I was 18 and had decided it was about time I knew what it was to participate in roleplaying. I had spent years rereading my Toon manual, downloading Fudge and Fate and THRASH and whatever else I could find into my computer, and had recently discovered The Forge. I followed the Ronnies with great interest and read 3:16, Space Rat and a bunch more. It was 2005.
I visited a comics convention in a city five hours away from mine. I stayed at my cousin’s, who happened to live just next door to the comics shop that organized the whole endeavor. It took place around ten or fifteen blocks from there, in a big warehouse in front of the river. Here’s a waaay more recent photo of the same convention, just so you get an idea:
But I wasn’t there for the comics. At the time, I thought my affection for comics was a thing of the past, and little did I know that in the same convention I would meet people with which I continue to do and teach comics to this very day. I was there because the convention’s website clearly stated there were going to be open roleplaying tables. I signed myself up for Cthulhu, early, and a few hours later I showed up to play. Please take a moment to imagine my excitement.
The GM gave each of us a character sheet. He must’ve been around 25 or 30; 23 at the very least, five years older than me. The others were two girls and a guy my age, who knew each other, and someone else I don’t recall. I don’t think anyone knew the GM beforehand. I think I would remember, because at another table in the same convention, a GM had his friend be the protagonist of the story, like a super PC, and it was awful. I’d remember if this game had been anything like that. It wasn’t unusual, though, for the tables to have one or two players that were used to playing the games regularly on the comics shop, even some people showing up just so the GM’s table wouldn’t be empty, GMs of other games. But I can’t recall anything, zilch, of those dynamics being present at this particular game.
I think maybe we got to choose which sheets to take? He asked us not to crossgender when choosing characters, to which I nodded in commitment. Today that would definitely ring transphobic to me, but in that context I think it was more about being afraid of sillyness. He started us with a long dinner scene in which we all interacted with each other and with several NPCs. It was fun in itself, and when he declared the lights suddenly turned off and an NPC wasn’t there, I started having a blast. The adventure in whole had an against-the-clock, closed room quality I deeply enjoyed. It was about a sort of black goo that slowly came down the mansion’s stairs and (I think) snatched some people. It was really scary and fun not to be able to fight it, and the way NPCs kept disappearing, even without touching it. (I think some of them were in a kind of trance?)
I felt freedom, not railroadingness. The other male player (well, the other one I remember) and I got our characters in a fight, because we the players didn’t get on the same page about what to do next. We ended up shooting each other! I couldn’t believe how much damage things did in Cthulhu. Actually, I remember it better now: my character struggled with his for control of his gun, and a shot blew off. It was a chaotic delight.
I think we were all pretty nervous and I mainly remember how something can be so scary and fun at the same time. Our characters were really having a bad time, but we were laughing a lot. I guess things were steadily taking a turn for the worse and we felt so clumsy! So unheroic. The goo thing was, now that I think of it, also coming down the outer walls of the mansion, and we couldn’t get out. I think that’s what it was. If anyone knows about this monster or recognizes this as a published module, please let me know; I’d love to read it.
By the end of our two or three hours or play, the girls weren’t into it. They kept laughing and giggling, but obviously didn’t feel connected to the material. They started giving joke suggestions, like setting their friends’ character on fire and sending him towards the monster. I bet they had seen that at a fantasy RPG table. Isn’t it almost a meme, that technique? At the time, I had never heard of it and wondered why they were being so silly.
But the gamemaster simply ignored their inputs, and focused on me, the other guy and the other people I don’t remember but I’m pretty sure were there. (Maybe not? Is it possible that it was just the four of us? I get a feeling it wasn’t the case, but who knows. Memory is tricky.) We actually did end up using fire, because it was the only thing the black goo recoiled from. Me and the other male player cracked open a window and led the surviving people outside of the mansion.
I felt pretty heroic when the GM gave me a choice to get out at once or risk my life and help the others, and I chose to stay a little longer. I honestly think we had managed to set the mansion on fire by that time, adding to the monster’s menace. I hope there was actual risk involved and it wasn’t just the GM letting me get away from danger. Actually, now that I remember I think he double checked on me, like “dude, go out”, I insisted that I wanted to see if anyone else showed up while I was keeping the window open, and he was like “there’s no one there, just get out so I can narrate the ending”. Of course he didn’t literally say that, but that’s what I understood. I was pretty happy, I didn’t mind if my heroics were just added color. I wanted to make a point about not leaving others behind.
(If the last point seems contradictory or unclear, please let me know. I’m tempted to add another paragraph, but I don’t want to make this longer than necessary.)
The GM ended his narration telling us how the house crumbled down. We and the rest of the survivors started walking down the hill to the nearby town. He told us that if we weren’t playing at a convention and had more time, the next, final bit would be a sort of debriefing where we go to the police and face real life consequences of what happened, like people suspecting us for arson or whatever. I thought that was wicked cool and said as much. While the others left, I stayed a bit more chatting with the guy and getting to know about the local roleplaying scene, centered around the comics shop. He told me he was hoping to get his hands on a copy of the West End Games edition of Star Wars; “everybody tells me it’s glorious, that it’s like a general purpose game mastering manual.”
The end. Speaking about firsts, I think this was my first time ever writing an actual play report, and I’m happy to share the memory. What finally sat me down to do it was the (sort of) announcement of Ron’s and Vincent Baker’s video on the subject of Simulationism/The Right To Dream, and the recent podcast Ron shared where two horror RPG enthusiasts discuss System Does Matter. I have the impression, correct me if I’m wrong, that succesful Cthulhu roleplaying has been lauded time and again as the proof of the existence and wonders of Simulationist game design. I myself haven’t ever been sure what the hell our Creative Agenda was in that game, and only just now that I’ve written the words “I wanted to make the point that I was heroic” I consider it might have been Narrativist. I suspect there’s a lot going on that’s to do with the horror genre: with characters having so little agency, at the mercy of such powerful monsters, it’s easy to think of the session as a one-mansion sandbox. Then again, if it had been a one-room dungeon in a fantasy setting, I’d probably be thinking of it as Gamist. You have one hour to get out of the mummy’s tomb before it gets flooded with acid, or whatever. Thoughts welcome!