It’s a common mantra that “gaming is life,” and for tabletoppers it’s often painfully close to true. For many of us, the older we get, gaming winds up being the only thing we can get friends together for to have a life outside of work, kids, and all the other things eating our time like jealous and hungry langoliers.
But ever since I heard it, I’m also a big fan of the phrase “life before game.” Since tabletop gaming is a co-op environment (well, mostly, anyway) that requires a lot of time and emotional investment, it’s easy for a group to get resentful of players who miss game, especially when it’s done last minute or is a semi-regular occurrence. It becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s supposed to be a for-fun activity when you’re able and should never be something to guilt your friends over if their lives aren’t making it easy for them to attend and be present.
With players for whom the game is their one chance to escape or see friends, it’s understandable that someone missing a session can be painful and frustrating. Even if it doesn’t lead to the session being canceled, it may throw the GM off-balance without much time to adapt before they have to run or disrupt the current plot/scene/mission to suddenly have to account for a missing agent, and that impacts everyone at the table. It isn’t difficult to understand where the resentment comes from.
But gamers of any age also understand that life isn’t something you can schedule, and expecting everyone to make gaming their top priority for the sake of the group isn’t realistic or sustainable for almost any player.
Life before game means not having to defend the decision to sit out when you’re feeling sick, or to apologize when relatives drop in unexpectedly. It means not having to explain why it’s more important that you spend your anniversary with your partner or a weekend with your friend who’s going through a difficult time and doesn’t have anyone in the area to rely on. It means that the gamers who are your friends are more interested in you taking care of the things that are necessary to you than being in a seat across from them rolling dice.
To a lot of folks, this may seem obvious and automatic, but to a growing number of gamers I’ve run across, it bears repeating. Every time one of my players misses a session last-minute, I remind them and the group “life before game,” in hopes the other players know the same applies to them when life jumps up and bites them unexpectedly.
My threshold for what “life” means is fairly low. “I had a rough day at the office, I’m really not feeling it” is a perfectly fine reason to miss a game session in my book. To a number of the folks I game with, “life” is closer to “I have literally been kidnapped by terrorists with poor wi-fi,” and the best balance is probably in between the two extremes. It’s worth broaching with your group so that they’re all on the same page.
Some things that don’t fall under “life before game” even from my perspective are things like “I spent all weekend playing Fallout and now I have to finish a paper for my English class” or “I’m halfway through a Netflix binge and I don’t want to get up.” Similarly, making sure you take time where you can to prep for game (like leveling your character between sessions) and coming to the table ready to play rather than losing the first hour chatting about your day can mitigate a lot of the negativity that might come with having missed the previous session, even to legitimate circumstances.
“Life before game” as a motto quietly but regularly reinforces to your players what matters most and why you all get together in the first place to roll dice and have fun. Losing sight of that can shatter even good gaming groups over time, so say it early, say it often, and don’t let your players convince you otherwise. Take it as a compliment that your group’s reaction to a player saying they can’t come in due to sudden raptor attack is that they should “walk it off” – they’d rather play your game than ensure their friend has all their limbs, which is something.
Just, maybe not something to encourage…