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!
2 responses to “Cthulhu: My first time roleplaying”
The doors of perception, I guess
"Type my game!" is so tempting a question and such a bad idea.
In the Phenomenology series, I talked for a bit about a window or door, when it comes to thinking about playing on purpose. People who were primarily engaged with Murk or related difficulties of playing at all, possibly compounded by features of the hobby, can't see the topic of this sort of question at all. Whereas people who are playing with or on purpose don't see it as a question, at a very basic human level, and therefore not as a topic either. But when, for whatever reason, a person does get interested in it, there's a narrow window in which they constantly compare and ask about and want to grapple with which purpose is in action during play.
I've learned that this is more of a passage than a destination, and that perhaps the analogy to grad school is a good one. First, that it's an option, not a feature, of being a practitioner of something. It's a great and often powerful option, but the historical fact is that many practitioners didn't do it or need it. Second, that getting overly involved in its specific processes and modes of discussion can be a trap, and unfortunately a seductive one. Not to be too dismissive … but my point of view is, in this case, the faster one says, "H'm, I think these purposes are really cool" (whether you see them my way, or Vincent's way, or your way) and moves on, sloughing off the intense desire to find and talk about and dissect them, the better. In other words, to get through the window and into the experiential mode where one doesn't find it important to figure out a or the purpose of play in a given instance.
The game you've described here, subject to one or two points of reflection which we can do too, and our game of Cold Soldier are perfect examples. More of that, I say. With a favored system, or lots of different ones, doesn't matter. The result in not too long a time will be an easily-won sense of accomplishment and intellectual ease.
After that, perhaps counter-intuitively when you're in the window, in the doorway, whatever, talking about the purposes becomes casually simple and less stressful or urgent-seeming. It also becomes less about resolving peceived controversy (two of them? three of them? infinity? more to discover in design?) and more about connoisseurship, based on enjoyment.
It would be fun to play some Call of Cthulhu now, with you.
😀 yay!!! I’d be all for it.
😀 yay!!! I'd be all for it.
Damn. That dissecting urge is strong with me. For instance, as an adult I realized that as child and teen I had been fascinated by information magazines. When I was around six I bought every number of a monthly videogame magazine that came with a "free" Mortal Kombat action figure; I devoured it page to page, learning about tricks and cheats for games I didn't own. It was 36 monthly pages of tricks, journalism and press about Super Nintendo, Genesis/Mega Drive and later PlayStation games; I only owned a NES. I cherished an issue of a magazine about American comics, which weren't available for my purchase. As a pre-teen, I bought every issue I could find of an anime-and-manga magazine, until my parents prohibited it because of containing an erotic image of a Sailor Moon character masturbating with a scepter and bleeding. (My parents are both psychoanalists, so believe me it was the bleeding part that did it. I was 11 or 12.) But I wasn't that into manga and anime! I amassed up to a couple hundred Magic: The Gathering cards, but only played two or three times in my life. Also bought a few issues of a related magazine.
What I mean is, I think my fascination with The Forge might have been part of the same trend. I'm drawn to a community that forms around a subject, able to study and discuss it endlessly, fantasizing about being a part of it, but suspiciously reluctant to get my hands dirty. So now I'll focus on getting dirty!