Burnout and the Endless Quest

Burnout and the Endless Quest

A little while ago MadJay Brown posted a link to what appears to be a really elaborate fan site all about the dark-Nordic fantasy game Symbaroum. It got me thinking about stuff.

When I read through Symbaroum I couldn’t make heads nor tails of what might make it awesome. Nothing jumped out at me as novel or clever or innovative. It looked like, you know, a fantasy game. So I shrugged and put it back on the shelf. Then folks like Ara Winter started talking more about the interplay of its systems and I was all hmmmmaybe? And then this site, wow, full of so many interesting-sounding ideas and leads. Are they talking about the same game I read?

Honestly the whole process reminds me so much of my struggle to get The One Ring up and running, except in that case it is such an elaborately designed engine. Lots of interlocking economies, and not especially well explained what might emerge from them.

I had Symbaroum at one point but I ended up selling my hardcopy to, ta-daaa, MadJay Brown! And now I’m semi-regretting that decision. Is it another TOR? Are there lots of cool experiences waiting under the hood if only I can decipher them?

And thinking about that, right now, in the shadow of my ending our TOR campaign, all I can do is shrug.

Like…who knows if there are cool experiences waiting under the hood? Who cares if there are cool experiences waiting under the hood? I mean unless you’re gripped with having to stay on top of every game design development everywhere — which, I confess, I often feel — there are plenty of cool experiences under the hood of every game ever designed. I mean unless you’re talking about games that actually don’t work at all, but even then if you’ve got folks who are committed you can probably shoulder your way through and find something worthwhile. Work-to-fun ratio and all that.

FOMO is so irrational. I mean, good grief, I have the PDF. I can pick up the hardcopy again.

Something that’s been on my mind is this thing I see in gaming, this desire to find That One Perfect Game, the one you’ll play until you grow old. It’s probably like finding any other perfect thing: a faith that perfectly reflects and indulges your biases, a workout program that gives you perfect fitness, the meal or lover or movie that leaves you perfectly satisfied.

I think that, unless you’re irreparably broken and/or immature, you eventually figure out there is no One Perfect anything. You figure out that you have a template of stuff you like against which you first compare something/someone, then you look for show-stoppers, then you…try it out for a while.

But not in gaming! For every group that’s settled into playing hundreds or thousands of D&D sessions (and will probably continue until dementia or death), there are so many dissatisfied folks on this endless quest for the One Perfect Game.

I don’t know that it’s necessarily unhealthy, mind you. I do this myself, although my quest isn’t per se to find the One Perfect Game. The quest, for me, is itself the point of the exercise: keep trying on new experiences, keep seeing what spools out of a particular set of procedures, keep allowing your mind to be controlled.

A sense of constant dissatisfaction is also the core of what a lot of folks believe leads to greatness in this innovative/entrepreneurial/capitalistic system we live in. Like, we’re rewarded so very well for gnawing on something that bugs us and creating something that other folks might like. It’s conditional of course: constant dissatisfaction with our life partners is just asking for misery.

I’ve been typing here for a while and tbh I’m not even sure why. Just kind of meandering in my thoughts. I guess what is going to keep me healthy, given I don’t think I’ll ever find or want to find the One Perfect Game for the rest of my life, is cultivating a sense of constant satisfaction. What were the good parts of that thing we did together? What interesting ideas or techniques or whatevers can we poke away and enjoy later?

A lifetime of successful experiments seems like a better way to go than a lifetime of failed experiments, you know?

Oh, I remember why I started writing this: because I’m looking at my shelf of games and right now I’m all fuck all these games, I don’t feel like playing any of them. Which always troubles me a little, given how important they’ve been for …. lordy … 35 years now. Low-level depression? Maybe. But also there’s some inevitable bitter-sweetness to thinking about the games I’ve already played. As much as I rationally know that the journey is point, at least a little of me wonders if there really is or was that One Perfect Game once, and I walked away from it for no reason at all other than I wanted to try something different.


0 thoughts on “Burnout and the Endless Quest”

  1. Probably not low-level depression. Probably just reaction to the way your TOR game ended. I know I have reactions like that – “fuck this game and fuck these guys. If no one cares enough to play, just fuck it”.

    I personally find my level of game burnout directly reflects how “complete” a system is – how much setting and lists of equipment and story comes along with it. I have this need to like consume it all and make it all matter in play – and if play falters or doesn’t match this material I spent all this time consuming, it irks me. In games where that isn’t present and I can just wing it, I feel much more satisfied.

    Digression, but this is actually why I love the Planescape setting. It has source material to consume, but it’s such a free-form world that you can easily maintain cohesion with the source material because those people are angels and the bar is a pocket dimension, etc.

  2. I’d be interested in hearing what MadJay Brown sees in the rules of Symbaroum. I’m about to start a Symbaroum campaign myself, but using a lighter custom system closer to B/X D&D since I’m interested in the setting but the system seemed a bit too character build combat oriented for my taste.

  3. I was consumed with the OPG when I was a kid, partly because even then I knew a lot of AD&D was bogus, and partly because one every trip to the FLGS I saw all these gorgeous games that I knew must be doing something cool and different. And, thanks to my obsession, I discovered games like RuneQuest, Champions, and V&V — games I still cherish to this day.

    And, speak of fuck all these games and pretty Euro-RPGs, I was just looking at Degenesis (which I didn’t even know was out in English, but it’s got Ennie noms) and after a brief and intense bout of lusting, I closed the browser tab and moved on. So pretty, but so emo and so much setting to read that I was all like: Fuck if I am ever going g to get this to the table. (That and it’s $110.)

    Also, more often now I think: “What’s really selling me on this game? The art? The setting?” And, in response, I ask: “Is this game doing anything cooler than I could make up on my own?” I like buying pretty things as much as the next guy, but I am also getting so sick of being a consumer. I have a staggering amount of games in my basement — and the is after purging the stacks of d20 stuff I bought that basically gathered dust, depreciated, and then got sold.

    “A lifetime of successful experiments seems like a better way to go than a lifetime of failed experiments, you know?”


  4. Man, Mark Delsing – I feel similar about Degenesis. I want it but I can’t tell why I want it. I know I’ll never run it, nor even really use the contents. What is this?

  5. Yeah, I get the same feels a lot, and not just about 200+ page tomes. Like, remember back in the early indie scene when nearly all indie games expected you were gonna play 10+ sessions of a super-lite game that would probably lose my attention after ~3 sessions? Thank goodness we have different assumptions now.

  6. There is no perfect game, but I have grown to love very many along with their niggles. Symbaroum is close to perfect for me, and much closer than many. I think Ability combos can skew combat effectiveness too quickly and supposedly dangerous and difficult foes can be something of a pushover, but that aside there is so much to like.

    I’m much less system bothered these days (unless it really is bad) and the setting counts for a great deal more. The Symbaroum rules, whilst very light, contain flavour that add to setting.

    I’m buzzing having just run a full weekend of the game, playing through The Copper Crown. A great gaming experience.

  7. J. Walton you reminded me of something.

    Some of this One Perfect Game feeling — and the attendant fuck all these games backlash — comes from my players as well. At least one would prefer just playing Burning Wheel forever and ever without break and without exception. Others dropped out of my RPG life entirely once I stopped running Exalted or some other White Wolf thing. At least one occasionally still derives pleasure from “beating” the GM, which is IMO more anti-collaborative than simple disinterest is. Very few have taken the time to ever talk about the game (positive or negative!), although they keep showing up so I take that as interest. Attendance is a terrible KPI.

    Some of this is guy stuff (omg patriarchy!), everyone just generally sucking at emotional labor. When you’re wired to get excited about other people’s excitement, whew, that’s either exhausting or codependent or both.

    None of that changes anything else in my OP but it’s definitely in there.

  8. Like…who knows if there are cool experiences waiting under the hood? Who cares if there are cool experiences waiting under the hood?

    This is how I am about games these days. If they don’t show me what’s fun pretty quickly, if they aren’t fun pretty quickly, I’m out.

  9. As we stroll through the list of new games with the hunt for new experiences one over looked new experience is already sitting on your shelf. In the quest for the new you are almost always starting back at ground zero and gaining a few levels before you are on to the next.

    Instead of moving onto something totally different go back to your shelf, grab a previous favorite and look at it with the experience of fully developed characters and plot lines. D&D 1-5 is very different from D&D 15-20. It’s not just same adventures tougher monsters or if it is you aren’t grasping enough.

  10. Chris Groff The siren song of the New Hotness is hard to resist, and it regularly causes me to overlook the Old Hotness that’s been gathering dust.

  11. My sense of you is that you like to play games as RAW as possible to really appreciate the intricacies of what the game is doing–as opposed to unconsciously drifting, reflexively house-ruling, etc.

    Just as play groups have different preferences in this regard, I suppose games, too, have been written with a spot on this continuum assumed.

    I’m wondering if the sum total of the ‘social technology’ of most games eventually proves underwhelming, because the expectation (again, perhaps unconsciously) was that players /would/ be providing drift. The designers had some neat ideas, some average ones, put in a neat economy or two, but since almost nobody plays it totally RAW, the rough spots for any particular group are sawn off unceremoniously.

    I’m reminded a little of trying to play GW games really competitively; it’s so unsatisfying, a) because there are all these little spots where the rules aren’t fully reconciled with one another, so it’s not obvious what the correct procedure is, and b) so few others seem to do that that there’s a cultural bias that gunning for a win hard enough that using the rules against your opponent is simply.. unsportsmanlike. The rules just weren’t made tightly enough for this kind of use.

  12. It bothers me that I think Michael is right. And it’s hard for me not to see that “they’re going to house-rule it anyway” as laziness and abdication of a game designer’s responsibility. (Unless “hey, you have to house rule it, and here’s how,” is part of the game’s design, I suppose.)

  13. Michael Prescott it’s actually been really interesting to see many indie designers come full circle around to what JD Corley’s been saying for 15 years, in terms of players actively adapting the game being a core part of play. You see this in the way A Storm Eternal presents its basic moves as “rulings” that are expected to be tweaked or replaced. Or the way that Jason Morningstar’s new game Deep Love acknowledges multiple different possible approaches to play based on player preferences. Or even just in the Advanced Fuckery chapter in AW. It shows we can have System Does Matter and also acknowledge that everything happens because people make choices about how to implement a set of experiences.

  14. Robert Bohl I don’t see it as laziness, but more of an acceptance that “other people don’t like exactly the same shit I like”.

    The thing that instantly comes to mind is the AW sex move. How many people just go “nah, we’re not gonna use that” because it doesn’t fit their playstyle?

  15. Aaron Griffin oh man the sex moves discussion is worthy of its own thread at some point. I have enormously uncharitable and unpopular Opinions about that!

  16. Robert Bohl To my mind, RPG play relies so heavily on the contributions of the participants that I don’t think of RPGs as ‘complete games’ in anything like the way code or boardgames can be.

    IMO this is easy to underestimate because it comes ‘for free’, and takes no page space in the rules, despite dwarfing the rules in terms of complexity and sophistication.

    I’ve been asked several times over the years to build software that had an implied, “Oh, and this bit is artificially intelligent” for this reason–the client was taking human cognition as a free starting point.

    So whether or not the game has explicit ‘hack me’ labels, or whether the group is trying to play RAW, I think of the rules less like a description of what’s supposed to happen and more like a vector to depart along (with everyone’s starting point being materially different).

    Most RPGs leave so many fundamental things unspecified, such as the manner whereby player utterances become accepted as actual (if fictional) events.

  17. And Michael, I get that’s some people’s perspectives. And I applaud anyone who chooses to change a game to make it work for them. But I don’t applaud the designer who made it necessary for that change to be made.

    Sometimes that change is just because someone would prefer to do it a different way. That’s fine, too, as far as I’m concerned.

    I think it’s a problem when someone has to hack a game to get it to work as written, and I think as a culture we’re so used to doing that that we give designers a pass on finishing their work.

  18. I went off on a tangent there; I was describing my belief that groups are doing quite different things at the table, even when groups are all trying to play RAW. But that (and its opposite) are just beliefs so far as I know. (Gotta get that KS RPG transcript project underway some year!)

  19. Robert Bohl oh man so often. So so often.

    I’m certain I do little mini-drifts all the damned time. And I’m probably among the most careful players/readers/analysts out there.

  20. But to me, the answer to that isn’t to throw up your hands and give up. Instead, I want us to try to figure out how to write procedures more clearly and make them easier to follow.

  21. I’m very much in a place like the one Michael Prescott is describing. It feels like I’m loosening up after years of adherence to a strict RAW ethos. A healthy respect for RAW remains, but I’m now eager to patch or tweak the spots I don’t like. It feels good. 🙂

  22. Robert Bohl I meant something different than that. Most of RPG play state is unquantified, subjective, and evolves in a free-form way. All of this is highly idiosyncratic to a group’s pre-existing play skills, habits, beliefs, creative output. There’s an ongoing back and forth between this stuff and the game procedures, which (when the two combine) necessarily produces different outcomes at different tables.

    This is a distinct phenomenon from rules clarity, self-consistency, whether the group understands the rules, or even whether they like the rules, their habits, or the outcomes of play. They’re stuffing different ingredients into the game’s rules, so different outputs come out.

    I think that through extensive playtesting with a wide variety of groups, a designer can get a glimpse of the distribution of player habits, and can start to see what happens when game X is mixed with them. This might lead them to change the rules so that the outcomes are slightly more consistent for a wider range of habits (or more likely, just aimed at the average a little better).

    But it’s still going to be a regular occurrence that a group correctly understands the rules, mixes them with their own creative habits and group dynamic, and doesn’t like the outcome. In this case, hacking the game seems a completely sensible thing to do.

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