Opting Out of The Familiar

One of the biggest challenges I have is around the question of what game world I would like to play within. Because “you can play anywhere, anything, anywhen” is so diabolically impossible to deal with, the greatest temptation is to choose what is familiar. This temptation is a big reason why I keep circling around two familiar tropes: the classic dungeon-and-wilderness game (D&D), and the classic explore the subsector star map game (Traveller).

It’s not that there is anything wrong with these classic, familiar and hugely popular approaches to gaming. On the contrary, I enjoy them both very much. The problem is that each time I begin to play in these kinds of worlds, I grow bored. Unfortunately, I am jaded and tired with the regular kind of game. Perhaps I should simply get out of the hobby and let those who do enjoy these old classic tropes get on with it.

But then I see the potential for more in roleplaying games. I am drawn to the promise of depth that I’ve discovered from techniques that encourage Otherworld-immersion, and I am attracted to the exploration potential I have experienced in games which are developed with this goal in mind. You see, I’m not interested in the regular “hey, let’s just play for fun” approach to RPGs. I am seeking the enjoyment that comes from something deeper.

The barrier is knowing where to begin. In choosing a premise for a world that I can begin to develop and enrich with secrets. As I’ve said before, the conventions of genre and the modern approach to play feel constricting. At the same time, the infinite possibilities make choice paralysing. But I know that the key is to begin. To choose… somewhere.

The solution I am opting for is to begin at the edges of the familiar. To choose a genre and then push the boundaries of the regular tropes of the game just a little. To experiment with small alterations to the classical pattern to see what happens. The aim is to slowly deepen the game world with small details and clues to intriguing questions. To leave the well-worn path but only slowly.

Pathfinding is always hard and it risks leading to dead-ends and quagmires. The chances are that what I begin today won’t work. But such is the nature of art and the fate of the explorer: sometimes we disappear into the bush and are never seen again. To stay on the well-worn trails in this hobby is to find myself wandering roads that no longer interest me.

I no longer have the desire to stick with what is familiar. Who knows what the alternatives are? What I do know is that, even if I end up on this new track alone, at least I will have remained true to the quest: to find the Otherworld and a place within it. And of course, my rules engine will be GURPS.

Game on!


  1. Interesting Che. I suppose all role players that play long enough will eventually become jaded and tired of what they see as clichéd old tropes.
    But my thoughts on this hobby is that a deeper experience is about the emotion you experience, the ‘feels’ you get. The Familiarity, Consistency and Completeness of an imaginary world are just tools to create this emotion in ourselves. I remember how I felt when I first saw Darth Vader come through those space ship doors when I was seven years old. And I only remember because ‘Rogue One’ reminded me of what it felt like. I had forgotten that feeling after so many weak and feeble sequels, where the character had just become a joke and a parody of his original self. It’s always about the emotion. Opening yourself up to emotion at the roleplaying table is a vulnerable thing to do with people you don’t trust. Perhaps the ability to play online and turn your camera off can help here, so that people can’t see your tears at the death of your imaginary friends!! – perhaps trying to introduce themes to your game that resonate with you in real life may help bring a deeper experience at the table. I was crying real tears when Colin Green died as the Father of my character in a Barney Dicker Game. Fortunately I had my camera off so the others thought I was just hamming it up – but I was digging into the character. Some people might think that pretentious, but I think it is easier to get the ‘feels’ in a game when you are the GM and you are there, imagining the scenes that you are describing and feeling the chills down your spine as the dying enemy wizard shouts out his clichéd last curse at the adventuring party. Perhaps giving some of that creative power to the players can help them get those imaginative, immersive feels too. Good luck Che. Game on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, the emotion from play is what resonates for me. I realised this reading the Solo GM’s Guide recently, as the author expressed the view that we should play emotion instead of rules.

      For me, there is less emotion in another goblin-infested dungeon through the lens of D&D. On the other hand, I was transported into deeply emotional solo play last weekend exploring a character lost in a forest. Deeply prosaic on the surface but my experience was something else… something elevated.

      We are all of us different and my sense is that I need to stop playing for other people. I need to be genuine and that means, given my character and curiousity, going outside the tropes. I appreciate that this may not be what anyone else, in the whole rest of the hobby, may wish to explore. But it is my quest, I think. In that, I must say that for me there is no “just” in the ideas of using tools to create familiarity, consistency, and completeness in the imaginary world. This is the great work, at least for me.


      • Thank you for the reply Che. I would have ‘liked’ it if wordpress would have let me. I would like to clarify that my use of the word ‘just’, wasn’t to diminish the tools described, but to identify them as methods of achieving a goal, (that of achieving emotion) as opposed to being goals in of themselves. As such, I believe there may be many other tools available in acquiring the goal of ‘the feels’. I am keenly interested in where your investigations take you and what new tools you discover to achieving this, but I do agree with you that this is a deeply personal quest and the answers that work for one, may not work for another, but it is certainly worth trying for yourself the techniques that others have found to work for themselves. I think many players may not appreciate those that seek such goals in a game ( I have certainly experienced the ‘rolling of eyes’ from other players at times). I find it strange though that many players appreciate such emotive moments for themselves when they experience them (often by accident) but then do not seek to pursue them further or have little empathy for those ‘feels’ in others, and perhaps even feel displeasure at another person’s idea or pursuit of ‘the feels’. I do not think this is a straw man situation I describe, and often feel flabbergasted that players can play for years without ever feeling such resonant emotions in themselves at the table. I do agree that this is a deeply personal journey for any person interested in ‘immersion’ and that all the answers on how to achieve it therefore lie within ourselves ultimately. I do fear that seeking such emotion while gaming could simply be a sign of my own grandiosity, but the fact that, like yourself, I can experience resonant and rewarding ‘immersion’ from even mundane and prosaic moments like pretending to spin a bowl of porridge at a table (which I did!) means I just like to ‘live’ my gaming. All the best.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. For myself, I have been building a setting that supports a sort of intrigue & skullduggery approach to a low fantasy setting. Casablanca (or Atomic Blonde) meets Conan, or agents of Venice conspiring with the Witch of Endor against the Paynims in the Crusader States. Fantasy and SF have a breadth of approaches.

    Liked by 1 person

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