As I move from my 30s toward curmudgeonhood, I frequently ponder friendships, social obligation, and manners. I am one of those people who enjoy reading Emily Post for obscure items of social etiquette. I also read articles on conflict resolution, ethics, honor, and morality.
The byproduct of this musing is that I spend a lot of time trying to do the “right” thing. I used to think that worrying about how to tactfully get out of an invitation, when to tell a friend that they were being unreasonable, and at what point our obligation to family ends meant I was a bad person. I figured that the desire to protect my own interests meant I was selfish. I have since learned that worrying about such things is exactly what prevents one from becoming complacently self-centered—but it took me a couple decades to appreciate the distinction.
For example, we recently exited the friends’ group dinner rotation. The original Friday night dinner crowd (FND) developed when the core members gathered for a regular gaming night. Although we were kindly invited to several of these gatherings in the early 2000s, we didn’t formally join the rotation until a couple years ago. The founding group was built on similarly situated couples—post college, pre-children, building careers, RPG and board game fanatics…etc. Dinners ended with people staying late, rolling dice, playing cards, or throwing down in HALO until the wee hours of the morning. It was a huge compliment to be included in that community—both because of the fellowship and close ties that resulted from those associations.
We officially joined when some of the long time participants were having kids, expanding their social circle, settling into their careers, and completing professional degrees. Old members brought in new blood. The rotation went from an informal six week spread to requiring a Google calendar. Some members broke off as people ended relationships and found new partners. After a couple years, the community landscape bore little resemblance to the original roster despite some cosmetic similarities. For me, the biggest change was the loss of the sense of “closeness” which characterized those early gatherings. Those get togethers were intimate affairs among close friends. Current FNDs have lost that sense of personal connection, that sense of family which made the experience so special. I remember one day getting off a 13 hour shift at work expecting to take public transportation home. That week’s FND was supposed to have started several hours earlier. Even though it was my appointed birthday group meal, I had to stay late to hit goal. I left the building to find a car waiting to rush me to the still ongoing celebration. There I was greeted with a pitcher of kee lime martinis and birthday best wishes. I was deeply touched that someone had gone out of their way to make me feel welcome and wanted. At my most recent birthday FND five people mentioned the passing of another annual cycle. The brunette’s recent birthday FND got moved to a date she expressly couldn’t attend (we asked months in advance so as to schedule a date for pampered chef that wouldn’t conflict with other peoples’ plans and her dinner got moved to that date anyway.)
I mention the birthday celebrations because they are particularly good examples of the kind of ambiguity I struggle with. I don’t expect gifts around birthdays and holidays. I greatly appreciate anything offered, but there is no expectation even if we have recently gifted the other party. I do however expect that if we get someone a present that they will acknowledge the gesture. Over the past couple years we have routinely purchased gifts for FND members and had to press them to learn whether they even received the package much less appreciated the thought behind it. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but when I take the time to memorialize someone’s celebratory moment I assume that common courtesy dictates a response on their part. I don’t expect much, but a simple “thank you for thinking of me” tells me that the gift had some impact. In reality I think most of the group just lost interest in observing birthdays save as a theme for that evening’s comestibles. The circle of friends is so large and disconnected that it isn’t a close family any more. That realization lead me to consider how many FNDs I chose not to attend and how many birthday dinners I didn’t feel compelled to gift. I remembered all the political discussions where I was told that I was wrong or made to feel stupid. I thought about all the dinners where I had to work to find anything to do or anyone besides my wife I had something in common with. There were plenty of good memories; but several not so great times as well. From there it was a short step to realizing that while I like most of the people in the FND orbit, the process had become an obstacle—one we ultimately decided to forgo.
Along similar lines, I am simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the upcoming release of exalted third edition. Exalted has been and will likely continue to be my favorite high fantasy tabletop RPG property. It has a unique combination of lush setting, evocative character creation, and epic storytelling. The third edition may or may not be an improvement over previous versions—I honestly don’t care. We paid a lot of money to kickstart and buy into the new edition and when it comes out I will damned well be running a campaign or two. I have run and played in a lot of exalted games over the last decade. Most of my friends have been roped into at least a couple sessions at some point. So, even though E3 is releasing more than 2 years late, I am eagerly waiting to put it on the table.
The catch, there is always a catch, is that I have no idea how I am going to put together a complimentary group. I want to say this delicately but I just can’t think of a way to manage it—most of my friends have regressed into poor role-playing habits. Some of them have no respect for character immersive RP. Others refuse to make group oriented characters. Many seem to take a perverse joy in holding the group hostage to a childlike desire to win at all cost—even if the urge is completely inappropriate for the moment. Each GM has their own quirks and foibles—I am no different. Each player has their own goals going into a campaign. That is as it should be. Part of good storytelling is conflict. Done well, intra-group conflict can drive powerful drama. I actually enjoy seeing players intentionally work at cross purposes to drive the action—provided everyone understands that:
A. The point is to tell a cooperative story.
B. Character choices aren’t about you, me, or the other players—they are about the character at that moment in time.
C. At some level the group has to work together—even if the goal is to resolve a conflict in a less than ideal manner.
D. Even if you are not playing you need to stay focused as to what is happening.
E. Role-playing means that sometimes you will have to sit through scenes and sessions in which you do nothing or the game drags on or your character has nothing to contribute—it sucks but derailing or attempting to shortcut the scene is extremely poor form.
F. Table talk over other players and use of significant distractions when it isn’t your turn is right out.
Running games for college students is easy—gaming is fresh and new and different. Gaming is the thing you’re doing instead of studying or writing papers or attending class. It commands everyone’s attention. Younger gamers have no concrete expectations—they enter the experience with an open mind. Running games for adults is hard. Logistically you have to get people with 40+ hours a week jobs, kids, and distinct social lives to show up at the same place on the same day for at least 4 hours on a somewhat regular basis. Seasoned gamers often want different or even sometimes impossible things from their “gaming.” The benefit of decades of play is that they have immense hordes of inspiration to draw upon for problem solving and character development. The drawback to decades of experience is that all that play time tends to make them inflexible when approaching gaming related challenges both in and out of character.
With that in mind, I am absolutely dreading having to:
1. Put together a group that can function as we all learn the new material.
2. Tell several people that I know they love exalted and they will have to wait till later to play a 3rd Ed game; and
3. The possibility of getting a picture perfect improvement on the Exalted line only to discover I have no players willing. And. Able to give it a sincere test run.
With the FND rotation I was worried about missing a point of common courtesy, offending someone by withdrawing, or losing friends by deciding not to show up to everyone’s’ events. I probably over-thought things. I know many of our friends just aren’t bothered by the finer points of social convention—and in some ways I wish I could follow their lead. With gaming lately I have found myself wondering if the people at the table even have any common interests or respect for each other or appreciation for the little courtesies that are essential for any group to function effectively. I know and care for all these people. In some cases they might as well be family. I find myself more and more often wondering where the line between respecting their feelings and needs ends and where it is appropriate for mine to take primacy. I don’t want to be the classic selfish self absorbed self centered jerk. I do want to maintain positive friendships and pleasurable social experiences. The question is whether I can do both in today’s hyper sensitive society and if not, which is more important.