Complicating matters, I had one small child and closely thereafter another. My wife and I were both working, so there was lots of things going on. While things like the internet were helping me find people to do wargames with, I was less willing to try to find other gamers, having had some back experiences with gaming with strangers. You can play Warhammer against a stranger in a gaming store, leave and never see him again if you don't want. It's harder (and a little more intrusive) getting out of doing a roleplaying game with someone who has been in your house.
After over two years of no gaming whatsoever, I got so hungry to do some gaming that I realized the answer was to just make gamers out of non-gamers. At that point I had met people and made friends, friends who often had common interests like sci-fi and fantasy movies, etc. Some of them had even done D&D back in the 1970's and 1980's like I had, but had dropped out. So I started "outing" myself as a gamer to people, risking some sort of social stigmatizing that actually never happened. When you get to be in your 30's, you really shed a lot of your baggage from the past and a lot of the old nerd/jock/popular people distinctions fade away. Plus, if you're talking to people who already like you, they probably already know that you are kind of geeky anyways and adding "RPG player" to the Venn diagram of your life isn't that big a shock.
So I adopted a fairly casual format. I'd game less often, sometimes once a month or so. I was often gaming with both adults and their older children. It tended to center around having a meal of some kind; we'd get together, eat and be social, then game for a few hours. That's worth noting: the five- to six-hour long gaming sessions of my past were long gone. Schedule restraints meant I was usually just gaming from around 7:00 to 10:00 PM, and that meant a different kind of pacing.
It is also during this time that I hooked up with the EOW group, entirely because of my players in my group "outed" herself to a co-worker, who in turn had been running this Morrow Project game four times a year for twenty years. I've talked about that elsewhere, but it was the epitome of the "gaming around a grown-up life" methodology.
By there was another factor in play in the RPG universe, and that was the Open Gaming License (OGL). The third edition of D&D and Wizards of the Coast's willingness to allow third-party publishers to make D&D products meant that a lot of independent companies stopped making their own games and started cranking out D&D material by the truckload. I was pretty burned out on superhero RPG's and the new interest in fantasy games across the gaming community swept me up, albeit briefly. A quick look at the third edition of D&D made me realize what a cumbersome, prone-to-power-gaming system it could be. I didn't want complicated at that point, I wanted something I could play relatively easily. Which is why, when Castles & Crusades came out, I jumped on it. C&C seemed to be a throwback to my earlier D&D games but with some pretty reasonable changes reflecting gaming wisdom of the intervening period.
What I wasn't able to do so easily was shuck a lot of the relatively modern RPG mindset when using what was essentially an OSR-style product. I was still running plots, rather than sandboxes, and I was used to a low level of lethality and a high rate of advancement, neither of which this game (or other OSR games) offered. As such, C&C didn't always click with people in my group, and despite the internet community telling me how great the old school was, I wasn't always getting it. That took a while for me to grasp, mostly through reading a lot of other people patiently re-educating gamers about things like sandboxes and agency.
I also was getting personally frustrated about how irregularly I was gaming. Since most of my gaming group hadn't much investment in the hobby, it was often difficult to get them to come play. Finally my wife, after hearing me lament my situation for the upteenth time, said to me "you need to stop gaming with just people you know in town. You need to find gamers like you who really love this hobby, even if that means driving half an hour to find them."
So, I decided to do something I had never done at that point: run a game at a gaming store. By the grace of God I didn't end up with people like I had years before, but actually found a nice group of mature adults who wanted to game every other weekend like I did. We'd show up, sack of fast food in hand, and game until the store closed on Friday night. At that point my kids were no longer infants and my wife was more than willing to help me be happy living in our little town by having me be away for that evening. The fourth edition of D&D had come out by then, and putting together simple dungeon crawls was easily (if not always satisfying).
As a side note, it really did seem that RPG's were on the wane, however. World of Warcraft, CCG's, and console video games I think did have a serious impact on the hobby, and finding people even in gaming stores wasn't that easy. I also think (and I believe the facts prove this out) that D&D 4E didn't quite take the gaming world by storm the way that 3E did. At the gaming store I had a consistent group of four players, but I had a lot of people sneering at us like we were sell-outs.
Next chapter: bringing us up to now...