At the age of 11 my father began pressing me to enter the school science fair. He hadn't pushed me into sports, or music lessons, or even scouts, though I had touched base with some of those and found I either liked or did not like them. The science fair, however, mattered to him - he felt it was critical for my future. He still had ideals, then, about my pursuing engineering or research. So naturally I succumbed to pressure; I was free to choose whatever subject into which I wanted to invest in, and at the time human biology was my chief fascination.
The goal seemed clear. I would research the human heart and the circulatory system. I would build a model, which would be complex and interesting, along with a presentation that would impress people. By the end, I'd learn how the heart worked, both intellectually and mechanically, as I tacked the hands-on process of making my exhibit.
It happened that I was wrong. The science fair wasn't about that at all. It was about explaining what I'd learned again and again, all day long, to other children and parents who had a minimum of understanding, who didn't actually care or who couldn't quite get it. Now and then it was a person who knew all about it, who wanted to see if I had done my work. It was a strange combination of deliberately measuring myself against people both dumber and smarter than me - and most of all learning how to defend the knowledge I had, with words, not with demonstrations. The fair was a performance ... one based upon the reality that knowing things or making things took a second and third place to communicating things. That first fair, and the others that followed, were an education in marketing. Sad thing was, I wasn't very good at marketing science, and my father was not granted an engineer for a son.
When I went into university, I had only a general idea of what courses I wanted to take. I had a deep fascination with geography, and another with history, but I'd had a conversation with a fellow named Mike - who would later be the best man at my wedding - in which he convinced me that the place I belonged was humanities. Thus in my first year I took a smattering of courses in philosophy, religious studies, languages (Russian and English) and in classical studies. The last seized my attention, and for the next seven years - being the professional student that had been my dream - I would embrace Herodotus, Thucydides, Suetonius, Plutarch, Livy, Polybius, Xenophon, Tacitus, Ovid, Vergil, Homer, Catullus, Hesiod, Pliny and many, many others. As I did, reading through not only the histories, but also a host of authors who did not hesitate to be biased with their assessments of those histories, I thought I was learning about Rome, Greece and ancient history. As it turned out, however, that wasn't what I was doing at all.
Most people would consider Polybius and Thucydides to be dry stuff, but that's nothing compared to the books of commentary written by modern authors on ancient writers. I read through tons of that stuff, shelves and shelves of books, to keep up with horrifically dry lectures delivered by professors who were as bad at marketing their own subject as I had been at science.
Yet somehow in the dusty, wearisome, bromidic pursuit of knowledge I was learning to read. Not just in the sense of passing over the words and understanding what was being said, but in dissecting the material at the level of the author's decision to write the sentences in the order that they were written, or in terms of how the material's guts were meant to impress themselves upon the reader. Why these choices were being made and not those, and how a perfectly innocent little aside could reveal things that an untrained mind wouldn't see.
We don't hesitate to understand that engineers looking at a bridge can evaluate and replay for themselves the bridge's construction, the process by which its made, the difficulties presented by the precise place on the bank where the bridge sits, the purpose of each pylon's shape, considerations made for the wind and on like that. There are those, however, who raise an eyebrow doubtfully that a person can look at a paragraph of writing and do the same thing, recognizing each verb choice, each subjunctive, the repetition of certain prepositions and so on, and how these are used to construct thoughts and overcome structural problems. It is another expertise, and no less understood to most readers than bridge-building is to most drivers.
Now you, the role-player reading this post, wondering perhaps at this time if RPG's or the subject of world-building is ever going to be addressed ... what are you learning? You think you are passing your time playing a game that interests you, that takes up perhaps a little more time than you have, which isn't all that serious, or which might dig at you a bit like an old filling that isn't worth having a dentist repair. It is a hobby, nothing more.
Yet, you are learning from it. You're learning how hard it is to launch into a long-term project with uncertain goals and uncertain rewards. You're discovering your limitations, in that creatively your imagination far surpasses your ability to sit down, night after night, grinding that imagination into something whole and meaningful. You're being forced, session by session, to acknowledge your limitations, to accept that there's only so far you can go in playing the game, mostly because you haven't any knowledge to draw upon except your own fumbling experience, both in the effort of being a DM and in watching other DMs fumble around at their worlds. There's some notion in your heart that something really profound is in the doing of the thing ... but you look at the complexities and interplay of a map like Middle Earth and scratch your head in wonder. You lay out the towns and the rivers, the shires and the horse-plains, yet it never quite gains the romance of Mirkwood and the Misty Mountains.
There are other things you're learning, too. You're learning how to manage people. You're learning that for some people you need to draw a line on what's acceptable, and you're learning the consequences of not drawing that line. You're learning that making your own way and your own world does not always play well with players who can't understand what you're doing - and you find you're not able to explain it to them.
Step by step you're realizing if you can't work it out, if you can't figure the means to get more players, or make the world equal to the maturity of the players you do have, it's all going to slip away from you and you'll have to quit playing. Not because you don't want to play, not because you wouldn't do this in the old age rest home if you could, but because its impossible to live up to standards you can't point at and say, "those are the standards." Worse, even if you have the least handle on them, you haven't the words or the evidence to force someone else's attention on those standards and comprehend why those are the standards needed.
You're getting older and the bloom is falling off the rose. You're getting older and the world you ran at 15 isn't enough for you. It still seems enough for many of your players, but you're in your 30s now and you've been running this same structure, these same combats, the same interplay between fighter and spell-caster for long enough to find it's not justifying the stress that sessioning is producing. You know, in your heart, there's something deeper there; there's a more meaningful, emotionally rich land worth exploring, but except for one or two others like yourself, the community seems blind, dumb and stupid. It's not, but it seems that way.
The players are drifting away because they're maturing too, and they're growing as tired as you of the same goal posts. But they can't say it, because they feel foolish saying it. They feel they're the only ones in the world that feel this way, as they pretend to feel this way just as everyone else does. They're trying their own solutions, pretending to be people they're not because they don't know how to be more interesting being the people they are.
We're all learning things as we play. We're learning that people, even when they really want something, are guarded, suspicious ... and uneasy about revealing their thoughts to others who are aggressive, needy and beggared in their need to have a good time pretending. We're learning that being the DM over this assortment is trying. We're learning that even at a game, managing humans is work. We are getting a first-hand course in how damned hard it is only to manage ourselves.
Don't be too hard on yourselves. No one ever told you how. This is why education without a structure is called a School of Hard Knocks. You learn things you never expected to learn. And you either square your shoulders and take the world by the throat, or you bow your head and excuse yourself for having gotten in everybody's way.
The third option is just a lot of stumbling around looking like an idiot.