Monday, February 6, 2012

How to Enjoy Gaming

A while back I said, in the midst of a tirade regarding people who obsess about gaming theory, that I should try to write something that would help people incorporate new people into their gaming hobby.  For a variety of reasons I’ve decided to go ahead on that idea, and maybe provide some serious content for this blog (for a change).

Let me start by telling you a little bit about myself, just so you know that I know what I’m talking about.  I started gaming in middle school right when D&D first came out and haven’t stopped.  I’ve been out of college for the last twenty years and since leaving school have moved four times.  Each time, I rebuilt a gaming group.  In that process I made a lot of mistakes, but I also figured out what worked best.  Right now I’ve got a great group of people (seven total, including the GM) and I game every other Friday night at my home.

In my professional life I deal almost exclusively with people.  I use a computer for word processing and the internet, but that’s it.  I’m not a techie or an IT guy.  I’m not a manual aborer or a scientist.  A lot of my job has to do with talking to and befriending strangers, and at the risk of sounding arrogant I’m good at my job.  I have an office and a staff and I have to dress at least “business casual” for work most days.  I don’t meet the stereotype of the “typical” gamer, although I think the stereotype is a little unfair (a little).

So hopefully you’re reading this because you are a gamer like me and you want to get some enjoyment out of your gaming life.  You want to have fun, and maybe you’re not.  Maybe you’ve had some bad experiences at the gaming table.  Maybe you’re in a spot like I’ve been where you’ve moved to a new city and don’t know people and you want to start a new group.  I don’t have all the answers and make no guarantees, but I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned over the last thirty years.

Let’s start off with the biggest, most important, more relevant suggestion I can make:

Game with your friends, not other gamers.

From what I have seen, the most common pattern for a person wanting to get a game going is to put up a notice at a gaming store or a forum or Meetup saying they are running a game, usually at a local gaming store, and then see what their nets haul in.  Let me tell you what happens next.  You get people, you always will, and you’ll only really like maybe a third of them, but you’ll end up gaming with all of them.  Once.  The next week only a few of them will return.  And then the game will peter out and you’ll end up waiting six months before trying again.  This just hasn’t happened to me, it has happened to a lot of people with whom I talk about this.  Why?  There are two main reasons:

You don’t like everyone.  I can get along with most people (amongst other things it is a job skill).  I actually like people on the whole.  But the simple truth is that there are people out there whom I just can’t or won’t enjoy being around in my recreational time.  Sometimes they are jerks.  Sometimes they are disruptive gamers more interested in their own individual enjoyment than the group experience.  Sometimes, God love ‘em, it’s a matter of personal hygiene.  There’s a guy who attends the Games Workshop night at the local gaming store who has a body odor problem.  He dresses in overly-worn, dirty clothes, and he emits an odor that permeates the small back room of the store.  He might be a nice guy, I don’t know because I don’t game with him for the simple and perhaps selfish reason that I find the smell uncomfortable.  I’m not judging this person, and I think he deserves every respect as a human being.  But I won’t game with him if I don’t have to.

When you basically draw in a random sample pool of human beings, there’s a good chance that you will dislike or at least not truly enjoy some of them.  And then you’re left with the difficult process of trying to get people out of your game, the one you’re holding in a public place.  Which brings me to the other issue.

Gaming stores are not great places to game.  Most gaming stores have a razor-thin profit margin, which means that they tend to be in low-cost rental properties with limited space.  Most stores realize that some space for gaming is good for business, but often this ends up being a cramped back room that doubles as storage space.  And frankly few managers are going to re-invest in that space if they don’t have to.  A few free posters from gaming companies amidst the empty boxes and other detritus and you’ve got your typical gaming store back room.

The other part, and this might a bit controversial on my part, but RPG’s are not the bread-and-butter of gaming stores these days.  Miniatures and board games are both doing better and bring in more money per customer than roleplaying games.  That means that gaming store owners are going to prioritize the use of their gaming space to those customers.

And let’s be honest, it is difficult to get comfortable and enjoy roleplaying in a crowded, disruptive, and uncomfortable environment.  If you have to game in a public place, mostly because you have chosen to game with complete strangers, then go reserve a room at your public library which will be quieter, more attractive, and easier to close off from the public.  The only downside is you may not be able to bring in food, and the library may charge you for the use of the building.

Or you could avoid all of that and follow my suggestion and game with friends from the comfort of your own home.  I hope that sounds better to you.  Now let’s talk about how you do it.

Get over the whole “outing yourself” anxiety

Gamers talk amongst themselves about how secretive they have to keep their hobby because they think there’s a stigma attached to being a roleplaying game fan.  I think more and more that stigma is self-perpetuating.  Most bookstore chains sell roleplaying games.  Many public libraries carry them.  Having been mocked for being a geek in our adolescence we often fear that ostracism will carry over into our adult lives.

Well it won’t.  Seriously.  Almost everyone I know at work knows what I do on Friday nights and they don’t care.  My old company used to give a gift certificate to the FLGS on my birthday each year.  In a day when a lot of people own some sort of video game console or do Fantasy Football people just really don’t care what kind of hobby you have as long as it doesn’t involve public indecency or the slaughtering of endangered species.  And geek has gotten very, very hip.  You can thank the Lord of the Rings movies and Big Bang Theory for that.

And here are the two big truths about inviting newcomers to your gaming table.  First, people want to have fun.  They do.  A huge part of our economy is based on recreation.  Second, fun is contagious.  At some point we have all experienced the sensation of seeing someone else having fun--in person, on a blog, at a gaming convention--and said, “I want to do that because I want to have fun too.”  I almost talked myself into investing heavily into Seven Years War wargaming because I saw a guy having a heck of a lot of fun doing it.  Is SYW wargaming inherently fun?  Maybe.  But it is more that the person doing it looked like they were having a good time.

The inverse is true.  Fun things can look unpleasant when people talk about about how awful they are.  DakkaDakka, a GW-oriented forum, is the textbook example of this.  I can love playing 40K and then go there and hear nothing but people bitching about high prices and terrible rules and lousy miniatures and it makes me dismally depressed about gaming.

So back to my point.  If you go to a friend and say, “I have a lot of fun playing this game,” they will want to play it too, even if it is a roleplaying game.  Heck, if you pick someone who is about forty years old, they probably played D&D at one point.  And in the worst case scenario people are most likely to appreciate you thinking of them, rather than go “what’s that guy thinking inviting me to his fun like that?”  And if they are that impolite, you’re better off without them at the gaming table anyways.

In my own life I have brought easily a dozen new people to the gaming table.  Friends.  People I liked.  I’ve been their groomsman and attended their children’s baptisms.  I will say, it is easy to get Trekkies and anime fans and fantasy literature enthusiasts to game with you.  One person whom I game with now I invited because I saw she had a Tolkein-inspired tattoo on her wrist.  “You’re a big Lord of the Rings fan?” I asked.  When she said she was, I asked if she like the movies, and if she played fantasy video games.  Yes to both.  Then I said, “I really enjoy playing Dungeons & Dragons at my house with some friends of mine.  Maybe you’ve heard of it.”  She had, and she was interested.  And she brought her husband, whom I also liked.  It is that easy.  And again, no one with the tree of Gondor on their wrist is going to judge anyone.

A final word about this.  Inviting your friends and introducing people to gaming is also good for the hobby.  The whole “inside the store” thing doesn’t bring anyone new in, we’re just shuffling around gamers.  So get out there and let your geek flag fly.

Next post, we’ll talk about how to make sure they have a good time.

Over at Strange Vistas