I've returned, windswept and rain-sodden and midge-bitten from the extreme North West of Scotland. (Some people go to sunny places in summer. I can never understand this. 7 years of Japanese summers were enough to convince me, if I didn't know it already, that the sun is our Enemy and not to be trusted. I like rain.) So naturally enough I want to write some posts about Scottish Highlands style D&D, because the bleak and empty hilltops, deep dark lochs, and abandoned castles of Skye, Wester Ross and Sutherland would be a perfect place for sandbox D&D.
But first, I want to talk about being a serious and high-minded GM, because the day before the missus and I went away there was a session of a regular Call of Cthulu game I'm involved in, which contained a moment which I think summed up rather nicely something which I've noticed over the years.
Most GMs, I think, are rather high-minded about the games they run. There are plenty of gonzo-style GMs around, of course, so I'd hate to generalise, but I think by and large they tend towards wanting their games to be taken at least somewhat seriously. They spend a lot of time carefully crafting worlds, adventures, NPCs and encounters, toiling often for hours every week to make a deep, meaningful and interesting game session that the players can really be immersed in.
And yet it so rarely ever comes off, because more often than not players just don't have the same investment that the GM has. They don't put in a lot of work outside of gaming sessions, as a rule, and much of the time what they're primarily interested in is their own character, and hanging out with friends and eating lots of fatty foods. This is true of most players and is certainly true of me when I'm a player, not a GM.
Last week during the Call of Cthulu game, we'd just learned that an old arch-enemy of the group had not in fact been killed in a fire (as we thought he had) but had in fact survived. This was quite significant, as it was an NPC we all loved to hate and who had come close to killing all of our characters in days gone by. So the scene was set for some good immersive role playing reactions. One of us, I forget who, blurted out, "He's alive?", with a serious "in-character" expression on his face. To which, on cue, another player immediately murmured "Gordon's alive!?" in a pitch-perfect Brian Blessed impression. Everyone sniggered and the moment was ruined. All that careful build-up was for naught.
Just as the remark was made I glanced at the GM's face and saw writ there the GM's tragedy encapsulated perfectly: caught between having to laugh because although it was a stupid and obvious joke it was executed with such panache, while at the same time having to be disappointed and crushed by the carefully built-up mood being so utterly spoiled, he ended up doing neither. He just looked down, paused for two seconds, and carried on. But I knew that the moment cost him, as it costs all GMs dozens of times every game session, all across the land, and he had felt it like yet another pound of the huge weight which he, like all other GMs, carries John Bunyan-like on his journey through the valley of role playing.