This past Tuesday was my 50th birthday, which unofficially marks my 4th decade of playing TTRPGs. They were called RPGs back then (shakes fist at kids playing 5th edition on my front lawn). In that time, I have played hundreds of games, run easily over a thousand sessions, and in doing so have made all sorts of mistakes and blunders, as well as a decent share of great games. 

As my birthday approached, I began to feel a bit nostalgic, and seeing that this is my first blog article of my 50s, I thought I would look back on 40 years of gaming, by decade, and share the important lessons I learned from each of them.

The 1980s 

My entry into gaming was while in 4th grade and was, of course, D&D. In my case the Moldvay Pink Box, Basic Set. I quickly jumped from that into the rest of the TSR catalog: Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gamma World, then Marvel Super Heroes, Star Frontiers, and Gangbusters. By the middle of the decade, I found other game companies and began to buy up their games as well. 

I was forced to be the GM, back in those days, because no one else wanted the job. It was either GM or we didn’t play. In the ’80s I was an ok GM, but I didn’t do much to hone my craft. I would read the occasional articles in Dragon Magazine but that was about it. 

Notable games I played/ran:

  • D&D and AD&D
  • Marvel Super Heroes
  • Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
  • Paranoia (1st and 2nd edition)
  • The Price of Freedom
  • Cyberpunk (2013)

Lessons Learned

  • Pacing. I was so bad at pacing my TMNT campaign that I blew through three campaign arcs all in two months and had to reset the game 3 different times, having exhausted the campaign material and escalating the plot so much that the game would reach a world-changing climax every few weeks. It would not be until the 90s that I would get pacing down (see: Story Pacing: The Chris Carter Way [])
  • Filing The Serial Numbers Off. In those days I would pull in material from any movie that I had seen and incorporate it into my games, often doing so in a jarring manner, where it would become a distraction to the players. After seeing Bloodsport, the next week in my TMNT game the Galactic Kumite arrived in Earth’s orbit. Over time, I learned about how to take those things and file off the serial numbers, that is remove the media-specific trappings and transfer the concepts into my game. 

The 1990’s

The ’90s covered my college and graduate student years, and I did not play as many games at the start of the decade as I would by the end. The ’90s, for me, marked two important changes in my GMing. The first was an emphasis on story. The games I ran during these times were heavy on characters and story, much more so than the adventures I ran in the 80s. 

The early ’90s was when I realized I enjoyed GMing as an activity and that I wanted to be better at it. It was still a time when advice was sparse, but in the 90s I would read Usenet groups and I attended my first Gen Con, where I went to a number of GMing seminars. My main source of GMing advice would come from the games that I ran, and some of that advice still sticks with me today. 

Notable games I played/ran:

  • Amber Diceless
  • Vampire: The Masquerade
  • Conspiracy X
  • Whispering Vault

Lessons Learned

  • The Little Details. In the Amber Diceless rules, there was some advice by the late Erik Wujick that talked about making sure to describe some of the small details in a scene to make it more realistic. The size and shape of a room are important, but so is the kind of cutlery there is on the table, and where it may have come from or how it got there. The idea is that small details make a location feel less like a game and more like a place. Since then I have always looked at the small details of my surroundings and in turn, conveyed them in my descriptions of scenes. 
  • Character-Based Play. Amber and Vampire taught me how to make individual stories for each of the characters and how to run a session where we jumped from character to character, with the occasional scene where things would cross over. It taught me scene pacing and spotlight sharing. You can hear more about this on a recent Panda’s Talk Games Episode.[]

The 2000s 

Hello, d20. The 2000s for me was a lot of d20 games, as I suspect it was for most of you. I took the day off and drove an hour away to pick up my 3.0 Player’s Handbook, on the day they released. We played so much D&D in those days and then we jumped to every d20 game that followed. While the decade would start with D&D it would also include my first Indie game experience, Fiasco. 

 As a GM, I was really into working on being a better GM, and thanks to an invention called Blogs, I would get my chance. 

As a GM, I was really into working on being a better GM, and thanks to an invention called Blogs, I would get my chance. It was not long before I found Treasure Tables, the precursor to Gnome Stew, where I would devour every word that Martin wrote. A year later, I wrote my first guest article and before the end of this decade, I would write one of the first articles for this site. 

Notable games I played/ran:

  • D&D 3.0
  • d20 Modern
  • Iron Heroes
  • D&D 4.0
  • Savage Worlds
  • Fiasco

Lessons Learned

This is going to be hard because, by this time, I was writing blog articles about all these things, but here are a few more personal ones.

  • Don’t Try To Change Players. The more arrogant side of me thought I could change players through play; like get a player to like a class other than what they really enjoyed playing. What I learned was, don’t. Just don’t. If someone really wants to play Wizards and that is what they derive joy from in a game, then not only let them do it but do what you can in the game to make sure they can really enjoy it. Trying to change people through play is just manipulation, and it’s wrong. 
  • Embrace The Unexpected. My first real taste of improv GMing occurred in this decade, with a d20 Modern game that took an unexpected twist in the middle of a session (you can read about it in my essay in Unframed. []) I learned from that session the rush of having to make up the story on the fly and it was the start of a new style of GMing and games for me. This leads us to…

The 2010’s 

This decade would mark the largest change in my gaming and GMing, as my interest would change from the more traditional games into more indie games. It would start right in 2010 at GenCon when readers asked me to review a game called Apocalypse World. After that, my taste in games changed, my gaming group changed, and how I ran games would change.

I started the 2010’s having published my first solo book, Never Unprepared, which talked about how to refine and hone your ability to prep. By the end of the decade, I would start a publishing company and release our first few games. 

As a GM, this was the decade that I learned how to improv GM, through advice, watching others, and just getting out there and running games in the improv style. I never abandoned traditional GMing or prep, but rather, I wanted to be sure I could do both. 

Notable games I played/ran:

  • Fate Core
  • Dungeon World
  • Dungeon Crawl Classics
  • Blades in the Dark
  • Swords Without Master
  • Tales from the Loop 

Lessons Learned

Again, in a similar fashion to the previous decade, most of the lessons I learned became blog articles here. Here are a few personal lessons I learned. 

  • Nothing is Forever. Your taste in games can change, your gaming groups can change. Change is not something that should be fought but rather embraced. When my taste in games changed, it did not for a number of my friends. For a few years, we tried to make it work but with increasing frustration. Eventually, our gaming group split and got to play what they wanted to play. You would think that it would not take my 4th decade to get that, but most of the changes in my gaming groups in the past were because of life events, not a change in taste. I thought that the original group would go to the old gamers’ home together, and part of me still misses some of them. But things change and good things can come from change. 
  • Be A Fan Of The Characters. The best lesson I learned from PbtA games, and one that I carry into every game I run today, is to be a fan of the characters. Meaning that while I put all sorts of obstacles and challenges in their way, in the end, on the inside (and sometimes on the outside), I am rooting for them. That change in mindset changed how I created stories and how I run my games. 

The 2020’s

This decade has started off rough, and it’s too early to know how it will end up. So far my best piece of advice for this decade is, don’t yuck someone’s yum. In other words, if someone is enjoying a game and playing it in a safe, consensual manner, then don’t dump on the game, their style, etc. It may not be for you, but it might be for them. No Game-Shaming.

I guess, if Blogs are still a thing in 10 years, I will come back and write a follow-up piece to this one. I have no idea what is in store for me as a GM and gamer this coming decade. Right now the plan is to just keep running games, learning from my successes and more from my failures, and to pass some of that advice on to you all.

Thank you for letting me write this, somewhat indulgent, piece. I hope that it was at least entertaining and perhaps contained a few nuggets of wisdom. 

Feel free to share some of your memorable games from the decades above, or any lessons you have learned along the way.