“You People Are Smarter Than Me!” and Other Lessons from Running an RPG

I have a talent for jumping out of frying pans and into fires. Unsurprisingly, this means that I end up in over my head a lot—joining too many organizations because I have more passion than reason, taking on more projects than I can manage despite it being reasonable in theory, or taking on a position that I meet the qualifications for on paper but wasn’t prepared to handle.

This is how I ended up being the game master for a Lovecraft-inspired tabletop role-playing game. It was classic Gretchen, really: “Tabletop games are kind of neat, and I want to try this one out. It’s new to everyone, especially me, so I should be in charge of it. There’s no way this can go wrong.”

Long story short, there were a lot of ways that it went wrong in the space of two sessions, at least from a writing standpoint. Chief among them were two very specific things:

  1. Engineers are meticulous, crafty, and sometimes downright scary people; and
  2. I seriously underestimated the power of friendship.

I understand why these two factors gave me the biggest problems. I write fiction, blog posts, and copy for the most part: I usually have longer than seven days to research, write, and revise something. I have fairly hard and fast rules that don’t arbitrarily change on the fly, even when I’m writing fiction that deviates from reality in significant ways. In pieces that have characters, I tend to give them the freedom to do what they need to but reserve the right to prod them in the direction of the plot I’d planned without too much resistance. Finally, once it’s done, it’s done: with very few exceptions, writing something down makes it final.

It turns out that real people don’t behave the way that I expect fictional characters to on any of those fronts. Weird.

For some background information on what’s going on story-wise, it turns out that the events in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction are based, at least in part, on experiences he had in life. An earthquake with an epicenter of 47°9’S 126°43’W (Lovecraft fans should recognize exactly what those coordinates point to) ends up destroying a few ships and some infrastructure on Pacific coasts, and after that happens creative and sensitive people begin experiencing literally and figuratively fishy nightmares. People go missing, reveal themselves as adherents of a new religious movement, get assaulted on the street, experience breaks from reality, and otherwise have their day-to-day lives dramatically altered. Our heroes, who are self-insert fiction versions of themselves in this world, experienced various forms of this weirdness that culminated in coming together for the first time to meet at our gaming table. After discussing and addressing everything strange going on in our lives in-universe, one of the group’s members discovers a video of something on the coast of California. Watching the video causes in-universe me to collapse from an apparent heart attack, and the plot took us to the hospital, where my plans proceeded to unravel in truly spectacular ways.

I’m not complaining: I love my players to bits, am a fan of what they did, and needed all the help I could get on my first proverbial rodeo. I fully expected to improvise and change course on the fly and wasn’t at all surprised that I needed to. I also knew that, in a game so grounded in reality, the historian, theater artist, neuroscientist, and three engineers I sit with once a week would have dramatically different knowledge bases from each other and from me, and that I would need to have at least loose answers to all of their questions. I can’t possibly become an expert on something that might not even come up, so I foolishly thought that going with the cursory level of knowledge I rely on to coast through rough drafts of my own writing would be sufficient.

It’s not like we were going to stick around the hospital for that long, anyway. One of the things that the game master’s guide in the book recommends is that the GM takes out their in-universe counterpart as soon as possible: this is partly to establish that the apocalypse is playing for keeps and partly so the GM isn’t playing both sides of the field or managing any more characters than they have to. I wanted to be creepy but not depressing, and I thought a suspenseful slow burn was appropriate for a Lovecraft-flavored apocalypse, so I decided that outright killing my fictional counterpart would be too much for the first session. Maybe, just maybe, knocking me into a coma would be enough. My players tend to skew pretty pragmatic (I thought), so if the hospital became a dangerous place, they’d have to make a choice between their lives and mine and ultimately sacrifice me for the good of them all; and if the hospital remained a safe place, they’d have to leave eventually, and there would be no reason beyond sentimentality to drag a comatose but otherwise ordinary writer with them on their apocalypse adventure. If nothing else, the people that are familiar with RPGs would recognize what I was doing and go along with it to get the plot moving, even if they wouldn’t in real life.

This was a good plan. It was sure to work. I had obviously taken everything into account.

I knew I was in trouble when it turned out that one of my players is also a certified EMT.

…And that the group’s response to a dangerous situation that they don’t know the details of is not to escape from the danger, but to immediately barricade themselves into the ICU and start finding alternative uses for brooms, beds, and television sets.

…And that the engineers can make weapons and explosives out of literally anything (and while they gleefully volunteered the specifics, I’m not telling you).

…And that I would be at the table Googling objects that could be used to create a timer for a fuse, because I hadn’t quite cemented my place on any watch lists yet and because the dice said that I had to.

…And that rather than making the tough choice to leave fictional me in my seriously compromised condition in order to save themselves, they pulled out my IV, used the fluid bag as yet another bomb component, carried my unconscious body through probably about a mile of underground access tunnels, and ultimately took me to one of their houses, where I laid unconscious in bed while they decided that events had finally gotten bad enough to start drinking.

…And that they’re going to keep every NPC that they come across, including me, my husband, my improvised hospital roommate, and that creepy detective that I was positive they were going to leave behind because no one actually liked him or thought he had useful information.

So what have I learned from this experience?

That I need to let go. I’m something of a control freak when I write, and although it’s getting better precisely because of RPGs I still expected to have issues with that in the inherently improvisational and collaborative nature of what we were doing. Things don’t have to go exactly how I want them to, and, in fact, they improve with outside contributions.

That I need to know my audience. The nature of the game we’re playing is interesting in that we’re learning perhaps more than we’d ever care to about each other because of the choice to play more realistically. That’s not what I mean, though. If I’m going to ground my piece in reality, I’m going to have the scientifically-inclined thinking about everything and picking it apart. If I’m going to weave bits of Lovecraftian fiction into my plot, the guy that has every word of the canon committed to memory is going to call me on deviations. RPGs don’t make research easy, but for everything else, I need to have more than half a clue what I’m talking about.

That I have fans. I’m still trying to get used to this idea that people like me. I’m not a character in much of anything that I write these days, but when I was, I had no problem with taking myself out of the action to let other people shine. When I was feeling more self-confident, it was because I understood sacrifices of that nature to be heroic; when I was feeling more down on myself, it was because I genuinely believed I was useless and that other people believed that of me as well. With regards to being a fan of my writing, it’s hard to imagine that anything you create isn’t just going into a void where no one sees it or cares, no matter how many followers or compliments you get.

I can’t speak to how the group feels about the way I’m handling the adventure so far, and I don’t know that I would believe them if they told me they were having a great time, anyway.  But I know that they’re supportive people to the point where, at least in theory, they value my life more than they fear threats to theirs. It’s kind of heartwarming to know that my friends would do everything from argue with nurses about MRIs to literally kidnap me from the hospital if they thought it meant I would be safe, no matter how much dead weight I am to them. Hypothetical life-or-death situations probably don’t translate well to supporting my career goals, but support is support.

That I need to get started on my next session. Because they actually have a list of objectives they hope to accomplish, and I think it’s about time to throw some combat at them. I’m such a good friend.