I am a 30 year old man and this is probably the hardest thing I have ever had to type. In some ways, I should probably count myself fortunate for that. But I do not feel fortunate. And this is not an upbeat post.
Ten years and nine months ago, I was a Sophomore in college at SUNY Purchase. I started a science fiction boffer combat LARP called Systems Malfunction. I probably asked around fifteen or twenty friends and acquaintances (many of which I knew from another LARP I was playing) to come. Ten or twelve did. So began the game, the running and authoring of which would be a huge part of my life–at times even the larger part of my life–for the next decade.
Through the time I graduated college, Systems Malfunction was, to me, a wild success. As I’ve written in the past, we played six hours a night, one or two nights a week, every week for six consecutive collegiate semesters. In so doing, we played through a story that was astonishingly epic in scope (about a thousand hours of gameplay, give or take), a story that became hugely important to everyone involved (the game in turn became the keystone of the social scene for many of the players) and that grew richer for the participation of everyone who played. At the close of the Spring ’08 semester, the story was brought to a fittingly climactic end. Eight or twelve players were present. Some openly wept for the sense of closure that was collectively felt.
That would have been a good time to stop, but I was stupid, and got greedy. I imagined that after I graduated, the game, Systems, would stay behind me on the college campus and grow. That it would continue on where I had left it, eventually falling under the creative control of a younger generation of students: I thought, fondly (which is to say stupidly) that I would be remembered as founder. I tried to build and nurture a foundation that I could hand off to the next generation. I failed in creating this legacy, largely due to a lack of political sensitivity and acumen: I failed to build the foundation that could have supported the game as a lasting club at the college (that the atmosphere of the college was changing, from a haven for artsy/theater geeks to more of a mainstream state school, probably did not help).
Having failed my first objective, I tried a second one. I tried to grow and expand the game to a real LARP. I had no experience doing this and I went about everything all wrong. From 2008 to 2012 I squandered thousands of dollars of Mikaela’s money and hundreds of hours of my time trying to build, promote, and recruit for a Live Action game at the scale of NERO/Alliance, Dystopia Rising, Knight Realms–an “event” based game, with dozens of players in attendance at each of six to twelve yearly events. I failed abjectly, totally, and utterly, because I had no idea at all what I was doing. Throughout this period, we continued playing the game, a second story arc set in an earlier time period: 30 action-packed full weekend events. On average, eight to twelve people attended each game. Three and a half years ago, we played through the destruction of DP-010 “Dallas”, a Grand Finale to the game’s second story arc, the Croatoan Campaign. There were about eight to twelve people in attendance at the finale. Again, the “final game” was a joyous and moving event.
Of those eight to twelve people, a quick mental tally informs me that I am only currently on speaking terms with about two of them. And one of those two I am basically married to. Virtually none of the relationships dissolved amicably, or without significant pain that has left lasting scars.
I wish I could go back in time and make myself stop then, in December of 2012. Whatever dregs or drops of Systems Malfunction I have managed to ring out since then, I would trade them for the friendships that have been destroyed in a second. It was not worth it.
In 2013 and 2014 I tried to run Systems Malfunction again–a new setting, a new venue and format, poorly thought out and doomed to failure. We struggled desperately, painfully, and humiliatingly to maintain an attendance of even ten people per game from month to month. In late 2014, I gave up. It wasn’t a good time to leave off–I’d had two chances for that, and missed both of them. It was just that trying to breath some pitiful spark of life into the game that we loved was destroying the quality of our lives. It had to end. (At the same time, we published Systems Malfunction as a campaign setting for the Singularity System–a process that proved to be an arduous, backbreaking labor. We printed a tiny run of less than fifty copies of the book. We still have a few lying around unsold: I don’t know the exact number of PDF sales, but they are not good. I have trouble looking at this as anything but yet another failure, but technically, the clock is still running on this one..)
This year, we decided to give it one last try. This time we finally went about things the right way. We found an excellent venue and we booked it for the weekends we wanted to run the game, like every “real” LARP does, something we could easily have afforded to try the last time around, if my head had been in the right place. We tried to run games in April, in May, and in June. Two of them went off: in May and in June, everyone, old players and new, had a great time.
The June event had an attendance of about twelve to fifteen people: a decade later, in spite of everything I had learned and all of the new and improved editions of the game I had authored, I had done nothing in my efforts to grow the game’s player base but to spin my wheels and advance perhaps by a few debatable inches.
Between June and now, my personal life completely imploded. Long-lasting friendships disintegrated in a spray of shrapnel and betrayal. People who I had counted among my closest confidants are now strangers I would not even piss on to extinguish if I found them on fire, because that is the same level of care and compassion they have demonstrated for me, through the eloquence of their silence.
In spite of a healthy influx of new players, we canceled the July game and all subsequent events due to lack of attendance. If you don’t have all the facts, no one could blame you for seeing this as self-sabotage. But I have spent over a third of my life trying and failing to grow this game, and sometimes the only way to end the agony of failing at something is to give up: to have failed, and to put it in the past. I absolutely won’t say in writing that “I will never organize or run a game of Systems again” even though it’s overwhelmingly probable that is the truth. The reason I won’t say this is simple, maybe even a little silly: I am always very annoyed by people who announce repeatedly they are done with something forever (say, Hideo Kojiima and the Metal Gear franchise, for instance) only to keep doing it again and again. I want to at least leave myself a sliver of a backdoor of a chance of not being that guy.
Indefinitely and for the foreseeable future, Systems Malfunction is over. To everyone who loyally followed the game for years and to everyone who came (or came back!) to give it a chance this last time around, you have my profound thanks. I genuinely wish things could have been different. This is not how I want to close the door on ten years of my life, it’s not the note I want the thing I love the most to go out on, but the only alternative is picking at a healing wound over and over until it becomes violently infected, and that is just self destructive madness.
End Transmission Games will continue to produce Tabletop Roleplaying Games of excellent, perhaps even unparalleled quality, for sale at preposterously low prices. The future of Systems Malfunction as a game setting–as opposed to as a live combat LARP–remains open ended.
Ossining, New York