There is always something bittersweet about a looming tide of sadness

1. Beginnings

This happens five years back. I’m attending a barbecue at my friend Chris’s house, one of those semi-regular gathering of the geeks that used to occur in our neck of the woods before the social-group in question splintered. There were board-gamers, sword-swingers, and RPG players, all people who had gradually filtered into one-another’s lives through conventions and half-completed RPG campaigns and getting enough folks together to play Settler’s of Catan. I’m a RPG player, by and large, but I have a geeks weakness for games in all its forms.

At one point in the afternoon I’m talking to a guy named Al, who I’ve gamed with a time or two. We’re talking about Call of C’Thulhu and how he’d love to run a weekly game. “You can’t do that anymore,” he says. “People don’t have the time.”

“I dunno,” I say. “There’s a bunch of people here who’d kill to be part of a good Call of C’Thulhu game. Have you tried asking?”

And so Al asks, and there are at least four of who are interested – me, Chris, Al’s wife (who is not the internet, not even on facebook, so she remains unnamed for the purpose of this story), and another guy we all know. We settle on a time: C’Thulhu every Sunday night. Al will run the game.

2. Landmarks

Presumably I used to do things on Sunday nights that were not playing Call of C’thulhu with my friends, but I’m not really sure of the details anymore. The years prior to 2007 are a dim and strange place that’s barely remembered.

And 2007 is the year a lot of shit changed: I finally got the hang of writing fiction and getting it published; I finally left University teaching behind and started the process of abandoning my Phd; I walked away from a long-term relationship after we’d gotten engaged and realised it was a bad, bad idea. It’s a relationship that ends amicably, then goes downhill afterwards and stays bad for a very long time. There are whole months where I’m afraid to answer my phone, and Sundays become the night I get to forget the angry frustration that’s getting twisted around my stomach. It’s the night where I get to hang with people who weren’t familiar with me as part of a couple, a night to hang out with people who are fast becoming friends.

I look at my life prior to 2007 and it seems unrecognisable to me. I seem…so much less like me.

3. The First Game

It starts as C’Thulhu games often do. We create characters, we arrive in Arkham, we’re prepared to go mad.

Chris has played in Alan’s games before and raves about the experience. Call of C’Thulhu characters are notoriously short-lived, being caught in a game where seeing the uncanny drives you to madness and eventual death. Part of the joy is the downward slide, the inevitability of your decline. I create a character based on Ernest Hemmingway, looking for work as a local journalist. I spend the entire first session finding lodgings and trying to get job, getting to know the various NPCs who become part of my characters daily life.

We show up every Sunday, and it’s weeks before anything weird draws our character’s attention. It’s even longer before we encounter things that force us to make San checks and the craziness really starts.

4. The Unexpected

Turns out I was right – people will play a weekly RPG game if the group is right and the game is good. Al’s Call of C’Thulhu runs for about a year and a half, maybe two years. There are some troubles in that time and the forth guy drops out, but the rest of keep gaming. In that time we ended up skipping a handful of Sundays at most. It’s followed by other games: more Call of C’Thulhu, some classic Deadlands, and more recently Space: 1889, but the weekly games kept coming. Doing math on the back of a napkin, I figure we played about 210 to 220 games over the last five years.

And the games are good, the kind of RPG sessions that remind you why you started gaming in the first place, but they aren’t the best bit. There’s a rhetoric, among gamers, that part of the joy of gaming is getting together with your friends, but often this overlooks the dynamics of gaming groups. I’ve spent plenty of time attending gaming sessions where half the people are friends – people I know outside of the game, often in advance – and the other half are just people I game with. Not people I dislike, per se, but something akin to work colleagues one gets along with because they are work colleagues.

I have no expectations of becoming friends with people I game with, but the Sunday games defied expectations. The people I game with are smart and interesting and generous, and spending time with them every Sunday quickly becomes the highlight of my week. They become people I enjoy spending time with outside of games, people I enjoy knowing.

5. David Morcome

My first long-term Call of C’Thulhu character in over a decade. He utterly fails to become a journalist, which is expected, and utterly fails to go mad over the year and a half of the campaign. He keeps reading Mythos tomes that tell him he’s an insignificant speck in the face of a harsh and unknowable universe, keeps encountering things that make his comrades go crazy, and every time he shrugs and goes, “yeah, I’ve expected something like that ever since the war.”

He finally snaps in the final seconds of the campaign, sending himself mad when he tries to use a ritual he read in one of the tomes he’s been collecting. Not to try and stop the world from ending, mind, just trying to get some petty revenge against someone who crossed him once. The fact that he’s going to spend the rest of his life as a brain in jar, tended by mi-go, doesn’t seem to bother him. It actually seems kind of cool.

6. Christmas

I dislike buying gifts for people. When it happens, it usually happens for two reasons: because I am expected to by social convention, or because I know and like a person well enough that I want to bring them joy (admittedly, this usually this involves books). Christmas, therefore, becomes a special kind of hell – there are many gifts that need to be bought for people I don’t particularly know, and a handful of gifts that receive real forethought and care.

There are exactly six people that fall into the latter category. Three are members of my immediate family.

The other three are the members of my Sunday night gaming group.

7. The Last Game

Last Sunday we reached the finale of Chris’ Space: 1889 campaign. There were time anomalies, Martian revolution, characters lost into the Aether, a giant steam-powered French war-machine shaped like a Cockerel, and my retired British army officer got to ride a T-Rex. It’s the culmination of about a year of game-play, all told, although we did the campaign in two seasons and played something else in between. It’s been a brilliant game, the kind that remind me why I like gaming, and in particularly why I like gaming with this group of people.

It’s Saturday night as I write this. Tomorrow night we’re going to get together and talk about what happens next.

And then, on Monday morning, Al and his wife will be moving to Melbourne.  They actually delayed their leaving by an extra day so we could fit in one final Sunday.

There’s about a thousand words invested in this blog post trying to articulate how sad I am about their departure, and I suspect I’ve not even come close to managing it. Certainly I’ve done a bad job explaining it to people in an off-line context, and much of this week has been spent trying to keep busy so I don’t think about how much it’s going to suck when the two of them leave.

About this time last year I posted a link to a talk Amanda Palmer did at a Boston college where she posited the theory that the reason people become musicians, artists and writers is because they’re looking for a kind of connection. She theorizes that most artists aren’t really interested in money or success so much as the “wine moment” where you all come together and find your like-minded people and are energized by their presence, beliefs, and discussion.  Maybe it’s just a fancy way of saying Find Your Damn Tribe, but it seems right enough to me, and it’s sure as hell a rare experience. Sunday nights is the first time I every really felt that while gaming, and there’s a greedy part of me that really wants that to never end.

I’m happy for my friends: they’ve been wanting to get out of Brisbane for a while and they’re going to have a great time in Melbourne, if only because it’ll be easier for them to get a coffee after 4PM in the afternoon. And in theory, we’ll still game every Sunday – we’ve already got plans to do so, using the magic of the internet – but it’s easy to sense the doubts seeping into the conversation. Sure, it should work fine, but what if it’s not the same? What if it’s too hard? What if, gods forbid, it becomes *just a game* like so many other campaigns I’ve played in. I suspect we’ll be fine, but either way, after tomorrow our rituals and gaming will need to evolve a little. In one way or another, Sunday nights will mean something a different than they used to.

I still haven’t really figured out how to say goodbye to this particular ritual, or to these particular people. There’s been an undercurrent of sadness running through my week already. I suspect it will only get worse over the next couple of weeks when Sunday hits and I find myself at a loose end. I may need to start planning alternate outings to keep myself busy, at least ’til we kick off the online game.

I expect there will be tears, either at the point where the goodbye happens or not long afterwards (please, god, let it be afterwards. I’m so much happier weeping in private). I’m not good at saying goodbye at the best of times: it’s an empty word that relies far to much on context to carry the meanings. I’d feel better if there was an alternative – something that actually meant I’m happy you’re getting to do something you’ve been wanting to do for a while, and thanks for being two of my dearest friends for the last five years, as well as feeding me and hanging out and listening to me rant about work/life/books/etc. You’re some of the most awesome people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. You’ll be missed, and hopefully we’ll catch up soon, and now I’m going to head off and be a little sad that you’re going. 

But that shit’s unwieldy and slightly odd to articulate out loud, so I’m guessing thanks for the last five years of friendship and gaming will have to do.

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