Thursday, February 20, 2014

Comfort Food: Running the Same Game Twice (or More)

Most consumable media is offered with the promise of re-playability.  We listen to music over and over again, we re-watch films.  Re-read favorite books.  Something that rarely happens in the tabletop RPG world is the re-running of games.  There's really not much point to it, after all.  With the exception of tourney or elimination-style games like Tomb of Horrors, most RPG modules are meant to be played once by a group of people and left behind, the experience attained and then progressed past.
But what about GMs?  Before this year(ish), I'd never run a game more than once.  Now, barely a month in, and I've managed to take a second group of players through the iconic Call of Cthulhu scenario "The Haunting," as well as the Quickstart rule scenario "Nightmare at Hill Manor" for the World of Darkness ruleset.

The Haunting (Call of Cthulhu)

I first ran Haunting for a group of three in 2009, I believe, so returning to the story this past December (2013) was a welcome experience, and though I was only barely able to remember some of the details about the first group of investigators, while I ran the most recent game, I found myself recalling some anecdotes about the original run-through.
2009: This game was played live, on the radio, in a two-hour time slot, which meant that I was under constraints to keep things moving as swiftly as possible. This restriction actually served to increase the enjoyment of the game, as players were forced to make more rushed, immediate decisions, rather than spend seemingly-endless minutes vacillating over one choice or another, an especially appropriate attitude to take, as The Haunting is one of Chaosium's faster-paced games already..
As an introductory scenario, I was dealing with new players (and I believe it was also the first game I ever ran in Call of Cthulhu), so there was a very minimal amount of rules introduction, as well as some time coming to terms with the dice rolls. It was through this experience that I eventually started minimizing dice rolls, a practice that has continued to this day, to degrees of varying effectiveness.
The characters: a war-weary Jewish journalist who had seen too much of the Great War to ever be normal again, a 1920s lounge singer, and a professor of Archaeology (or possibly Astronomy) at Miskatonic University, stumbled and scraped their way through the twists and turns of the Corbit house, eventually burning the place to the ground. I'm still trying to piece back the memory of how they accomplished the conflagration, but gasoline was likely involved. This game served as an effective reminder to me for the rest of my GMing career: when one faces something they can't outwit or outfight, they will straight-up light that shit on fire.
2013: Compared to the first time I ran it, this game was played off the air, away from any recording device whatsoever, but again with novice players. Again, the group was small, three players, and they ran with PreGens I'd pulled from the back of Call of Cthulhu's sixth edition core book. A lawyer, a private investigator, and a bored dilettante were approached by a landlord who needed a home inspected. Because I was under no time constraints for this game, I was able to introduce the setting and scenario much more slowly to the players, while allowing them to role play their relationships and establish in-game bonds.
Also, this time no one set anything on fire. Spoilers.
Coming back to the Haunting after three years with BRP enabled me to continue my practice of minimizing dice rolls, and it seemed to engage the players more, especially toward the beginning of the session, where they most needed the freedom to stretch, you might say. What I found interesting was that the action never really slowed down while the characters were in the house, only when they took breathers to investigate more. This difference in kind, you might call it, is a great way of increasing dread for investigators who must once again venture into the unknown. I find it quite appropriate that even the resting periods serve to amplify the tension of horror games, and look forward to experimenting with the concept more in the future.

Nightmare at Hill Manor (World of Darkness)

Comparatively, I ran Hill Manor for two different gaming groups within five days of each other.  This exercise--combined with the proximity of the two sessions--allowed me to learn, if not more about the module itself, about the players and their gaming habits.  One group saw a series of problems as unassailable obstacles that required plot progression to conquer, while the other used out-of-game know-how to defeat them.
As both groups were somewhat new to the World of Darkness ruleset, having them run pregens was en excellent way to get them past the occasional mire of CharGen-though I would never consider CharGen a mire-and move right along to the basic mechanics of the game. I'm growing fonder of pregens and pre-written campaigns as system introductions because it allows players to see a good part of the nuts and bolts of the game system, as well as figure out where they would focus on a character of their own creation. Moving through the narrative, you notice (as both a player and GM) what skill rolls are most important, what attributes are called for most frequently, and you get a feel for how you could tailor your play style to the mechanics, in a basic sense.
I found that returning to both games and game systems turned out to be a fantastic way for myself to grow as a GM, as the variant approaches by my players required me to re-think my methods of running each game.  In the end, though both basically followed the same plot points, each group encountered completely different events leading up to the climax.  The exercise was fantastic for my improvisation, and I'm curious to see where more repeats of previously-run material might take me.

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