I used to run a one-shot RPG story every year around Halloween. Some years it was, naturally, Call of Cthulhu. At least one year I ran a game centered on the Internecivus raptus. I ran Wraith: The Oblivion (which you know I loved) and I ran a spooky fantasy-horror story (driven by the SAGA System) about pumpkins being used to gestate a puppet race of homicidal dopplegängers. For a while, I looked forward to these Halloween games for weeks and weeks in advance, creating props and mixing CDs. They were my Halloween parties.
The Halloween games never caught on here in Atlanta. People would seldom make time during Halloween week to play games, and the one time I finally got some folks together, it went pretty badly. I planned a story that was much too long and played in a florescent-lit conference room — it was the worst year by far. The core idea of the adventure was okay, though, I thought. Here’s the pitch I emailed around (I got three players out of it):
(No offense to Confederates intended.)
This year, I thought I’d dig out my Ghostbusters RPG and run something more spooky than horrific, but it’s so hard to get players together that I lost hope. Looking back at this week, I probably could’ve pulled it off. I can’t believe that I have to wait a year before I try again. The lesson is: Should’ve just done it.
This was a World of Darkness game, with mortal PCs. The scenario started off with Union soldiers facing Confederate zombies in the rainy, muddy ground around a train that was supposedly carrying the witch out of Atlanta, which was my first mistake. I felt like I needed to start the story on Halloween, for the sake of the holiday, before cutting ahead to November 11th, when the city was burned by the Union Army. (Why? Because it turns out that foul witch was a vampire, and one sure way to ruin a city’s vampire population in the World of Darkness is to burn the place down, so that’s what Sherman aimed to do, to stop the witch that hexed Lincoln.) The story was meant to be about chasing down a vampire witch in the midst of burning Atlanta while her zombies try to cover her escape. But I threw in train-full of zombie soldiers and an old barn, inspired by a Tom Waits song, where she’d been making her zombie minions, and didn’t leave us enough time to actually get to the burning of Atlanta.
The problem was, I was worried about my rep. I wanted to run a Halloween game that was so good — with historical trivia, three distinct acts of narrative validity, and a layer of pretentious nuance — that people would be sorry they missed it. Trouble is, I was worried about bullshit like narrative validity and pretentious nuance instead of running a good game. I sure didn’t run anything worthy of Halloween that year, and I haven’t run a Halloween game since.
Great RPG sessions are about the immediate experience, and I let that idea get away from me. A bad session is never transformed into a good session by critical analysis; even if a bad session is improved in the retelling, the session was bad. I was worried about things outside of the game — things like my reputation and the historical details that might take on double meaning through later Googling — instead of actual play. None of that stuff matters to players, though, if the actual play is no good. Why should it?
Will, you absolutely need to play Zombie Cinema.
“He’s hiding something from
The rest of us… He’s all
To himself… I think I know
Why… He took down the
Tire swing from the Peppertree
He has no children of his
Own you see… He has no dog
And he has no friends and
His lawn is dying… and
What about all those packages
He sends. What’s he building in there?”
Is that the waits inspiring song? Love waits and his work is definite grounds for inspiration in all areas.
I’m often plagued by the “Man I want to be remembered for this!” desire to run a game. I think that helps me when I actually get to run the game, so long as I remember to abandon any plans I’ve made in favor of what the players are getting into at the time. I prep and prepare for incredible, then abandon for incredible right now. I always try to build adventures with free form elements that can be mangled and re-inserted if they are never reached by the players. It is hard to find the good balance between prepping and improvising. Fall to far into the improvision side and your games feel half formed.
I think the times I am most turned off by the gaming community are those moments when people seem more interested in picking things apart and arguing than just having fun.
Trouble is, I was worried about bullshit like narrative validity and pretentious nuance instead of running a good game. […] I was worried about things outside of the game…instead of actual play.
True fact, you can’t let narrative validity, pretentious nuance, and your reputation distract you from running a good game. But I don’t think it’s correct to cast aside narrative validity along with that other stuff. And pretentious nuance you can probably jettison, but I don’t think the very idea of nuance is a negative aspiration.
The play’s the thing, yeah, and the perfect can be the enemy of the good. But also, there’s nothing wrong with swinging for the fences if you also keep in mind that you’d rather get on base than strike out.