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.
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)
- 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 [https://gnomestew.com/story-pacing-the-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 ’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
- 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.[http://misdirectedmark.com/2022/03/07/ptg267-a-definition-intermission-story-vs-character-driven-games/]
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. 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
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. [https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/132418/Unframed-The-Art-of-Improvisation-for-Game-Masters]) 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…
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
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.
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.
I loved this piece! I think it’s good to take stock and look back of where we’ve been and how we got to where we are. And it’s great to hear what other people’s journey has been. First, it makes me feel connected and part of a community in some small way, and second, it helps me reflect on my own path.
I am of a similar age to Phil, and I remember my parents buying me the Moldvay D&D boxed set, poring over the materials (and maps— geomorphs!), misreading “InfraVision” as “Infrasion” for some odd reason and just generally loving it. Then I actually played it with some friends my age, and was introduced to, though I didn’t realize it at the time, a kind of improv play.
Later, I think I ended up reading more modules than actually playing them. I loved that some of them were connected, sometimes in odd ways. The Giants series that culminated in a trip to meet Lolth (including a table of random events that had genuinely amusing and bizarre encounters, most of which didn’t involve combat). The desert series with the inverted pyramid dungeon (The Lost City?), and my favourite of all, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks which piqued my cross-genre interest. I remember loving Star Frontiers. It never was just a re-skinned D&D to me.
I think I made more TMNT characters than actually played the game, particularly with the later supplements, that offered wilder species (dinos!) and an array of options. I was also a huge fan of the comic and my interests ran closer to the Indie comics scene rather than all the supers in spandex. I remember playing other Palladium games, like Recon, at lunchtime, or being really upset when someone stole my book of Grimtooth’s Traps 2.
Paranoia was a revelation, and, like both TMNT and AD&D, I perhaps read more of the supplements than actually played, chuckling all the way. I was far too young to fully understand the satire, though we were living in an era of Mutually Assured Destruction and at times, a Post Apocalyptic or otherwise dystopian future seemed likely, if not inevitable.
Played but didn’t love Top Secret, Ninjas & Superspies, Indiana Jones and other various things here and there.
Cyberpunk came later for me. I remember reading it in the halls of my High School and scoffing at the notion that nearly every person would have a mobile phone in their pocket, let alone a hand-sized computer.
I think it was around the same time that I discovered Call of Cthulhu, and though I had read Lovecraft, I didn’t totally get the experience… I remember a scenario with Mi-Go in some South American locale, and I was constantly hunting around for a “cavalry saber” so I could give those Fun-Guys from Yuggoth the old what for. But I never found one, and nary was there a stick of dynamite.
I think shortly after this, Warhammer Fantasy became my jam. There was something about the gritty faux-reality that appealed to me a great deal, and it just left D&D in the dust, setting-wise. I mean, around the era of 2nd Ed, I do remember reading about the world of Kara-Tur, and cultural appropriation not withstanding, there were some fascinating things happening in D&D, but I loved how real the Old World of WHFRP seemed. I also had a great GM, who at the time wanted to be a comic artist, but eventually went on to become the founder of Privateer Press.
Matt also turned me on to Roger Zelazny’s Amber series, and we eventually played the RPG. I did what the book said, lie to them during the stat bidding, saying in turn that each stat was of highest importance so they would bid up all their points on the first one. I think it’s around then that multiverse settings stuck with me and would become a theme for my interests from then on.
Star Wars came around the time the movies had just waned the first time. Return of the Jedi had come out 8 or 9 years before and in terms of the mainstream anyway, Star Wars fervor was probably at its lowest point in the history of the series. Which was a perfect time to explore it.
Then came White Wolf and I was absolutely fascinated by the apparent depth of the world, not to mention the focus on story, characters and arcs. I got into Vampire Dark Ages in a big way and huge swathes of my subconscious existed in medieval Constantinople and Europe by night. I remember LARPing for the first time and feeling like it was this weird subculture that I barely had a notion of. I had read and loved Interview, and Lestat, and though I didn’t really understand “personal horror” I loved what WW was selling, splatbooks or no. Later, someone would convince me to watch Tombstone and I finally “got” the appeal of the Western setting. I found old copies of Boot Hill and eventually ran Werewolf: The Wild West, but there was time travel, ancient spirits of the land and other weirdness.
I had always liked the weird, so I started to collect unusual settings, like a french one I still love to this day called Agone (not the ancient Greek Hero-inspired one that recently got a FitD rewrite), and Skyrealms of Jorune. I used to work at a FLGS and I remember the Games Quarterly catalogue started teasing this futuristic, post-apocalyptic game called “A.I.” (I think—it was never released). One day it just disappeared and as far as I know it was never published.
Fading Suns felt like a fun version of “Dune” with the serial numbers filed off, to reuse the expression. I think this is around the time I started to “collect” settings, particularly ones that were mired in a difficult or unwieldy system. It would be years later, though, that I would attempt to explore them again. I wouldn’t learn to take ideas and concepts from films or books I loved until much later on.
I didn’t really understand how to run Tales from the Whispering Vault but I did love it, just for being weird. It lodged in my brain.
I think some flavour of Delta Green or Cthulhu Now became my X-Files the RPG, but I may have read and even played Conspiracy X (there were so many clones). I’m so glad Night Floors is now in Impossible Landscapes, but prior to this it would become the inciting incident to my “magnum opus” multiverse campaign that also meandered to the adventure in Beyond the Mountains of Madness.
I didn’t know anything about 40K, beyond reading a bit of but started playing the Rogue Trader RPG after I first moved to London, and was lucky enough to have Grant Howitt as a player for a short while. He was the first person to alert me to the connection between Improvisation and ttRPGs, but it wouldn’t sink in until years later.
I played Savage Worlds, but I think this was around the time I was introduced to Fate Core which I thought might be my “forever game”. Still, every time I ran it, I felt like I wasn’t doing it “right” or at least, wasn’t using the system to its fullest potential. It wasn’t long after before someone introduced me to PbtA but it was put in my hands to read (DW, Urban Shadows, etc.), rather than being introduced to it during play. So reading it as a traditional ttrpg player, I didn’t really “get” it. I also played Blades in the Dark, but still was coming from a traditional perspective, and just wondered why it wasn’t simply Dishonored the RPG (before that was a thing). Somewhere shortly after, though, it started to click. Now it’s definitely my go-to. I tried out some Year Zero engine games, like Coriolis Third Horizon, and Tales from the Loop (I am an ardent fan of Stålenhag’s art and worldbuilding), but PbtA is where it’s at for me at the moment.
I’ve since played Fiasco a few times, but it just hasn’t clicked for me, but I can see the appeal, particularly to people who are superb players. Much like Phil says, I was the defacto GM for such a long time, I find it hard to be content with playing a single character for long.
Although my rambling narrative is light on the lessons, I did learn quite a few along the way, like “more is not better” when it comes to players (I once tried a game with 12 players that was a bit of a disaster). And I echo the sentiments about the smaller details. I ran a Cyberpunk game and talked about a room illuminated with blue-white static from a flickering TV and it stuck with them for a long time after. In terms of “improving” as a GM (and as a player, the aforementioned Grant Howitt has an epicly helpful post about this on his now defunct Look, Robot site), I don’t think I started to really think about it until I played in a Star Trek game with a friend that was a big fan of Buffy and the last reimagined Battlestar Galactica. They used atmosphere and music to evoke a mood which was truly inspiring.
Until the pandemic and playing via Zoom became de rigueur, I had aspired to the same level of immersion. Not from a sort of “simulationist” perspective, but just searching for that “cinematic” flavour. I suppose I had learned a lot about that while prepping and GMing Star Wars, with cut scenes, pacing, starting In Media Res, etc. But I spent so much time living in the world of Beyond the Mountains of Madness, I had to sit down and write a full feature length screenplay version of it that I am somewhat proud of. I’ve not been able to write anything of note, much less finish anything, but using the eye of the camera on that story, and adapting it was enormously fun.
Anyway, so glad for this little trip down memory lane. 🙂
I loved this article! I’m truly envious of the number of games you seem to have been able to play and run.
I started playing DnD in the middle nineties, myself, when my cousins introduced me to this neat game they’d found when I was visiting them. I stuck with the game, they didn’t, alas. I only really got into serious games after 2000, though, when I started going to university. DnD 3.5, d20 Modern; those were the games that saw me through my university years. Best campaign I ran during this time, however, was Call of Cthulhu d20. First campaign I managed to bring to a proper close, ending with a converted version of the Raid on Innsmouth Module.
After university, I dabbled with Spycraft, and then got into DnD 4e, where I met my current gaming group. The group’s fluctuated a bit since then, but we’ve played Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, more 4e and Night’s Black Agents.
Around then is when I met up with my online crew in City of Heroes. There, we started with Dark Heresy (my second introduction to 40K), moved on to DnD, a bit of Shadowrun, Iron Kingdoms, Pathfinder and as of late, Kids on Bikes and Pathfinder 2e.
It’s been quite a journey for me to, with plenty of lessons as well. I hope I can share them myself.
Welcome to the nifty fifties! (I just turned 50 last July.)
As a fellow Gen Xer, I enjoyed learning about your RPG adventures
and what experiences bring you to where you are today. Bravo! 🙂