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Author Topic: [The Shab-al-Hiri Roach] Disturbed at GenCon  (Read 16936 times)
Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« on: August 17, 2006, 11:16:36 AM »

I thought about posting this report for a while, trying to decide whether or not I should.  I'm not sure if this is an actual play post or an exercise in psychology.  In the end, I thought, what the heck, someone may gain from it, and the whole point is to talk about experiences, so...

I was really looking forward to the Roach at GenCon.  Everything I had read about it really sounded like a lot of fun.  I should say that my expectations for the game were somewhat ambiguous.  If asked beforehand what to expect, I guess I would have said vaguely Cthulu-esque tongue-in-cheek parody, along the lines of PBS Mystery does HP Lovecraft as written by Fry and Laurie or P.G. Wodehouse.  Keep those expectations in mind as you read on...

So, I signed up for a game on Saturday afternoon.  There were six players, including the GM.  I don't think any of us had ever played the game before.  I'm tired from having just GM'ed four four hour sessions straight on Friday and Saturday morning, and addled a bit because I had to clear my own Donjon game off the table to let the GM of the Roach game set up (she was very nice about it, by the way, thanks).  I sit down and start to play.

Here is the biggest surprise of the con for me...I hated it.   At first, I thought I just didn't really enjoy it much, that I was tired and not really on the top of my form, etc., but the more I reflect on it, the more I hate it.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the rules of the game; the rules are actually perfect for what the game is.   Jason is worthy to be praised for his work here, and anyone considering a GM-lite game should look at this.  I also didn't hate it because of the players I was playing with; they were all fantastic, really gaming on all cylinders and driving stuff forward.  The GM/organizer knew what she was doing, knew the rules, and had a ton of experience with the game, not to mention all the plastic roach props she poured onto the table, which were fun.  I can't even say I didn't have fun; there were moments when I really enjoyed myself, especially the moment when I spoke MURUB to the chap sitting next to me. 

And yet, I still hate it.  I could go into the fictional events that occurred in the game, but I don't think it would really be helpful; they really weren't that much different from other AP posts you may have seen.

The Shab-al-Hiri Roach is the first game I have ever played that I found disturbing for philosophical reasons.  The game has a point; the behaviour of the characters is essentially no different, whether they have eaten the Roach or not, and therefore comments on the depravity of human nature. I got the point in the first 15 minutes. As a believer in the doctrine of original sin, the point was easy to make for me.

I then experienced another 3 hours and 45 minutes of people doing horrible things to each other and to the NPC's for fun.  From what the GM said, our game was remarkably tame compared to some; she seemed somewhat dissappointed by the lack of gore, bloodthirsty sex, general dismemberment, etc.  I did try to get into it, I think; I purposely took on the Roach early on just to see how that would go, and did my best with MURUB.  But the story breathed its nihilistic philosophy on me and made me shudder.  Frankly, if I had not gotten the Roach card on the last event and been able to expel the Roach from my character, I would have probably felt even worse about the whole experience.  It is the first time in my life I have ever stood up from a game and felt, well, a bit dirty. 

Its not that I haven't played and narrated violence, sex, etc. in games; there has been a lot of that, some of it pretty brutal and graphic.  Just the previous day I had been the Dealer in two Dust Devils sessions that involved prostitution, brutal beatings, gunfights galore, psychopathic personalities, and racial hatred.  So what was the difference? 

I think I have finally figured it out.  In most games the morality of the actions of the characters is essentially independent of the fun you can have with those characters.  The paladin is as much fun as the assassin, and in some ways the actions of the assassin may be moral than those of the paladin.  Often, it is exactly those places where the morality or immorality of the characters intersect with the other characters and the setting that the most fun happens; will this moral character stay moral in the face of horrible pressure?  Will this immoral character see the light?  Will this character confront the moral or immoral tendencies in their own makeup and resolve the tensions?

But in the Roach, as far as I can tell, the fun of the game is directly proportional to the immorality (or amorality) of the characters.  The more depraved the conduct, the more enjoyable the fiction, seemingly.  I have to place the Roach in the same category as I place movies like A Clockwork Orange and Se7en, or the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch; impressive works of art that I wish I had never actually experienced.

Again, my intent is not to bash on Jason, Bully Pulpit, my fellow players, or the game itself.  I'm just trying to understand if this is simply a case of "not the game for me", or if there is something more involved.  Looking back, I realize that if I read the other actual play examples more closely, I would probably have noticed the aspects that in the end made me dislike the experience.  Also, I really was very tired, and I admit I was not at top form.  I'd be surprised if any of the other players in this game remember any of my inputs very well (except for MURUB, of course, which is just plain easy to make memorable).  Another point is that my expectations different from what the reality of the local instance of the game was.  Finally, I have not read the actual rule-book itself, and have no idea what guidelines might be within that address exactly the experience I had; I only have the verbal description provided to me by the organizer as a reference.  But I do have several questions:

* Did I simply miss the real point of the game?  Was there some deeper meaning or subtext that went over my head?
* Was this focus on depravity a design feature of the game, or just a local phenomenon?
* Is the kind of nihilisitc angst I experienced during the game what is intended, or am I just taking the whole thing too seriously?
* Am I just an idiot for not realizing what I was getting myself into, like a guy walking into a bar called "Wild Cherry Gentlemen's Lounge" and then complaining it would be a nice place if it weren't for all the naked women?

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epweissengruber
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Posts: 311

I like games! and theory! and The Forge!


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« Reply #1 on: August 17, 2006, 11:48:09 AM »

Your in game decision really impressed me

In C.S. Lewis' Cosmic Trilogy there are some pretty harrowing moments of degradation and cruelty, especially in That Hideous Strength.  And there are moments where characters come face to face with the realization that their actions have lead to their damnation.  All this is pretty harrowing stuff (even for an infidel like myself).  Lewis gives the frisson of being threatened by the infernal but the reader has some distance from the damnation in question.  S/he is proximate to ultimate horror yet given to realize that s/he has within the power to refrain from making the fatal step over the abyss.

Your intervention in the game made me think of C.S. Lewis meets HP Lovecraft.

In any case -- you did not become obstructionist.  You made a contribution to the game based on  your response to the premises of the game.  It's sad that the rest of the players didn't pick up on that.

Erik
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Adam Cerling
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WhiteRat


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« Reply #2 on: August 17, 2006, 12:01:53 PM »

I believe I was in this game as well. You were the Asst. Prof. of Mathematics touting his Theorem and his Calvinism, correct? I played the manipulative, cruel, German Prof. of Foreign and Ancient Languages.

Having little time at the moment to contribute my perspective, I just want to add a bit more information for those reading:

Lisa Provost was the GM.

The two people between you and me (Kyle [male] and Corrie [female]) were friends Iíd talked into coming to the Roach game with me. My friends and I had never played before, and only I had read about it. I talked them into the game because we all appreciate Cthulhu camp. I actually didnít end up purchasing the Roach, but Corrie did.

Iíll chime in more later when I have time.

(Noticing Erik's reply) -- Erik, what of Hans's contribution do you think the players "didn't pick up on?"
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Adam Cerling
In development: Ends and Means -- Live Role-Playing Focused on What Matters Most.
Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #3 on: August 17, 2006, 12:05:56 PM »

Your in game decision really impressed me

In case you are wondering what Erik was talking about (he and I have spoken in another venue regarding this)...

I was playing a Calvinist mathematics professor who had taken the Roach because the Roach had convinced him he was not a member of the Elect, predestined for salvation. On the last scene, I got the card which allowed the character to expel the Roach. I narrated the character being blown away by a shotgun blast by another character, and in that moment looking up into a bright tunnel of light, and seeing a kindly face looking down on him, which said "Why, Josiah, did you believe the lies of the Evil One?" and then the Roach being violently expelled through the saving grace of Jesus Christ.  I'm not sure whether anyone else at the table even noticed this; I sort of got the sense they all sort of smiled an "ok, whatever" kind of smile and kept going.  That's fine by me; to me it seemed almost a required act to redeem my character and myself.

Erik bringing up "That Hideous Strength" is very appropos.  I guess that novel would have been much closer to my expectations of the game than what actually happened, if that makes sense.
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Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #4 on: August 17, 2006, 12:07:25 PM »

Iíll chime in more later when I have time.

I'm looking forward to it, Adam, because I'm almost completely certain that my experience at this game session was diametrically opposed to that of the other players, and I would really like to hear about it from your perspective.  It might help me figure out exactly what went wrong for me.
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Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #5 on: August 17, 2006, 12:13:46 PM »

Lisa Provost was the GM.

The two people between you and me (Kyle [male] and Corrie [female]) were friends Iíd talked into coming to the Roach game with me. My friends and I had never played before, and only I had read about it. I talked them into the game because we all appreciate Cthulhu camp. I actually didnít end up purchasing the Roach, but Corrie did.

Kyle was the chap I MURUB'ed; a good sport if I ever met one.  Corrie was, well, Corrie was fantastic; the first person I have ever seen stand on a chair at GenCon in the midst of a session, and oy vey her Jewish accent is incredible.  You sir, were downright sinister.  My friend Gary was also in the game (as the psych professor sitting to the right of Lisa) and there was one other guy whose name escapes me.

Every one of these people are people I would LOVE to game with.  If I did not enjoy the session it was certainly NOT for their lack of trying.
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Lisa Provost
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aka urbanpagan


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« Reply #6 on: August 17, 2006, 12:25:27 PM »

Hans,

I find it interesting that you did not enjoy yourself.  A bit puzzled as well since I asked you if you were or were not during the break we took about two hours in.  Being the nob GM and uber paranoid, I wanted to be sure that everyone was having a good time.  :)

You know, it very well could be that it's not the game for you.  Not everyone is going to like it.  And that's okay if they don't.  There are plenty of games out there that people I know play and enjoy that I personally dislike.  *shrug*

I wonder if maybe you should try the game again... maybe with someone else that is not as blood thristy and violent as myself.  *insert big grin here*  If you still dislike it, then it's not the game for you.

I was thinking of what I might have done to make it more interesting/enjoyable for you but you know after reading your posts again, I really don't think there was anything else I could have done.  Erik mentioned that maybe the other players should have noticed your uncomfortable-ness but going back and thinking about it, you didn't give off that vibe at all to me and I was sitting right next to you.  If anything, you were the one laughing harder than I was. 

Was it just the subject matter?  If maybe there hadn't been the 'using' of co-eds, the murder, do you think it would have been enjoyable at all?

It's funny you should mention that you felt 'dirty'.  My husband was in a game later that night of MLwM run by Adam Dray and he laughed saying her felt 'dirty' once they were done playing it. 

Lisa P
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oliof
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Harald Wagener - Zurich, Switzerland


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« Reply #7 on: August 17, 2006, 12:34:50 PM »

Hans,
in my convention game, we had a *very* tame game as can be seen in the actual play report up here. The only death was like 'off-the-scene', and the majority of the game was academic satire, warped by roach-bound commands.

So, meaningless brutality does not need to dominate the game. My guess is that once it has been used successfully, it's easy to follow up in the bloody tracks plowed by other players. I need to play this game more to comment in-depth, though.
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Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #8 on: August 17, 2006, 01:19:10 PM »

I find it interesting that you did not enjoy yourself.  A bit puzzled as well since I asked you if you were or were not during the break we took about two hours in.  Being the nob GM and uber paranoid, I wanted to be sure that everyone was having a good time.  :)
Lisa, I did appreciate you asking.  I'm just not the kind of person who will say "yeah, well, I guess its ok, could be better" when a GM asks me if I am enjoying myself.  You were certainly doing your best to make the game entertaining, for which you are worthy to be praised.  And honestly, I WAS having fun at the time.  My ultimate feelings about the game were only beginning to make themselves known to me at that point.

Quote
Not everyone is going to like it.  And that's okay if they don't. 
Agreed completely.  My hope is that I can figure out why I didn't like the experience so I can either a) avoid it in future, or b) learn what to do to make it more enjoyable.
Quote
I wonder if maybe you should try the game again... maybe with someone else that is not as blood thristy and violent as myself.  *insert big grin here*
  Hehe, you definitely have a certain "devil take the hindmost" quality to you. :)

Quote
I was thinking of what I might have done to make it more interesting/enjoyable for you but you know after reading your posts again, I really don't think there was anything else I could have done.  Erik mentioned that maybe the other players should have noticed your uncomfortable-ness but going back and thinking about it, you didn't give off that vibe at all to me and I was sitting right next to you.  If anything, you were the one laughing harder than I was. 
Absolutely the case, I don't think you could or should have done anything different...we will be certain of if Adam is able to post his impressions.  Erik was speaking about a particular thing that I did in the game that I mentioned to him (see above) and not the general actions of the other players.  I was dissapointed by its reception, but on reflection its my own fault; I was either too tired or too disengaged by that point to really make people notice it, and even if they had noticed I'm not convinced it wouldn't have been against the general tone of the story to that point anyway.  Tony LB once said something about how the story you remember after the game is not the same story that would be written from a transcript of the game; the things that are important to you may be completely irrelavant to what someone else remembers.  This is an example.

As to laughter...a) I pretty much laugh all the time, ask anyone who knows me, its one of my most annoying habits and b) I really disliked the overall experience, while enjoying individual bits of it, if that makes any sense.  I loved the MURUB scene, and pretty much any scene I had with Kyle after that, and almost everything Adam and Corrie did was fantastic stuff (not to trash what other people did, but they really were incredible).  But its the same feel I have with a movie like Se7en; Morgan Freeman is fantastic in it, yet walking out of the theater I found myself wishing I had that two hours of my life back.

Quote
Was it just the subject matter?  If maybe there hadn't been the 'using' of co-eds, the murder, do you think it would have been enjoyable at all?

Hehe, changing the subject matter would sort of be like saying "I'd like Quentin Tarantino's films if he just wouldn't have all that violence and bad language in them".  Co-eds, murder, murderous co-eds, murdering co-eds, etc. seems to me to be integral to the game.  Can you have a game without it?

Quote
It's funny you should mention that you felt 'dirty'.  My husband was in a game later that night of MLwM run by Adam Dray and he laughed saying her felt 'dirty' once they were done playing it. 

Its funny you should mention MLwM, because after playing the Roach, I'm thinking that MLwM is another absolutely brilliant game that maybe I should never play, regardless of how interesting it seems. 

It strikes me that some people can "distance" themselves from the actions of their characters better than others, or at least better at some times than others.  In one game, you can play a character that does absolutely horrible things for some reason, and are able to say "its not me, its the character doing those things".  In another, you can't.  Maybe, for whatever reason, I simply could not distance myself enough from my character and achieve the necessary "pawn stance" or whatever its called.

A perfect example of this is the MURUB scene with Kyle.  Kyle is describing his character throwing all that psychoactive stuff into the fire, and Corrie picks up on it, playing the co-ed (Regina, I think) coming on to Kyle's character big time, and I think to myself "well, this is as good a time as any", and MURUB'ed him.  But even then, I couldn't separate myself from the character.  I suppose it could have been played a number of ways, but all that seemed "within bounds" to me was a relatively straightforward romantic scene between the two characters; firelight, a convenient blanket, tender whispers of affection, and a tasteful pan of the camera.  Because anything more than that is simply not me.  It wasn't "how would Josiah handle this sudden search of attraction towards a member of the same sex?" but "how would I handle it?"

I seem to remember reading a thread on kill puppies for satan (definitely a game I should probably not try) that addressed a similar issue; how the gruesomeness can escalate and escalate and all seem like fun and games and then suddenly you cross a line, and you can no longer distance yourself from what you are narrating.
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Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #9 on: August 17, 2006, 01:25:42 PM »

Hans,
in my convention game, we had a *very* tame game as can be seen in the actual play report up here. The only death was like 'off-the-scene', and the majority of the game was academic satire, warped by roach-bound commands.

So, meaningless brutality does not need to dominate the game. My guess is that once it has been used successfully, it's easy to follow up in the bloody tracks plowed by other players. I need to play this game more to comment in-depth, though.

Your thread defintely is more along the lines of my original expectations of the game, Harald.  Thanks for directing me to it.  I'm beginning to think that the way to really figure out this game for myself would be to try it again:
a) after a good nights sleep
b) with people I know pretty well
c) after a general discussion of the kind of tone people want to set

Whether or not that would lead to a wholly enjoyable experience on my part I don't know, but the game is brilliantly conceived and it seems a shame not to give it another go.
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Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #10 on: August 17, 2006, 01:38:29 PM »

It's funny you should mention that you felt 'dirty'.  My husband was in a game later that night of MLwM run by Adam Dray and he laughed saying her felt 'dirty' once they were done playing it. 

Actually, though, if you want to know the thing that most gave me this impression, it was definitely something of my own creation; the whole business of sorority girls enslaved by Wheldrake with equations carved into their foreheads.  I made this up, and if I had come up with it as a GM back in my old World War II Mage game as something some Nazi scientist was doing, I would have totally grooved on it.  But in this case, it was not some Nazi scientist, it was ME carving equations into their foreheads; I could not distance myself from the fictional act.  Does that make sense? 

This is all verging on psychoanalysis territory, and yet it seems important to me from the perspective of any RPG, not just the Roach.  We have all narrated some pretty gruesome and horrendous stuff in our gaming lives.  What are the circumstances that let us say "thats not me DOING that, its someone else"?
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Jason Morningstar
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« Reply #11 on: August 17, 2006, 01:49:45 PM »

* Did I simply miss the real point of the game?  Was there some deeper meaning or subtext that went over my head?
* Was this focus on depravity a design feature of the game, or just a local phenomenon?
* Is the kind of nihilisitc angst I experienced during the game what is intended, or am I just taking the whole thing too seriously?
* Am I just an idiot for not realizing what I was getting myself into, like a guy walking into a bar called "Wild Cherry Gentlemen's Lounge" and then complaining it would be a nice place if it weren't for all the naked women?

Hey Hans,

Thanks for posting about your experience with The Roach - this is fantastic stuff.  I'm just going to address your specific questions and get out of the way, because the conversation is really interesting and productive.

I don't think you missed the point of the game.  I've seen players consciously and unconsciously add meaning to their experience, but I've also seen it played for cheap laughs.  With me it is usually a race for the bottom.  As a designer I had no elegant self reflective goals in mind (although I'm glad when that happens). 

I can't tell you whether or not you are taking the game too seriously, but I will say that the whole thing is meant to be amusing in the darkest way.  It's pitch black satire, and if upon reflection you realize that the real depravity is your own, not your characters, you can draw your own conclusions. 

I talked to Lisa and was assured that she had the standard lines and veils discussion before play, which is something I really harp on from people who facilitate it at cons, so I really don't see how a person could be completely blind-sided.  That said, I totally respect your feelings about The Roach, and I'm encouraged that you brought them to the forums. 
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Hans
Member

Posts: 576


« Reply #12 on: August 17, 2006, 02:00:17 PM »

Quote
I talked to Lisa and was assured that she had the standard lines and veils discussion before play, which is something I really harp on from people who facilitate it at cons, so I really don't see how a person could be completely blind-sided.  That said, I totally respect your feelings about The Roach, and I'm encouraged that you brought them to the forums. 

She did indeed, and I have no complaints whatsoever on her behaviour.  If I was blindsided, it was due to my own expectations or misunderstandings, not due to any failure on her part.  One of the reasons I hesitated on posting anything at all was because of the concern that it would harm someone elses experience of the game, or their memory of it.  I hope that doesn't happen.
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Ricky Donato
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Posts: 156

Just chillin'


« Reply #13 on: August 17, 2006, 03:08:18 PM »

Actually, though, if you want to know the thing that most gave me this impression, it was definitely something of my own creation; the whole business of sorority girls enslaved by Wheldrake with equations carved into their foreheads.† I made this up, and if I had come up with it as a GM back in my old World War II Mage game as something some Nazi scientist was doing, I would have totally grooved on it.† But in this case, it was not some Nazi scientist, it was ME carving equations into their foreheads; I could not distance myself from the fictional act.† Does that make sense?†

This is all verging on psychoanalysis territory, and yet it seems important to me from the perspective of any RPG, not just the Roach.† We have all narrated some pretty gruesome and horrendous stuff in our gaming lives.† What are the circumstances that let us say "thats not me DOING that, its someone else"?

Hi, Hans,

You have reminded me of a quote from a very old thread:

I once wrote a story and while writing I was entirely within the head of the main character. I was my character yet at the same time I was the author of the story and I was doing some rather terrible things to this person. The imagination is a rather amazing thing and it has many levels, it seems.

You are not alone in your feelings. This is a dichotomy that every writer faces; he empathizes with his protagonist (I use empathize to mean "feels the same emotions as"), but he also must place difficulties in the protagonist's path. Everyone can hit a wall where they say, "Oooh, that's a bit too much."
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Ricky Donato

My first game in development, now writing first draft: Machiavelli
Adam Cerling
Member

Posts: 159

WhiteRat


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« Reply #14 on: August 17, 2006, 04:54:38 PM »

Okay, my experience with the game! But first an aside:

That Particular Revulsion

I was not revolted by the game in the same way you were, Hans, but you described your reaction in a way that was immediately familiar to me. I wracked my brain remembering why.

It was Grand Theft Auto: I once had the same reaction playing the video game Grand Theft Auto that you had playing the Roach. GTA gives you deplorable game objectives, and then turns you loose to accomplish them in deplorable ways. I found it difficult to navigate the game at all without accidentally running down pedestrians. Murder isn't a big deal, it's just a thing you do.

So I don't play GTA.

Playing the Roach

I had a good time, and I would gladly play again. The only reason I didn't buy it is because I can't imagine its Cthulhoid academic satire appealing broadly within my circles of friends. Corrie did buy it, and so I hope to play it again with her and those few others whom I can imagine being interested.

I know I've read the comment before, but the Roach felt a bit like a colorful board game -- akin to Betrayal at the House on the Hill. Because the fiction failed to constrain or increase my options, I had a sense that the fiction didn't really matter. So I went about my murdering and torturing and stuffing a man's intestines into his own mouth without a sense that I was addressing any premise whatsoever.

I created my character to be despicable. The thought process went something like:
1. Hmmm, what funny accent do I want to try today? I know! German!
2. Huh, what were the Germans up to around 1919? Oh, I remember...
3. A proto-Nazi it is!

The first two atrocities were mine: when trapped in Kyle's mad sculpture, my squirming loosed the spike that killed the Chair of the Board of Trustees, and later I tried to frame Kyle by killing the Chaplain and putting him inside another sculpture. In both cases I attributed no moral weight to the acts: I was a player jockeying for position.

At the end of the game (as I stood over Asst. Prof. Andrews' dying body) I remember I hesitated for a long moment: at that point I was realizing that a) I was not Roached, but b) I was being a right monstrous bastard anyway, and c) it would be too complicated to humanize my character at this point, so I was better off continuing to be a right monstrous bastard.

I noticed a palpable drop in energy at the end of the game, when most of the table realized they could not win.

Josiah's Redemption

Josiah's deliverance went totally over my head, I'm afraid! I totally failed to figure out who the "kindly face" was, much less that the Roach was expelled through His agency. I understand the Mythos to be a nihilistic, materialist milieu: I no more expected Christ than I expected Cinderella. I glossed past your narration because I didn't understand it, and I was keen on getting to that bit where I won the game.

Perhaps some of your discontent is that you wanted to address a premise ("Does a belief in determinism [Calvinism] lead men into evil?") and the rest of us were doing no such thing?
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Adam Cerling
In development: Ends and Means -- Live Role-Playing Focused on What Matters Most.
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