This game of Lovecraftesque (by +Becky Annison and +Joshua Fox) ran on August 7th. We used the pre-made scenario, Mr. Giggles Comes to Dinner, by +Misha B. It was the first game that I facilitated on Gauntlet Hangouts. Fortunately, I had the support of a super imaginative and all-around cool group of players: +Robbie Boerth, +Vincent Eaton, and +Keith Stetson. Due technical problems, I was unable to record, which is partly why I wanted to do this write-up. I also wanted to reflect on how the game ran, what worked, and what could have gone better. Hopefully others find this extended meditation useful and/or entertaining!
The basic premise of the game was that Alex, a single parent, must uncover the horrible truth behind their child's (Sam) imaginary friend, Mr. Giggles. We began by fleshing out the scenario. Misha left some story elements undefined, including the Witness’s social identity. Misha used gender neutral names and pronouns and was silent on race or ethnicity. We consciously designed Alex against our understanding of prevalent cultural expectations. We figured that, if this scenario were a mainstream movie, then Alex would probably be a single mom (see, e.g., The Babadook, 2014), so we made Alex a man. As a chemist, Alex might be expected to be white or Asian, so we made him black.
Part 1, scene 1: Our game opened in a parent-teacher conference. Alex appears harried after a long day at the chemical plant. A teacher (played by the Narrator) and the school principal (played by a Watcher) express concern about Sam's strange writings. Alex tries to minimize but is stopped short when the teacher holds a mirror next to the papers, revealing that the apparently illegible scrawling is actually backwards writing about “unsealing portals.” Coincidentally, a fluorescent ceiling light begins to flicker and strobe as the teacher flips through the pages of strange writing. Alex attempts to rationalize it away by pointing out that Sam could have learned these terms from him talking about work at the chemical plant. (One of Alex’s pre-determined traits is his penchant for rationalization.)
Part 1, scene 2: Our next scene was set at Alex’s home immediately following the parent-teacher conference. Alex is trying to prepare dinner for Sam (Narrator) while her rambunctious friend Robin (Watcher) jumps on the sofa. As Alex takes some chips from the kitchen cabinet, he discovers that it and other items have been tampered with -- a thin incision in the packaging of several items. His discovery is interrupted by Robin, who pulls at the bottom of a stack of old pizza boxes, causing a cascade that sends forth several cockroaches. The cockroaches strangely scurry into the sink and down the drain.
Part 1, scene 3: The next scene occurs in the same evening after Robin's mother has picked her up. Alex is brewing his own bug spray with household products. He hears voices coming from Sam's room. At first, Alex assumes Sam is just watching TV, but as he continues to listen, he realizes that Sam is conversing with someone else. Alex rationalizes that Sam must be talking on FaceTime. He swears as Sam ignores his protestations to stop dilly-dallying and finish her homework. Sam suddenly appears in the kitchen and tells Alex that she was talking to Mr. Giggles who is helping her do her homework.
Part 1, scene 4: Later that night, Alex is awakened by a scratching sound coming from the wall separating his and Sam’s bedrooms. Alex finds Sam frantically drawing on the shared wall with crayons, many of which lay broken scattered at her feet. Sam has drawn a perfect circle. Strangely the top of the circle is too high for Sam to reach. When Alex attempts to snap Sam out of her stupor, she convulses and collapses in his arms.
Part 1, scene 5: Alex rushes Sam to the ER. After testing, he learns that Sam has a strange heart condition: her heart is beating double-time, as if there are two heart beats, and yet her blood pressure is fine. As he exists, Alex catches a glimpse of the doctor whispering conspiratorially to a nurse.
Part 2, scene 1: Alex takes Sam to a cardiologist and learns that Sam’s condition appears to be the result of the long-term ingestion of some substance. Alex responds defensively when the doctor inquires whether Sam could have gotten into Alex's chemicals at home. While conversing, Alex notices a single cockroach scurry across the floor. Other imperfections, like fingerprints on the computer screen, begin to pop into his view. Revolted by the poor hygienic conditions, Alex declines to have Sam submit to further testing at this office and asks for a referral.
Part 2, scene 2: Alex begins to remove the wallpaper from the wall that Sam had drawn on earlier. He discovers that the circle has penetrated past the wallpaper and appears to be burned into the underlying wall itself. He becomes agitated as he struggles to rationalize away his discovery. As his mind reels, the wall within the circle crumbles, revealing a tunnel -- despite the fact that his bedroom should lie on the other side!
Journey into darkness: Alex stumbles into the tunnel, following a rhythmic drumming which begins to sync with his own heartbeat. There is a sickly sweet and fetid odor in the air. He runs his hands against the wall of the tunnel and feels strange inscriptions with his fingertips. He eventually trips and passes out after hitting his head against a stone altar.
The Final Horror: When he awakens, Alex finds himself in a massive cavern. Sam is there, too. When Alex tries to carry Sam away, he finds her rooted to the ground by masses of cockroaches swarming over her feet. Sam opens her mouth as if to speak but only a cockroach emerges. A shadow looms up from behind Alex. He turns and is confronted by a massive cockroach-like being. Sam begins to speak in the same voice as Mr. Giggles from her bedroom. (See Part 1, Scene 3.) The last words Alex hears is that “The portal has been opened. He has risen.”
Epilogue: We learn that the small town was destroyed by a massive explosion. The distaster is attributed to the chemical plant, even though the investigation shows that the epicenter of the explosion was Alex’s home. Alex is found alive but unable to speak. The chemical plant scapegoats Alex for the explosion. Corroborating the plant’s narrative, a local news show interviews the cardiologist who recalls that Alex was seeing things (the cockroach in the examination room) and acting irrationally (refused treatment for Sam).
Special cards - No one ended up using their special card. (The general rule of creeping horror prohibits the Narrator from introducing overtly supernatural elements or directly threatening the Witness. Special cards allow the narrator to break this rule under specified conditions.) This isn't necessarily a bad thing but it did feel like a pity not to engage this mechanic. There are two reasons for this lack of use: one, the trigger conditions (e.g., “you may play this card after a scene that includes dreams or visions”) needed to activate the cards were not satisfied; two, some of the cards could only be used in Part 2, which is only 1 to 3 scenes long. These restrictions are essentially a pacing mechanism to keep the “creep” in “creeping horror” -- i.e., to prevent the abrupt introduction of supernatural elements too early in the game. However, the trigger and timing conditions may be overly restrictive in practice, making the cards difficult or impossible to enter play at all. I may experiment with loosening or entirely removing these conditions in future games to see what effect this has on the narrative.
The Final Horror -- Our Final Horror scene, while very cool and creepy, did not account for all the clues. I suspect this may be true for many Lovecraftesque games. It is a very tall order for the Narrator to weave the clues from the prior six to eight scenes into a single scene. I think some this pressure can be relieved by explicitly making it the job of the Narrators in the two subsequent epilogue scenes to continue incorporating any clues left unaccounted for in the Final Horror scene.
Watchers -- Overall I was pleased to see that players were very active in the role of the Watcher. Watchers played a couple of secondary roles: the school principal and Robin (Sam's best friend). Watchers also took the initiative to offer creepy atmospheric details, some of which reoccurred across scenes (e.g., flickering lights, fetid odors). Indeed, one such atmospheric detail -- the cockroach -- became a central aspect of the Final Horror. I do feel, however, that as Narrators we could have invited our Watchers to elaborate more on the fiction. I will make an effort to remind myself and others to pose more questions to draw in the Watchers.
Witness Traits -- Going into this game, I was skeptical that the procedure of noting new Witness traits after every scene was necessary or useful. I was wrong. This procedure does exactly what it was intended, namely, maintain continuity of the Witness's personality across scenes despite being played by multiple players. After each scene, we asked, “What if anything did we learn about Alex?” Sometimes the answer was nothing. Sometimes the answer was nothing really new but rather an elaboration of a pre-existing trait, e.g., Alex’s “background as scientist” became “an obsessive need to make sense of things.” In any case, the procedure forced us to think deeply about our characterization of Alex and probably helped prevent wild swings in our individual portrayals of Alex.
In sum, I had a great time playing and hope to have an even more rewarding experience next time.
If anyone has thoughts on the game or these reflections, you can provide feedback on Larry's original Google+ post here.