REVIEW: Keeper’s Tips – Collected Wisdom on Running Games

Produced to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Call of Cthulhu, Keeper Tips was edited by current CoC line editor Mike Mason and is made up of dozens of short paragraph-long pieces of advice for how to run Call of Cthulhu in particular and RPGs more generally.

Individual tips are not attributed to anyone directly but the book credits them collectively as “The collected wisdom of Scott David Aniolowski, Sean Branney, Allan Carey, Keris McDonald, Jason Durall, Paul Fricker, Bob Geis, Lynne Hardy, Bridgett Jeffries, Jo Kreil, Daviud Larkins, Mike Mason, Mark Morrison, Thom Raley, Matthew Sanderson, Becca Smith, and Seth Skorkowsky”.

The book comes in the form of a small, pocket-sized notebook with a fake leather and gold-embossed cover. There’s also a place-holding ribbon that matches the maroon coloration of the inside cover. The book contains 113 pages of content and a load of pages for notes. The 113 pages also include lengthy biographies for all of the contributors and a list of online resources that you can use when running Call of Cthulhu. The remaining 99 or so pages are divided up into a series of chapters with titles like “Ground Rules”, “Designing Scenarios”, “Inclusivity”, “Horror” and “Sanity”.

The introduction makes it clear that there was no real attempt to curate or rationalise the collected tips. The tips come from multiple people who all have different and not-necessarily-consistent ideas about how to run the game and so these tips do not amount to a coherent vision, let alone an ex-cathedra official set of guidelines on how to run the game.

The aim of the game is not so much to be authoritative as to present a load of little ideas, tips, and strategies that you can briefly dip into when riding the bus, sitting on a toilet, or waiting for your turn at the glory-hole. In terms of seriousness and authoritativeness in GMing advice, this is less a Gygax-era AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide than it is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of a Little Book of Calm or a collection of Buddhist Koans.

I must admit that my heart rather sank when I first encountered the tone in which the book’s advice is proffered. In his introduction, Mason is so desperate to not seem dictatorial that he cheerfully admits that a lot of the advice is contradictory. Indeed, the chapter on Gameplay includes the following tips one after the other:

“Map all Combat! It will save so many misunderstandings and arguments about who was where, facing off against whom. You don’t need miniatures and a squared gaming mat.”

“Don’t map combat! Painting the scene and describing the action with words gives you lots of flexibility – but don’t cheat.”

The challenge with this type of approach is that it muddies the waters. If a book offers advice and then cheerfully admits that you might as well do the exact opposite, then what was the point of that advice? Map combat, or don’t map combat… who even gives a shit?!

Now… clearly I am being uncharitable here: Writing an authoritative Gygaxian book about how to run Call of Cthulhu would have been a major undertaking. It would have been hard to write, even harder to edit, and would almost certainly have elicited some degree of pushback as RPG-players tend to be very literal minded when it comes to rules. I would even go so far as to argue that writing such a book would be impossible as I suspect that every table has a different approach to playing Call of Cthulhu because every table has resolved the tensions within the game in a subtly different fashion. For example, there is another book about how to run Call of Cthulhu by Michael Fryda, and while that book contains loads of excellent ideas, its approach to the game is radically different not only to my own, but also to that put forward in the Call of Cthulhu core text and most of the game’s supplements. That doesn’t mean that Fryda’s take is wrong or that his book constitutes bad advice, it’s just that his vision of the game is specific and it might not be compatible with the vision that you wish to explore in your own game.

Mason has tried to get around this problem by embracing the tensions and presenting them as they are: This is not supposed to be a serious introduction to running the game, it’s just a fun little product designed to allow some experienced and well-known Call of Cthulhu GMs to share some of their wisdom with other players.

The correct way to approach this book is to dip in and out of it and to try different things out for yourself: Do you get a lot of arguments at your table during combat? Then try mapping things! Do you find mapping things a major pain in the arse and suspect that nobody is that invested in where their character happens to be standing? Then ditch the marker pens and use your words instead.

The point is not to agree with all of the advice, let alone to try and implement the hundreds of suggestions that get made in the book. The point is to skim through the book and maybe you’ll hit upon an idea or a piece of advice that will light up your brain and speak directly to you.

For example, I have been playing this game for 30 years and it took me about fifteen of those years to realise that you need to start every new campaign with a set of back-up characters. However, it had never occurred to me that the players should hold off spending their personal interest points because spending them upon activation of the character would allow players to tailor their new PCs to the needs of the campaign. Maybe your campaign has come to involve a lot of gun-play and your back-up character is a dilettante with social skills up to her tits. Well… if you hold off spending that character’s personal interest points you can make your new PC more relevant by having her acquire an interest in firearms. Bing Bam Boom: Your PC now has shoot rifles at 75%, she fits right into the tone of the existing campaign, and everything keeps moving. This is great advice and it had never occurred to me!

The other thing worth bearing in mind with this book is that we are all different and there is no royal road from intimidated newbie Keeper to celebrated veteran. The above piece of advice may have hit home with me, but it might have been so blindingly obvious to you that maybe you already had that as a standing house rule. My point is that while this may be obvious to you, I bet that something that is obvious to me will not have occurred to you because maybe you are at a different point on your journey or maybe your journey is completely different to mine.

I remember I used to hang out with a bloke who was a pretty decent guitarist and whenever he saw someone busking, he’d dump some coins in their hat and ask them to play a lick. Some of those licks would be familiar, some of them would be poorly implemented, but others would be new and different and interesting enough that my friend would gain something from hearing them. That is the level at which these tips exist: Some of them will be obvious, some of them will be wrong-headed, but some of them will hit home and help you to grow as a GM. RPGs are weird things… like music, playing them involves internalising a load of rules and recommendations but at the end of the day, they are a creative activity that involves individual artistic expression. Nobody can tell you how to run a game, but they can help you learn and it’s at that level that this book exists. Keep it hanging around and dip into it from time to time… you’ll be surprised by how much you get out of it.

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