The Keeper’s Little Instruction Book

Keepers Tips is a small tome put out by Chaosium as part of their celebrations of Call of Cthulhu‘s 40th Anniversary. It’s a short thing – barely over 110 pages, in a small pocketbook size if you get the hard copy – and it’s full of short tips, little suggestions on various subjects relevant to the task of running Call of Cthulhu submitted by a fairly wide spread of Chaosium’s contributors and colleagues.

In essence, it’s like Life’s Little Instruction Book for running Call of Cthulhu; precisely because it consists of a large number of small tips rather than detailed essays on the subjects it covers (fairly broad topics like “Preparation”, “Designing Scenarios” and so on), you aren’t going to get major deep dives into the subject matter at hand. (If you wanted that, the Keeper advice in the main Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rulebook is a better starting point; if you wanted an entire pocketbook of highly insightful essays on horror gaming, you could dig up Nightmares of Mine by Ken Hite.)

Instead, what you get here is a bunch of suggestions, and a proportion of them will make sense but seem obvious, a proportion will probably be an interesting take worthy of further thought, and a chunk of them will probably bug the living shit out of you (sometimes in a way where you instantly know why you’re rejecting it, sometimes in a way which calls for a certain amount of deeper thought to figure out why you’re getting that reaction). The odds of two Keepers agreeing on which tips go in which categories, though, feel pretty slim, which is where the value of the book comes in – it’s a book to argue with, something to look at to interrogate your refereeing style and to better feel out where your preferences lie.

In the spirit of the book, here’s a tip of my own: why not find suggestions you find especially thought-provoking on this book, put them on flashcards, and use them like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies? You can pull a card when you need a jolt of inspiration when you’re developing material for a game and feel stuck and maybe it’ll help you find a new way to get past the block.

The Shifting Definitions of Roleplaying

The Elusive Shift, published as part of MIT Press’s Game Histories range, can be seen as Jon Peterson’s followup to Playing At the World, picking up on some subjects alluded to in there, expounding on them further, and taking the discussion forwards.

Playing At the World was focused on the creation of the original Dungeons & Dragons rules – touching on the history of wargames leading up to it, the particular innovations by Dave Arneson which led to the Blackmoor campaign, the transmission of those ideas to Gary Gygax (whose Greyhawk would be the home of further innovation and refinement), the honing of the concepts into a sellable product, and the immediate reception of that product by both the existing wargame scene and a chunk of the SF/fantasy fandom of the era, who by coming to the game without the sort of assumptions both its designers and the existing wargame audience shared ended up spurring its evolution in new directions.

The Elusive Shift picks up that latter aspect as its starting point, in order to explore how the nascent hobby groped to find a definition of itself and what the purpose of play actually was. OD&D, of course, didn’t bill itself as an RPG – it called itself a wargame – but audiences quickly decided it was a different sort of beast from the standard wargame. Various terms for this new flavour of game were aired – “adventure game”, “FRP” (Fantasy Role-Playing), and “role-playing game”; eventually, the latter won out. But before it did so, and even in the immediate aftermath of it becoming a consensus term, the definition of what role-playing was, and what it meant to make a “game” of role-playing, remained the subject of intense debate.

As Peterson illustrates. if you look at the games published in the 1970s and early 1980s you can detect the influence of that debate here and there, but if you want the meat of the discussion, you need to look at the fanzines, APAs, and magazines where the real debate took place in those pre-Internet times. This poses a challenge for researchers because whilst towards the end of the time period Peterson focuses on here the debate was picked up by widely-distributed professional magazines such as Dragon, Different Worlds, and White Dwarf, the entirety of the discussion before the advent of those periodicals (and a good chunk of it after) took place in APAs and fanzines with much spottier distribution and more difficulty in finding archival copies. The Alarums & Excursions back catalogue has been issued in PDF, but a good chunk of the other fanzines of the era are much trickier to consult.

Continue reading “The Shifting Definitions of Roleplaying”

Lessons From the Dinner Table 5: LARPing, Blackballing, and the Price of Doing Business

Welcome back to an occasional series of posts where the joke is I am taking a gag strip about tabletop RPGs entirely too seriously. Specifically, Lessons From the Dinner Table is where I like to look over old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and ponder what sort of lessons applicable to real-world gaming we can take from them – whether it comes to storytelling considerations of how the issues themselves are written, gaming techniques used (or abused) in the comic, or ideas concerning larger gaming communities which the series touches on.

Bundle of Trouble 16

There’s two plot threads in this Bundle I want to highlight, one of which isn’t so good, the other of which pretty funny, and a lesson that can be drawn from how each of them landed.

The not so good one is an entry in the occasional “retro KODT” series of strips set earlier in the continuity, which are usually thrown in so that each issue can have a more small-scale story not bound to the longer-form storytelling in the main strips. In this case, they’re an expanded sequel to the old strip where Dave and Bob join a Vampire LARP and start acting weird. Back in the day, the original strip wasn’t so annoying, mostly because it was too brief to expose the weakness of the writing – and in particular, the comparatively shallow level of understanding of LARP on the part of the Knights of the Dinner Table team, which is exposed here.

This isn’t me being overly defensive – there’s some good satire you could do about the quirks of the LARP community, particularly the drama-prone world of Vampire-inspired games. But you need to really know the scene to produce something which isn’t outright shallow, just like you need to know tabletop RPGs to make something like Knights of the Dinner Table‘s usual fare. The plot here fails to convince me that it’s the product of sufficient research.

Continue reading “Lessons From the Dinner Table 5: LARPing, Blackballing, and the Price of Doing Business”

Dynamism In Investigative Scenario Design

A discussion on Facebook prompted a textwall from me about investigative scenario design. I’ve banged on about some of these ideas on here before, but I thought I may as well also post this here for referring back to.

For my purposes the key things I think about when designing an investigative scenario are:

  • How do the players first become aware of this mystery?
  • What is at the heart of the mystery, and how can that be meaningfully interacted with?
  • What is dynamic about this mystery?

The last bit is key. 99% of mystery scenarios need some sort of dynamism to them, by which I mean there needs to be stuff happening independent of the PCs, and which will keep happening unless the PCs actually stop it or prompt it to change course.

Continue reading “Dynamism In Investigative Scenario Design”

The Limits of (Narrative) Control

Inspired by a discussion elsewhere, I got to thinking about narrative control in games. The discussion in question was about a Forge-era concept called the “Czege principle” (named after Paul Czege of My Life With Master fame), defined as follows:

The Czege Principle says that when one person is the author of both the character’s adversity and its resolution, play isn’t fun.

This is certainly a “your mileage may vary” statement, but the basic root concept seems to be that this separation of “author of adversity” (who comes up with the challenge facing a character?) and “author of resolution” (who decides how the character deals with that?) is pretty essential to satisfying RPGs.

My thoughts here aren’t so much about the principle directly. Mostly, it’s a tangent arising from the fact that the Principle is an attempt to explore the limits of narrative control – and specifically, the limits of how much that can be shared. Since the Forge days there’s been a tendency to assume that sharing narrative control more equally in an RPG group is what the cool kids do and 100% the way to go, but I am of the opinion that there are some types of narrative control that, even handed to a player briefly, could potentially ruin a game for that player.

It greatly depends on context and the sort of game people after, of course. The classic example here would be scenarios with a strong investigative component – by which I mean investigative in the sense of “it’s possible for the players to get stuck and fail to solve the mystery, because this is the challenge”, not the GUMSHOE sense of “the players will always get the breadcrumbs that lead them to the intended end of the scenario, ‘investigation’ is a pacing mechanism for the release of information”.

A player may have all sorts of motivations for not wanting to have narrative control over the answer to the mystery. It could be based on simulation or prioritising immersion and adopting an in-character perspective (“how the hell does my character know that?”), it could be based on gamism (“doesn’t that kill the challenge?”), or it could have storytelling motivations (“I’d rather have the GM have a set idea ahead of time of what the answer is, the better to ensure that what transpires in the game session is consistent with that, than have to come up with an answer on the spot and maybe contradict a bunch of stuff that happened earlier I forgot/was out of the room for, therefore yielding a story which is broken and makes no sense”). Those are all good reasons for not wanting the GM to ask you to decide whose face is under the mask when you rip off the ghost’s disguise.

This is what bugs me about the old “If the players are investigating a mystery and zoom off on a wrong tangent, just change the answer to fit whatever idea came into their head, it might be better than yours” advice that sometimes gets wheeled out.

It might be appropriate for some campaigns, especially if they weren’t billed as being investigative. But if I sign up for an investigative game, I want to have an investigation. I want the intellectual challenge of solving the puzzle. I don’t want a Potemkin Village mystery where the identity of the murderer changes on a whim because the ref liked some whimsical joke one of the players made better than their own plan – or, worse, never had a plan at all.

I have no sense of accomplishment if our prime suspect was always going to be the guilty party, no matter who we point the finger at. If it is not possible for me to fail, then successfully working out the clues means nothing, and I resent gaming time being spent on a fait accompli: if a particular outcome was always going to happen, let’s brush past it so that we can concentrate on the bits where our decisions, luck, strokes of genius and terrible mistakes actually mean something, rather than being different routes to essentially the same general outcome with the specifics changed. (“The PCs accused A, it turns out it was A, the PCs earn the rewards of success” ultimately is much the same as “The PCs accused B, it turns out it was B, the PCs earn the rewards of success”, whereas a very different outcome is “The PCs accused A, it turns out it was B, the PCs endure the consequences of failure.”)

It has been pointed out that in some types of game people are really after genre emulation, not an immersive experience – they want a game that feels to play like crime mysteries feel to read/watch, they don’t necessarily want to actually solve a mystery themselves. This is true; that genre emulation is the type of play that some later statements of GUMSHOE more unambiguously orient themselves towards.

I think the most horrible violence done to the idea of an “investigative game” has arisen from the confusion between “investigative” in the sense of “the players must feel they are actually working to solve a mystery” and “investigative” in the sense of “the characters progress through the plot by doing investigative stuff”. They’re different things, and there’s a difference between a crime story designed to be an engaging story and a crime scenario designed to be solved.

This is why I twitch whenever people recommend GUMSHOE as an investigative game without caveats. There are different flavours of investigative game and not clarifying which someone wants when making the recommendation is hideous negligence. Maybe it is exactly what they want, or maybe you have sent them down the primose path to destruction (or, at the very least, a ruined evening spent wondering why the system isn’t giving them what they want out of it).

And likewise, this is why I twitch when people advocate changing up the plot behind the scenes to suit your players’ speculation. To a limited extent, that technique can work to add elaborations you hadn’t considered or paper over contradictions you accidentally introduced. But make the plot too mutable based on what your players have latched onto in the moment and you risk destroying the reason some of those players are at the table in the first place.

Lessons From the Dinner Table 4: Back To Basics, With New Nuance

Now for another instalment of this occasional article series where I look at old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and think about whether they present any useful considerations when it comes to actual play. The Bundles we’re dealing with this time around compile material from 1999-2000, a period which saw the storytelling in the comic continue to become more intricate and developed, both in terms of the out-of-game lives of the players and the action at the table.

This is significant because as well as there being insights into gameplay here, the comic is also taking more of an interest in the idea of gaming as a wider community, which given the gatekeeping and controversies of recent years is a concept which it was arguably ahead of its time in addressing. Whereas in the early days of the RPG hobby, and even the era when this comic came out, many gamers would not have much interaction with people outside their immediate geographic area, the rise of online tabletop gaming through platforms like Discord or Roll20 means that the gaming community has effectively become one big global Muncie, Indiana, and we’ve seen growing pains as a result of that.

Bundle of Trouble 11

In the last Bundle of Trouble I looked at, Sara exited the Knights and joined her boyfriend’s gaming group because superficially they turned out to be more interested in the type of roleplaying-and-setting-detail-heavy gaming that she’s interested in. This time we see more of Sara’s new gaming group, including some red flags that suggest that it isn’t as good a fit for her as she initially thought it was. Whilst the strong emphasis on negotiation and deep setting knowledge and NPC interaction would seem on a superficial level to match Sara’s tastes, there’s profound problems with that group which become apparent in this Bundle.

Let’s deal with an easily-overlooked but still significant issue first: the social contract in the group is different from the Knights when it comes to the simple act of “paying attention to the game”, in a way which would likely have bugged Sara even if the even worse issues weren’t present. At one point, one of the players (Lanky) gets up and just abandons the game completely for hours on end, and when he comes back it turns out he was just watching a movie that happened to be on in one of the college common rooms; Troy, the referee, takes it completely in stride and it’s pretty clear from the reaction of the other players that this happens all the time.

Continue reading “Lessons From the Dinner Table 4: Back To Basics, With New Nuance”

Lessons From the Dinner Table 3: Expanding Muncie

It’s time for another entry in my occasional little series where I look at old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and consider what lessons for actual play we can learn from the dysfunctional situations the comic presents. By this point in the series it’s really gotten into its groove, and the characters more defined – which means that there’ll arise some stories which, whilst funny enough to merit being in the comic, don’t really fit the cast we’re used to. So Jolly and his colleagues took the obvious step of introducing some new characters…

Continue reading “Lessons From the Dinner Table 3: Expanding Muncie”

The “My Guy” Idea and Its Effect On RPGs

Recently I had a chance to look at a copy of the Mechwarrior RPG’s 1st edition, and realised that in some respects it was the last gasp of a very old-school approach to RPGs. You see, just as Dungeons & Dragons in its original edition had that longstanding connection to Chainmail – perhaps never actually used in the context of an RPG session, but there if you wanted to resolve a mass battle in your D&D campaign world – and just as 1st Edition Chivalry & Sorcery considered shiftng between roleplaying and wargaming to be sufficiently central to play that it included a full wargaming system in its core rulebook, Mechwarrior is an RPG joined at the hip with a wargame – in this case Battletech.

So far, so obvious; Mechwarrior never pretends to be anything other than the Battletech RPG. So far as I can make out, this extends to an assumption that ‘mech combat will be resolved via Battletech gaming; whilst a combat system for person-to-person combat and other non-mecha combat forms is provided, the actual ‘mech-based material here consists of additions to the Battletech rules, rather than a restatement of them or a reformatting of them for theatre-of-the-mind play.

Continue reading “The “My Guy” Idea and Its Effect On RPGs”

Lessons From the Dinner Table 2: Bundle Boogaloo

I’ve previously talked about my enjoyment of Knights of the Dinner Table and how the dysfunctional gaming depicted in its pages can offer a range of interesting lessons you can apply to real gaming – so why not continue that? This time around I am going to start going through the various Bundles of Trouble – the collections they do of the strips from the main Knights of the Dinner Table comic book (which has gone from being a thing which Jolly did as a fun tie-in to becoming the main focus of Knight-related creative efforts, particularly since Kenzer & Company stopped producing strips for other people’s magazines).

Bundle of Trouble 1

This collects the first clutch of comics that Blackburn essentially wrote by himself and put out in 1994-1995 before he joined up with Kenzer & Company. It’s consequently a simple affair, with the characters not yet especially rounded out, but it does contain the classic Gazebo strip – in which the party of Bob, Dave and Brian (Sara having not been added to the strip yet) attack and “kill” a perfectly innocent bit of garden architecture because they don’t recognise the word and assume it refers to a monster.

It’s this strip that really encapsulates one of the key jokes which Knights of the Dinner Table keeps coming back to, which is also one of the key lessons it has to offer; namely, that tabletop RPGs are an exercise in communication, and if you miscommunicate as a result of assumptions, expectations, or life experiences you don’t share then your game session will descend into absurdity. That absurdity is great to observe from outside for comedy purposes, but frustrating to play through yourself.

Bundle of Trouble 2

This has the first issues that came out through Kenzer & Company in 1997, and so benefits from Jolly getting a whole team of pals to help him tune up the scripts. The lesson from that is that a group on the ball will be able to think up stuff that no individual member would be able to come up with by themselves – which is part of why we play RPGs as a group activity, I suppose.

Noteworthy strips include a jaunt into Spacehack (a parody of Traveller with perhaps a pinch of Prime Directive), in which B.A. regularly falls foul both of his shoddy command of the setting’s invented technology and of actual science. (He isn’t aware that water has hydrogen in it, for instance.) This is actually an interesting illustration of a contrast between fantasy and SF: in a fantasy context people are generally much more willing to say “your world, your rules”, whereas in a science fiction context you really want to make a call on the “hardness” of the science – and if you go for a hard SF approach (as Traveller shows tendencies to), then your capacity as a GM to just ignore reality in order to come up with imaginative fun is going to be curtailed by the implied agreement that you’re trying for scientific accuracy and plausibility.

Bundle of Trouble 3

Sara’s characterisation here starts being fleshed out more when she starts being less of a passive spectator to the horrible things the other players get up to in the game – there’s multiple times this issue where she not only speaks up for but actively helps out NPCs instead of the player characters. By the end of the compilation she even seems to have succeeded at shifting the group’s culture a little – Brian playing a Cattlepunk character whose schemes, whilst they involve OOC cheating in the form of using knowledge his PC couldn’t possibly possess, do at least require him to engage constructively with NPCs. (In another story, even Bob and Dave come around to the idea of having hirelings and servants around if it means they can zerg rush the opposition.)

There’s several lessons to learn here. The first is that you know you’ve really excelled at presenting a sympathetic NPC when players start seriously considering siding with them against the party. The second is that you can’t change a gaming group culture’s overnight – and whatever new approach you contribute to it is likely to be coloured by the group’s existing prejudices. The third and greatest one is that B.A. is an absolutely terrible referee – any GM worth their salt would have flat-out declared that Brian’s PC couldn’t take the actions he took because it required him to have knowledge he didn’t possess in-character – or invoke a referee’s right to amend the secrets and mysteries of a campaign setting and change up where all the gold deposits are, so that Brian’s land purchases become worthless. As it stands, lying down and allowing Brian to act in a way fundamentally against the basic social contract of traditional RPGs is the worst possible option.

Bundle of Trouble 4

This includes a story that has Sara taking on GM duties to playtest an adventure she’s written, and assigning a set of female pregenerated characters to the players. The end result is a disaster, with the players turning tricks for experience points in defiance of character alignment or rebelling against the concept altogether until they are able to find a way to switch their character’s gender.

It’s an ugly picture it paints, but given the eruption of gamer misogyny surrounding Gamergate it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a subset of gamer guys who have really odd ideas about women, and for the most part I’m willing to read the story as a biting satire. When writing a comic for a subculture about that subculture, the temptation to slide into flattery and pandering is probably always there – look at how many gamer webcomics descend into Ctrl-Alt-Del-esque smug self-congratulation. One of the things that’s laudable about Knights of the Dinner Table is that it’s always balanced its celebration of gamer culture with a certain amount of cutting insight and criticism.

There’s also a more general lesson to take from the story in question: if someone plays a character with aspects of identity or personality they don’t personally possess, and they haven’t been provided with a really detailed set of guidance on how to handle that angle, then to the extent they engage with that characteristic they will do so based on their assumptions about what people with that characteristic are like. They might not engage at all, of course – but if they do address that aspect of their character, odds are you’re going to see any prejudices or baggage they’ve got on the subject aired for all to see.

That said, the story isn’t perfect by modern standards. At the end of the story the other Knights get freaked out when Bob decides he likes his female character as she is and doesn’t want to turn her into a man; in a bonus strip in this Bundle Sara kills off “Bobarello” because she’s disturbed by how Bob talks about the character’s fashion accessories.

If you’re feeling very, very generous, you could read this as a magical realm thing – the idea being that Bob is getting off on this to an extent that the other people at the table aren’t comfortable with being dragged into; certainly, having a tabletop game get hijacked to pander to someone’s fetish without the mutual consent of all participants is a shitty thing to happen.

However, in context it reads as being simply transphobic, or maybe just dudes-showing-an-interest-in-feminine-things-phobic. The mention of Gordo’s pixie-fairy character – the first time the subject comes up in the comic – only emphasises this in context. Again, when we actually see Gordo in action with the Black Hands in later issues we’ll see that he plays pixie-fairies in exclusion to all other character types and runs campaigns focused around them, so you could read it as an odd obsession verging on magical realm situation – but those stories hadn’t been written yet.

I have reason to believe that if the story were written today, some two decades and change later, Jolly would handle these punchlines with much more care. Even here, he does have Sara mention that Gary Jackson sees nothing wrong with people playing characters of genders other than their own, and more recently when revising strips for enhanced standalone publications he’s changed up at least one transphobic punchline to remove that implication, so I’m as sure as I can be that his heart’s in the right place on the subject.

Bundle 0f Trouble 5

This includes the Barringer’s Rebellion story, which was continued in the Bundle-exclusive bonus material in this and subsequent Bundles of Trouble as the Bag War Four plot arc. This was eventually successful enough that a separate Bag War Saga volume was published, collecting together expanded versions of the original strips to offer the definitive version of the storyline, and the Bag War cosmology would have knock-on effects on the series for years to come beyond that.

The whole Bag War business is based on a great joke – one which, like much of the best Knights of the Dinner Table material, is based on a real gaming anecdote – and also offers a really nice extended example of a particular lesson, especially when you set them alongside the anecdote. Both the joke and the anecdote are based around the idea of a player deciding to put a group of their hirelings in a Bag of Holding as a cheap method of magical travel – one of those fun bits of lateral thinking which you can do when magic items and the like are provided with broad, simple descriptions in natural language, rather than over-precise descriptions which strangle the life out of them and rule out creative uses of them.

In both the anecdote and the Knights story, the player in question forgets that the hirelings are in there until several sessions of real time and several months of in-character time have passed. Here they diverge; in the anecdote, they open the bag to find that most of the hirelings are dead except for one very upset survivor of a “Donner Party”-type situation. In the strip, though, the greatly put-upon Sgt. Barringer and his fellow hirelings use the materials stored in the bag to feed themselves and construct themselves a fortress, which they use to control access to the region inside the bag; after losing a war with him over it, the Knights are forced to pay Barringer whenever they want to retrieve stuff from the bag.

This is an example of the difference between “failing forwards”, as RPG theory circles call it, and whatever the opposite is. In the anecdote that wasn’t much of a failing forwards situation – an accident happened, the PCs lost resources and a bunch of employees, the game moved on. In the comic, however – thanks to B.A. employing a bit of lateral thinking and making sensible use of the materials stored in the Bag – the situation became a source of ongoing plot which eventually filled years’ worth of comic strips, as well as presumably filling a similar amount of campaign time.

Now, I tend not to think “failing forwards” should happen in relation to every single failure in a game – it can become a bit of a burden on the referee (or the group as a whole) to think up an interesting way for something to fail forwards, and if it happens too often the game can ultimately feel a bit aimless, with the player characters so caught up in handling the consequences of past fail-forwards that they never get to proactively chase their own agenda. But particularly exciting fuck-ups demand especially exciting consequences, and here that’s very much the case.

John Tynes On Narrative Sandboxes

John Tynes just wrote a very fascinating essay on his “narrative sandbox” approach to writing investigative scenarios. It was posted as an update to the Delta Green: The Labyrinth Kickstarter, but it’s sufficiently interesting (particularly in the light of my own issues with how GUMSHOE does things) that I don’t think it deserves to linger there.

In particular, he aptly describes how his approach differs from the GUMSHOE approach: as he describes it, the narrative sandbox is much more like the process of actually investigating something yourself, whereas the GUMSHOE method is really more about getting across the feel of watching an investigation-themed movie or television show.