Dreaming of a Mixed Gaming Community in Reading
Dreaming of a Mixed Gaming Community in Reading
A.K.A. my love letter to GARPS, and an exit strategy
Reading University Games and Roleplay Society
GARPS is a Reading Student Union (F.K.A. Reading University Student Union) society which in its own words
caters to hobby gaming and roleplaying in all its many flavours, from card and board games, miniature wargames, Live Action roleplay to just good old-fashioned tabletop roleplay. Every year we help complete newcomers to long-time veterans to enjoy tabletop gaming in all its forms.
I have been involved in GARPS since 2017, when I became majorly involved in it during my second year of studies at the university. Since then even after graduating I've remained heavily involved in the society. There is nothing else quite like it, and I want to write a little bit about why that is.
Why is GARPS different?
There are other gaming groups in Reading. You can go to Eclectic Games to play a wide variety of games every month. Even for less popular games, there are local events: you can go to market house once a month to play the dead card game Netrunner.
But none of these have a constant yearly inflow of a large number new people (to the beat of the acaedmic year), many of which are new to the hobby space as well. With other gaming groups, it can feel like you're an outsider, coming into a space filled with established friend groups and cliques. It can be alienating and difficult. The constant inflow that GARPS benefits from breaks this up, and makes it one of the most accessible gaming spaces in Reading. At times in the past this has been less the case, especially if you turn up as new player part way into the year. But for the past few years there has been a constant flow of events easy to join and integrate with.
The society doesn't feel alienating to non students because of this inflow, it just means the society has developed a good skill at integrating new people. In addition to this, the number of associate (non-student) members who regularly participate in and help organise events at the society makes it feel even more accommodating; while allowing newer student members to benefit from a level of organisational instutitonal knowledge that many university societies lack.
But the most important thing that makes GARPS different is its inherent variety. It evolved out of the old wargaming society, and has come to be what those in the society affectionately call "five societies in a trenchcoat".
- Board games
- Card games
You'll notice each of those are broad categories. It's not Catan, Warhammer 40k, Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. It's a huge variety even within each subset.
This is a huge value add, as it allows for much more cross-polination of the hobby. Most recently this has been shown true to me in my attempts to introduce the society to Netrunner. Bringing it along to the Monday general meetups, and pulling in a mixture of board gamers and card gamers to learn and try the game.
Last week, there was more Netrunner being played than MTG, and more KeyForge than that (though a friend was running a KeyForge learn to play event).
At the last TTRPG mini-con event (in October), 13 TTRPGs were run and no two were in the same system (well, there was a D&D 5e and a PF2e, so for as much as D&D and PF are different systems).
Wargames has regular 40k games due to its popularity, but X-Wing saw a learn to play recently (that I wasn't able to go to), and last year I played some Black Death Walking (by the extremely talented Dying Stylishly Games)!
It's not just the variety within each grouping, but the fact that all of those groupings are able to blend together and find common ground. Many people who enjoy board games will find themselves enjoying the other hobbies available, and the reverse is most definitely true in kind.
Why am I writing this?
I'm 26, and while I'm not the oldest person at GARPS, I'm among the group that has kept attending the society for the longest. I love GARPS. I love the community I've found there. I love the variety of things on offer. I love the people who have stuck around, and I make new friends every single year.
But it's not hidden to me that this can't carry on forever. Myself and a number of the other "fossil squad" have hung around so long both because we love the society, but also because there is no alternative available that hits the same notes I've gone over in the previous section.
Age isn't the only thing that is making the need for an alternative pressing. The student union is riddled with issues. Until the election of it's most recent Communities and Inclusion officer it's felt actively hostile to associate members. It regularly causes funding and room booking headaches for the society, and while it's understandable as it is a student soceity it bleeds institutional knowledge every year as experienced committee members leave and new people take up the mantle. Even associates hanging around and helping to organise things can only offset this so much.
There are three large barriers to an alternative coming into existence, as I see them. The first is venue, there are a few options here, but many suffer from availability, pricing, or location issues. RISC is an amazing venue nobody knows about, but they tend to host more scattered community events and I'm not sure how they would feel about a community invasion. Eclectic Games has limited upstairs space and already runs so many events; it's also already a private gaming business which will inevitably have different goals and requirements than a community organisation. The purple turtle hosts a regular TTRPG club in its basement, but the basement of a pub/club/whatever turtle is isn't the ideal setting for most games. The biscuit factory has venue hire, which I need to look into more, but every other venue hire location I've looked into other than RISC has significantly priced out community events and targets businesses holding conferences and talks.
The second big barrier is community. Siphoning off the fossil squad from GARPS gives an easy start, and hopefully a good relationship with GARPS can help give a consistent inflow of new people (either new students, or redirecting associate members). That'll be a difficult part that will require management, but I'm hoping that the relationship I and others have built up with GARPS over the years can do some heavy lifting there.
The final big barrier is funding. All of these problems could be solved fairly quickly given infinite funds. GARPS gets consistent funding from both its student membership and from grants given by the student union. Ultimately this is the hardest problem to solve, as it's unlikely anything set up could be as generous as GARPS is (£10/year for student members, £25/year for associate). Charging a membership fee is probably critical in order to afford a venue, and that membership creates a barrier to entry that isn't present with GARPS.
I'm not sure how to solve these issues, but if you have any ideas please reach out to me (on any of the social media I lurk on) because figuring out an exit strategy is something I'm going to need to do (within the next few years), and other than a few ideas floated between friends in the pub I'm really not sure where things can go from here.
I love GARPS, with all of my heart, I'm thankful that I've been able to help organise things for it this year, and am going to keep doing that for a while longer. I'm not leaving until there's a replacement, but I fear I may have to be a part of building that replacement.