On the Fear of Play

Why isn't Dungeons and Dragons more popular?

I play a lot of games and not with gamers. I force people I already get along with to play all kinds of games. Over the last 30 years of doing this, I've discovered that many people not only don't like to play games, but find the experience uncomfortable to terrifying.

My pre-existing relationships with these people allowed me the latitude to delve into why this was the case. I didn't go into the situation to try and change minds, but just to listen and discover what they felt about the experience. Here are some of the things that I was told.

  • "There was so much information involved in learning the game I was overwhelmed."
  • "I felt like I was studying for a test."
  • "Once the game started everyone was mean to each other."
  • "I got angry because I hate losing."
  • "I didn't want to play, because if I won (so and so) would lose."
  • "When we started negotiating, I couldn't trust anybody and it was horrible."
Of course, to a gamer, the above things are reasons we like games. Information gives us a feeling of discovery of new systems and worlds. Mastering the game brings us joy. Shit talking in a reasonable way* is a way to have fun with your friends. Losing a game is when we learn to play better. Winning is something that comes around to everyone sooner or later. And negotiating is a thrill because it's you gaming with your friends, not just moving pieces around on a board.

The Internal Difference

But people are genuinely different from each other. 

I am often put into situations where I am forced to engage in violent physical conflict with people. I've been bit by humans twice in the last two years. Even though I am very skilled at deescalating these physical confrontations, they still occur. And when they do, I find I enjoy the experience. 

This isn't true before the confrontation. I have the same instinct for self-preservation as everyone and I do whatever is in my power to avoid having these violent confrontations. But the fact is that they are often unavoidable from the point at which I become involved. Sometimes in the case of psychosis or organic disorders it's unavoidable from any point. Knowing it's coming or before the conflict begins is very stressful for me.

I have seen many, many people quit after having such a confrontation, or take months to choose to return to work. But after over 100 of these events, I find that contrary to being stressed about the experience, I enjoy it while it is occurring, and feel fantastic afterwords. Their internal experience of the event for different people is physically, chemically, and psychologically different.

This sounds truistic. Other people are actually very different from you. They hold different baseline assumptions. They place importance on different things. Especially if you pull away everything you know, and the right and wrong of things, and ignorance, and low self-esteem -- the pure unadulterated essence of who that person is and how they internally feel is different than you.

They really like scream-o, maybe more than you like Zeppelin

The Thing About Games

Some people don't like confrontation. Others don't like losing. Some don't like being put in situations where they might disagree in public. Some people are concerned about having their performance judged by their peers. 

It's my personal belief that a lot of these causes revolve around esteem and issues of confidence and maturity. And in a lot of cases that can be true. 

But it isn't true in all cases. 

Even very confident, mature, people can find an experience like bidding for a piece of property unpleasant. Not because they are concerned about what someone might think if they lose, but because they simply find the process of competing with friends internally unpleasant. It is not to their taste. 

De gustibus non est disputandum 

The Thing about Role Playing Games and Dungeons & Dragons

This leads to two related issues to tabletop gamers. 


When I tell someone we are going to be playing a wargame, they know what the experience I'm relating is. When I tell someone we are going to be playing a minature skirmish game, they know what the experience I'm relating is. When I tell someone we're going to be playing a turn-based computer game, they know what the experience I'm relating is.

When I tell someone we're playing a role-playing game?

Well, there are certain people who expect to sit down to play a game. There are others who sit down and expect to experience drama. And there are some people who do something in-between. 

None of these is better or worse than another**. None is a right or wrong way to play. Some people enjoy one and some people enjoy the other. 

But how do I know which one I'm going to get?

Pre-Game Anxiety

Have you ever run a game? Have you ever felt prepared beforehand? 

I play tabletop games somewhere between 10-20 hours every week. For 4 to 10 of those hours, I'm the Dungeon Master. I've been doing this for over 25 years of my life. 

To this day I still get nervous before a game. 

Doesn't everyone have this anxiety? Our current in-person Sunday morning dungeon master almost quit after the first session because she was so stressed about preparing for the game. 

You know what you need for every game of Dungeons & Dragons? 

The End Result

Gaming is popular and cyclical. In times of recession and low personal and financial autonomy, they are more popular because of their value per dollar. Gaming is here to stay.

But the reality is, there's no new innovation that's going to raise gaming to the profitability of movies or video games. Dungeons and Dragons requires a Dungeon Master and Board Games require conflict and winning and losing. 

Acknowledging these factors and recognizing that they occur can make gaming a more pleasant experience for everyone! Knowing that I feel anxious and unprepared as I sit in front of 500 rooms across 127 pages of +Numenhalla means that I address the feeling as "that thing that happens before a game", instead of getting wrapped up in all the little concerns and worries. Telling someone that it's ok to lose, because you're going to play another three rounds of Dominion makes it easier to deal with that feeling.

Getting past these things and spending time actually playing is really the point, isn't it?

* e.g. "The Irkutsk-Yakutsk connection will take you down this time!" or "Beware House Stark, for we control the barren frozen north", not hate speech or abuse.

** This pretty clearly super explicitly has nothing to do with being able to objectively critique these systems and make judgement calls about how they actually function in play. Hey, hey, RAW 4th edition, you aren't gonna die, how you like your easy mode? Here's the secret. Maybe you super-enjoy your easy mode and their isn't anything wrong with that. We can still talk objectively about the design and what it's attempting to appeal to. 

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  1. I play in an online weekly game that’s been going over a year, half the guys were in a face to face game that went a year and a half, but I still get nervous on what I call “Free Play”. I’m running a sandbox and when the players are in a dungeon I am not worried, but when they are outside the dungeon and decide to romp around it is stressful. I never know if I am prepping for the direction they are going to go. I also think the disconnect with players via internet versus face to face adds to this because it is harder to tell how engaged they are in the adventure when you can’t see them. I worry the roleplaying encounter and exposition and setting building is boring.

  2. I've been GMing a face-to-face game for a few years now. I was nervous a little bit at the beginning of the campaign because I wanted the players to have fun and some of them were only acquaintances, rather than outside-of-gaming friends. I was fortunate enough that the jitters went away relatively quickly.

    I'm less nervous about games, but I do feel "guilty" for lack of a better word when I haven't had the time to properly prepare before sessions. I've gotten better about on-the-fly improv, but I still sometimes feel like I'm letting my players down if the session isn't as exciting as one that I've in which been more prepped.

    That's less about nerves and more about hoping that I'm not disappointing them... but I've even gotten better about that too. Life happens and they can't expect me to always have a ton of time to prep for a Friday night. Some of the onus is on them to roll with it as well.

    I can see that as being a bigger problem for new players and GMs. My teenage nephews are having a harder time finding a GM because no one in their social circles is prepared to take on the level of challenge.

    For all its faults, 4th Edition D&D really tried to make it much easier on GMs to set up a quick encounter. People don't give WotC enough credit for attempting to make D&D more mainstream. For all the reasons you stated above, there is a major learning curve for new groups to get into the game, but it's much worse for new GMs. When WotC attempted to help in that area, they were slammed for writing a system that was more akin to a board game or an MMO. They didn't execute perfectly by all means, but from a system standpoint 4e met many of its goals to try to simplify new groups getting into the game.

    On a similar point, 4e's encounter-style modules were also very good on this front. For a new GM, you could take a 4e module and run it as-is with only a single read through. Was it on rails? Yes, mostly. But was it quick to get prepped and get your players rolling even if everyone at the table was new? Absolutely.

    You are right in the RPGs will never be as popular as passive entertainment like movies or even video games. Any game where one person has to shoulder the load of content creation or presentation (i.e. - GM), will never be able to equal a game where all players shoulder the load equally (board games, et al). But I think technology may be getting close to the point where we might be able to see some innovation on the GM side... but that still leaves the burden of price mostly on one player.

  3. When faced with a big and complicated board game, I don't find myself feeling afraid... I usually find the experience of playing most 'board games' (everything from Monopoly to something like Lords of Waterdeep) to just be boring. I usually don't attend on nights when the group wants to play a board game.
    I don't know if this makes me an outlier for the rest of the world or not. In my circle of friends, though, this pretty much makes me the weirdo who (gasp) doesn't like board games.

    1. You ARE weird! ;)

      I think the point is more that a 10 (ish) page rule book is a much shallower learning curve and makes board games a lot more accessible to the masses. An RPG, by its nature, describes the mechanics of play, but the content of play is completely up to the GM and players.. which is an odd notion to wrap one's head around for one who is unfamiliar with the basics. Not only that, but 300 pages of rulebooks is pretty intimidating to the newbie.

  4. I've taken over DMing most of the sessions this spring, and it's brought me into a state of complete panic during my prep work pretty much every week. The gulf between "the game that I'm imagining in my head" and "the game I realize I'm actually going to be presenting" is so difficult to bridge that I feel like every encounter is a crippling failure even before I start.

    Part of this is just the nature of being an adult, and having outside responsibilities that aren't going to let me devote more than 4 hours a week to playing, and maybe 2 to preparation. I end up comparing myself to content from all these blogs that are run by greybeards who create all their own rules from scratch, and I imagine them showing up at my table to sneer at whatever canned 30-year-old module I'm trying to tweak into feeling fresh and original.

    Plus, I know I'm competing with high-end video games and big-budget movies, which creates a pressure that didn't exist back in the 80s when the only obligation was to produce an adventure slightly less cheesy than Krull with a bit more RP than Wizardry II. Even board games have remarkable production standards today, compared to the 70s era hex-and-counter stuff I played in my youth.

  5. Edward Hamilton writes:
    ... "the game that I'm imagining in my head" and "the game I realize I'm actually going to be presenting" is so difficult to bridge that I feel like every encounter is a crippling failure...

    That's an interesting point and one I struggle with at times as well. I don't get nervous about these encounters before-hand; I'm usually quite excited about them. It's *after* the execution of the game that sometimes bums me out... Luckily, my wife (who is one of my players) is usually able to sooth my concerns. It'll almost never turn out as good as you imagine it in your head. I've learned to accept that a few minis and dry-erase pens is not up to the task of the 3D THX spectacle that occurs in my brain.

    And you are so on-point about the bar being raised significantly from the 80's. At least NPC AI still sucks. :)


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