Why I’m Playing my First RPG in 30 Years
Role Playing Games (RPG) are where I got started in the gaming hobby. Board and, later, miniature games take up most of my hobby time nowadays but I’ve long harboured an interest in recapturing the feeling of those RPG days. Maybe it’s just nostalgia. I had a lot of fun in my late teens playing Dungeons and Dragons, Twilight 2000, and Cyberspace where I did my first and only stint as GM. After thirty intervening years I think I’ve found a way back into role-playing games.
There have always been three main impediments to playing RPGs for me. The first is a lack of a GM. While I’ve dabbled in RPGs like D&D, Conan, and Oz: Dark and Terrible it’s always been at the mercy of a GM to start, host, and sustain a campaign. These have been short-lived but enjoyable diversions that ended far too soon for my liking.
I realized quite some time ago the best way to be able to play a RPG consistently was to run it myself. Apart from the venerable Cyberspace, however, I’ve never been comfortable enough with the rules of a D20 or similar system to run a game. In RPG parlance the rules were too “crunchy” to feel manageable while at the same time trying to spin a story, manage players, and follow a module or adventure. Table after table of statistics, checks, modifiers, and characteristics left my head spinning. In short, it always seemed to me the RPG I was looking for was far over the other side of a wall of rules and numbers.
The second deterrent was my view of RPGs as a miniatures combat game flavoured with a back story. Until recently, successive editions of D&D along with their accompanying miniatures looked like the poor man’s version of the much more robust character focussed miniature combat games I had been playing: Warmachine and Hordes, Frostgrave, Chain of Command, and Saga to name just a few. At GenCon 2010 and 2011 I distinctly remember seeking out the Dungeons and Dragons hall in hopes of seeing some RPG in action. What I found as I wandered around were endless tables with large printed maps on which D&D miniatures were being pushed around, fighting trolls and whatnot. To my mind, there was no role-playing to be found there.
So many of the RPGs I saw at conventions both near and far seemed to be miniatures combat on a hex grid. I realized it’s the story that I’m interested in and the chance to see that story unfold across a “what if” landscape: where social interaction was more important than the fighting. A story where the occasional scrap breaks out, not the other way around. As a miniature wargamer I know there are far, far better miniature combat games than what D&D or other RPGs have to offer as their combat resolution engine. The miniature combat focused RPGs I briefly looked at suffered badly in comparison to the deluge of really good narrative campaign based miniature games such as Imperial Assault, Decent, Mansions of Madness, Conan, and Space Hulk.
I came across the third deterrent to getting back on the RPG horse after I unearthed some of my old RPG stuff both for nostalgia value and to see if the games I used to love playing could offer what I was looking for.
They weren’t the game I was looking for either.
Alas, these games were fun to reminisce about but not likely candidates. Twilight 2000‘s fundamental and central premise had made it obsolete. Surviving-the-post-apocalypse genre has far surpassed Twilight 2000‘s simplistic view of what can happen after “the end”. Cyberpunk remains a fascinating genre but Cyberspace’s computer hacking and netrunning rules, in particular, really show the system’s age. As with any creative work that ties itself to a particular technology and level of advancement, a few years can make it seem badly out of touch. Finally, D&D has seen so many iterations since I played Keep on the Borderlands with Ric, Duff, and Shawn in the late 1980s that I could no longer relate to it and its miniature combat focus.
The final nail in the coffin of my unearthed RPG trove was that they had all been irrevocably outdone by modern iterations. Fantasy Flight’s End of the World series of RPG books provided a dozen fascinating answers to the question, “What happens after the world as we know it ends?” There are plenty of other RPGs that answer that question equally as well. The Android: Netrunner card game did the computer hacking and cyber black ops genre almost perfectly. The recent Android: Shadow of the Beanstalk RPG sourcebook updates and eclipses what the Cyberspace RPG started back in the 80s.
In retrospect, I was looking for a modern narrative focussed RPG with old school sensibilities
I stumbled across the new-to-me Call of Cthulhu 7th edition RPG and all the missing pieces fell into place. I had never heard of the game back when it was released in the early 80s. It’s a British horror game that is sophisticated in its depiction of a world that is at once identical to our own but also completely underpinned by unknown horrors that only the misfortunate discover.
As it turns out, the very things that kept Call of Cthulhu under my radar back then have put the 7th edition of the rules firmly in the frame today.
- It uses H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos as an all-pervasive antagonist. I have come to really enjoy Cthulhu mythos based games for their versatility and ability to invoke both a pulp adventure and horror atmosphere. Fantasy Flight’s Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, and Elder Sign paved that road for me.
- Set in the roaring 1920s amid prohibition and in the wake of the Great War, it satisfies the appetite for the historically accurate settings that people of my vintage have come to find appealing.
- It allows players to take on roles such as 1920s bootlegger, prohibition agent, WWI veteran, and hardboiled private eye, in addition to other myriad period piece roles. Speakeasies, barnyard distilleries, drum fed Tommy guns, and libraries full of arcane lore are regular features in this fascinating setting.
- The story’s the thing. Through collective storytelling much of Call of Cthulhu play centers on an investigation that peels back the layers of an increasingly horrific tale. Dice rolls help shape the story at tense moments, but they are not the centre of attention. Memorable situations, not endless miniature battles, are what you remember after a night of play.
- It uses a percentile system. I know that a D20 can easily be used to give a number out of 100 – I know my five-times-table – but using the 100% system seems to take away the number crunching barrier that I perceive when looking at other systems.
- Call of Cthulhu is incredibly well supported. It’s 37 years old and in its 7th edition. With an enormous back catalogue of sourcebooks, scenarios, world spanning campaigns and a stable of talented writers – some of whom have been with the franchise for over twenty years – the beginning Keeper (GM) is spoilt for choice and support.
I’ve jumped into Call of Cthulhu feet first and am really enjoying our fledgling campaign and my role as Keeper of Arcane Lore. My four players are enjoying it as well. I could tell they were keen by the incredible detail they’ve put into their investigator’s backstories. I’ve created a bit of an issue there as Call of Cthulhu investigators die or go insane with alarming frequency! But we’ll cross that bridge if we get there. In the meantime I’m really enjoying discovering RPGs as if for the first time and have found a fascinating and playable system in Call of Cthulhu. Wish us luck! I’ll write again once we’ve got a full scenario under our belts.
Investigators dying off is a great reason to do more creative writing. 😉
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Indeed, and I don’t think I’m giving out spoilers if I say that you’re pretty much guaranteed to go through investigators at a fair clip. We’re running things slightly on the pulp side though. That should give your characters a little more durability.
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I’m counting on my .32 automatic to keep me safe…..
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The Mythos draws me back too. I have rekindled RPGs but most locally wantbthe DND stuff which is fine. For me the story needs to be deeper than a dungeon hack. The Black Hack Cthulhu stuff looks simple but effective but I have to admit to seeing and playing in a one shot Numenera game for 3 or so hours. Now this system looks like it is story story story. Hmm the Deep Ones might make a return a billion years in the future.
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Thanks for your thoughts Chris. There seem to be a few of us – of a slightly older vintage – for whom D&D isn’t a natural starting point anymore. In listening to a few podcasts with D&D author guests it’s clear that they’re after a younger audience and have lowered the bar to entry as far as possible. Good for RPGs in general, but not necessarily appealing to the story driven crowd.
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There is a thriving OSR – Old School Rules community out there that draws inspiration from the older versions and ethos of D&D. Re-writes o red Bo and earlier systems are common as is a reliance on theatre of the mind over miniatures. I ran a brief campaign a while back and thoroughly enjoyed it.
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