It’s difficult to describe, really, the feeling of going home for the holidays. When I was younger, I didn’t go away to college — I went to a school in my hometown. When I was older, I worked for a company there and so I didn’t have to travel much to see my family. When going to visit families of girlfriends or grandparents, it’s interesting but not the same as just, going home. As I’ve continued to get older, I’ve started to feel a different sort of nostalgia about my hometown — as it’s changing fast these days… And the holidays are always a time of reflection.
But what does this have to do with gaming?
Well, I guess I’ve been ruminating on buy-in. I was thinking back about all the posting I’ve done here and I realized that a few trends emerge… I have a love/hate relationship with D&D4e, I sometimes regret the fullness of some of my opinions (DC Adventures is a fun game — despite some misgivings I still have), and despite running a few games that will always stay with me — with people I often miss — I feel that nothing makes a game better than when you have total buy-in by the players.
AMBER DRPG is a great example of this buy-in effect in action. I’ve run Amber many times and the games tend to fall one of two ways… players “get it” or they don’t. By “it” I mean those qualities that make running and playing Amber a little unique. And I don’t mean the lack of dice or the auction-style character creation system. I mean, the longing, the yearning, that comes with being an Amberite. Amber isn’t really about demigods with control over Shadow, it’s about protecting, loving, needing, those few places and people that are truly real. To really enjoy Amber, in my opinion, requires a commitment to the context of the game that goes above and beyond many other licensed products. When you try to set the scene, try to imagine the City of Amber, the Pattern, and your players are all asking, “hey, what’s that guy’s Warfare?” you know that you’ve got a problem… But when they’re with you — then you know that you’ve got something great.
That’s a greatly simplified example — I could wax on about it — but I think you get the idea about Amber…
But the concept is even more general than this. PCs all have hometowns, somewhere they come from. If that’s just a detail dashed down on a sheet to qualify for a “regional background feat” then it really doesn’t mean anything. But if a player puts effort into it, cares about where they come from, then you can make it part of the game — use it to evoke some emotion and really enjoy some high quality RP. Just like going home to Mom’s kitchen after you’ve been away — going home in game should matter.
I went on a trip to NYC a few years ago — and I really enjoyed myself, but I’m from a much smaller place — and I didn’t like the constant feeling of crowding, of just so many people around me all the time. So I’m standing in this music store in Times Square, talking to a girl who works there and I asked her, how do you cope with so many people. She told me about how much her apartment means to her — how having a haven to escape the city for a time makes all the difference. I really enjoyed that conversation, and spent a lot of time thinking about it later when I was playing in my next Shadowrun game. I spent a couple hours drawing out the apartment where my character lived, the building it was in, the neighbors, the landlord, everything — up to creating a map of the layout that was battlemat-sized and could be played on. I lived there with my in-game sister, and it meant something to us. We made it feel real. And I applaud the Shadowrun system for including details of “lifestyle” in character creation — it’s an interesting way to make the way you live matter (and to tell the GM how much it matters to you as a player).
But all of this, the feeling of home, the longing for places you’ve known, the ability to have a “reality” about your holidays and your places and your people… it doesn’t start with the GM. Don’t get me wrong, the GM has to pull their weight and be involved with evocative description, a willingness to let players run, and the imagination to create interesting things for PCs to latch on to as the game progresses — but ultimately, it starts with the players.
Players need to bring a “buy-in” mentality to the table — and for my money the best way to show that is to care…
So, what do you think? Share a story? Tell me how to do it better? Get a player involved tonight?
Thanks for reading.