Method Gamers

Method Gamers
The Contrarian: Masks in the Woods

John Scott Tynes | 31 Jan 2006 07:01
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They'd gamed together before, this group. I'd never met them until that night. They were veteran tabletop roleplayers, passionate about their characters and their methods. So when Gantry threw Douglas against the wall and then fastened his hands around Douglas's throat, choking him, I decided to trust that they knew what they were doing.

They did. It was fine. But it took your breath away to watch all the same. Later, when Gantry announced he was now going to murder Douglas, chasing his desperate, half-mad victim outside into the consensually imagined rain, putting the gun to the back of his head, even he was just as riveted as the rest of us when Douglas, still in the throes of a hallucinatory flashback to his damaged childhood, sobbed out his sister's name and pleaded for her to stop hurting him, his tormentors now interchangeable. Even that stone killer, cold-blooded Gantry, the bully, lowered the gun and led Douglas back inside the lonely farmhouse, satisfying himself with simply handcuffing the weeping man to the couch instead of blowing his brains out. Which made it all the harder to listen to Douglas plead with him not to handcuff him there, not to leave Pfeiff, the blond woman with no tongue, in charge of guarding him. She'll kill me, he cried.

When Gantry left, she did. She slipped the knife into Douglas's heart and that was that. Douglas was dead, murdered by the woman who in real life was his girlfriend. But tonight, she was Pfeiff and Pfeiff never said a word, and Gantry never realized, but she was the scariest and craziest one of them all.

Pfeiff usually was. Even when Pfeiff was a man.

In the space of two years, in one anonymous hotel room after another, I gathered four people together to play a game. I did it 37 times. The game was In Media Res, and it was a tabletop roleplaying adventure loosely related to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu. From convention to convention, weekend after weekend, I ran this scenario repeatedly. It only takes about 90 minutes. Each player receives a jumpsuit with a last name, an identification number and a patch reading "Liberty Center for the Criminally Insane."

They begin the game standing around a table on which lies sprawled the bloody corpse of a prison guard. One of them says a strange, mystical phrase while holding the flesh of the guard's face over his own, a moist mask. A Rorschach blot is painted on the wall in the guard's blood. None of the players have any idea who they are or what is going on. Suddenly the player who read the line coughs and spits something onto the table: A human tongue, taken from the dead prison guard along with his face, supernaturally allowing Pfeiff, a mute, to speak an occult rite. Knowing all this and no more, the players glance at each other nervously. Then, I would say, "What do you do?"

The very first time I ran In Media Res and asked that question, the player playing Morgan shot the player playing Douglas in the head seven seconds later. The game was off to a promising start, and one of my most memorable journeys through roleplaying began.

My goal with In Media Res was to make a cinematic thriller, one that would heavily tax the players' appetites for roleplaying. With no more than a brief sketch of their personalities, I dropped the players into the deep end of the pool, and they had to figure out who they were, what was going on, where their memories had gone and how to best flee from the farmhouse where they were hiding out after a prison break. The Rorschach blot on the wall meant something different to each character, and in the right circumstances it could trigger a flashback sequence. I would lead the player into the hotel bathroom, close the door and then guide them through a very intense memory of the first time they ever killed someone - the day they became who they are. It was after this flashback, when Douglas remembered his sister binding and torturing him when their parents were out of town, that Gantry chased him into the rain intending to finish him off.

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