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How to Grow Old in Tabletop RPGs

Art by the late William O’Connor

I turned 49 this week, and if you aren’t already as old as or older than me, then I hope one day you get to be. Watching the world change is pretty cool. But being older isn’t without pitfalls. We can see many examples in our hobby of people who don’t seem to handle it well (and fortunately many examples of people who do).

Someday you will be old. Or old-ish. Here’s how to handle that. If you already reached this age, it is never too late to improve.

The Inevitable

When we are young, we are taught that experience matters. We are told to listen to our parents, our teachers, our elders. One day we become those people, and we naturally expect people to listen to us. Makes sense.

And yet… remember how we could look at older people and see their flaws? How we couldn’t wait to get more say, so we could show them how things could be different? When older people mocked our music, our hair styles… (okay, those hair styles were bad). Still, you get the point. The young have some great points too. And a lot of energy. And no back pain. I miss that. Also the mosh pits.

Getting old inevitably comes with experience, which is supremely valuable. An older person holds within both past and present, in a ratio no young person can access. Every year adds greater perspective. Old people know… we can see the world in ways a young person can’t. But we also can’t see the changes of the world as clearly. We can become fixed on particular ways of doing things and our perspective can become outdated.

Let’s talk about specific techniques we can adapt as we age, and how to combat some of these challenges.

Art from Dragon Heist, by Wizards of the Coast

An Ever-Changing World

Our perspective will be healthier if we adopt an understanding that the world is never solely ours. No generation claims the planet, or even a country. We may feel that way at times, but it is an illusion. All generations share the now, though differently.

As you age, embrace change. Not just in your particular life (say, the first job, or parenthood, or retirement) but in the wider concept of humanity. There is a never-ending wave of people rolling dice for the first time, or writing their first campaign, or publishing their first work. It’s wonderful and beautiful.

Because time flows, and change is constant, all of society evolves. Adapting to that change can be hard. We can suddenly realize that technology has shifted, or that people have a new perspective on orcs. Or that most people don’t know what sending a submission in a SASE was like (don’t look it up, you don’t need to know).

It may help to realize that change is constant. If you are older, you can remember new types of music – often scandalous or strange to older generations. In gaming, I recall thinking that Planescape was an abomination that would clearly be rejected by smart people realizing the perfection that was the Manual of the Planes. I was wrong. I also thought Spelljammer was silly, and that Dark Sun was for munchkins. My players bought me both and I learned that I am often wrong about what things in gaming will be amazingly fun for me.

One moment Kickstarter feels brand new. Just a few years later it feels established. One moment we have a 3E OGL… then an OGL goes away, then it comes back. And the changes work. Big changes have often helped our hobby tremendously. We want change. We cannot be married solely to what came before. We want newfangled concepts like skills. We want big games to learn from indie RPGs.

Revisit, recast, remix. Even tear down and abandon that which we loved. I still look at that cover of Manual of the Planes lovingly. But I don’t open the book that often these days. It’s okay that I open different books now.

Actively Listen for Change

We surround ourselves with what we like. But this can lead to an echo chamber, where the world looks like what it was and not like what it is. We may hear thoughts predominantly from those like us. To absorb new knowledge and innovate, we need to work to be aware of change. How?

  • Place ourselves in active contact with younger gamers.
  • Diversify our communities, from our home game group to our Discord channels to our coworkers.
  • Ask questions. When we see new and different things, seek to learn.
  • Work for different places. Change jobs. Change duties. Change teams.
  • Change games. Change tools.
  • Play with new and diverse players. As many different ones as possible.
  • Find what new creators are using as inspiration. YouTube and Twitch channels, TV shows, books, etc.

Be the Dog Learning New Tricks

We can change what we do over time and how we do it. Stay in touch by trying new methods and adopting current tools, even when they at first seem inferior.

There are often ways to be familiar with new technology even when we don’t care for it. We may not want to stream… but by watching some streamers from time to time and reading on how it works, we can be a better guest on a stream when someone asks us to join for an online game or an interview. We may not launch a podcast, but we might listen to a few from time to time to stay aware of new trends.

How we create changes. How we DM evolves. We can learn a new way to track initiative, or a way to draw better maps. How to run a great game online. We don’t have to master any of these to benefit from them. Dabble enough to understand the evolving landscape, and adopt what we like and what seems fundamentally important. Do we have to run our game on a VTT? Nope. But playing a few online games will be useful in understanding the appeal of VTT-friendly products.

Look at the difference in how Gen Con and PAX handled the pandemic and an online convention, as compared to Origins. Origins botched its attempt and had to cancel. Gen Con and PAX are now seeing online components as a vital part of their future offerings and future growth. Smaller conventions see this too – some of them way before the bigger cons.  

Leave It Better Than We Found It

The RPG industry is hard. If you are older, you suffered through a lot. There is no reason why future generations should suffer as well. Life will always pose challenges, but we can improve conditions for others.

We can see great people changing the industry to make it better. Higher pay. Clearer job postings that actually state salary ranges. Sharing company financials. Sharing how they reached their goals.

The barriers we older gamers faced? Work to remove them. At the very least, teach people how they can avoid or deal with them. Especially the big horrible barriers, like sexism and racism.

Mentor people. Someone likely helped us along our path. Pay that forward. If you can, join a structured mentorship program. Teach. Create guides. Give seminars. Create videos. But also, spend time one-on-one with people who will benefit from the experience you have. Mentorship is invaluable.

Support people. A helping hand. A kind word. We can increase the compassion and camaraderie in our industry. Wipe out the infighting, competitiveness, and cliques. Build open communities.

If you can hire or influence hiring, hire diverse age groups and experience levels.

If you have a role regarding pay, work to increase pay. We should leave behind the days of fundraisers and GoFundMe as the retirement/health care/insurance plan for gamers.

Art from Dragon Heist, by Wizards of the Coast

Reassess Our Preconceptions

The way we perceive the world often rests upon fragile pillars. We are raised a certain way. We read books and watch shows that have a common mindset. We play a game where we slaughter orcs. Then, one day, we hear that maybe orcs shouldn’t be evil. That may be hard to grasp at first, after a lifetime of being told our foes are evil.

We might have loved playing a mul ex-slave in Dark Sun, working against the evil sorcerer-kings to free other slaves. We thought it was a cool dark aspect of the game, which underscored its terrible society. Then, one day, we hear that RPGs really should never have slavery as part of the game.

These types of changes may be ones we quickly grasp. Or they may be harder to understand. That’s why it is important as we age to be open to change. We should aim to be willing to reassess our preconceptions and listen to new voices.

We won’t all agree. I’m Colombian-American. I’m okay with some evil colonial aspects in my D&D, such as we see in 5E’s Tomb of Annihilation. I like taking down colonial powers in a game. But that’s me. Many Latinos don’t feel that way at all. And I respect that. When it comes to the old D&D Maztica setting? The only way that should return is if a predominantly Latino design team is on the project. And even then, we have to ask… why not have that team create something else? We might as well leave that colonialism and its harm behind.

The world, fortunately, is becoming more empathetic. And it is embracing fairer standards for behavior. It is recognizing the harm that can be caused by previously accepted game elements. These are good changes.

When we have one of these moments where we don’t understand a change, and we probably will, it’s best to say nothing and just listen. Do everything we can to understand the new and changing perspective. Ideally, through the lens of empathy and positive change we should all want for our hobby to improve.

We may not always fully understand or fully agree with what is being said. But we should be able to reassess our stance enough to hear what is being said and honor the needs of the people in the hobby. I love Dark Sun, but I hear a lot of people saying they are harmed by the inclusion of slavery. You know, no game is worth harming people. And we are smart and capable. We can modify Dark Sun to no longer have slavery. It isn’t essential. We can work with PoC designers, who should be on our staff anyway, to make a better Dark Sun.

Age Can Be a Great Asset

While we can acknowledge problems with the behavior of older gamers, it’s important to recognize that gamers vary greatly within any particular age group. Age can be a tremendous asset. We want on our team someone who can draw upon many types of projects, who has done this before, who gets how to achieve success. Just as we also want fresh ideas and new approaches.

If we work together, our industry can truly be incredible. Our compassion and empathy, and our ability to work together and overcome adversity… these qualities are already setting us apart from other industries.

We will all age. The fortunate will grow old. The truly fortunate will enjoy many years helping to make this hobby even better.  

4 comments on “How to Grow Old in Tabletop RPGs

  1. Richard Green
    August 27, 2021

    Really enjoyed this article – very thought provoking!

    Your comment about SSAEs reminded me that those of us across the pond had to send an International Reply Coupon whenever we submitted something to Dungeon or Dragon. This was a little slip of paper that you had to queue up at the post office to buy, then you waited weeks and weeks for a reply. At least I did actually get an adventure published in Dungeon back in 1992 when one W.Baur was the assistant editor 🙂

  2. Colin D. Speirs
    August 27, 2021

    56 next month.

    I have rewritten one old RPG to be more mindful of a better attitude to people

    I am working on another, and have tried to do more, including talking to people from marginalised groups, and trying to have different peoples in the game in a different way, and although in our history suitable, put slavery out of the world.

    I also watch younger youtubers and learned a fair bit from them. And keep on trying to do so

    • Alphastream
      August 27, 2021

      Amen! I am in the process of correcting the first work I ever placed on the DMs Guild. It’s not easy, and almost all my earnings were spent to have it looked at by a talented cultural consultant, but it is the right thing to do.

  3. OZ_DM
    September 10, 2021

    I think you can sum it up like this:

    You can be:

    a DM with 25 years experience

    Or

    a DM with 1 years experience, repeated 25 times.

    Most people will get more out (happiness and postive) being the former than the latter.

    Happy birthday old man (you are 1 ahead of me so I’m counting that as a win! although I wouldn’t give up 1 year to be younger it’s all well earned.

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