Origins: Spot Hidden Detritus

Origins is a series of posts in which I reflect upon my earliest gaming memories as well as the events that shaped my tastes and understanding of games. The rest of the series can be found here.

Having now written about my earliest gaming experiences, I think it might be time to move beyond origin stories and begin thinking about some of the later gaming experiences that changed the way I think about games.

The first such experience that comes to mind came no more than a couple of years after my discovery of the hobby. By that point, I had already run my first campaign, played a few sessions of games that weren’t D&D, and started reading RPG-related magazines. I may not have been all that experienced but I certainly thought that I knew what was what.

I had introduced my friends to gaming around the time when they were moving from secondary school to high school and that involved moving from the local area to a larger school a few towns over. Having been introduced to gaming by my fair hand, my friends set about meeting new gamers including a gang of kids who lived about an hour away. While we were only a few months into our gaming careers, these kids had been playing for absolutely years.

Like a lot of groups prior to the invention of the internet, this group had operated in near-complete cultural isolation. What had started as a regular D&D game had drifted from system to system before reaching the point where they had started coming up with their own games. Some of these games were pretty traditional; others were considerably more weird and free form. I once decided to run a game of D&D and extended an invitation to these other kids and they turned up with hand-made character sheets for a group of first level ‘Estate Agents’.

A little while ago, I reviewed David M. Ewalt’s book Of Dice and Men and observed that he seemed weirdly uncomfortable and intimidated around people who displayed greater degrees of creative freedom. Well… that was pretty much me back in those days as I seemed to really struggle with anyone colouring outside the lines and these guys just seemed to scribble all over the fucking walls! While I was on pretty good terms with them for a number of years, it has taken me literally decades to make sense of some of the stuff they had already worked out by the age of sixteen.

The experience I want to write about today happened quite early in this phase of my gaming career. The group of friends I had introduced to gaming were now happily playing with this other group and I was invited to come over to their place for a game of Cthulhu.

I remember us climbing onto a train and heading to this town about an hour away from home. I didn’t know very much about where it was we were staying and I had no idea of what this town was supposed to be like. After disembarking from the train, we walked for about half an hour through residential streets. It was winter, the nights were drawing in, and the street lights were already on. My friends led me down one street after another before reaching a small close with a wood behind it. My friends did not break pace, they guided me past the regular houses, into the woods, and out onto a massive driveway that snaked its way up a hill to a looming manse.

I was already a bit nervous about spending a few days with people I didn’t really know and the look of this place did absolutely nothing for my anxiety levels. Were we literally going to be playing a horror game in a haunted house and why the fuck was Dracula’s castle sat next door to normal-looking houses? Don’t these types of places usually have estates and shit?

My friends guided me past the front door and round the back to a set of stairs that led down to the basement. Having knocked on the door, a friendly face opened up and let us in, guiding us past a series of rooms filled with dusty furniture and into a large room kitted out with a massive table. Sat at the head of the table was one of the kids from my friends’ high-school and he took us swiftly through the character-creation process

While I was pretty comfortable with Call of Cthulhu, I couldn’t understand why the room kept filling with more and more kids. Back in those days, it wasn’t uncommon to run a game for six or seven people at a time but this was more like 10, 12, 15 people; All making character sheets, all talking in character before the session had even started.

The game started and what I thought was going to be an absolute scrum turned out to work pretty smoothly. The GM took us through what I now recognise as a heavily-modified version of “The Haunting” and everyone was polite enough that things never descended into chaos. At one point, the party split in two and one of the players started acting as a secondary GM. When I queried this, I was told that he had played the adventure before and was simply there to enjoy the session in whatever way seemed most appropriate. At the time, this struck me as a weird form of cheating but I now recognise it as coming from a place of profound enlightenment: Plot is only ever one part of a gaming experience. Why shouldn’t someone be able to play through an adventure with full knowledge of the plot? It won’t change the dice rolls, it won’t change the interactions, and it won’t stop someone from having a good time by playing their character.

The part of the experience that really motivated me to write about this session occurred next: The group arrived in Corbitt’s house, entered the first room, and announced that they were searching the room. At this point, the GM beamed and invited us to toss the real-world room in which we were sitting. Apparently, the room contained a number of objects that mapped onto clues in the adventure and if we found the objects in the room then we found them in the game.

At this point, the game descended into outright chaos: Kids started crawling all over the floors and pulling linen out of dusty cupboards. At one point, one of my friends disappeared under a desk and emerged covered in cobwebs holding what appeared to be a dead beetle. “What’s this then?” he crowed prompting the GM to make-up something about an Egyptian relic that had fallen between two sofa cushions.

The GM then got up from his seat and began moving around the room, asking groups of kids about the things they had found and inviting them to speculate about their significance. At some point, the real-world plundering spilled out of the first room and down the hallway prompting kids to clamber over old tables and chairs that had been piled up in some bloke’s basement. To his eternal credit, the GM took all of this in his stride; he simply ruled that the party had been split and that those in the first room had remained in the first room of Corbitt’s place while those in the second had passed into the kitchen. This went on for a while with groups of kids moving from room to room, learning more and more about Corbitt’s past from old family detritus. Old photo albums were re-interpreted as records of old archaeological expeditions and the GM’s assistant would occasionally throw stuff at us to re-create Corbitt’s telekinetic powers.

I can remember following a group of kids who were pouring over old family album in search of clues.  We were crouching in a corridor of this bloke’s basement when the door up to the rest of the house opened to reveal a tall man in priestly garb. After a moment of blank terror, we struggled to make sense of what it was that we were actually seeing. Given that the GM’s assistant had spent about a quarter of an hour pelting up with ping-pong balls, we couldn’t work out whether this dude was real or a part of the game.

The man smiled at us and walked along the corridor, ducking into a room and emerging with a frozen leg of lamb. What was this supposed to represent? Was this the ghost? I swear that we were about 65% of the way towards hitting this guy with an umbrella when the GM emerged and introduced us to his dad… the local vicar.

Looking back, I now realise that this session of Cthulhu was not only years ahead of its time but produced with a level of professional panache that you usually only find at those fancy expensive convention holidays for minted geeks. For the best part of a decade, that session lived in my mind as a weird kind of fever dream born of moving too far beyond the boundaries of conventional gaming but in truth it only shows how far ahead of me those kids happened to be.

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