It’s a combination of anxiety and self-doubt that keeps blocking my path towards building the game I really want to play. Saturday’s decision to revisit Dungeons & Dragons was completely what I needed to do but it also repeated my self-sabotage whenever I homebrew my own flavour of classic fantasy roleplaying.
Yesterday I sat down and rolled up two characters using D&D1e and D&D5e. I learned a whole load about Quick Character Creation – a necessary element I will need to have for my Open Table Hiraeth game – but I also reminded myself about a whole load of stuff that I don’t like about those games.
One of the illuminating things was realising that the reason why AD&D separated many core rules (such as the combat tables) from the Players Handbook and placed them in the Dungeon Masters Guide was likely due to Gygax’s methodology. Repeated mentions of how players should not read the DMG emphasise this idea:
As this book is the exclusive precinct of the DM, you must view any non-DM player possessing it as something less than worthy of honorable death. Peeping players there will undoubtedly be, but they are simply lessening their own enjoyment of the game by taking away some of the sense of wonder that otherwise arises from a game which has rules hidden from participants. It is in your interests, and in theirs, to discourage possession of this book by players.Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax (1979, 2012 digital), page 8
This echoes for me the desire to separate player interaction with the rules from their activity during play in roleplaying their player character. My goals are different to those of Gygax (who was concerned with offering an entertaining game) but the seeds of my new methodology are genetically similar to the way people played back in the early days.
Running alongside this was a discussion in the RPR Discord with the players who have expressed interest in joining the Open Table. As I was posting about my progress and asking them for ideas, it first became clear that my friends online are not interested in playing D&D5e. More than that, I became aware that several of them are keen to see me adapt the experiments playing OSE, with rules behind the screen, towards my own edit of the Dungeons & Dragons B/X edition (of which OSE is a retroclone).
This was when I noticed the anxiety had returned.
“Thought distortion” is a phrase that I learned from my therapist back in 2020. It’s a phrase that I have come to love and believe to be very helpful. Another way to view them is as “unhelpful thinking habits”. The way I have learned to spot them is by paying attention to my emotional state because emotions tend to arise from thoughts. The key question when I notice I am growing anxious is to ask: “What thought led to this feeling?”
I didn’t notice it on Saturday when I posted my blog. I wrote that, “Recent developments with my teaching career – in finding a new school upon which to inflict a fresh Dungeons & Dragons Club – have given me pause on exactly how I might run this new game.” That pause was a response to anxiety. It was low-key and subtle but it was anxiety.
Conflating my roleplaying games, those that I run for my friends and those I run for neophyte students, arises from black-and-white thinking, a whopping big should, and a subtle streak of criticising my self. Believing that my gaming has to be “one size fits all” is a distorted way to view the hobby. It’s made worse by the belief that I should share everything I do with everyone who’s interested. To cap it all, I am well-practised at taking total responsibility for the good times that players may or may not have at my table.
All of that happens before I even begin mind-reading the players, making predictions about how they will react, mentally filtering out the good parts of my games, and comparing my games to those others run. In short, my anxieties are complex and present whenever I sit down and think about building a game I might enjoy running. Let’s not forget the discounting of my own desires in favour of those of others.
It actually provokes laughter from me when I start to break it down and question it. Are these thoughts true? Can you absolutely know that they are true? Of course not.
Who’s it for?
By the end of my journey into D&D past and present, comparing and monkeying around with characters in both 1e and 5e, I came back to one of the key questions that any good designer needs to ask: “Who’s it for?”
The “What’s it for?” is established: to run a roleplaying game that seeks to increase the player’s experience of Otherworld-immersion and character-immersion. The first design goal is realised by moving the rules behind the GM’s screen.
“Who’s it for?” is simple: the rules are for me to use behind the screen. The methodology is for helping me and the players to separate the mechanisms from the played experience with the characters. Thus, in all honesty, it doesn’t matter what others think of my rules as long as they build a trustworthy and consistent framework for play that works behind the screen.
I have decided that I want to homebrew around the classic Dungeons & Dragons game to create a specific set of rules that help me achieve the goals of Otherworld-immersed play with rules behind the screen.
I notice that I feel terrified by that decision. My anxiety is screaming at me and I can feel the energy thrumming through my shoulders, arms, legs, hands, and feet as I type this. I feel sick to the stomach and tight-chested. But that is the intent. That is the need I have in my hobby right now: to build something I can believe in and run.
Thank you to all the guys who have posted encouragement in the Discord, via Patreon, as blog comments, and as private messages – you have helped me take another step towards that which I need to do. It’s good to know that I am not alone in this quest.
Now it’s time to go and make a start.