I was in middle school when I first started playing Dungeons and Dragons. A couple of my friends wanted to play and we had a few 2nd edition D&D books in the basement that my dad bought a long time ago. We didn’t even understand the rules at first, and so we made up our own. It didn’t take long before we were playing several times a week. 95% of the time, I was the GM.
By the time I graduated high school, we had a very impressive gaming resume. We had slain dragons, and gods, and evil necromancers. We had saved (and burned) entire kingdoms. We had traversed alien lands and alternate dimensions. All of these adventures could be summed up in one word – epic.
And then off I go to college. We put together another gaming group. This time Vampire: The Masquerade is the game of choice, but the stories we tell are no less crazy. We prevented Gehenna. We caused Gehenna. We resurrected Caine and diablerized him. We destroyed entire factions and brought an end to the Masquerade. And frankly, it was absurd and outrageous and fun as hell.
Then out of college I make and publish my own RPG – Reclamation. It has the same capacity to deliver high adventure. Powerful organizations make runs at power. Demonic agents of The Black Dream try to enslave the rest of humanity. Zealous factions empowered by the nuclear fallout initiate crusades and experiments that change the face of the earth. It’s all possible… and admittedly… I’ve run a number of games where those themes come into play.
But over the last couple years, I have noticed a significant change in my GMing. The “high adventure” of conspiracies and demons and hostile takeovers have become things my players hear about through gossip and hearsay… but they are less and less involved in those events. They are not lone adventurers hunting for power and prestige. The players have families – parents, children, helpless brothers and sisters – that they must protect. They face personal demons instead of physical demons. They engage in brutal fights, but they are not fighting for a hoard of treasure; they are fighting to defend their home, their families, their sense of normalcy from the horrors crowding in around them.
Okay… that’s not entirely accurate. I still have plenty of crazy stuff happen… but recently I have found myself more engaged in the simple stories: trying to find books to teach the children of the live cell, the hunt for a mutated deer to feed the protagonists, risking life and limb to burrow into the ruins of a Wal-Mart for a toy, or a computer, or something to return a sense of normalcy to the beleaguered cell-mates. I’m drawn to the down-to-earth stories that just feel real… that just feel like things that could really happen to each and every one of us.
I’m not saying high adventure is dumb, or a GM cop-out, or anything like that. I just think perhaps my taste in what is interesting has changed. I have played out almost every iteration of the damsel-in-distress plotline in almost every conceivable type of RPG. I’ve played out the super quest to defeat the big bad boss. Hell… I’ve run hundreds of adventures that required players to sleuth out the big secret mystery.
And yet, I feel like it is possible to transform the mundane into high adventure. I am wildly enamored with the idea of making the simple task of walking down a suburban road “high adventure,” because who knows who lurks in those ranch homes… who has lost themselves to The Sickness… what dark fantasies have been brought to life through The Black Dream.
Does this kill the catharsis? I don’t know. I suppose that depends on the player. I think not. I can’t cast spells in real life or tap into psychic frequencies. The special powers and abilities still allow the players to go beyond themselves… but in terms of storytelling… lately at least… I have found myself looking to accent the very real struggles of an average person in an impossibly dangerous world over manufacturing high adventure right from the start. It just seems to me like the characters that emerge from these simple plots are so much more “real.” I feel like I know them. I feel invested in them. They are no longer two-dimensional adventure catalysts. They are you and me, and so when they overcome obstacles… it just seems more meaningful.
Or maybe I have just hit a GMing mid-life crisis and I need to have my players ride over a city of zombies on a dragon and drop a nuke to stop Cthulhu from entering the world.