It’s a brave new world. Living that quarantine life.
My wife and I are lucky. We’re both healthy and have so far been able to remain financially solvent during this global pandemic of the year 2020. But it’s weird. There’s no getting around that.
Last year, after being essentially away from the hobby since somewhere around 2006, I managed to run and play in several tabletop role-playing games. I’ve been trying to get myself back into the hobby for a while, but kept failing. With the successes of last year fresh in my mind and with no plans for major travel for the remainder of 2020, I was poised to get some serious gaming going in March. Then the plague hit and plans were changed but good.
Part of what I like about the hobby is the face to face nature. In spite of being a socially awkward semi-recluse, I really like the social aspect of RPGs. I never made the switch to online games, not for video games or website platforms like Roll 20 or Fantasy Grounds. As an experiment, last year my friend Robert and I tried Dungeon Crawl Classics via Skype, and it worked out better than I’d expected. I kept meaning to do a follow-up, but it didn’t happen. Yes, it worked better than I expected, but I still hoped to get a face to face game going.
Fast forward a few months, and face to face gaming just isn’t happening. I put a poll up on my twitter feed that didn’t get a lot of interaction, but my friend Michael chimed in with a suggestion I run Tales from the Loop. Well, heck. It was a game book I loved reading and one I kept saying I was going to try to run. The TV series just hit Amazon a couple months back. Sure. I could do Tales from the Loop. I asked around and actually got more interest than I expected. Six people, which is about the maximum number of people I’d ever want to GM for at one time. Though one had to drop out because of other responsibilities. Five people is still a lot. I don’t know. A lot of people like larger groups but three or four players is usually the sweet spot as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes it’s nice to have five or six players in a regularly meeting group, so that when one or two people inevitably can’t make a session, you’ve still got enough players to keep going, but at one time, I find six people a challenge to keep engaged and entertained.
Anyway, I decided to run Summer Break and the Killer Birds, the first of four mysteries presented in the basic book. It seemed relatively straight forward, gave a chance for some different types of action, and generally felt like a nice beginning scenario. Of course, as always, I like to run games where, if everyone is hopping up and down begging for more at the end, I’ll have somewhere to go, so this being the first of four connected stories, it seemed like a good option. I did modify a couple things beforehand, though they didn’t end up making any difference in play. I found the ornithologist Mats Tingblad being an ax wielding nut who is hostile toward the kids from the first to be a bit much. This was especially because it is intended to be the first stop in this mystery, from which other branches of the story would logically split. Having Mats be hostile, scary, and potentially dangerous seems like a good way to stall the story. I decided that Mats would be scared and angry that the killer birds had targeted his house and slaughtered his birds. He would be jumpy, but not hostile. If the kids expressed interest in birds, he would be willing to help them out. Alas, the kids never even went to his house.
My players built a group consisting of a Troublemaker (played by Sarah), a Bookworm (Rebecca), a Computer Geek (Ashley), a Jock (Michael), and a Hick (Robert). For their Hideout, they decided to hang out in an abandoned boathouse. One of the first things they did as a group was fix the motor on an old boat and head out into the lake to do some fishing and enjoy the Summer day. Through various choices, they ended up quickly making for the location where the final mystery-ending encounter was supposed to take place. In fact, they fairly handily thwarted the final encounter, essentially ending the Mystery within the first hour of play. I had definitely not put enough coffee into my veins to handle that.
A bit of fudging and the players’ pushing to keep checking into things (they’d thwarted the villain of the mystery, but hadn’t actually found out what the mystery was) brought the kids back out onto the water, where they found the weird pigeon nests. At this point, as the mystery was almost going in reverse order, I decided to drop the villain’s niece character completely. Her story purpose is mostly to take the PCs from the villain’s house to the pigeon nest, or vice versa. Since they’d already expressed interest in both sites, I didn’t see a need to complicate things with another NPC. If I’d been thinking faster on my feet, maybe I could have used her to give some context, but I figured the journal and some other clues would do the job. So, when they decided to go to the villain’s house, I just gave them a bunch of general clues. From there, they checked the library to try to get more info.
Finally, it was decided that they’d build a device to disrupt the signals going to the birds. I made this the final, “extended trouble.” It involved sneaking explosives off the Hick’s family farm to blow up the villain’s abandoned base, while building the device and deploying it by the pigeon nest. With success, we hopped forward a bit, so the kids heard news of the villain being arrested and the bird attacks ending.
This was my first time running Tales from the Loop, and only maybe the third time I’ve run a published scenario, not to mention only the second time running a game online (first time via Zoom) and the first time online with a larger group (five players and myself). Ideally the pre-published adventure is supposed to make it easier to run without taking the time to come up with plots, NPCs, encounters, plots, etc. Generally, I have not found this to be the case. This is made especially difficult when players don’t go in the direction the writer of the scenario intended them to. Of course, one school of thought is to do everything possible to push the PCs in the direction intended by the author of the scenario. That’s never been my way. Of the three times I’ve used published scenarios, once for Call of Cthulhu, once for Dungeon Crawl Classics, and now this one for Tales from the Loop, the only time I ran it basically ‘as is’ was for Dungeon Crawl Classics. Since DCC is, by its design, more of a dungeon crawl (it’s in the name) anyway, this makes more sense. The point of the scenario is to explore the dungeon. With the Call of Cthulhu one, I rewrote it to the point where it was almost unrecognizable until the finale. I don’t think writing your own scenarios is more virtuous or anything, but for the style of game I tend to run, I think it does make more sense. Also, if I wrote it all, it’s usually easier to change it on the fly in reaction to what the players do (not that those skills have been with me in the last few games I’ve run).
It’s strange getting back into the swing of running tabletop RPGs after such a long break. I’m trying to relearn old skills and frankly, learn some new ones. Academically, I’ve grown a great deal, having read and viewed a lot of information on running better games. Sadly, until you start actually doing it, all that book learnin’ doesn’t amount to much. My ability to roll with the punches and improv has atrophied considerably. I still over-prepare and over-think scenarios before the game session, as I always have, but in the actual session, dealing with player choices and the unexpected, I can tell I’m much less capable than I once was. Hopefully, this is just a matter of doing it more and getting that mindset back in place.
Tales from the Loop is a pretty easy system. It has a few of its own quirks, but I think running or playing a handful of sessions would be all it would take to have it properly figured out. One of its principles is that the game is run by scenes. By that they mean you do a scene set in a house where some role-playing happens, then you jump to a place where the PCs are gathered and they make some plans or share some info, then you jump to the place they’ve decided to explore. It’s a more purposeful way of cutting some of the fat from your sessions. I think it’s a handy thing to remember and think about when you’re running a game. I think many GMs already do it instinctively, sometimes skipping travel scenes if you don’t have any specific reason to play through it, or what have you. But this game made me a bit more aware of it, and got me thinking about implementing it in other games I run as a more conscious and purposeful tool. Not that every game calls for such a thing. I just like to learn from games and find new ways to make my GMing better. I’m trying to lift the way clues are handled in Trail of Cthulhu, for example, to make my Call of Cthulhu (and other investigation based games) better.