I’m starting off a new feature for the blog today. Role-Playing 101 is going to document the trials and tribulations that I face as I teach a group of teenagers to role-play. There’ll be some funny moments, occasional glimpses of glory, and a not insignificant amount of frustration (mostly on my part), but also a hell of a lot of fun. It’ll be updated on a very irregular basis, as it generally require me to have actually run a session for the group recently, and it’s not often that we actually get to play. The actual content will be a combination of a session recap and brief discussions about the system (though more in-depth reviews may come later on).
How did I end up running introductory games for teenagers? It’s my attempt to continue the chain that my uncle started when he bought me my first role-playing book for my twelfth birthday, the Player’s Handbook for D&D 3rd Edition. A bit over a year ago, I offered to teach my cousin to play. It took a while to get started, as he needed to gather a group of friends to play with, but eventually we were ready to play. The first session I ran for them was Pathfinder, where I quickly learnt that running for bunch of fourteen year olds is far different to running a game for adults. They picked up the notion of “kill things and take their stuff” very quickly, but were having a bit of difficulty with the idea of “talking to things to see if we can avoid killing them”. Now, to be fair, D&D/Pathfinder is at its core, the game of “killing things and taking their stuff”, but Paizo’s work with Pathfinder has really started to move beyond that, often allowing for other means such as diplomacy or subterfuge to be just as effective as barreling in with swords drawn. Trying to get this concept across sparked an idea, that maybe I could help them learn that there are multiple approaches to these games by running a variety of systems for them, with the added benefit that they’d be able to pick a system they liked when they’re eventually ready to run their own games. So the group agreed that I would run each system for two to three sessions, then pick another one.
We held the second and third sessions recently, during which I introduced them their first system not based on the D20 framework. My choice? The Laundry RPG, a game of horror-comedy, featuring computational demonology, squamous creatures with N+1 tentacles (where N = the number of tentacles your players are comfortable with), the end of the world as we know it and, perhaps most horrifying of all, British Public Service Bureaucracy. So, let’s get started.
The Laundry RPG: Session 1 – Going Down to Dunwich
So, for those of you unfamiliar with it, let’s have a quick talk about what The Laundry RPG actually is. The Laundry Files is a series of novels by Charles Stross, which began with the Atrocity Archive. Pretty much anyone who knows me will be aware that I’m a massive fan of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and the broader work that other authors brought to it later on. The Laundry Files falls into the realm of the Cthulhu Mythos, but brings something different… The novels are a strange mix of horror, spy thriller, and extremely bleak humour with liberal amounts of humour/references that you’ll only get if you’re a gigantic nerd and/or a public servant. The basic idea is that Bob Howard, the protagonist, is a former hacker and sometimes IT admin who also performs occasional field ops for his employe So, naturally, for me, they were a perfect fit.
Because I love those novels so much, I was very pleased to find out that Cubicle 7 had released a game based in their setting. I’m not going to go into great detail about the game itself, because this isn’t a review (that will follow later). Suffice to say, the system it’s based on is the Basic Role-Playing System (also known as BRP), which some of you might recognise as being the system behind the ever popular Call of Cthulhu RPG. Obviously it has some modifications to handle things some of the elements that Call of Cthulhu never had to deal with, like Computational Demonology (magic performed by using computers) and so on. Mechanics boil down to a simple percentile system, where you’re trying to roll under your skill rating to succeed, and rather than applying modifiers to your roll, they simply adjust the target number.
So, the day rolls around, and I’ve prepared the introductory scenario provided in the core book. The name of the scenario? Going Down to Dunwich (and if you call yourself a Lovecraft fan and don’t get that reference, then shame on you!). Basically it’s a very simple session, where the players are told that their characters have been sent to the town of Dunwich for training, either as an orientation or a refresher course. The idea is to give them a nice easy way to be introduced to the various mechanics of the game. Fair warning, from this point on there are going to be spoilers about the game. It’s kind of unavoidable, since this is a session recap.
Let me reiterate that, just so it’s clear.
SPOILERS FOR GOING DOWN TO DUNWICH FROM THIS POINT ONWARDS!
Right, now that we’ve got that formality taken care of…
So Dunwich is a tiny village that no longer appears on any maps (at least not public ones). It’s warded and protected, both magically and by the might of the UK Armed Forces. It’s also the site of most official British government contact with the species known as Blue Hades (a.k.a. the Deep Ones), and is populated almost entirely by Laundry researchers, training staff, and spawn of human/Deep One breeding (let’s just say that the administrator of operations for the village may have gone a little too native, if the somewhat fishy look of his children is anything to go on).
The scenario opens with the players arriving by train (economy of course, because the Laundry is a government organisation, and there’ll be no frivolous spending of tax payer money thank you very much), and being picked up by a rather damp looking man in a rickety bus. Another new starter for the Laundry met them there, a rather bewildered looking man by the name of Bernard “Bernie” Coldfield. A brief bus trip later, the group were being ushered onto a boat, as the only way to approach Dunwich is by sea.
Now this is where I got my first reminder that playing with younger groups is very different to older groups. The group this time had one girl, who had returned from our previous Pathfinder session. I’d forgotten due to the large time gap between sessions, but this particular girl was far more bloodthirsty than I expected. So here’s the situation. At this stage, the players don’t know if Bernie is an important character or not, and the scenario deliberately calls for him to be hammed up as a character. He’s bumbling, ineffectual, generally a wet blanket, and apparently very prone to getting seasick. So what does our budding serial killer decide to do? The conversation went something like this:
Player 1: “I stab him.”
Me: “Okay, so you… wait. What? You stab him? Why are you stabbing him?”
Player 1: “He’s annoying me.”
Me: “Okay… but where are you getting the knife?”
Player 1: “I don’t have a knife? Does anyone else have a knife?”
Player 2: “I’ve got one.”
Player 1: “Hand it over.”
Player 2: “I don’t think we should kill this guy.”
Player 1: “Fiiine. I’ll just throw him overboard”
Thankfully at this point, the rest of the group shouted them down… I would have let them get away with it, but man it was going to make things harder for me later on, since yes, Bernie is a kind of vital character.
Anyway, before long they arrived at Dunwich, and were treated to the horrifying sight of the bus driver (who also piloted the boat for them) stripping naked and wading out to sea… I considered dropping this bit, but actually decided it might give them a laugh and keep them interested, so I played it up a little bit. Seemed to do the trick. They then met their HR representative, and had a brief meeting before heading off to the pub to relax for the evening.
Things proceeded to get weird here again. One of the players (you get two guesses which one) decided to start throwing darts at the locals. Naturally, the locals weren’t impressed. A few of the players decided to talk to the locals, which probably would have been a great source of information, except for the whole they’ve just had darts thrown at them situation. There being enough people in the crowd thanks to the new recruits, the bartender turned on the disco lights and threw on some terrible pop music, so the locals got up and danced… which was a horrifying enough sight that it forced a SAN (sanity) check on the players. You think I’m kidding? It’s in the book, written down in black and white.
The saving grace of this scene was that my cousin displayed some canny instincts for role-playing, and followed Bernie when he slipped away from the bar early on. I’d like to say that I’ve had something to do with instilling those instincts… So I will. It was all me. Go on, try to prove otherwise. Anyway, off he went, trailing Bernie, who wandered his way around town, paying particular attention to the research building, which appeared to have been built-in a former church of some kind. Afterwards he wandered down to the beach and stared out to sea, muttering to himself in a strange language. At this stage though, my cousin didn’t feel this was worth sharing with the rest of the group.
The next few parts of the session involved teaching the players how all the mechanics worked. Use of the more esoteric skills were covered along with some background in the scene with the head of research, after which we covered combat rules during a scene involving a brusque mannered drill sergeant. Which led me to my next rather awkward realisation… I was going to have to be careful to censor what I said during the game, as some of the sergeant’s dialogue included profanity. Not that it was anything awful, I mean I don’t think there’s a fourteen year old kid alive who hasn’t at least heard the word fuck at some point, but I didn’t think it was my place to be swearing in front of my cousin and his friends (I doubt my aunt and uncle would have an issue with it, but given that I don’t know the other children’s parents, I thought it safer to err on the side of caution). Not a huge issue, but it is a little difficult for me at times. I swear quite a lot in real life, it’s a legacy of having work. ed in kitchens for three or four years before I finished school and got my position as a Schools IT Support trainee. Now in a work environment, I can suppress it pretty easily, but I’m so used to gaming with my friends that I’m not in the habit of watching what I say when I’m playing. Thankfully, no major slip ups, but I had to catch myself a few times.
After the basic combat training is where the scenario starts to actually get interesting. The players get sent on a run up to the top of the cliffs overlooking the beach… on the way they discover a corpse, dressed in hiking gear and wearing a ward amulet that’s been nearly destroyed. They of course search him (and steal his clothes for some reason… I can only assume that it was the “take everything that isn’t nailed down” mentality of D&D/Pathfinder coming through again). A couple of phones were found, one containing a number of odd messages from a what appears to be the leader of a cult calling down a curse upon the dead man, while the other contains only a single contact. When they called that contact, they were transferred through to the Laundry… the plot thickens *dun dun duuuun*. After explaining the situation to the Laundry officer on the other end of the call, they’re told that the dead man was a double agent in a cult Deep One worshipers, and that he had tried to warn the Laundry of a potential assassination attempt upon personnel based in Dunwich. The players were asked to investigate this. So after hiding the body (read that as “after throwing the body off the cliffs”), they wandered back to town, full of paranoia… which is where their plans started to take a turn for the truly ridiculous.
See, with my normal players, I could anticipate a few of the more likely responses. These teenagers, on the other hand, are total wild cards. Rather than trying to gather information by talking to people and doing some basic reconnaissance during the night, they decided the most logical course of action was to sneak into people’s rooms, while they were sleeping… and that the best way to do this was to try clambering around the outside of the hotel and try to entering through the window… not realising that a) the windows would be closed and b) are only able to be opened from the inside, unless they wanted to smash them and wake the occupants of the room. Several failed climb checks later, we had a bunch of somewhat injured players nursing their wounds out the front of the hotel. At this point they decided to call it a night.
After a few more training exercises and meetings in the morning, the group decided to give the whole “investigation” thing another crack. While some of the players kept the trainers and so on busy in the pub, the rest of them went to investigate the rooms in the hotel. A few false positives later, and they discovered some truly incriminating evidence in the form of sub-machine gun. … right in time for the assassin to walk in on them. That’s right everyone. It was Bernie, the wet blanket. He pulled out a nasty looking sacrificial blade, and began to attack them. So while the two more combat capable players tried to hold him off, another one lept out the window, nearly killing themselves in the process, and went to get help.
Many rounds of ridiculous combat later, where no one could seem to hit anyone else, help finally arrived. One of the arriving players grabbed the SMG, spent a round or two unwrapping and loading it, then proceeded to slaughter Bernie in as brutal a manner as he could. The session pretty much ended here, apart from some basic wrap up info about the aftermath of the story, and some instruction on how to advance their characters (being a BRP game, The Laundry RPG uses the gradual improvement with use of skills method that Call of Cthulhu has, rather than the more regimented leveling system that Pathfinder and other D20 games use). There may have also been a little bit of commentary from Little Miss Psycho about how we should have totally let her murder Bernie earlier in the session, because hey, he turned out to be the villain.
NO MORE SPOILERS FOR GOING DOWN TO DUNWICH! ALL CLEAR!
The group agreed to play another session of The Laundry RPG the following week, using one of the other provided scenarios. I’ll write something up for that a bit later.
So, in summary, what did I learn from my first session of The Laundry RPG with the group?
- Teenagers are really, REALLY bloody unpredictable. Seriously, they were all over the place. They’d make some really weird choices, like deciding to climb all over the outside of a building for no real reason, then all of a sudden make logical decisions about distracting NPCs while they investigate them. It’s hard to get a grip on.
- I need to get more practice at restraining myself from swearing.
- It’s really hard to get teenagers who have only played Pathfinder/D&D previously to move past “KILL ALL OF THE THINGS AND TAKE ALL OF THE STUFF!” methods of gameplay.
- Some of the humour is invariably going to go over their heads. After all, a lot of it is to do with bureaucracy. They still found it funny, but I don’t think they got all of it. Kind of like how I always loved Dilbert, but once I started working in an office it all made so much more sense.
- It’s hard to strike the right balance of horror, action and humour in a game like this, particularly when I don’t want to mess too hard with the players. The goal isn’t to traumatise them, but you don’t want it to feel like one giant joke either.
- Much like the humour, a lot of the horror references went over their heads as well. I know none of them would have read any of The Laundry Files, but I don’t think any of them were familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos either… I probably should have expected that, I think I was the only kid in my class at that age reading Lovecraft, Poe and so on.
- All of that said, I think the most important lesson was this: It’s worth it to try something different. The group had fun. I had fun. They got first hand experience showing them that there are more systems out there than just the traditional fantasy gaming ones. And they enjoyed it enough to come back for more.
This was also my first session running The Laundry RPG, or any BRP game for that matter. I’ve played Call of Cthulhu before, but not as a GM, and it was a long time ago. So it was a pretty steep learning curve for me too. I don’t care what anyone says, no matter how hard you prepare prior to running that first game in a new system, it’s always going to be a challenge. I like to think I rose to the occasion, but I’ll definitely admit that the next session went much smoother. This scenario took a good couple of hours longer than I had initially expected, we barely managed to wrap it up before parents started turning up looking to pick up their spawn.
So, like I said before, there’ll be another write-up for the second session of The Laundry RPG sometime soon, then it might be a while before Role-Playing 101 updates again, since I’m not sure when we’ll be playing. Next system is going to be Shadowrun though, so that should be interesting (haven’t played since 3rd Edition, though I have the rules for both 4th and 5th and have tried to keep on top of the changes).
Anyway, that’s it from me for now. Til next time, keep the dice rolling.
Written while listening to Chevelle’s discography, in chronological order. All the way from 2001’s Point #1, through Wonder What’s Next, This Kind of Thinking (Could Do Us In), Vena Sera, Sci-Fi Crimes, Hats Off To The Bull, right up to this year’s La Gágola. Just cannot get enough of their stuff lately. Was listening to them and The Glitch Mob all the way to Bega and back over the weekend… thank god for helmet mounted headsets, I swear I’d go insane without music during all that highway riding.