What Happened to RPGs?

The gap to suspended disbelief

What happened to RPGs? It’s time to wake up! We’ve stopped gaming the what if world! What happened?
Being a grown up, that’s what happened!

There is a reason we reach for nostalgia and old school RPGs. Red Box, Chainmail, Moldvay, AD&D. It’s because when we were kids WE WERE DOING IT RIGHT and it had NOTHING to do with editions. Often edition wars spring up and people blame editions as the reason that games don’t hold the same wonder they did as when they were young. I am calling BS on this.

When we were kids we would be completely absorbed into the heart our characters. We could feel the cold steel of the sword in our hands, the ire for the orcs in the vale! We were our heroes in the game! We often cobbled together pieces of the box sets,  ad&d, later 2E, GURPS, and whatever other tid bit we could beg our parents to buy and we mashed it in there, none of the rule sets mattered. We couldn’t wait for school to let out so we could gather up at one of our friends houses and bring our heroes to greater glory and power. Even the DM didn’t know what would happen next!

Everyone over 20 can stand around and tell a story about the best, most legendary character they ever played and how EPIC it was! There is at least one, if not many in each gamers vivid memory.


Why were those characters in our youth so epic? So memorable? So vivid? What made the sights, sounds, smells, and glory of victory so much clearer in our youth? Even young people playing the newer versions of the game today, like 5E or Pathfinder, have eyes that are glazed over at the table. They aren’t seeing graph paper, pencils and dice, they are seeing orcs, heroes, and dungeon walls. It really is a certain ‘look’ that cannot be described. Yes, they are seeing what’s in front of them, but they aren’t ‘seeing’ this world, they are in that magical place. It’s the place where heroes are made.

The closer we get to our 30’s the more that magical place fades, in your 40’s it fades even more. We recant the tales of those old characters of our youth still, and continue to game hoping to recapture that feeling and that vivid release from this world as we peer into another. Even if you are still gaming frequently, those old characters pop back into the game as NPCs. Heck, even as I am writing my newest adventure for publishing, I am writing in an old character into the story line.

When worlds collide

In one game in my youth the party was deep in a dungeon and some wizards were manipulating powerful magic. The party peered carefully into a portal. Through that portal they saw four teenage boys sitting at a table in a rec center. They had a number of papers, dice, pencils around them. Our heroes had found a portal to where we were gaming. When they made the decision to step through the portal into the room with the young boys, there was a long and uncomfortable pause. The two worlds had just collided and we weren’t completely sure that our heroes wouldn’t materialize in the room next to the table. I later discovered that this had happened to a number of other gaming groups at least once.

Adulting too much

One day in my forties, I realized something was really wrong when I had a character to fifth level at the gaming table with my friends and we didn’t even know the names of the characters we were playing. Leveling up was gaining more power, but we had some sort of disconnect. Nothing was vivid, the vacant glaze never really came over our eyes that meant we were leaving this world out of focus and peering into the game world. This was by no means the fault of our Game Master, it must be our own fault. It really was the fault of being adults.

When we were young, the quest set up and story lines were much weaker and less involved. Our grasp of the mechanics was flimsy and often made up on the spot. Descriptions were awkward and often limited by our experience and vocabulary. Dungeons usually made little sense in layout or how the creatures might live or interact with one another. So why was it “better”? Sometimes we can point to insane ability scores, or super magical artifacts, but those didn’t completely make up the character. When we discussed the character outside of gaming, we knew how they would react to various situations, things they might say or do in any scenario. Sometimes we could talk at lunch during school and come away feeling as if a game had just happened.

Player1: “I want to know what Fafnir found out at the blacksmith.”
DM: “Well, the smith decides that those daggers were made of some sturdy metal charged with magic. He offers you 40GP each.”
Player2: “No way smith!! You don’t see these every day!”

In my forties looking around at my friends gaming, I realized that we weren’t really sure how our characters would react to situations. We reacted as expected within the confines of the game mechanics – “Attack” “Flee” “Talk to the barmaid”.

I was instantly reminded of the old cartoon where D&D characters were playing papers and paychecks. Damned if we hadn’t played so much Papers and Paychecks as adults, that we had lost touch with our inner “What if” that most kids have. We had also lost touch with our practiced ability to slip in and out of the worlds of our imagination.

Papers and Paychecks

If you are unaware of the “What if” factor, listen in on a couple of young children role playing with dolls, cars, or toys. Eventually the two will start a conversation that goes like this:

Child 1 “What if Barbie was up here on the bed”
Child 2 “Ok but what if she was also driving the firetruck.”
Child 1 “Yeah, and what if the Lego guy needed her help!”

The barrier or gap for children to hit this “What if” world is very narrow. It’s a muscle they use all the time, every day. It can be tested out any time. Ask any seven year old a what if question, such as, “Hey, what if Spiderman had race cars for feet?”

There will likely be little or no pause before an answer will come along relevant to this little pocket reality you just created. If you ask an adult the same question, it will take time as they cross the now wide divide to the “What if” world.

Some adults answer in a strained sort of way that is painfully obvious that they are trying to be creative but they aren’t there. Others will outright refuse to take the trip and look at you like you are an idiot for suggesting such a thing. Even those close to “What if” land have to stop “Adulting” for a second to hop the divide to think of what would happen if Spiderman had cars for feet.

There is nothing wrong with this, it just is what it is. As adults in modern society we need to get to work on time, pay bills, get the kids off to school. We have to play Papers and Paychecks every day. It can ruin your tabletop RPG experience, and keep you yearning for those old school days. It doesn’t HAVE to be this way though.

Next time you sit down to game, try crossing the divide into “What if” land before you start to game. Some ways to help shrink that divide could be to

  • Spend a few minutes asking what if’s related to the game “What if Ragnor fell in love with a goblin?”
  • Place tent cards in front of each player with character name and profession.
  • Use character names when talking to one another in game. It activates roleplay immediately.
  • Discuss the world and general situation the party is in before everyone sits down to game.
  • Make a private Facebook (or other) group and post snippets of what the characters are thinking. Make this that lunch time paperless play you used to do as a kid.
  • Add occasional opportunities for character description and customization. (Many of those old characters had unique weapons, armor, mounts)
  • Open up opportunity for players to type out descriptions of unique items in the social media group. Let everyone get intimate with what makes their character unique.

Any activity that the group can do to close that gap to the “What if” world will stand to increase the quality of the game at hand.

We ourselves have ruined that old school gaming feel, simply by growing up. Allow yourself the opportunity to recapture those epic old days by warming up your “What if” muscles and letting this world slip away as you embrace the one in your game.

Take a moment to think about feeling your character’s hand grip their weapon.
What is that grip like?
What makes up the handle?
How does that weapon feel today as you sit down to the table?
What is worrying your hero?
Why are they here?
What is the weather and how do they feel?
What do they smell as the game begins?
What are the sounds of where they are as you open up your dice?

Let your mind drift across to the “What if” before you start.

May this game be epic!

~Lloyd Metcalf

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6 Comments on “What Happened to RPGs?

  1. As a 32 year old gamer, who’s been playing for more than 2/3 of his life, I haven’t experienced this problem.

    I love my characters. I know my characters. I play because I want to play as my characters.
    Maybe it’s because I work in a creative field? But no, many of my gaming friends have regular jobs.

    Hopefully you can stop “Adulting” too much, and get your fellow players to do so as well.

    I’m still very happy to play a traditional RPG or something weird late 90s mash up of The Matrix & Shadowrun in GURPs, or jump over to Scion. An infinite expanse of “what if” space.

    I’m happy to be an adult and do all my adult things, but when I game, I’m there to play.

  2. I’VE been gaming for 40 years now, and I still find enjoyment playing my rpg’s, crpg’s,mmo’s, and card rpg’s.
    After long days of working, I look forward to stepping into a fantasy world and becoming my characters that I created. I may be an adult with responsibilities, but I’m still a kid at heart.
    Yep, I do get strange looks when I join a session of tabletop gaming, I’m 50, but once the dice get rolling, or in case of M:TG, cards being played, age is forgotten and the fun begins.
    Fun being the key word. Life is too serious as it is, and rpg’s help keep my mind fresh and creative.

  3. I actually think you identified the problem, when you said “Even the DM didn’t know what would happen next!” Because what you’re describing there doesn’t sound like losing touch with the fantastical, so much as getting burnt out on a game.

    Put simply, the players and GMs know what will happen, or at least what can happen within the framework of D&D / Pathfinder rules. The world of the fantastic has become as mundane as Papers and Paychecks to them.

    You can try to mine all of the wonder you can out of it, using techniques like the ones that you mentioned. But have you considered trying a different game altogether? Fate Core and Dungeon World are both free online, and very easy to pick up. Even if you use them to do D&D style games, the experience will be very different just because of how they approach the material.

    Another way to increase the likeliness of being surprised: Let the players contribute to worldbuilding. I went to my last Fate Core game with only the skeleton of an idea for it, and after a few hours brainstorming with everyone I really wanted to see what happened in this game! Even now, I often ask the players for details like “Where is the nearest settlement, and what’s it like?” or even “Who is unhappy to see you, in this town?”

    All of us are new to Fate Core. And yet everyone’s active and engaged, my prep time is almost nothing, and no one’s complained of being railroaded. It’s great. ^^

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