When Play Gets Ruined

As today is our wedding anniversary, I was remembering the days – way back in the late nineties and early noughties – when my wife would play with us. She even used to run for us… but, eventually, the gap between what my buddies wanted and she wanted proved too big. Now she won’t come back to the table.

The most memorable situation of ruined play happened at a convention somewhere down south (in England). It was her first encounter with The Call of Cthulhu and we were both players. The environment was perfect – a big wood-panelled room, six players, and an evening with candles and moody weather outside. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

But the Keeper ruined the experience.

I’ve had LOADS of fun with Cthulhu, so I know it’s not the game!

We were investigating. We ended up sending my wife’s character to the library. We knew the book was in the library, and she’d even taken time to look up the Dewey number before hunting for the book. But the Keeper was making us roll everything.

The Keeper made my wife roll to look up the book in a library when she had the Dewey number and the book was in the library… but she failed the roll and so she couldn’t find the book. Later, he had my wife roll for her character to read the address off a letter we’d found in a document wallet – she failed, so couldn’t get the address that was right in front of her character’s nose. The character wasn’t blind, was literate, and the address was in a language she could read. What the heck?

At one point another player decided to read a mysterious tome that we’d found somewhere. It was obviously a book of arcane lore, so he knew there were risks. This time he was informed he had simply gone mad. The player was told to go sit on the sofa because he was out of the game. Next came my wife’s turn. She decided to read the tome. It was the easiest way out of the game.

The Call of Cthulhu rules – as I understand them – were not in and of themselves the problem. Looking back, I realise that the problem was misaligned expectations. The Keeper was running the game with a particular methodology that was misaligned with the kinds of methodology that we had expected. But for ever afterwards my wife wouldn’t play that game again.

This mismatch of expectations hit when we played Dungeons & Dragons 3e and the whole game became increasingly a tactical combat simulation played with miniatures. That’s not her jam and so, steadily, she became disenchanted. Eventually she dropped out. It’s perhaps my deepest regret that I didn’t change the methodology… but, in truth, I just didn’t see it back then.

What I do know is this: not discussing the methodology, not thinking about how we run our games, not checking in on how the game will be played… that has killed more games than I can list. It’s why I dread conventions and am really, super-picky about who I play with.

And, no, it’s not just the GM who can ruin the play. Players do it too – discounting and talking over others, ignoring the needs of others, and playing unlikeable selfish characters have all made appearances in games I’ve been part of over the years.

My solution has been to talk about it. Find out what engages everyone. Ask questions. Observe the play style in action. And don’t be afraid to say no if someone’s behaviour upsets you.

RPGs are a team effort, a community event, and a group pleasure. If you’re not playing with others then you might, unfortunately, be ruining their play.

This game might not be for you – that Cthulhu game certainly wasn’t for us – but bowing out might be the most generous thing you can do. Maybe that Keeper was delighting the rest… who knows? But my wife found her way out and I wished I had followed suit.

Game on!

One comment

  1. Great common sense advice here. Just talk to your players! I always do that with a new group, and at times it has proved invaluable. Recently I had a group who wanted to play Vampire which I agreed to run. Thankfully I explained the sort of game I wanted to run which turned out to be completely misaligned with what two of the players were expecting. We agreed to disagree, they bowed out and I got some replacement players who were down with the type of game I was intending.

    That Call of Cthulhu game though – urgh.


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