Passing Familiarity

For a few years, my game group and I switched games and usually systems every month. Every once in a while, the other GM in the group would switch systems out from under a setting to try a new way of running a game we’d already played for his month of sessions. Generally, though, each new month (give or take a few lengthy runs) brought us a new game to learn. Exposing myself to new games was not new to me. This was something I had been doing since my first year of university. It was, however, the phase of fastest acquisition and implementation, through which I have passed before or since.


It was a lot of fun at first; it truly was. I learned a lot of games. I learned a lot about games. I learned about learning games, and I learned about how other people learn games. In all regards, it was time well spent. That said, I got tired of not being comfortable with anything we were running, and of discarding games that were just starting to become comfortable to return to a state lacking that comfort. I got tired of second-guessing if the rule I was about to apply was actually from this game or not. I developed a hesitance in my implementation which had never, ever been there before, and I quickly grew to hate that…. but at the same time loved trying out all of these games.


Among the players, some could not keep up with all the changes, and others simply did not want to. This served as a distillation process which left us with a core group that carried on experimenting, until the last pure player stated enough was enough. It was time to pick a game and play it for the long-term. He wanted to feel a sense of rules mastery again. He wanted to feel a deep bond with a character again, and he wanted to explore a campaign world again. I really could not argue. The other GM went his separate way to continue to tinker, and the two of us who remained sought out new players. We spent the next three years playing Ubiquity games as our main focus, and we loved it. He even got back in the GM’s seat after nearly 3 decades away from it. Imagine that!


It felt good to get deeply into a system again, and feel the rewards that come from that understanding. The freedom to focus all your attention on making rulings, rather than just remembering rules is an intoxicating aspect of this. It’s the difference between playing the game, and just running it. This benefit transfers to the players as well. The more fun I am having, the more fun they can have. The more fun they have, the more fun I want them to have. It ceases to be juggling memories and plans, and returns to a state more like jazz, where the rules of the game are around us and supporting us, but we are exploring creation on the fly. Ubiquity gave me that joy back, and it seemed to me then that it did so by not just being the game I picked to focus on, but by being a game worthy of that focus. In many ways that is true, but the thought was missing something. It was missing the idea that familiarity carries with it rewards far beyond making play easier. It was missing the memories of how fast and simple playing AD&D used to be, run without a book in sight. It’s not the complexity or depth of a system which gets you… it’s the degree of familiarity. The less familiar, the rougher the road.


During that period I played other games. Some were one-shots of older systems I know, and some were short runs in PBeM of systems I wanted to try, but only one of these games got the sort of focus I paid to Ubiquity; that was A Time of War. Unlike Ubiquity, which I consider my go-to game in any play format (live, online, or in e-mail), I only reached a level of comfort with A Time of War for online games. As well as I know it from such a long time running and playing it, I would not be able to sit down with a group at a table right now and run it with the same level of internalization that I could for a Ubiquity-powered game. It would take me a few sessions to ramp up the speed of access to the familiarity I need to one befitting live play. I can take all the time I want when I run a game in e-mail. That is not good enough for face-to-face play. I love the setting, and I really like the system for A Time of War. It really works well for me, and as a player or GM I think the system sings. It is much faster than I thought it would be and the level of detail works well with how I approach imagining action. Despite all this, the first reaction I had when I thought about starting face-to-face or even G+ Hangouts play using AToW was one of hesitation. I didn’t want to feel that hesitation when I played. To be clear, I wasn’t hesitant about running a good game, I was certain I would be sluggish in my responses during play.


Last year, I decided to leave the comfort of that Ubiquity system and take on a new one for my current Fantasy Revival project. I decided to learn to run RuneQuest 6, and get as comfortable with it as I had with Ubiquity, in as many different formats. It is somewhere in the middle of Ubiquity and AToW in complexity and detail-handling, and on top of that is a generic fantasy rules tool kit that I would have to learn, then skin, then put into effect. The challenge seemed right.


The first few sessions felt awkward to me, but were fun. It felt good to be testing a new system. It felt good to see that what I had imagined the system could do actually occurs in play. It felt good to realize that the preparation I had undertaken before that first game, and the self-assessment process I used, had me not only rapidly developing that familiar feel I wanted, but quickly identifying the parts that were not flowing smoothly. Having excellent players, keen both to play and learn the system, was an essential factor in this experience. Their patience and creativity gave me the backdrop to put the system into use and make it mine.


Before RuneQuest, all the game learning I had ever done since my first days had been solo affairs. I would retreat with the rulebook, read it, make characters, run tests, make more characters, and then jump in the deep end. RuneQuest was not the first game that benefitted from all of my past experimentation with games, in that regard it was just the latest of a long series. It was, however, the first to completely benefit from a new tool that I have learned to use; this blog and my YouTube Channel. By writing and posting videos about RuneQuest, I was motivated to frame and follow a specific focus for implementation that could counter the sprawling possibilities of the rules, plus open myself to feedback from like-minded gamers. For me, this transformed learning the game from the investment of effort it always had been to a sort of fun in and of itself. I don’t think I would want to do it any other way now.


These days I am playing in a few games, and running a few more. I have games in long arcs of preparation for an unspecified future use, and games in the final stages of preparation for pending use. This includes my return to Storyteller for the first time since I ran Mage and Trinity for the last time, around the time I started this blog. This time, I will be returning to Wraith: the Oblivion for a series of sessions on G+ Hangouts with a small group of players, many of whom have not had the chance to do more than read it. Again, it has been years since I have used the Storyteller System, and more since I have last used Wraith, but that spectre of familiarity, this time on my side, rises again. The game is slipping into my mind with ease, and making both itself and me comfortable with its return. I am not worried about playing the game. I am concerned about how it will translate to online play via Hangouts, as a vital component of atmosphere is lost in this form of implementation, but that is the extent of my concern. There is a story lurking somewhere in the dark spaces between the characters we are about to create, and I am sure we will find it.


Familiarity with a system goes beyond making the game another notch on your GM belt. It translates into observable benefits around the table. With familiarity, even a complex game can move along on light and dexterous steps, where without, it might stagger with lurching and ungainly ones in clunky shoes that look dated and uncomfortable. With familiarity, a GM is able to immerse themselves in bringing a scene to life, not wracking their memories for what modifiers to apply, or how best to represent an NPC they are creating on the fly. Even the lightest games benefit from familiarity, as what they lack in complexity of play, they often make up for in the complexity of their underlying assumptions. It is worth it to become familiar with a game, and make it your own. If, even when this has been achieved by the GM and players, the game continues to stutter, falter, or get bogged down in the details in purely mechanical fashion, it is time to question if this game is right for you, or – if it works at all. There is a chance that you and your group, “don’t get it,” or that you are “running it wrong.” It does happen. That said, many who claim that the problem is not the game, but you, have made changes to the game…  Moving the goal posts invalidates their claim on judging you.


Amusingly, at least to me, it strikes me that the best way to really get in tune with a game, is to first learn many games. Learning how to learn, and how to externalize that internal process, grows more potent in repetition and refined practice.


When I look back at my first game, Basic Dungeons and Dragons, and how I learned it through play, experimentation, and mistakes, I have nothing but fond memories. My second game, AD&D 1E was much easier by comparison, although due to its more arcane nature, a lot less fun to learn. Without my time with Basic, I would have found AD&D much harder to grasp, and without friends to talk to about their games, harder still, but looking back now, if I had known then what I now know about learning, it could have been so much easier, and more complete. Thirty years have passed since then, and each game I have been lucky enough to encounter has brought with it its share of fun and good memories. The years of constant experimentation with new games were worth it as well, and are still a part of who I am as a gamer. Now, however, the pace will slow. The focus will shift from the transient games I simply seek to see played, to the longer-term games I seek make part of my life. The familiarity is worth it.


Related Posts:

The Game Doesn’t Suck, You Are Playing it Wrong   –   The Black Campbell

5 Responses to “Passing Familiarity”
  1. Reblogged this on The Black Campbell and commented:
    Here’s a good response to my “It’s Not the Game That Sucks, You’re Playing It Wrong” post…

Check out what others are saying...
  1. Great links this week –
    [Map] Conroy’s Confusing Caves
    The Best Hobby In The World
    Male, Female, and Everything In-between
    House Rules – For Pulp

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