Tales From the Gazebo – You can Never Cross the Same River Twice

You can Never Cross the Same River Twice
By Cape Rust

I’m sure most of you have heard that saying and based on the fact that this article is about running games you shouldn’t be surprised that I am going to apply it to running games. Actually it applies to running games and participating in games. We have all sat around the table before or after a campaign has ended talking about the highlights of the campaign and then the conversation tends to migrate to great games of the past or great characters someone played. Conversations like this create the urge to replay or recreate those golden games of yesteryear or play that beloved character just one more time, but I always have to go back to the idea that you really can’t cross the same river twice.

In my younger days, I actually tried to cross the same river and statistically, like most couples that re-marry, it often doesn’t work out. I ran a Shadowrun game in high school that I can still freely discuss with my now non-gamer friends. These are the same guys who these days would rather admit that they really, really enjoy watching iCarly rather than ever admitting that they ever played RPGs. Yet when we talk about the good times we had in High School, that Shadowrun game always seems to come up. Without this degrading into a gamer story I’ll just tell you that every character was memorable and for almost two weeks straight, day and night one summer, we played that game. Even 20 years later we still remember every characters name and quite a few of the major NPCs. Fast forward a few years after High School and I’m in the Army and stuck in the barracks on Ft. Leavenworth, KS due to a lack of money and car. I opened up my old Shadowrun books and had the great idea of trying to re-create that epic game.

I gathered up the few gamers in the barracks that I knew of. I explained that I wanted to run a Shadowrun game. We were all working the same shift and were all in the same situation financially and all were without transportation. Two of the guys had not played Shadowrun before so I had to spend time getting them up to speed, the other three guys had played so it was no big deal. In that barracks induced fugue, I figured I could just run the same game I ran that summer and it would be a blast. I was in such nostalgic bliss that I didn’t even notice that the players had made different characters than my High School buddies had. In fact, not only were their archetypes new, these new characters even had different names. I longed so much for those salad days of gaming that I didn’t even take the time to adjust the adventure or the encounters to reflect the changes.

Well, the first session started and things just were not the same. These guys were not making the same decisions as the last group did, in fact these guys were crushing my epic encounters with superior tactics and the advantage of having at least basic training under their belts. This group was moving much faster than the guys back in school did. In fact, that first night they had gone through what had taken us several days (not sessions, but days) to go through. I ended up having to MSU (Make Stuff Up) just to get to a good stopping point for that first night. I had to quickly re-think what in the nine hells I was doing. So far the game was nothing like the old game, in fact other than the first ten minutes, it wasn’t even close, I became a sad panda. Then that old saying about crossing that river hit me. Rather than wallowing in my nostalgic self pity. I looked back over the characters my players had made and almost completely re-worked the adventure I had planned. If I had kept going on the path I started on I would have fallen in that river and drowned. Not only would I have drowned, but I think I would have dragged my players down with me.

Trying to recreate a character you loved playing back in the day is another water hazard many people step in. There is this guy I gamed with for several years who couldn’t let go of one of the first characters he played, a barbarian. He would play other classes (often not really well) and when his one gimmick failed, he would lament for his beloved barbarian. I finally said, “Why don’t you just play another barbarian?” He would look at me like I had a male sex organ growing out of my forehead and pick some other class that was far away from that barbarian he so longed for. He set himself up for failure over and over again. There isn’t much you can do for a drowning player if they won’t accept the life ring you throw them.

I’m not advocating that you completely throw out those great game or character memories, but no matter how hard you try, the river will still run and it is always changing. If you simply can’t live without some of that gaming of your past, here are a few suggestions on how to do it and avoid disappointment. First, introduce a modified version of your old character as an NPC. Update them, tweak them, but keep their spirit alive. This allows you to take that walk down memory lane rather than getting carried away in a current of disappointment. There are no original ideas when it comes to writing or games. Rather than taking the entire concept of that golden game of yesteryear, take a few really cool timeless aspects of it and incorporate them into your upcoming game. It isn’t hard and it’s actually fun to see what a new set of players do in that situation.

I love thinking about the good games of my days past but I can’t let those memories overshadow my current and future game planning. As a GM I owe it to my players to give them the right game for them and their gaming style. For many gamers, some of their best memories have occurred at the table, some of the best friends they will ever have are gaming friends and the thought of their gnome wizard slaying a dragon will live with them forever, but no two dragons are the same, not all gnome wizards cast the same spells and you can never cross the same river twice.

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