The third part of my personal rpg history series. The second part dealt with my formative years in the mid-’90s, so here I’ll write about how I stopped roleplaying. I’ve told this story to many people when it’s come up, but perhaps there’ll be some interesting detail here for those interested in that sort of thing.
A partial reason for the cultural energy we had in our little roleplaying crew might well have been dissatisfaction with the form; we didn’t quite address it directly, but as the years went by our efforts at roleplaying slowly petered off and stumbled on our increasing expectations. Many campaigns were started and aborted shortly due to scheduling – but really, that sort of thing is always more about motivation. The games were failing us as a creative outlet, it seems to me in retrospect – the GMing grew more intricate and the game preparation grew into what could be considered the traditional gold standard of ambitious GM-performed story-telling, but satisfaction was hardly evident.
Our group started flaking, and while we continued to renew it with interested newcomers, the downward spiral was clear as other hobbies took more and more of our time. The process was not one of estrangement between friends, though – we just had better hobbies, and worked to fit each other into our schedules even when we didn’t have anything particularly to share. Computer games were a shared thing, I guess, but otherwise each of us continued in many ways towards our own interests; roleplaying was kept nominally on the side as something we were supposed to do together, but in reality it was a minor thing. We were more likely to go on long hikes or bike trips with the crew than play a roleplaying game, and when we did, it was often with a skeleton crew. Creative goals became an increasingly big thing: some of us had those, some didn’t, and some were simply incompatible.
At this time larping came to Sonkajärvi as an idea in a big way, so we sampled some of that as well. Those experiences were pretty weird, as it was a sort of repeat of the cargo cult situation – we knew what this new sort of roleplaying was, but we needed to build it from the ground up ourselves. I designed and arranged a larp that was probably one of the first pervasive ones in Finland; the topic was Highlander, the premise that the players would keep their existence secret among the general populace while fighting a war that’d gain them the powers of quickening and eventual Gathering, just like in the movie. The rules were an interesting combination of hardcore boffer larp and tabletop aesthetics; characters had levels which were quite concretely stolen by their killers, who’d then manifest new super powers as their level went up. Apparently the most enthusiastic players terrified some grandmothers by running around the town with their foam-padded swords in plain daylight. The game was very strategic and tactical, with an emphasis on players creating their own solutions – like a freeform Assassin with fictional color in many ways. An important design principle was independence from GMing, which was achieved by vesting the players with an authority to make their own rules-calls as necessary; the game would run 24/7 and it’d be on the heads of the players to decide how much they’d care to invest in it. I’ve since then wondered what might have made the western, southern areas of the country that became the hotbed of larping go the way they went – today it all seems very different from the directions we tried in our time.
Ultimately larping didn’t catch on with me and my peers (even if it has since; Upper Savo has a pretty healthy larping culture today); on my own part this was mostly because the stumbling form couldn’t at the time convince a sophisticated GM type that the bother and social risk was worthwhile; the pressures on a larp manager are quite large, as he’s putting his reputation and the reputation of the hobby on line – this is especially the case when just 20% of your larp participants have played roleplaying games before. I ultimately had no interest in putting myself on the line with this new thing at the time when I had my hands full with my literary ambitions and flagging tabletop hobby. It also wasn’t very creatively interesting to be the GM of the sort of larp I’d designed, as it involved no creative writing; the players got to write their own characters, the GM really only had to be a referee. Today I’d treasure this, but even while I myself designed the game that way at the time, I was not satisfied to actually play it thus.
Our roleplaying troupe was never one to invest monetarily into the hobby. One consequence of that was the fact that our gaming all through the ’90s, even as it grew more sophisticated, never moved onto English-language games. The only English game we played through these years was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and I don’t think we played more than a session of that; it was simply too old-fashioned at the time, the height of modern sensibilities for us was an unified resolution system with simple, universal rules. I heard about Whitewolf for the first time in the Internet.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but especially towards the end of high school my roleplaying had become a label only. Jukka and I wrote stories and critiqued them instead of playing; Heikki and Timo and I adventured in the real world; I was perhaps the most invested in roleplaying of the crew, but even I didn’t actually mind it when our breaks from the hobby grew into months and whole seasons. I seem to remember that none of us formally “stopped roleplaying”, it just happened. I seem to remember that at the end of high school I knew clearly that we would never play together again – I still thought that I’d continue roleplaying myself, but there was no practical basis for that without a viable crew.
Looking at things now, only I and Jari are still involved with roleplaying. Even Jari would certainly have little contact with the hobby if I didn’t draw him back. I’ll write about that in the next part of the series. The rest of the guys I played with in my youth – I still see them from time to time and consider them dear friends; with some the lack of common interests is more of a problem than with others. They probably think that I’m pretty cooky for still doing roleplaying, although we haven’t really discussed it seriously.