So, a few weeks ago I was running a Call of Cthulhu game at an Enigma meeting here in LA. I only had 3 hours, which is a pretty tight time constraint, but I'm a darn good Game Master, so I had things under control, writhing and sliming along towards the inevitable horrific climax. Most of the people playing were veteran Role Players, including one fellow who actually wrote many of the rules for Call of Cthulhu, and another who has made several genre films. (Sub-genre, I suppose, Lovecraft-based films being a subset of horror films.)
But there were at least a few new faces. And during the terrifying climax, when the flying, flesh-burrowing monsters were pursuing the group of players' characters as they fled through the creepy mansion, I looked at one of them and said "Okay, so what do you want to do?" I rather expected her to say "I try and break out a window" or "I run farther down the corridor" or perhaps to ask "Are they gaining?"
Instead, startled, she asked the other players (with more than a hint of desperation) "What am I supposed to do?"
I've been a role-player for a long time. My introduction to it came when I was in elementary school - I forget which grade - when I picked up a copy of Dragon magazine #80. (Which, were I less lazy, I could use fairly easily to determine exactly which grade.) I didn't understand well over half of what the magazine was talking about, but it contained something magical. And I'm not just referring to the article about "Monster Summoning III vs. Monster Summoning IV". (For those were the later Gygax years, the years of 'Unearthed Arcana' and new, Byzantine levels of complexity that made building a Mustang engine look like boiling water.)
It was freedom. So what if you can't swing a sword, rescue villages, find cool treasure, and defeat evil - in the real world. The hell with resigning yourself to a life of strip malls and plastic toys, of impotence and unimportance. Which, as a child, is what most of us are faced with. I could escape to importance - heroic importance! - and a much cooler life with dragons and magic and none of the long, boring periods that real life is so infested with.
I loved it. Aided by an acquaintance who also played D&D, I discovered Joe's comics, a store on Stockton's Miracle Mile which had a random, unsorted rack of D&D rulebooks, modules, back issues of Dragon magazine, and other such things. My pittance of discretionary income now had a focus! I played D&D through middle school, high school, and college. Once out of college, I moved to playing predominantly other games, but I'm still a dyed-in-the-wool escapist role player.
Joe's, by the way, was a great place for a kid to discover role playing. It was in a run-down and slightly but not very dangerous neighborhood. It was dimly lit. It was cluttered. In short, it was a place that evoked the very feelings that roleplaying is supposed to - risk and discovery. Although the acquaintance who introduced me to the place fell away pretty quickly (which is a good thing, as he obtained things from Joe's via shoplifting and later also admitted to me stealing some other kids bike, and now probably has tats picked up in Happy Valley Penitentiary), and I began to get my D&D books from Waldenbooks, which did not require asking for a ride, Joe's will always have a place in my heart.
Back to the girl. She truly didn't know how the game was played. And for those of you reading who are not role-players (for whom "pity" is too strong a word, but the sentiment is there), you understand perfectly. What the hell was she supposed to do? There are no cards to play, no rulebook, no set of actions. "So what do you do?" leads to "I don't know - what am I supposed to do? What can I do?"
To which the gamers reading this already know the answer. "Whatever you want!" Because that's what role playing is all about. It's group imagination. If you were such-and-such a person, in such-and-such a situation, what would you do? If you like psychiatry or acting more, focus on being some other person, and figuring out what they would do. If you are in it for the freedom to be heroic (or, I suppose, anti-heroic), just figure out what you would do. It's easy.
But, and this the point of this column, it does take practice. I, at least, am capable of forgetting that. I have a cartoon which predicts, with a rather large amount of tongue-in-cheekiness, what gamers will be like "when they grow up". And one of the conclusions is that, having had to think about being in many unusual situations, they will be better able to deal when, say, aliens land. (Crowd of people screaming and running - lone gamer asking emerging alien "Have a nice trip?")
That gaming gives one extra composure is debatable. But thinking about situations and events far from everyday reality, and how to deal with them, is, like Lovecraft movies, a distinct subset of imagination, and not necessarily a talent that an individual has practiced. So remember to be gentle, and pose them easy, specific questions. If need be, remind them of the whole paradigm. "If you were a college professor, in the 1920s, who was in a large, spooky house, and horrible flying things - which you had seen burrow into flesh - were coming down the hallway towards you, what do you think you would do?"
Rest assured, their imaginations will grow stronger over time. If the critters don't get 'em.
Columns by Sun Ra