A Turning Point In My Relationships

One of the side effects of leaving behind the trauma of my youth (along with all the places and peace I associate it with) is that I don’t have many relationships that are more than a decade old. I have a few friendships that have finally hit that age, but I wound up losing (or ending) contact with a lot of the people I was close with in my first few years of college and I didn’t really get close to most most of the poeple I’m still friends with until my final year, so most of them are only just now hitting the 10-year point. I have only one person I knew in high school that I’ve spoken to in the last few years and our current time zone difference means we’re pretty much never awake and online at the same time, which would put a damper on reconnecting even if I was so inclined. The only people I’m still in contact with from further back are two of my siblings, and that’s a weird situation to bring up in this context given my complex feelings about family and the life my siblings were a part of. Most of the people who are still a part of my life are from just the most recent third of it, despite the prevalence of social media, and that list seems to only ever get smaller with time rather than bigger.

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Emotional Investment At The Table

During the many hours that I spend thinking about my various Tabletop Roleplaying Games (can’t just say “Dungeons and Dragons games” anymore, since I’m finally running and playing other games), one of the things I think about the most is my players’ emotional investment in our shared stories. I do my best to give them stories and non-player characters to care about, but I can’t exactly force it. They’re only going to care if they find something they feel is worth caring about and then make the effort to care. I tend to focus on the story elements, since I’d prefer that they care about the game as a whole rather than individual NPCs or one-time encounters, but it is usually a lot easier to make them care about an NPC than the game itself.

Most of the time, you can make an NPC sympathetic, interesting, and a little bit quirky without too much of an issue. It is a roll of the dice (pun absolutely intended) as to whether or not the players will care about any given NPC, but the nice thing is that you can always toss one aside if your players are not interested and make a new one. In any given TTRPG, you’re probably going to run through multiple NPCs in any given hour of the game, or session at the very least. NPCs fill the world and the players will wind up picking whichever ones interest them and you can just expand from there. For instance, I had an NPC rogue in one of my games that was around mostly to serve a narrative purpose in the first session, assist with some skill checks if the party chose to go somewhere they would need a trapfinder or the like, and provide a safety release valve in combat scenarios that involved the entire caravan the party was traveling with. Eventually, they also wound up providing a second voice for the caravan itself and a source of supposed romantic tension as one of the players jokingly shipped them with another player’s character.

Eventually, they died. It was a rough fight, also claiming the life of one of the player characters as well, and I thought that would be the end of it. I’d come up with some other stuff to give the character more depth, but I’m not precious with my NPCs. They’re there to serve a purpose and are easy ways for me to introduce threat without it feeling like I just hit one of the heroes with a bus. Instead of a hero, I hit the sidekick. The players eventually insisted on bringing the NPC back to life and, since they were willing to go through the rigmarole involved, I wasn’t going to stop them. Then the NPC died in the next major encounter after that and the party once again tried to bring them back. This time, the ritual failed and the party swore to bring them back, no matter what it took. Now they’re investigating how to bring someone back after a ritual fails and I’ve given them a nice little high-level quest for a massive diamond formed in the heart of a mountain. Good times.

I couldn’t have predicted they’d get this invested in the character. I thought they’d wind up more interested in the revenant they fished out of a river or the caravan leader, who was just some dude, who was entrusted with secret documents to take from one country’s leadership to another’s that were apparently so valuable that the caravan was attacked by assassins. None of which caught their interest for very long. They loved the Revenant for a while, but there was no talk of trying to bring him back, or finding out what happened to him after they learned he was the result of an experiment to see if a necromancer could artificially induce a revenant that would hunt a killer who had not actually killed him and he turned into dust when the necromancer concluded his experiment by slaying the person binding the revenant to unlife. They just moved on from the caravan leader, even though he was a family friend/relative to one of the player characters and clearly up to some shit. I certainly wouldn’t have planned it that way, but you make stuff, let your players pick what they like, and then do your best to run with it.

As far as the story goes, all I can really do is try to make cool stuff. I have no idea if they’re actually super invested in what might happen or just enjoying themselves on a per-session basis, and I’m honestly not sure it super matters right now. As long as we’re all having fun, I’m happy with whatever we’re doing. I’d love to be able to figure out what kind of stories they’re willing to emotionally invest in, since I’d love to overwhelm a player with emotion (not, like, in a mean way, just in a “dang, that’s some good storytelling” kind of way). I think that if I making sure I’m investing in their stories, building things out for them, and checking in with them regularly, I’ll probably get there eventually. None of my games are meeting weekly right now, at least not ones I’m running, so it’s difficult to tell if people are super invested because it’s difficult to retain details across multiple weeks without a session. Everyone asks questions like someone who wasn’t paying attention and that’s just because it’s been so long. Even the most meticulous of notes can only remind us of the details of what happened. They can’t make us feel that way again, nor can they entirely re-immerse us in a story that’s been set aside for multiple weeks.

Like I said, as long as my players are enjoying themselves, I’m happy. I’m going to keep doing what I can to get them emotionally invested because I think that’s a good focus for me to have as a storyteller (specifically to give them things they’re interested in investing in rather than manipulating them into investing), but I’m not going to be upset if it doesn’t happen on my time scale. These things take time and we’ve all got plenty of it (you know, probably).

Saturday Morning Musing

One of the biggest problems I face from day-to-day is where to draw the line when it comes to investing my time. I like to keep myself busy or entertained, so I’ve constantly got a large number of projects I can work on, games I can play, and books I can read. I could also put in the effort to get my friends together for a movie or some kind of activity, there’s always the option of staying at work longer to get some more overtime, home improvement or cleaning projects, and almost my entire family lives three hours away, so visiting them is always a bigger investment as well. I also occasionally need time just for myself, I want to spend time with my girlfriend, and I am constantly on the verge of forgetting stuff like birthdays and Christmas present shopping. Lastly, (the fact that it is the last thing I’m listing definitely says something about my priorities), I need to make sure I get enough sleep and take care of myself.

Ideally, I’d find a way to do everything, perhaps by combining things like time for myself and my projects, games, and books, or those same things but as time with my girlfriend instead of just by myself. As long as I’m talking in terms of ideal situations, I would also clean in my sleep, take care of all birthday and Christmas stuff during drives to visit my family (along with audio books, of course), and my friends would take on the burden of planning stuff that fits my schedule. Also, I’d be a millionaire and never need to work another day in my life so I can do nothing but write or spend my time studying literature and language. Might as well dream big if I’m going to dream, right?

I want to do everything, but I’ve only got so much time an energy. Additionally, because feeling tired or over-committed for long periods of time can cause my depression and anxiety to spike, I need to make sure that I’m not constantly using all of my energy. I need to balance recharging with video games, books, or spending time by myself against things that drain my energy like large social gatherings (including family), tracking and doing chores, and working more. Too much recharging can leave me feeling like I’m wasting my days, but not enough leaves me tired and barely capable of doing anything that’s going to be draining. If that drained feeling persists, then it causes a flare in my depression and the feeling of tiredness to advance to full exhaustion. This quickly snowballs unless I can catch it, which is always tricky because managing myself in order to catch it can be tiring and discouraging at well.

As a result, I tend toward habits and repeatable planning in order to take some of the burden off of myself. Monday night is a free night to play video games online with people or read, whatever I want. Tuesday is often date night. Wednesday is my weekly gaming night. Thursday is either a social activity or reading. Friday is usually chores and a social activity or chores and time with my roommates. Saturday is all of my obligations, like grocery shopping, non-weekly chores, pre-writing for my blog, and home improvement projects. It can sometimes be a date-day. Sundays are for laundry, reading, preparation for the week, time to myself, and usually D&D. Scattered throughout is work, writing when I’m not too tired, and family on major holidays. It’s a loose system that can change as needed, but my habits from weeks past usually give me enough of a nudge so that I’m never sitting around, bored and trying to figure out what I want to do. That feeling, being bored and entirely uninterested in everything I have to do, is responsible for more depression spikes than anything else I’ve ever felt. I avoid it at all costs.

My problems always come in when someone wants to change my habits. I have some degree of flexibility and usually enough energy to add it into my week, but not always. I’m not always good at saying no, either. Not in a “people make me do things I don’t want to” sort of way, but a “I’m not very good at advocating for my own needs” sort of way. I’ll almost always go along with what someone suggested and then spend a couple of days feeling extra tired. It isn’t always bad. If I’ve done an alright job of managing myself earlier in the week, I’ll be able to bounce back just fine. If I’ve been extra stressed or away from my habits for a longer period of time, it can take a while to get back to feeling well.

I’ve struggled for years with this feeling of constantly using my energy reserves to get through the day thanks to my depression, and I’ve only ever really gotten it to go away when I get invested in some big project like National Novel Writing Month. The problem is that, when it ends, I’m super exhausted and usually spend a week or so fighting against my depression. Feelings of low-energy and minor emotional exhaustion can persist for almost an entire month afterward. I can usually deal with it by taking extra time for myself and cutting out some of my social engagements, but that often presents problems of its own. Most of my friends get it, they know I might be a bit of a hermit for a while but I’m fine as long as they can actually communicate with me via the internet.

Most of the time, I alternate between wishing I could just become a hermit and never need to worry about it again or wishing I was never alone and was constantly surrounded by people who energize me. It isn’t a good feeling, since it is a part of the “I wish I wasn’t like this” feeling that makes it hard for me to accept myself and my mental illnesses. I try not to think about it too much, but every so often I need to take the time to look at how I spend my time and double-check that I’m spending it not only in a way that balances my energy but in a way that I feel is consistent with my long-term goals and values. If I’m lucky, I need to do that only at major life events, holidays, and every few months. If I’m not lucky, it is a lot more frequent. A high frequency is usually indicative that something else is wrong, so I get to spend a few days putting it off and then my weekend trying to figure out what’s causing me to constantly reconsider how I spend my time. I’ve got a lot of driving to do this weekend, thanks to the holidays, so hopefully I’ll have something figured out by the time I’m home.

It’s like an itch you can’t scratch or the quiet, nagging certainty that you left something important behind that you won’t miss until you absolutely need it. This is going to be all I can think about today. Hopefully your holidays are going better than mine are, so far.