Warning: This article is not really focused on GMing advice today. Instead it is about shaping the future of GMing and gaming. It is also a request for proposals and ideas.
At the core of our hobby there is the gaming group. The games are not why we gather. We gather to play games with each other. This is what distinguishes tabletop RPGs, card games, and board games from most video games (although this is changing rapidly as technology improves the experience of interacting with others within games). Our hobby is a social activity. The stronger the friendships the more likely that the game will be enjoyed.
The focus on the gaming group needs to change though. My personal observation is that in many cases it is an isolating institution. The group becomes an entity not to be disturbed. Potential new players are suspect – “Will that person fit into our group?” This is not done out of malice, but such an approach to new players can limit the group. This can also hurt our hobby as it may discourage new players from joining our ranks.
Furthermore, there are gaming groups that crystalize even though the current membership does not work. I cringe every time that I hear a gamer say “I know that he is a jerk, but I cannot kick him out of the group! We won’t be able to find a replacement.” Napoleon is credited with saying “The graveyards are full of indispensable people.” meaning that anyone can and eventually must be replaced.
Or maybe you have heard this one? “She has always gamed with us! We can’t boot her from the group! Let’s give her another chance to change.” Giving people the chance to change is meaningless if you never intend to revoke that opportunity. Consider it a form of incentive. In baseball no batter is given a fourth strike.
This sort of thinking is what transforms the group from what keeps our hobby fun to what makes our hobby miserable. When we stop thinking “I game to be with people and to have fun.” and start thinking “The gaming group must be preserved.” we are no longer addressing the right concerns. The intention is noble, admirable even, but the results can be negative.
We as GMs need to keep our gaming groups healthy, and to do that we need to keep our gaming groups fluid. With the plethora of RPGs available on the market today and the diversity of personal preferences amongst gamers I am positive that you will find an RPG that you will love to play and a group that is perfect for you to play it with. I also guarantee that you will find a game that you will hate to play as well as a group that you hate to play it with. My final guarantee is that there are gamers out there who will feel exactly the opposite as you do regarding both the game and the group.
It was the norm at one time to center the group around the game. “This is our D&D group.” or “I belong to this great Shadow Run group.” This needs to change, and has been changing as more and more RPGs that accommodate different types of play styles and desired effects have emerged. The static group is no longer going to work as well as it did before. We need to think differently in regards to the social organization that is at the heart of our hobby. At the very least we need to expand upon the concept of the gaming group.
We need to shift from having gaming groups to having gaming networks. As GMs we need to facilitate matching the right games to the right players, and we should do so by ensuring that when a player is not a match for a particular game that we can help transition that player into another group that is playing the right kind of game for that person. This requires a coordinated effort with not only the players of the games, but also with other GMs.
While the group is focused on sessions and actual play, the network is focused on helping to form and disband those groups as needed. Players and GMs would think in terms of “What kind of game will work for me?” instead of “What kind of game will work for my group?” Using the network GMs and players would find the right people for the events that they want to be a part of. While we will be insulating incompatible styles from each other we will no longer be isolating ourselves into groups. Hopefully this will eventually result in an exposure to more play styles, more games, and more people who could potentially become new gamers and friends.
None of what I am suggesting is new. These ideas are naturally occurring within the gaming community. The problem is that we still think in terms of the gaming group. We as GMs need to shift our thinking away from the group and towards the network. The players will follow (if not join us already since many players are GMs as well).
Why must we begin thinking in terms of the network and not the group? In order to build the right solutions to accommodate how our hobby is changing we must recognize the changes. The tools are already out there. The bulletin boards in the local game shops and the web sites like NearbyGamers  are ready to be used. The only thing missing is the conscious shift from thinking along the lines of “I belong to a group of gamers.” to “I belong to a network of gamers with many groups.”
From there we need to formalize the networking process. How would you do this? What are your ideas for helping gamers find the right people and games in their area for their tastes? Would this sort of network benefit you? And the most important piece of all – how would such a network sustain itself?
I look forward to your comments, and I am eager to read what you think about the matter.