Interview with a GM – Ruth Tillman


This is the first in a series of interviews with GMs who enjoy running and playing Pelgrane Press games.

Ruth Tillman is the deserved first on the list. She’s runs convention games, notably Trail of Cthulhu at GenCon. She co-hosts The Double Shadow, a Clark Ashton Smith Podcast and writes about Weird Gaming for The Illuminerdy as The Arkham Archivist.

And now she writes for Pelgrane Press, too. She contributed to TimeWatch: Book of Changing Years, an adventure for Dracula Dossier, and Midnight Sub Rosa, a very creepy Trail adventure for our forthcoming Out of the Woods adventure anthology, which Cat and Simon had the pleasure of playing at WarpCon.

Tell us a little about yourself, who you are and where you come from.

Stories have always been a part of my life. I learned to read aged 4, thanks to hours spent with my mother as she taught adult literacy. Shortly after, we had an incident in which squirrels got into our attic and chewed through the wires to the TV antenna. By the time my parents had gotten exterminators in and it was safe to repair the antenna wires, I’d gone two weeks without TV. My only show at the time was Reading Rainbow, though I got occasional splashes of Bob Ross and Julia Child. Since I’d stopped complaining and my little sister was too young to know, my parents decided not to fix it. Until 9/11, I had nothing on the TV but VHSes and, later, DVDs–all very deliberate choices and in limited supply. So I turned to the library’s seemingly-limitless books. I read widely as a kid, but settled into sci-fi and fantasy as my favorite genres as a teen–except for a year where I tried to devour every thing by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc. It surprises some people now, but unlike most teens I couldn’t handle the horror genre. I made a few forays and couldn’t enjoy anything scarier than Dracula. I do remember a little Anne Rice, but even that was hard on my stomach. Lovecraft was off-limits. Tried three Stephen Kings with no success. I read a little Dean Koontz (I was a teen) and had nightmares so bad I couldn’t sleep the next night. I had, and to some degree still have, what Lovecraft would describe as a sensitive imagination. But I loved stories and I always tried pushing just to see if I could handle something.

What was the first RPG you ever played, and what was that session like?

When I was 18, I met a really awesome sophomore girl in my J-term class and we each separately concluded that we needed to be friends. Over lunch just a couple days after we met, she asked me if I’d be interested in joining her that Saturday for some D&D. My parents had an unfortunate exposure to the D&D panics of the 1980s, so I’d been told to regard this kind of thing as dangerous, but I was a freshman and that felt like pushing an envelope. Turned out the rest of her group were (awesome) guys, so I think she wanted me in the game for a little more gender parity as well as to have a reason to hang out on weekends. We were playing 3rd edition D&D. I don’t remember the particulars of that session (though I can still tell you how that character died later on!), but it was a fantastic intro group for learning how RPGs worked. Our DM was an English major, as were my new friend and I. The rest of the guys were all getting minors in theatre or dabbling in acting. The game was a huge collaborative story. Our DM was definitely in charge, but he was open to plot threads and improv and anything we brought to the table. When I finally told my parents I was playing D&D, I framed it as a collaborative storytelling exercise between English majors and thus relevant to my major. We played that game for 3 years. It was a really good starting experience.

As a bonus, 10 years after I first met them, I had the opportunity to run 13th Age for that very first DM (who, after a decade, was finally dating the woman who’d invited me to play in the first place).

How did you come to be a GM – were you one from the outset?

I didn’t become a GM until my mid/late-20s. My first game was School Daze, which I ran specifically because I wanted to try being a GM and the simple six system seemed like a good place to start. I wrote the scenario myself, based on a film about stealing the SATs (The Perfect Score, 2004, starring baby Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson, but not that good). My guinea pigs were all friends I felt I could screw up with, although I was slightly-intimidated because one of them wrote the game (but did a great job of NOT butting in to tell me how I could run it better). I’ve run a few prepared adventures, but I guess that foreshadowed my style. I tend to write what I’m going to run so I have a complete grasp of the situation.

What piece of advice would you offer a new GM? An experienced one?

New GM: Run games for people you trust, if you have them. Immerse yourself in the story you’re telling so that you’re prepared for things to go off the rails. Don’t panic and do listen. Even when your plans fall apart completely, if your players stay engaged they’ll probably have a good time. Run with what they’re doing while thinking two steps ahead about the overall story and how you can loop it back into what they’re doing right now. Read Will Hindmarch’s post about a railroad and why it’s not always a bad thing. Your greatest power is completely bullshitting a situation like you planned it that way.

I don’t know if I have much to say to experienced GMs other than that, if you’re like me (and many of you are probably more experienced), you’ve got a ways to go–so keep building the skills that work for you.

How much prep do you do for your games, and do you enjoy as a rewarding activity in itself?

I have a really bad habit of deciding to write the scenario I’m running. That leads to a fair amount of prep, but I do it because it’s really fun for me. If I’ve already run a version of this scenario a few times (except at the same con, I’ve never run the same version of the same scenario), I mostly focus on reviewing the overall structure of the story and make a bunch of index cards with info about the NPCs. That takes maybe an hour or two to refresh and re-prep.

Which game conventions do you attend, and how does roleplaying at conventions differ from home games?

I’ve been attending GenCon, Metatopia, and our local DC Gameday. At GenCon, in particular, I come into a game with very different expectations. Even in the local gameday, since I know the names of the people who are going to be in my games, I kind of have an idea of how the game will go. I also try to put in elements which I know they’ll like. Of course I’m going to make a pregen who’s skilled at driving and explosives if Tom’s signed up to be in my Night’s Black Agents game. At GenCon, it’s complete strangers to whom I’m also a complete stranger. I find it exciting. There’s always a lot of surprise as to what people will do.

What drew you to Trail of Cthulhu?

By this point, I’d gotten into Lovecraftian stories and wanted to do more Lovecraftian gaming. I know this is some kind of heresy, but Call of Cthulhu’s hook never quite caught me.  It just wasn’t for me. What made Trail click for me was reading some of the adventures written for it. I thought “ok, yes, this makes sense as story.” Coming back to what first got me into it–I felt like story mattered a lot. I didn’t want to be frustrated by leaving a clue behind. In a mystery, that clue happens. Scully bends down to pick up something that a Lone Gunman dropped as he ran to vomit and sees the tiny needle-prick behind the ear of the man she’s autopsying. Hastings has some new fad that gives Poirot insight into a specific aspect of the puzzle. Without that, the story doesn’t work. And the stories written for Trail sat really well with the kind of mystery I appreciated, while having all the Lovecraftian elements I was looking for. The system itself made a lot of sense and I saw how I could use it to tell more stories.

How would you compare running and writing for Night’s Black Agents with Trail of Cthulhu?

This question made me stop and say “oh gosh.” It’s night and…different night, I guess, especially when writing for them. Running Night’s Black Agents, at least I’m using something that someone (even if it’s me) has already written. Trail has intuitive pacing for me. Even if I screw it up, I know I’m screwing it up. Night’s Black Agents, I generally have to remind myself “more explosions, more drama, more guns, more fights.” When working on Blood Coda, I kept trying to imagine it like an action movie from the 1970s crossed with modern action. I had to do a spy/action movie marathon before tackling writing for it. I’d like to do more NBA in the future, but I think it will continue to be a challenge.

How did you get into writing for Pelgrane Press?

I came at it from two sides. Two years ago at GenCon, I ran a Trail one-shot I’d compiled from part of Will Hindmarch’s Eternal Lies campaign, but only for friends. I sent some notes on how I’d pulled out a one-shot to Pelgrane for See Page XX. At last year’s GenCon, I volunteered to run Trail on the books. Pelgrane helpfully offered me multiple scenarios and I said “no, I’ll write something.” That turned into a scenario I ran at other events, which turned into a draft I submitted to Pelgrane, which was accepted with suggestions for lengthening and revision. I’m finishing up a final version of the new draft to turn in, um, tomorrow.

Pelgrane gamesFrom the other side, it was a matter of knowing and talking to Pelgrane writers, expressing interest in the materials, doing my own writing for blogs and other things, and then being asked to write. Last fall, Kevin Kulp asked me to contribute setting material for TimeWatch and Kenneth Hite asked me if I’d be interested in doing a Dracula Dossier scenario. In Kevin’s case, I’d been a player in his games, playtested TimeWatch (as player not GM), and talked GUMSHOE with him. In Ken’s, I assume he’d read some of the stuff I’ve written and he knew of my interest from the Trail angle.

Do your skills as a game master enhance your skills as a writer?

I think so. Responding to things as a GM has shaped how I approach writing about them. When writing, I have a vision of how things will play out. But my very first game “The Perfect Score,” the players took a completely different approach to the situation than I expected. I realized that anything I wrote in future would need a lot more about what’s there and a lot less about expecting people to behave in X or Y way. I create the story by creating NPC events and the world in which the events occur.

That said, sometimes I get a little carried away with that attempted flexibility and need a good writer-side chiding. Ken’s notes on the first draft of Blood Coda included something like: “Change every instance of an NPC who ‘will,’ ‘would,’ ‘might,’ ‘may’ to active words.” That’s taught me to bring balance to how I write. If the players go to X location and talk to Y person, this is what they find and how that person acts. This is what interpersonal skills get that person to do, if players choose to apply them. The if, the flexibility, comes between segments and scenes. And perhaps that comes to mind first because it’s something I’m still working on.

Who would be in your dream role playing group?

Oh lord, is there a way I can answer this without sounding like a suck up? My local group is fantastic. Mix of designers, experienced playtesters, all-around friends, and Old Bay aficionados. People not in that group with whom I consistently enjoy being at the table include Kevin Kulp, Elsa S. Henry, Mike Shea, and Philippe A. Ménard (and ideally all of them would take turns running their stuff as well!). I know I’m missing people. People I’d never played with but would really like to include–the whole team at Pelgrane. Someday!

Is there anything in your academic background which informs your gaming?

As I mentioned early on, I majored in English in undergrad. That experience made me learn, among other things, what the nuts and bolts of a story are. Also Deconstruction. It was a wild ride. But I think in terms of gaming and especially of running games, I think understanding how a story works, techniques of foreshadowing, firing the Chekov’s damn gun, etc. really help make for a game where everyone has fun. That matters even more in a one-shot, I think, which is a lot of what I do. I’m also in Toastmasters, which is not just helping me with public speaking but specifically with storytelling. In fact, once I finish the main manual (soon!), I’ll be moving on to the storytelling one.

How do you think your gender has affected your experience of roleplaying?

I could talk about this all day, although I try not to too much. For the most part, I have good experiences at the table and in the community. I have strong biases for language which includes me (picking up my first Trail scenario and seeing the Keeper called “she” said to me “Ruth, they’re expecting you to run this.”) and I tend to play in games where the overall book–art, writing, etc.–makes me feel like being a woman in this game or world is an awesome experience.

But there are things that have happened which definitely influence how I engage in roleplaying and in the community. Some days, being a woman means I’m scared. Whether it’s of repeating experiences like the time a complete stranger at a table decided that our characters being friends meant he should start touching me, or of someone following me after a session (this one hasn’t happened in roleplaying but has happened at work), or of broader movements which target women for opinions as simple as “maybe sensible armor this time?” there are individuals and groups that make me pass on some opportunities from fear of being unsafe. It’s not a pleasant experience. I think there’s a lot less I’d have to worry about or account for or avoid if I were a cisgender man. But for the most part, I try to focus on enjoying, promoting, and writing things that continue to make me feel like I’m part of the community and I tend to meet great people through those games.

Finally, can you offer any advice to people who want to write for Pelgrane Press?

I’m assuming that these people are playing the games already but, if not, play the games and read the games. Try running your idea, see how it goes, then pitch it. Cat and Simon really don’t bite, I promise.*
*Not liable for possible futures in which Dracula finally infiltrates the Pelgrane’s nest.

[Special thanks to the people who suggested questions, used or not, on Facebook]

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