Gaming groups are like first love or a new puppy – they start off full of promise, and then inevitably, they end tragically. And because a game master is always going to be more invested than their players, this creates a low-level anxiety for any GM. It lingers just below the surface, erupting every time scheduling doesn’t work out, or a player becomes a problem, or half your group ghosts you on Roll20 without explanation. This is the GM’s existential dilemma.
It’s a tricky thing to manage. In many ways, we need these games more than our players do. It’s why we organize play, write house rules, buy dozens of core rules, and learn what makes every game tick. We’re referees, psychologists, managers, writers and desperate, sweaty hosts. We feel we’re responsible for the emotional well-being of the players – are they having fun? What happens if I kill and PC? Or god forbid there’s a TPK? WHAT IF THE GROUP FALLS APART AND I AM LEFT STARING INTO THE ABYSS OF MY OWN NEED WITH ONLY MY DICE FOR COMFORT?
I got back into gaming last year after a 30-year break, DMing a game of 5e for some co-workers who had become aware that D&D was “a thing” in popular consciousness again. I dutifully got all the books, walked everyone through character creation, created a framework for an adventure and sketched out a world. I was totally invested again, feeling the same rush I felt as a 12-year old cracking open my AD&D books: this was going to be amazing, we were going to play for years.
The group collapsed in a few months. Players didn’t get along, or there were scheduling conflicts, or people just didn’t want to spend that much time with their co-workers. Fair enough. But I still desperately wanted to play.
Enter Roll20. I joined a Labyrinth Lord game as a player. For four months we clawed our way through Barrowmaze. And then the game fell apart. People stopped showing up. It was brutal getting to see the GM’s dilemma from the other side. He was good a GM, Barrowmaze is a blast, and none of that mattered.
I’ve had other games on Roll20 decay. A killer Dungeon World group I put together played eight amazing sessions before one of the players had to take a break for a couple of months for work reasons. We kept the group together, promising to resume our campaign when he returned. For the last couple of months, we’ve tried playing other games, from The Quiet Year to Monster of the Week, but the chemistry is breaking down. A B/X sandbox I put together died before it even got a chance to start because the players who joined the game (and filled out an application to screen out people who weren’t really interested) couldn’t commit.
So, what are we dedicated DMs and GMs to do? We’re at the mercy of our players, real life, our own need to play, and the staggering weight of all the corebooks crowding our shelves and filling our files.
The Buddhists nailed it:
Impermanent are all component things,
They arise and cease, that is their nature:
They come into being and pass away,
Release from them is bliss supreme.
Accept the fact that groups die, that games don’t work out, that you can’t cling to something as fluid and temperamental as a gaming group.
Start small: one-shots that grow into campaigns, instead of campaigns that die before they start.
Embrace shorter campaigns that are built to last no more than ten sessions: look at Dungeon World and Shadow of the Demon Lord for examples of games that embrace this idea.
Look for players that are as invested as you are. Hint: they own the damn rulebook.
Remember that this whole, beautiful mess is a hobby. Just a hobby.