Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Rediscovering something about myself.

 I wrote the following in the days between GenCon and Dragonflight, but didn't have time to edit/polish/post it then. This rambling digression really isn't about gaming, it's more crazy talk about my life. If you're just here for house-rules and game reviews, you can skip this post (and the previous one) and go click on the links down the side of the page instead.

Disclaimer: I am a volunteer for both of the organizations mentioned below (Dragonflight and Flying Frog Productions), not an employee. While I do sometimes speak from a position of some authority in my work for Dragonflight, I do not speak in any official capacity for Flying Frog (I'm just a volunteer who helps when need with playtesting and teaching demos). Any opinions expressed in this post are mine, and mine alone, and should not be taken to represent any official positions of either of those two organizations. This isn't really a post about those groups, it's a post about my life, parts of which just happen to occur in the vicinity of those groups at the moment.

Something I rediscovered about myself this week at Gen Con. I really enjoy hard work that culminates in other people being entertained. There’s this great sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from a long day of effort, especially when that work puts smiles on other people’s faces. That’s why I loved running the 50-player LARP and all those big Magic: The Gathering tournaments back in the day. It’s why I loved even the moments of set-up and tear-down before and after GenCon this week, and it explains what I find so fulfilling lately about my physically demanding job at the grocery store (at the store I don’t bring people entertainment or fun, but I do feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of most days).

About 5 years ago or so, a crushing malaise crept quietly into my life, slowly sapping my confidence and eventually dooming my marriage. As the pain and unease overwhelmed me, I responded by withdrawing further from the world. I kept thinking I just needed more time to myself, and I trimmed my social calendar down to a nub. It is so clear now that this was a self-defeating response. For three years I pulled back “for introspection and healing” and it just got worse. The health issues that I thought were the cause of my hardships just grew more dire the more I retreated, because it turns out they were merely symptoms of my lack of self-esteem. The more I worried about them, the more I tried to hide my Spasmodic Dysphonia, the worse all my problems became.

But this is not a story that ends in despair. Just in the past two years, I’ve started getting better instead of worse. I identified the change in trajectories and have been getting excited about it, but until this week I had misidentified the turning point. I thought (incorrectly) that my healing started when I hauled a bleeding friend (Sarah Bergstrom) safely off a mountain. Truth be told, while that day ended in victory, it was emotionally traumatizing for me at the same time and probably resulted in minimal net change in my long term mental state. As epic as that tale is, I realize now that what’s been actually fixing me these past two years has been a little more mundane, and it started a week before she fell off the cliff in the first place.

Since getting drafted by Mark Walters to help with Dragonflight two years ago, I’ve been feeling much better about myself every time I work a long day to help others have a fun. When the website at Dragonflight crashed last year, I stepped up and busted my ass to make sure the convention went on (with paper sign-up sheets). It was exhausting and prevented me from getting to play games most of the con, but it felt so good. The show went on because of me. That was a major victory, and a huge bolus of actual healing from my long-denied psychic wounds took place that weekend. The next weekend was the struggle on the mountain, and they came so closely together I failed to identify which victory started the healing process.

While I was on the floor at Gen Con this week teaching people a new game, fielding questions from strangers, and wrangling up players for demos, I felt like I was King of the World. All my shyness and social insecurity fled away. Then in the evenings, when I’d get to relax with smaller groups of friends and friends-of-friends, the shy retiring Rolfe would return with a vengeance. I’ve been trying to wrap my head around it. Why was I confident and strong in a room full of thousands of strangers, but so darned quiet when it was half a dozen of us Frog people, several of whom I’ve been gaming with for months? On the last day when we where rushing to break down and pack up the booth in time to catch our flight, why did I feel so happy and strong? Why did I find it so easy to joke around with  the other volunteers when we were “fighting” over who got to use the packing tape, but so hard to find the courage to talk to those same people when we were sitting right next too each other in the airport? Apparently I’m brave when I’m working, but a bit timid when at rest.

In the last few days and nights leading up to me flying to Gen Con, I was putting in full work days at the grocery, rushing home to do online administrative stuff for Dragonflight for a few hours, then carpooling up to the Flying Frog studio to pack boxes full of miniatures onto a big truck, and then coming home for a tiny bit more Dragonflight email trouble-shooting before squeaking in an hour or two of sleep. It was insane, and I loved it, and I feel like it was really good for me.

Holy crap! Am I in danger of becoming a workaholic? That kind of schedule is not sustainable. Does it matter, if it’s healing me? There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m healthier and happier right now than I was 2 years ago, despite the fact that large portions of my life fell apart less than 2 months ago and I find myself crying over random memories. It is all so weird. Is there a way I can reconnect with the braver version of myself without burning myself out? I hadn't seen that part of me in years. Is the solution to volunteer for every imaginable event until the boxes around the days on the calendar start to burst from the pressure? I have some serious soul-searching ahead of me, and _so_ much healing to do, but somehow hope is easier for me to envision now than it has been in years. That's gotta count for something.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Catching Up With The Summer Of Extremes

It has been a while since I blogged. Life has been far more complicated than usual, and gaming has been in "feast or famine" mode this summer.  2015 has been terribly extreme. The good parts have been really truly wonderful, but laced between them has been some absolutely crushing bad news for my personal life, from which I haven't completely recovered.
Disclaimer: I am a volunteer for both of the organizations mentioned below (Dragonflight and Flying Frog Productions), not an employee. While I do sometimes speak from a position of some authority in my work for Dragonflight, I do not speak in any official capacity for Flying Frog (I'm just a volunteer who helps when need with playtesting and teaching demos). Any opinions expressed in this post are mine, and mine alone, and should not be taken to represent any official positions of either of those two organizations. This isn't really a post about those groups, it's a post about my life, parts of which just happen to occur in the vicinity of those groups at the moment. 

Let's just start with the elephant in my (entirely new) room. After over 14 years together, Sarah and I are getting a divorce. (That's why you'll no longer see anything about me being a "kept man" in my bio on this site.) It came on suddenly, without really any warning for me. There was some weird tension for a couple of weeks, but it started while my mom was visiting for 2 months, so I misinterpreted all the tension as being just a function of the extended house-guest. Then, boom!, "I think maybe I don't love you anymore", out of nowhere, followed by a demand for divorce just one marital counseling session later. No fights. Not much effort spent trying to fix things, either. Just done and gone in a hurry. One minute I was a house-husband, the next I'm a grocery-store clerk living alone. (Apparently, she'd been unhappy for some time, and I just didn't see the warning signs at all.) I'm still working through it. That much is essentially public record and I don't feel I'm betraying any confidence in sharing the story, such as it is, of our sudden dissolution.

Both of my RPG campaigns (an Everway campaign, as well a Dark Heresy campaign using a hybrid of Warhammer 3rd and Edge of the Empire rules) collapsed in the process of the rapid separation. She's been a player in every multi-session game I've run in all those years, and was my co-GM in the Everway campaign. So my most recent big creative outlets vanished. To be honest, I kinda crumpled there for a while. She started her life over pretty fast (from my perspective anyway),  but I've found it hard to get going again, at least on a personal level.  For the past few years I've been the quiet one, and she's always been our social scheduler. Charisma and organization are among her strengths. So, before I knew it, she was the one with invites to events, including regular RPGs on the evenings most of our friends have free, and I'm only this week finally trying to cobble together a group and a game. Now to be fair, I've still been attending the weekly rotating-GM one-shot group that I've been associated with over the past 6 years, but that group doesn't always meet regularly, and I've had no time (my hours filled with Dragonflight prep, see below) to GM anything myself. GMing has always been my first and favorite hobby. But more than that, the creative process of GMing is the way I recover from stressful days. GM prep work is my preferred way to fill dead hours and keep my brain busy enough that I don't obsess over the little things in life. So, the extended break from it has further slowed my own healing over the gaping wound in my life, at the same time that I suddenly have a lot more hours to fill and lot more little things feeling wrong.

I'm sure there's a large helping of green-eyed sour grapes of envy poisoning my perspective there, as well. There were a couple of weeks early in the separation where every time I got up the nerve to call friends to see "what are you doing tonight?" the answer was invariably "going somewhere with Sarah, so sorry but you're not invited" and that hurt. I know she wasn't maliciously out-scheduling me, it's just in her nature to plan something cool for every box on the calendar, just as it's in my nature to focus on the now and go with the flow. Problem was, my flow had gotten a little damned up. There were big things on the horizon, and I couldn't figure out how my social life was going to trickle around them. Which, convenient to the metaphor but unpleasant for me, meant I worried a great deal about washing up on the rocks.

Convention season was, at that time, just ahead of us. I'd swung an invite to attend GenCon as a volunteer helping the Flying Frog Productions team, and of course I was running the main ballroom as Board and Card Game Coordinator for Dragonflight the week after. Both of those were solid, upbeat accomplishments that I own, and can be proud of. That said, the invite I'd landed was for both of us to volunteer, and the tickets to Indianapolis were already purchased before we contemplated divorce, and she was signed up to be the Registrar for Dragonflight, too. So there was a lot of motivation to part with a functional friendship or at least a working relationship, rather than just kick and scream and break each others' toys. We seem to have pulled that off for the short term anyway, and with any luck we may actually be one of those rare few ex-couples that stay friendly over the years. I still have some sore feelings over the sense of rejection that comes from losing love, but things could certainly have gone a lot worse and been even more painful had either of us decided not to be so smart and adult about it. Life is a cooperative game, and it doesn't do anyone any good to mess with the other players at your table. I'll take my victories where I can get them, even snatching them from the jaws of divorce.

On that note of victory, I should add that both conventions went really damn well, and I've been invited back to help next time(s).  So that's really good. Hard work, but rewarding, and they gave me something to throw myself into instead of just sitting in a room by myself feeling pitiful. I think overall they did me a lot of good, even though it meant I was too busy every night leading up to the Cons to consider putting together the game that might have helped me de-stress. It's a trade-off. GMing sooner might have been more helpful, but these Cons required me to interact with people and not just lock myself up in my new little apartment. If I didn't have the Conventions to keep me busy, there's no guarantee that would have turned into "more time to GM" and not just "more time to wallow in my loneliness". Especially early on.

Apparently, I felt very strongly about that card.
First was the unending stream of games that was GenCon. I lost count of how many dozens of people I taught how to play Colonial Horror / Dark Gothic at the Frog booth. It was quite a few, many of whom went on to buy the game. In the evenings I hung with new friends on the Frog team, playing card games over drinks and slowly processing all the crazy new emotions just barely contained inside my head. Jason and Scott Hill (the brothers at the core of Flying Frog Productions) are two of the most generous people I have ever met, and they made us all feel like family. Hotel, airfare, food, con tickets -- all paid for, and all I had to do in return was spend my days teaching people how to play a game I really enjoy. I got my quota of much-needed fun that week, that's for sure. And for several weeks before that too, as the fine folks at Flying Frog have been inviting me up once-a-week for the past few months to help playtest upcoming Shadows of Brimstone expansions (many of which debuted at GenCon). That's been a series of very cool experiences. It's rather amazing just how well they treat their volunteers.

One night at GenCon they took us to True Dungeon as a group, which was staggeringly enjoyable, and very unique. Live-action puzzle-solving in a 3D life-sized dungeon, with a shuffleboard to-hit system and memorization minigames for the spellcasters. It was a lot of fun, and I definitely carried my weight by solving one of the puzzle rooms singlehandedly, and by scoring some high-damage spells during our fight scenes. Go me!

The weekend after that was Dragonflight. GenCon had over 60,000 gamers in attendance, and Dragonflight had under 800. That gives two very different experiences. One is roiling chaos, the other feels more like a community. (Though, as I said, the Flying Frog crew was my community while in the GenCon chaos, so I've been surrounded by friends this whole time.)  This was my third Dragonflight, so there were a lot of familiar faces, and I'd gotten a good sense for how the convention rolls along.

Dragonflight ballroom, on a slow morning hour.
It was my first year as Area Coordinator for the main room at Dragonflight, so I had a lot of responsibilities... and yet, it felt like less work than the previous year. Last year, we'd had a big computer problem, and I'd been "Johnny on the spot" retro-converting us back to a paper sign-up system when the website went down. That was grueling work, but worth it to keep the convention running in spite of tech failure. This year, I pushed to just use electronic/online for pre-registration leading up to the convention, and have paper sign-up sheets prepared in advance for the events. I didn't have to reinvent the wheel, and it all went really smoothly.  Smoothly enough I was free to actually play a couple games during the convention. (Meanwhile, Sarah had similar impressive success at the Registration booth. Go, Sarah!) Multiple people have told me that this was the smoothest running Dragonflight in over a decade, so I'm feeling pretty good about that. Attendance was up 25%, but numerous people actually said it felt like it was down a little from last year because the lines were so short and it was so easy to get into a game or find a table. I went to a lot of trouble engineering the flow of the ballroom to make it feel that way, and I'm thrilled it paid off so well. Go me again!

That said, there were a number of other changes and improvements I was unable to implement this year at Dragonflight. I didn't get to everything on my list, partly because I was away at GenCon the week before, partly because it was my first year in this role and I underestimated how much work it would be, but partly because all the stress and craziness in my life eroded my focus and efficiency a bit this summer. Regardless, the convention still went well enough that people were impressed, and partly as a result I've been elected to the Dragonflight Board of Directors. So I'll get to implement my ideas next year.  And to be honest, the hours I put in in the last two months before Dragonflight were a little unreasonable anyway. I had around 400 games to coordinate -- I had to solicit GMs and game hosts, assign them rooms and tables, create a schedule and a map, approve listings on our web software, edit descriptions for the program, and answer a lot of questions over many months to make this all run so flawlessly on the weekend in question. The only person who had more work than me was Amy, our Convention Director (though I'm sure Ted, our Web Developer, would disagree with my assessment). Next year I hope to "hire" (it's an all-volunteer organization) an assistant to handle some percentage of the work. I've got a lot to be proud of, and have laid a solid foundation for even better events next year.