Last year, my group had two simultaneous D&D 4e games going, one set in the Forgotten Realms and one in Eberron. They both ended, and I don’t see myself ever playing a long-term 4e game again — and I just realized that this isn’t the first time this has happened.

A quick aside: I could care less what anyone else plays — as long as you’re having fun, you’re doing it right and more power to you. If you want to have D&D’s babies, rock on; my preferences don’t impact you, nor yours me. This article isn’t about that.

So what is it about? It’s about the realization that with every new edition of D&D, I dive eagerly back in only to find, usually months but sometimes years later, that it’s not really the ideal game for me. It’s like an on-again, off-again relationship with a crazy ex, where the sex is great at first and you forget why you broke up — until things implode and you’re both crying at three in the morning and throwing plates at each other.

And it’s almost never the actual campaign — I love the campaigns. Both of my group’s recent 4e campaigns were awesome, taught me many neat things about GMing, and created happy memories that will stick with me for years to come. (Hell, my single most triumphant gaming session ever grew out of one of them.)

Nor is it the players, who I love to death. These are my peeps, and gaming together rocks. So what the hell is it? Apparently, it’s D&D.

Fair warning: This piece is more personal and soul search-y than most of my articles here, and it runs over a thousand words. If you stick it out, I do eventually circle back around to GMing, but this was something I needed to write so I could see where it led me. I hope that ride is interesting to you, and if I didn’t think it would be I wouldn’t have posted it, but it may well not be. I don’t usually do this on the Stew, hence the warning!

In Which I Bore You With D&D Anecdotes

I started with red box D&D in 1987, cut my teeth GMing (and played a hell of a lot of) AD&D 2nd Edition starting in 1989, dove back in with gusto for 3rd Edition, switched to 3.5 when that rolled around, and had a big smile on my face when 4e dropped.

But each time except the first, when I switched to 2e because I couldn’t find the red box at my FLGS, I found myself growing more and more frustrated with D&D as a system. I burned out hard on AD&D 2e — so hard that I stopped gaming for a couple of years. I came back to it because everyone played it and I’d gotten it tweaked the way I liked it, but I was still champing at the bit for 3e’s streamlining and modern approach.

Then around level 10, 3e became painful and unwieldy. What used to be fun no longer was, and 3.5 didn’t fix that: level 10, fun turned into pain. Level 20, agony. Hours-long combats made me hate life, and 3e was clearly no longer for me.

When 4e came out, I was stoked. It was streamlined, powers looked exciting, and the early sessions delivered. 4e delivered the most exciting, nail-biting, brain-burning combat I’ve ever had in an RPG…and, mechanically, nothing else. I hate almost everything else about 4e, and over time I even started hating how goddamned long combat took — it was like 3e all over again.

In fact, 4e is the polar opposite of most of what I like in a game system — something which took me far too long to suss out, and which makes me wonder three things:

  1. For me, this only happens with D&D. Why? What is it about D&D that causes this? I’ve burned out on other games, but never as hard as D&D, and many other RPGs have multiple editions that flow happily across my table without ruffling my feathers (like Call of Cthulhu).
  2. How can I spot this apparently inevitable problem BEFORE it becomes a problem? Or, more broadly, how can any GM or player recognize when the game isn’t doing what they want it to — which I’ve always found can be difficult from the trenches.
  3. Why the fuck do I keep going back? I have a guess: nostalgia combined with a near-lifelong relationship with D&D, troubled though it’s often been. Many of my happiest gaming memories are tied up with a game that, mechanically, I’ve disliked more often than not over the course of 24 years.

What Is This,

Numbers 1 and 3 are, I think, potentially interesting questions, but it’s #2 that really has a place on Gnome Stew. Specifically, as a GM, how do you spot when the bloom is off the rose — and what do you do about it? And as a corollary, how do you spot when the system is driving your players up the wall, and what can you do about that?

In my experience, the answer to both of those questions is usually “End the game” or “The game just sort of peters out.” Which is a shame, because letting a game peter out is a terrible course and ending a game with a promising and enjoyable story is an unfortunate thing to have to do.

One approach would be to switch systems, but would the soul of the campaign be the same? And if not, would that fact be outweighed by all of the other positives? My group is considering this with our Forgotten Realms campaign: switching to another system, recreating the characters, and diving back in; I don’t know if it will happen.

Another approach is to house rule the hell out of the game, which I’ve done in the past. This is a good middle ground between letting things fall apart and throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but it hinges on something I’m apparently not very good at: self-awareness about your gaming tastes.

Sure, as D&D campaigns have marched on I’ve begun to notice my dimishing enjoyment of the system, but what I really want is the ability to, with a measureable degree of accuracy, assess whether I’m going to enjoy a system BEFORE I spend weeks or months not enjoying the mechanics of it.

And, failing that, the ability to spot problems like this mid-stream and execute a perfect course correction that saves the game and lets us all sail on into happyfuntopia.

While I’m wishing, I’d also like a huge cock.

So how about it: Is everyone else good at this but me? Do you have this same problem, or have aspects of this problem cropped up throughout your gaming career?

And what are your best techniques for taking your own pulse when it comes to enjoying a game system, either in advance or during an ongoing game?