GMing: Keeping the Lore vs. Playing

I ran my first Call of Cthulhu campaign during 2009 and 2010, during which time my GMing preferences underwent a drastic change. It was the acclaimed Tatters of the King, “Cthulhu done right”, praised for its believable NPCs and milieu. While everyone seemed to like the story, from the GM’s point of view the campaign was arduous. There is little freedom for the players, and the GM is instructed to fudge die rolls so that certain events come to pass in just the right way. What’s worse, the book is a horrible manual for an actual gaming session. To start with, there are no master lists for clues, or any other handy points of reference other than a timeline. In effect, I had to keep the book open at all times and make sure that I handed the players just the right information to ensure that the campaign goes along.

GMing it was hard work during the sessions. The book is 232 pages long, and the campaign takes up about 180 or 190 pages. Some of the early scenarios contain information or objects that are vital late in the campaign, but the information in the book doesn’t follow any clear format – it’s hidden in the NPC’s pre-written dialogue. Without a Master List of Everything Necessary, or at least a small explanatory text of what’s essential in the scene, it was really hard to improvise anything.

In effect, I kept the book open in my lap at all times, glanced at it regularly so that I could act the parts of the NPCs and deliver all the necessary information the players. It was hard to concentrate on what was happening at the gaming table because I had to focus on the book and on making sure that the campaign could go on.

(I’m not blaming it all on the book, though; it might not be the best campaign for a first-time Cthulhu GM. Maybe an experienced GM could have read the book in its entirety and gleaned all the necessary information and made his own play aids. I maintain that it’s the book’s job to make the pre-made campaign easily playable, but that’s beside the point here.)

That’s my point of view, my experience. In contrast, around the same time I had two different kinds of roleplaying experiences. FIrst, I read new gaming masterpieces such as 3:16: Carnage Amongst the Stars, and even got to play them a bit. 3:16 is a rules-light, improvisation-heavy roleplaying game about space marines intent on killing everything in the universe. It is filled with good stuff, but what’s relevant here is that 3:16 was the first game where I encountered the band metaphor for RPGs. It’s like jamming together and creating stories. (To my present knowledge, Ron Edwards’ Sorcerer is the first game to utilise that metaphor.)

The second experience was playing two Call of Cthulhu scenarios several times in Ropecon, namely John Wick’s Curse of the Yellow Sign, Act One (three times), and John Tynes’ In Media [sic] Res (five times). Those scenarios are player-driven, and the GM is reacting. Everyone is kind of riffing off of each others’ ideas. The players play against each other, and the GM is trying to make the situation even more intense (and sure, describes the environment, gives clues and so on). Rather than reading from the book what’s supposed to happen next, the GM feels out the situation at the gaming table and adds something to it. Effectively, he’s one of the players.

In Tatters of the King, my job really felt like that of The Keeper of Arcane Lore, Call of Cthulhu‘s title for the GM. I was the repository of stuff that the players had to uncover. Their rolls of dice were either rolls to see whether they were damaged, or whether they could get access to the information I was withholding. (In effect, I fudged a lot of rolls because that was what I was used to.) I didn’t feel like I was one of the players in the game, or “one of the guys”. I was sitting at the head of the table, which sort of emphasised my role as being apart from the others.

Now, I’m not saying I never want to sit at the head of the table again (actually I still do), or that I don’t want to withhold information (I still do if the game has something of the sort), or that I want everyone at the table to hold equal power (I sure as hell don’t, but neither do I advocate that the traditional GM-player divide is the only way, or the only interesting way, to divide power). What I am saying is that I learned to love playing. I want to come to the table and feel that I don’t have all the answers, that I don’t know what’s going to happen at the table. I enjoy the moments when players surprise me and I have to step back and admit that I didn’t see that one coming.

What I’m saying is that I learned to Play Unsafe, which is actually a title of a brilliant little book by Graham Walmsley that I also read during the Cthulhu campaign, and I urge you to read it as well. When I don’t know what’s going to happen at the table, I need to stay on my toes and pay attention to what’s happening at the table. I feel more uncertain and tense, and I can transform that uncertainty and tension into something positive.


One thought on “GMing: Keeping the Lore vs. Playing

  1. I totally agree.

    I GMed a D&D 4th edition campaign in the winter and it was boring to me, because after I had scripted the scenes, I knew what would happen during the game. The creative process happened before the game, so actual playing felt like a repetition from my perspective.

    We just opened a Noitahovi campaign and it was totally different. I pre-made a group of NPCs with their problems (just one sentence on each) and then just played them. Now the creative process happened during the game and it was fun, because I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was part of the real interaction and not just reading the scenario notes.

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