Over the last two months, I have been running a table-top role playing game campaign I titled Hailsham Dark, which was an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go using a modified version of Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark system. It was a horror mystery set in a fictional English boarding school where everything is not quite what it seems. We finished the game the past weekend. This was in part an experiment in using an RPG as a way of engaging with not just the moral and political questions posed by literary texts, but also as a form of social commentary that goes beyond the limitations and assumptions of the source. There were ways in which the players in the campaign responded to some of the dilemmas they faced in ways that were not just critically compelling, but also great fun to follow through. As much as I enjoyed asking various philosophical questions about what makes us human and who counts as morally significant, it was much more fun to watch a rotating cast of six players (almost literally) run riot.
Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark is an excellent system for the game because of its emphasis of cosmic horror. Even with the Lovecraftian skin stripped away, the steep and punishing consequence ‘Insanity’ system (adapted as ‘Strain’ in my game) ratchets up the tension really well, especially when characters are teetering on the edge of ‘dying’. The point of Cthulhu Dark is a doomed investigation in front of an overwhelming and incomprehensible power that defies human imagination, and learning more usually leads one to have a breakdown (mechanically, by risking your sanity for an increased chance of success, or triggering sanity checks upon learning too much). By the same token, the characters in my game were fighting a power far beyond their agency, one that questioned their understanding of their reality, and, true to the fate of Tommy and Kathy in the novel, they were doomed to their fate from the start.
But unlike in the novel, where the students in the school knew the truth about their existence from the start, in the game I had to keep the characters in the dark until much later, lest the ‘truth’ just give way to nihilism and resignation. This is because the novel deals with the problem of the protagonists’ being and moral significance primarily at the textual level — presenting the reader with Kathy’s account of her life and leaving them to come to a conclusion — rather than to that great an extent at the level of the characters and their struggle for autonomy. I had to flesh out the world a little more, paper over the truth but leave just enough cracks to allow for clues to a wider conspiracy. That way, the protagonists of the game could discover the truth and have the motivation to fight it (or at least try). This worked, for the most part, as it created a compelling mystery plot to solve, and equally it allowed for some very ambivalent non-player characters (NPCs) like the head teacher.
But with any mystery RPG that has a story designed by a game master, there is the inevitable problem of the impossible thing before breakfast, the contradiction that GMs have full control of a story that they have scripted, in which the player characters have free will. Cthulhu Dark subjects itself to this problem quite severely as the characters are ultimately powerless, and the handbook suggests writing mysteries as being ‘railroaded’. This is where this whole thing was quite a ‘learning experience’, to quote two of the characters in-game. I tended, at first, to rely too heavily on the plot that I had scripted and tried coercively to get characters to stick to it when they nearly ducked major plot events. One of the characters found documents important to the plot, but left it behind because he did not see its importance, and I intervened saying ‘they took it with them anyway’, which is possibly one of the worst ways of handling it as it undermines the players’ protagonism.
The advice I got from more experienced GMs is to have this conversation at the players’ level, to be clear with what my expectations are so players can act accordingly, rather than coerce characters in ways that undermine player action, so saying at the start of the session ‘we have an important document for you to discover, let’s work out how we get to it’, again without giving away details or spoilers, without undermining the players’ will and characters’ agency, but nevertheless giving direction to the story. If this is a collaborative storytelling, each participant needs to communicate more clearly what their expectations are, rather than the GM getting privileged authorship.
When the players did drive with the story, they ran with it in ways that not just subverted my expectations, but blew out of the water everything I had anticipated: organising a demonstration, standing on top of a van singing songs from Les Miserables, leaking incriminating documents to Owen Jones, and above all blowing open the questions of class, wealth and access to the kind of medical depicted in Never Let Me Go which the novel never fully addresses. It was so much more fun going with the flow, to the point where I enjoyed the sessions where I planned less. What I did need, however, was to have elaborated upon the world rather than driven the plot. The rest of it, the players handled brilliantly. What I really enjoyed watching was one of the players realise that their freedom came at the cost of two people’s lives, and seeing what they did with it. They successfully turned the setting on its head and wrestled a positive, hopeful ending that purported change from the jaws of the hopelessness and despair of Cthulhu Dark cosmic horror. The biggest surprise was that despite all the subversion of the novel’s plot and setting, the story of the campaign folded itself neatly back into the events in the novel’s background, particularly the ‘Morningdale scandal’ that is mentioned briefly that leads to Hailsham being shut down.
The biggest difficulty was player absence, as some of the difficult moral problems concerning deaths of NPCs rested on connections with some PCs whose players were away. Then I had issues with pacing, and gave the big dramatic reveal half-way through the campaign rather than later, and way too early in the session without much build-up. Some of the tropes I had been foreshadowing (operating theatre lights, for example) never came in handy in the final confrontation. I may have been too vague about the conspiracy of power and machinations of the antagonist in the final scene, giving players snippets of what was going on in conversations between people in power behind closed doors rather than having them directly involved in the conflict. And I had definitely made one character more of a protagonist than others, and I should possibly have balanced the roles all of them had to play. But these are issues with me learning to GM rather than with the form of the game per se.
Despite the challenges of adapting Never Let Me Go into an RPG, this form of storytelling made the whole experience much more dynamic and exciting. There was a heightened intensity in having to address the moral problems in the course of a game that the setting placed in what the game designer Jane McGonigal describes as the experience of ‘urgent optimism’ and a sense of ‘epic meaning’. The problem we needed to solve was more intense, the solution correspondingly drastic, and the payoff proportionately more rewarding. It allowed us subversive latitude with the novel, to read the text against its grain and pose questions of it which the novel did not consider. I had great fun running this, and I might try and take this further and make another game in the future.
My sincerest thanks to my wonderful players who made the game so rewarding. It would not have been what it is without them. Also, my thanks to Alan Jackson and Matthew Barrowcliffe for their sage wisdom and advice on GMing.