for the more tactically minded players in our group), but the other part was my campaign (I don’t think I created enough challenges and interesting combat encounters).

We had a bit of a lull, where we at least played some board games and had some good brainstorming sessions about how we should proceed. After that, L. ran a 3-session “one-shot” with our previous D&D characters, where we experimented with some homebrew modifications (additional feats, daily/encounter abilities, etc.). We also all agreed to do our best to stick with a regular biweekly gaming schedule, which we’ve kept up so far - a big improvement over the previous 6 months.

In June 2016, we started our new campaign, GM-ed by R. Another D&D 5E campaign, but with a homebrew setting and campaign. R. is also experimenting with collaborative world generation: We use Obsidian Portal and everyone is encouraged and incentivized to contribute wiki articles (e.g. locations or NPCs) and session notes, all of which yield some bonus XP. The jury is still a bit out on this (I’m generally not a big fan of tracking XP, and tend to prefer the milestone approach instead), but it’s an interesting experiment.

We discussed mixing things up a bit by pausing campaigns and either alternating with another campaign or occasional one-shots. While I have limited experience playing these (mostly at local gaming conventions), I’m becoming increasingly drawn to narrative focused systems like Fate or Dungeon World. I’m planning to run a Fate one-shot at some point.

Given all of our busy jobs and family lives, playing more than once every 2 weeks is difficult, so we all engage in our own meta-gaming activities. For myself, that mainly takes the form of buying and reading a lot of RPG books. When I discover a new system, I tend to go all in: I now own all the core books for both Savage Worlds and Fate, as well as many settings. More if I include digital books (I’m a sucker for the Bundle of Holding, for example…)

I also enjoy listening to RPG podcasts. My two favorites are Gaming and BS and Misdirected Mark. I never miss their episodes, but I also enjoy The Gauntlet, Down with D&D, Fear the Boot, Gamerstable, and Talking Games. While obviously not the same as actually playing games, listening to these podcasts manages to scratch my RPG itch in between sessions, as well as exposing me to lots of new ideas.

In closing, I’m glad I’ve rediscovered this hobby. Aside from simply being a lot of fun, my biweekly gaming sessions help keep me grounded and give me something to look forward to when work or life gets stressful.

In the coming months, I’ll write more about the RPGs I’ve played in the past and RPGs I’m planning to play in the future. I may also write about how gaming has changed from back then to now (for example the influence of smartphones and the Internet). As someone who took a break from playing tabletop RPGs during the time that MMORPGs became popular, for example, it’s interesting to see how MMORPGs have influenced modern tabletop RPGs, even though MMORPGs themselves were originally influenced by tabletop RPGs.

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