It’s happened to all of us. You spend weeks, maybe even months, convincing your friends to try a new game that you’ve discovered. It takes some effort, but eventually everyone buys in and you start a new campaign. Things are going well, people are getting into it! And then…Another new game is in your sights. All of a sudden, the thing you were most excited about for weeks and weeks is now a frustrating roadblock. You are a victim of the Curse of the Wandering Eyes.
While the Curse of the Wandering Eyes can strike any gamer, it’s the GMs of the world who are most acutely afflicted, and for whom the affliction can have the most dire consequences. It’s not only the GMs who actually drop games at the blink of an eye who can create group discord, any GM who looks longingly at a game other than the one they’re playing can often let those thoughts and frustrations seep into their current game, making it less fun and possibly cutting it short. What’s worse, though, is that although the grass often looks greener on the other side, when this frustrated GM starts up their next game, often it isn’t any better, and the process repeats anew.
The key to resolving the Curse of the Wandering Eyes is to understand where it’s coming from. The RPG hobby is relatively young, and as a result the consistent framework to identify and categorize what we want out of a game doesn’t really exist yet. I can talk about ‘trad’ and ‘indie’, but there’s really no guarantee that I see the divide between the two the same way as someone else, nor is there any guarantee I even care about the same elements which distinguish them. Rules-light? Rules-heavy? I’ve seen people earnestly describe Fifth Edition D&D as both rules-light and as rules-heavy, assertions which I personally see as equally wrong. Point is, though, that it’s very easy for a GM to pick up a game and then find several sessions in that it doesn’t meet their expectations.
There are really two things which create the Curse of the Wandering Eyes: First, we do as humans have an innate tendency to seek novelty. Constantly seeing new games and wanting to play them is a common, maybe even constant feeling among gamers, and not just in RPGs. But, this drive to novelty only turns into a disruptive Curse of the Wandering Eyes when there are key desires in the current game which aren’t being met. Ultimately, a good gaming group will seek to create a fun game in which everyone is able to play in the way they want, provide an outlet for our natural desire for novelty, and still create a consistent gaming experience which allows for character development, interesting narrative, and all the other good stuff which cause so many of us to prefer long-running campaigns.
The Campaign that You Want
We as a hobby are not good at helping people figure out what they want to play. While D&D is the largest tabletop RPG by player base, it has also (statistically speaking) scared more people away from RPGs than any other single factor. And yet, the vast majority of groups and games can really only speak in terms of ‘like D&D, but’. This has little to do with D&D itself; if the Bakers teleported themselves back to 1973 and started this whole shebang with Apocalypse World, it’s possible we’d have a similar iteration of the problem (and possibly not, but game designer time travel fanfic is a whole other article). Point is, ‘like [game x], but’ has limited usefulness and often leaves prospective players grasping at straws when they travel outside of D&D, Pathfinder, and the OSR.
This deficiency has caused many people, from Robin Laws to Ron Edwards (and even myself at one point) to attempt to write game and player taxonomies, but so far taxonomies have ended up having too many of the author’s biases baked in, or been too generic to be useful, or even been too specific to be useful (unsurprisingly the Wizards player type classifications in the 4e and 5e Dungeon Master’s Guides really only work for games that are fairly close to D&D). So what can we do to actually solve the problem and actually figure out what games we most want to play and run? Try them. Reading games and trying games are really the only ways to truly figure out what you’re going to like. If you’re lucky, you can then go back and use your new experience to assess some taxonomies and vocabularies and determine if they help you. But you still need to try the games first.
While I’ve always said you can figure out most of what you need to know from just reading a game, this presupposes that you’ve played enough games to understand what you’re reading and how that would map to a gaming table. This is unfortunately true for Actual Play as well; the more entertaining an AP group is, the less likely they’re producing an end product that looks anything like actually playing the game. You can go to cons or store events, but you’re going to have a tough time finding a wide variety of games to play, and probably won’t find the specific game you’re interested in (unless you show consistent interest in the top 5 bestselling RPGs in the United States). Which brings us back to running games with your home table, your friends.
It may in fact be that the best way to settle on a system for a new group is just trying a bunch of games. In all likelihood, though, your group, whether new or existing, already has settled into one or just a few games that they like. Worse, you’re likely already in a campaign, one which some or many of the other players don’t want to up and stop. Fortunately, there are ways to both try more games and throw some novelty into the mix. Not only is trying new games fun, it’s going to help give you the perspective of whether you have the Curse of the Wandering Eyes or actual misgivings and dissatisfaction with your long-term game.
The Search for Novelty
I’m sure both Seamus and I have said it before in multiple different contexts: Take breaks from your long campaigns. Run one-shots or two-fers after a major plot arc resolves, either with the same GM or someone else. Changing it up does let you try new games and find that novelty in your play, yes, but it also helps prevent burnout. While D&D provides plenty of material to run a party from level 1 all the way to level 20 and keep it changing throughout, the idea of running a campaign like that straight through without a break is burning me out just thinking about it. Running only a single RPG system is like listening to only one band, and sticking with just one campaign is like only listening to a single album. Led Zeppelin IV is good, but I’d still throw it out the window at the first opportunity if it was the only thing I could listen to for months or years on end.
As briefly mentioned above, going to cons and playing at events is a great way to find a novel gaming experience. Not only may you get an opportunity to try a new system, you’ll play with a completely different group of people, which can be eye-opening. Now, it can be eye-opening either way; while I had a great experience running a con game for mostly strangers at Arisia, one of the players in my main group has a few horror stories, including one that involved Shadowrun, some real bad munchkins, and the demolitions skill. That is going to be an unfortunate constant in gaming with strangers; this hobby has no particular barriers to entry, which means you’re going to get jerks and creeps at at least the same rate as the rest of the population (possibly higher, given the hobby’s history, but that’s another whole other article). There’s not exactly a cure for this. I personally don’t play in con or public games. I run them, but that’s because when I’m running the game I can kick people out, and while eminently unpleasant it’s completely necessary. The flipside as a player, the only recourse you have, is to leave if things get ugly. But that’s no fun either.
Finally, outside of playing new games with your group when you can and playing new games at public events when you can, there’s just reading games. Buying and reading games does scratch that novelty itch, lord knows I buy a lot of games and back a lot of RPG Kickstarters. But, for the purpose of quelling the Curse of the Wandering Eyes, you have to be careful. While there are exceptions (i.e. generic RPGs can often be the opposite), I find most RPGs tend to read better than they play. Reading RPGs is an activity into and of itself, and designers know this. Reading an RPG is also where the procedures of play can sometimes get muddled, and reading the game will make it seem like a much more streamlined activity than it actually is. You can see these things with a degree of experience, but when the read is enjoyable you may still overlook them. Worse, you may enjoy reading an RPG that’s an utter drag at the table. This was my experience with Third Edition D&D: The books really put forth a world of endless possibility, and so much of what was in those books, core and supplements, just begged to be used. Actually using it was often a different story entirely. I’d note that I read and got really excited about the 3e Psionics Handbook…what happened when I tried to use it is best left as an exercise to the reader.
When to Change it Up For Real
So you make it to a local con, and later convince your group to try a few one-shots. You’ve also picked up some really eye-catching new rulebooks and taken some time to read. What if you still want to change it up? If you’re done, you’re done, and especially if you’re the person running the game, it’s not going to get better if you’ve checked out. This isn’t an article about endings (we’ve got a CHR episode for that), but give it a couple sessions, wrap it up as best you can, and talk with your players about why you wanted to end. Then what happens? What’s going to make the next game different, and keep the Curse of the Wandering Eyes at bay?
First, be honest with yourself about length. One significant disservice D&D did to the hobby early on was put a stake in the ground about campaign length, and make that length really, really long. BECMI D&D existed in the form it did to allow campaigns to go on to a length that the designers essentially considered indefinite. This is not necessarily bad game design, but it gave a lot of groups the wrong idea about how long the game should take to play. As has been popularized in recent years by many PbtA games, a 10-12 session arc covers a lot of narrative ground and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Another campaign structure that PbtA did not invent but did normalize is the mid game switch up. Having a mechanic that lets a player change their character dramatically or retire the character without needing a character death is a huge way to help players pivot and address their own Curse of the Wandering Eyes. While it’s explicit in PbtA it should be an option in other games, especially longer ones. And this is kind of the key if you do decide to run longer campaigns; you need to let them change as the game goes on. That might include something dramatic like a character leaving.
So if absolute length isn’t the issue, if there’s still story to tell and you’re not just bogging down, what is the issue? This is an important step of breaking the cycle of Wandering Eyes and finding games you like running at length. Away from the game, try and write down the things that you wish were different about the game you’re currently running. They can be big, like mechanics problems, or small, like a character trait you find annoying. Once you’ve gone through the list, try and write down the cause of each of the issues. Is the mechanics issues so primary as to be game-breaking, or does it happen to just be important for this specific campaign? Is the character trait annoying because of how the player is employing it, or because of a mechanical element? Finally, write down a basic idea of how the problem could be solved. Annoying character trait might be most easily resolved with an out-of-game conversation with the player, and a mechanics issue could be best resolved with a house rule. The key here is that scrapping the works and starting over with a different system likely won’t address most of the issues that are causing dissatisfaction. There are exceptions to this, of course. If your biggest issue with your D&D campaign is how much combat there is…the solution to that may very well involve a new game.
The Curse of the Wandering Eyes is a conflation of two issues. Humans naturally seek novelty, so the many new things that come out nearly every day in the RPG world will always be a distraction. This distraction only becomes a group problem, though, when the so-called ‘change of scenery’ is the go-to solution for burnout or GM dissatisfaction. Hitting both sides of this is the way to go to solve the problem. Don’t deny your desire for novelty, but use new games and new ideas as breathers and breaks from the ongoing games which are providing long-term narrative and character development. And if you do become burnt out on a game, be sure to address the root causes, and remember that ditching the campaign and starting a new one is only one solution, and the one most likely to frustrate others in the group. We may not ever truly lift the Curse of the Wandering Eyes, but if we identify it we can make sure that it doesn’t get in the way of the whole group’s fun.
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