I was talking with friend recently, one who's often been part of the best games I've run / participated in over the past few years. She was grappling with something that I think a number of gamers struggle with from time to time, on both sides of the screen, feeling the lack of challenge in her gaming life.
We all fall into our comfortable little ruts in the hobby. As a GM, we pick a particular game, or a genre, or a style of play that suits us and our players, and we keep on keepin' on. As a player, it might be a focus on a particular type of character that we keep coming back to or playing different riffs on. For some people, that's all they want out of their gaming life: the same thing that's given them pleasure and escape for many years continuing in exactly the same manner, sometimes without even the intrusion of a new rules edition to rock the boat.
And there's zero wrong with that. Pepperoni pizza is like that: even if it's not spectacular, it's still pretty good. There are very few pieces of pepperoni pizza I've walked away from feeling disappointed or filled with malaise. And sometimes what you want is the old standby.
For those of us who try to push things, sometimes it's the opposite problem: obsession with novelty. You're always looking for the shiny new thing, the new rule set, the untapped genre or character concept, the twist that will give it extra zing like a splash of sriracha on your pepperoni slice. Novelty often ends up disappointing you in the end, because few games really deliver on the promise of a new experience that's fully satisfying. Often, they have a few good ideas that are fun for a while, then become small footnotes in the accumulation of a roleplaying style.
I'm talking about deeper challenges than this sort of thing, and real challenges involve a not-inconsiderable about of soul-searching.
For a player, you have to look at your previous characters and be able to critically assess them. Why were you attracted to that character type in the first place? How did it change over play? Is there something in particular that worked, or gave you particular pleasure/satisfaction in the development of that character? What didn't work, or what things were you trying for but didn't quite stick the landing? Was there something you wanted out of the character that you veered away from in play, either because you changed your characterization in play (perhaps only to fit the game as it evolved) or because you backed away from it?
And if the character was a "type" that you come back to, again and again, why? I have a tendency to like playing both soulful tough guys and wily, philandering sneaks. I think the former is perhaps a wish-fulfillment version of myself -- everybody likes to imagine they're a classic movie hero like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood -- and the latter is a wish to be something opposite to myself. I think it's totally true that a lot of players gravitate toward certain kinds of characters to work out or explore something they can't in their day-to-day lives. If you're big and clumsy, like me, it's fun to wear the skin of someone who's small, graceful, and stylish. If you have no outlet for anger and outrage, it's fun to be someone who gets right in people's faces and lets them have it.
If you know why you're returning to the same well again and again, it's easier to know what you get out of that experience at the table and perhaps chart a different course with a new character. Maybe you figure out an angle on that "type" you've never played before, or deliberately take something opposite to your "usual" to get away from familiar things.
What were your best moments as a player? You know the ones, the character moments that still thrill you to think about them. The stories you tell again and again.
What moments fell flat?
Often, character emerges most tellingly in the deep interactions you have with other players. If you develop a character with another player in mind, as an important relationship with your character, you're going to have someone to play off of and apply pressure to you from different angles, or support you when you're backing away from the challenge that you set yourself. Open and frank conversations with your GM and the group early on can help with this too -- if the GM, in particular, knows what you're trying to get out of the game, they can provide the adversity and support you need directly.
The GM may be looking for different kinds of challenges. One might be simply trying to nail down a genre or style that they haven't been completely satisfied with in the past, or adding a new flourish to their toolbox such as more improv, more collaboration, less authorial control. Maybe you're trying to make the jump from drama-heavy tabletop to full-on freeform or LARP play. Or you might be dealing with a different challenge, such as integrating a new player into the group, or re-setting after a long break.
The process is much the same. You need to look at what you've been doing recently, and ask yourself honestly what it is you've done well, what you've done poorly or could improve at, and most of all why you run the games you do? Is there a particular kind of thrill that you get from running horror games, or tense crime dramas, or sexy romances? What are the rewards you get out of that, and is there another angle on it you haven't been able to explore? Is it played out? Is there another genre or ruleset that could help you develop some aspect of your play?
One angle of the GM challenging themselves is to ask the same kinds of questions about your players. Do you have ideas for new material that could push their game in useful ways? How will your new game satisfy their appetites as players, and how will it challenge their palates? Are there things that could improve the group as a whole, and give it new tools to work with, or is this game more about novelty and change for change's sake?
I think I'm pretty good at running games that have moments of high emotional intensity, whether that happens to be straight-up drama, high octane thrillers, or horror games. I'm most happy when my players are pushed right to the edge and can feel it crumbling underneath their feet. I could definitely do better at the mechanical parts of the gaming experience, and also at allowing my players greater latitude in pushing the game forward. Some of me will always be rooted in the "old school" way of thinking about games, where the GM is expected to entertain the players and bring a lot to the party in terms of prep and story. I have played long enough that I know the pleasures of arriving at the table with no idea what's going to happen, but I'm not convinced it's always the way to go.
What challenges have I got on my workbench? I'm interested in rehabilitating the idea of the comedy game, inasmuch as it's a genre that players seem to feel is slight or unrewarding. The current game idea I'm toying with is a bit of a Quentin Tarantino crime comedy set in the world of Ross Payton's Base Raiders. Silver Age superhero trappings meets colourful, possibly not that bright crooks engaged in high-stakes heists. I'd be borrowing broadly from both the trappings of the superhero genre and those of the Fiasco style crime-gone-horribly-awry. Marrying those two genres and finding both dramatic and comedic challenges for players is enough to keep my gears turning.