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This weekend, I ran a couple of games at Conpulsion, Scotland’s biggest and oldest annual roleplaying game convention. Table-top roleplaying is not something I take too seriously. But I nevertheless enjoy the experience a great deal, especially the collaborative, improvisatory storytelling that it involves. I have now run as many games as gamemaster at conventions as I have presented papers at academic conferences!

At the convention, I played The Dolls of Albion, a game based on the Fate Core system and GMed by Martin Pickett. What I like about Fate Core is that it gives players a great deal of narrative control. But there was some tension between the player freedom of this system and the way in which the game was run. Because it was based on the plot of an opera of the same title by Paul Shapera (a steampunk opera about resurrecting the dead into automata), it had a linear plot that limited the directions in which players/characters could go: there was a story we needed to follow rather than create it as we went along.

But that doesnae mean that we didnae derail the plot from what the GM had in mind. One of the players played a singer who drummed up the anger of some factory workers at their working conditions, and as my character tried to provoke them into unionising and striking against the bourgeois tyrants who exploit their labour, I accidentally instigated a full-fledged riot. This is becoming a worrying habit. When I said to a friend and that my character instigated a communist riot, her response was ‘Of course you did.’ She was going to play the game I was running later, and she asked if it would contain communism. No, but it was close.

The games I ran used the Blades in the Dark system. This is another system that’s big on players having narrative control. I made my own story based loosely on Ludwig van Beethoven scoring out the initial dedication of his third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte when he declared himself Emperor, his falling out with George Bridgetower, and his friendship with Rudolphe Kreutzer. The players were hired by the non-player character analogue of Bridgewater to steal the manuscript of the symphony just before a gala concert celebrating the anniversary of the Emperor’s coronation as revenge on the composer. However, they found themselves in the middle of a gang war between Bonapartist-like supporters of the Emperor and republican revolutionaries. The political intrigue was inflected by Karl Marx’s critique of Napoleon’s military co-opting of popular revolt and the counter-revolutionary replacement of the previous monarchy with a similar ruling class.

Although the players did not engage with the political intrigue, they turned a simple heist into utter mayhem, escalating it into a full-blown gang war with them being besieged in their own lair. Some of my favourite moments were, in one game, one of the characters trying to steal Beethoven’s ear trumpet (which I really regret disallowing in hindsight) while another character engaged Beethoven in fisticuffs. Then in the second game, all of the players decided they would blow everything up. I knew the players would derail the game from what I planned, but I never imagined they’d do it with such incendiary flair.

While GMing, I treated the game as a form of collaborative storytelling which could provoke us into reflecting on compelling moral and social questions. To that end, issues of imperialism, power, class, revolution, gender and race were all part of the setting I planned. The extent to which they surfaced in the game’s plot depended on the players, but, like fellow GM and convention-punter Matt Knighton, the games I enjoy most are the ones that are layered and provocative. I was really only a few steps short of delving into Brechtian models of socialist performance by using the Verfremdungseffekt of an RPG. The only thing that stopped me was a want of time to properly spend on reading more about Marxist aesthetics qua Lukács, Brecht and Adorno and applying it to the form of table-top RPGs (possible future blog?).

Still, it was hard work, not in the least because being a GM requires the ability to engage with people in a way that is welcoming and supportive. Fortunately, I didnae encounter any issue with sensitive or triggering material. But I struggled with involving a player who was entirely new to roleplaying games and felt overwhelmed by the whole experience. Because it was the first time I was GMing, I didnae kenn how to respond to a situation like this, and how best to help the player grasp roleplaying as a concept without also having to get their head around all of the rules and mechanics of a new system. I feel really bad that they were scared off by it all. Being able to engage and include productive people who might not have the same level of knowledge, expertise or familiarity with something as other participants is a vital skill, one I really need to hone for being a tutor next year. There are many similarities between facilitating an academic seminar and GMing an RPG, as they are both collaborative and creative methods of discussing and solving problems.

What stands out the most about Conpulsion and my foray into roleplaying games is the wonderful and supportive community of utter nerds. Matt Coward, a doctoral candidate at the University of York, is studying the growth and identity of UK table-top gaming communities, which seems like a really fascinating project. And to that end I can see that table-top gaming, both board games and pen-and-paper RPGs, has really helped me feel part of a community and urged me to think and imagine solutions to problems in interesting ways.

Acknowledgements: My sincerest thanks to Matt Knighton and Sophie Hine for the delightful and thought-provoking discussions about RPGs (and for being such a spectacular pub quiz team), Matthew Barrowcliffe and Alan Jackson for their sage advice on GMing, and all the folk who made Conpulsion happen who, with all their love and enthusiasm, made it a spectacular event.