Marx Stead, Head Administrator, Rogue Cthulhu
Marx Stead, lead organizer and owner of the Rogue Cthulhu group at Origins, was kind enough to take the time for an interview with The Gamer’s Codex.
Hello, Mr. Stead. I appreciate you taking the time out to interview with us at The Gamer’s Codex.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Rogue Cthulhu and how it came about?
I am the head administrator for Rogue Cthulhu and one of its founding members. I also Game Master and write adventures, amongst the myriad of other things I do for the club. I was a philosophy major at the University of Akron. I own an occult book store in Canton Ohio, and I have an 18-year-old daughter.
Rogue Cthulhu is a gaming club dedicated to presenting high quality role-playing (and other) games in the Cthulhu Mythos genre at Origins and other gaming conventions. We are a group of passionate gamers who want to make gaming better for everyone. Rogue started out as a very disgruntled and disenfranchised group of gamers who were fed up with the poor quality of games, poor organization and poor player treatment that was found at Origins the first few years we attended as players (1996-1998). Finally we decided that something needed to be done. An example needed to be set to show all these blanketty-blanks how things should be done, and we were just the kind of upstart rapscallions to do it!
Over the past fifteen years, we’ve built our reputation on quality, dedication, and passion for building an immersive gaming experience. All our members are enthusiastic about putting on a great show and dedicated to the club and its mission. We do everything in our power to see that every game goes off as scheduled so that no players are left disappointed. We try to have Game Masters run their own material whenever possible, so that they are well acquainted with and passionate about the games they are running. We listen to feedback about games and Game Masters. Occasionally, a bad game happens, and when it does, we look long and hard at what went wrong. We’ll re-work a scenario to make it better, or even retire it if need be. We’ll coach our Game Masters to improve their delivery, and if necessary, we’ll bench them if they can’t meet the standards we expect. That can be hard sometimes. No one likes to hear criticism about themselves or their work, but maintaining quality is paramount to our goal. Providing a great game and a fantastic gaming experience for the players is our primary objective and our highest priority.
What is your roll at Origins 2013?
My roll at Origins 2013 is as the head administrator for Rogue Cthulhu. As such, I do lots and lots (and lots) of stuff. For Origins 2013, I am Game Mastering in 24 hours of events. I am the liaison to the events team at GAMA, both at the show and pre-show. I assembled the event information from our GM’s, arranged the schedule, and posted the event submissions. I made what meager updates I could manage to our web page (which is still under construction from its content migration to a new CMS). I took care of registration for most of our GMs and arranged for their GM compensation. This year I purchased or fabricated several additions and improvements to our room decorations. I designed and built a new improved lighting rig; built a coffin and several other props for our LARP; and designed and fabricated an entire giant sized Settlers of Catan board game with 3D sculpted terrain in a Cthulhu theme. At the show, if a GM has a problem, like gets sick or can’t be found, I help rectify the situation any way I can. I’ll find another GM, make sure the players know what is going on and make explanations and apologies as needed. I’ll try to help seat players looking to bump into a game with generic tickets. I’ll try to round up more players if a game has open seats (they seldom do). I make sure the proper event paperwork is turned in to GAMA for all seventy-two of our events. I pack and load the majority of our physical props and gear (with help), unload on site, and supervise and help with the setup of the room, then pack it all back up at the end (many of us pitch in on the set-up and tear down of the room). I have a vision for Rogue Cthulhu, and as such, I find myself taking on the lion’s share of duties in order to fulfill that vision as I see it. Some say I have control issues (which is probably true), so I tend to do a lot myself. But I’m working on learning to delegate. This year was actually a lite year for me GMing-wise, and I let some of our other members take over a lot of the in-room administration duties so that I could spend some more time enjoying the con with my daughter.
How long have you been going to Origins?
I started attending Origins in 1996, its first year in Columbus, Ohio. Since then, I have only missed two years. I started running games there as a part of Rogue Cthulhu in 1999.
How long has Rogue Cthulhu been involved with Origins? How did that start?
A former friend and I started putting together what would become Rogue Cthulhu, just after Origins concluded in 1998. We built a website to vent our frustrations with the establishment. We wrote some adventures for the following year. We networked through email and began making contacts. At first we only intended to high-jack a gaming table from the RPGA whenever their GM didn’t show up (which was a near certainty), and run a game of our own. That was what we called “Plan A.” However, before Origins came around the next year, we had grown. Others heard our frustrated rants on the internet and joined our cause. Our numbers swelled, as did our ambitions. When it became clear that we could do so much more than high-jack a table or two, we approached Chaosium to see if they would back us. We made it clear that we were going to do our thing with or without them, but with their support, we thought we could do more. Chaosium agreed to submit our events as theirs, as well as provide some prize support for our players. Rogue Cthulhu made its debut at Origins in 1999, with seven Game Masters and something like thirty RPG events; in contrast to the RPGA’s much vaunted “Cthulhuthon” the year before, which had a whopping thirteen events. We called our new group Rogue Cthulhu because we saw ourselves as outlaws, pirates of role playing not bound by rules or beholden to corporate policies. We never intended to ask permission or seek approval from anyone. We were going to do a better job at running games than the established organizers, whether they liked it or not. We figured that if we did a great job, it would force everyone to up their game or look worse by comparison. We were a very vocal group of guerrilla gamers back then. We called a lot of people out, by name, for their ineptitude. We weren’t interested in making friends in the industry, just setting an example. We made a lot of people in the establishment angry with our web site because we called it like we saw it and didn’t pull punches, which continued even after we started running our own games. We even got banned by WotC from Origins and GenCon for a year (2001) for our “abusive attitude.” WotC even tried to blacklist us to keep us from returning the next year, but we convinced GAMA to give us a chance to show them what we could do. That’s when we came out with “The Big Show.”
That was a long time ago. We’re much less angry now. In no small part because of the changes that we feel we had a hand in bringing about. Plus, we’ve matured, as people and as an organization. These days, we are more about putting on a great gaming experience and leading by example than about calling others out for their failings. The players can see the difference between a good game and a bad one. They don’t need us to point it out anymore.
Is this a for-profit effort or do you do it for the love of the game? Or both?
Rogue Cthulhu is a not-for-profit venture. It is definitely done for the love of gaming. We do occasionally up-charge for certain events and sell the odd gaming prop on eBay just to offset costs (which are more substantial than you would think), but we dump far more resources into running our show than we could ever get out of it.
What are you most proud of in your work with Rogue Cthulhu and Origins?
There’s a lot to be proud of. We’ve made a lot of players happy. We’ve increased the following for Cthulhu games substantially. We’ve had a hand in making the convention more responsive to the players and especially to clubs and organizations that provide content. We’ve raised the bar for Game Masters and event organizers to provide higher quality games. We’ve increased the level of presentation and pageantry to be found at Origins. I think we’ve had a great impact on Origins, and a very positive one. And I know that the current administration sees that as well. This year, John Ward (Executive Director of GAMA) called us the epitome of what a gaming group at Origins should be (I’m paraphrasing, because I wasn’t there when he said it).
There have been a lot of things that have happened over the years to be proud of, too. But my proudest moment was in 2004. Sandy Peterson was a guest of honor at Origins. This was the first year (I believe) that Origins ran its “Play with a Creator” track. Things were going well for us that year. The room was packed. About mid way through the con, Sandy Peterson showed up in our room – not to play with us or even to talk to us but to try to poach players for his “play with the creator” game! He showed up about ten to fifteen minutes after the hour. Players were already seated and characters were being read. The games were about to get underway. He must have had a poor turn out for his event (though I don’t know that for sure) because he showed up and announced to the room that he was looking for players for his game. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at him. All was silent and still. After a few pregnant seconds, he added expectantly, ” I’m Sandy Peterson… I created the game.” Everyone looked at him. No one moved. Mr. Peterson left the room, alone. Not a single person was willing to walk away from one of our tables to go play with the creator of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. That’s when I knew- WE ARE THE SHOW!
DO you get to play any games at Origins? Or at least run games?
I rarely get a chance to play in anything at Origins, mostly because I spend all my time either running games or overseeing the smooth operation of the Rogue Cthulhu room: helping people find their game events, making sure the GMs are ready for their events and have everything they need, taking care of event paperwork, and acting as liaison with the convention organizers. Each year, I run anywhere from six to nine event slots, myself. Sometimes more, rarely less. This year I actually got to play in two games, which is nearly unheard of.
Tell us a little bit about the Rogue Cthulhu room at Origins 2013. That was quite a set up!
From the beginning, we always tried to add a little decoration to the room where we ran our games. But those early efforts were paltry compared to “The Big Show.” That’s what we call our room set up now. Back in 2001, Rogue Cthulhu and all its members got banned from running events at Origins (and GenCon) by Wizards of the Coast (who ran both conventions at the time). This was back in our very angry days, and was the result of an angry email from us (me) that was sent to the events staff (about something that was totally their fault). Anyway, our year long ban only made us angrier, hungrier and more ambitious. It also gave us time to re-group, plan and build! We spent that time off plotting and planning for our triumphant return, which we vowed would be bigger and better than anything anyone had ever see at Origins. I have a motto when it comes to Origins, “Go big or go home.” During our hiatus, we designed special eerie mood lighting for our game room- colored flood lights and black lights. Designed and built a custom lighting rig to suspend it over head. We gathered dark ambient sound-scapes for background music. We built a hand made eight foot tall inflatable effigy of Cthulhu as a room centerpiece. We gathered or built numerous other decorative elements to create atmosphere in our game room. We wanted to make it look like a Cthulhu cultists’ den! We made a huge eight foot square hand sewn cloth banner with our group logo to post outside our room. We put together our own prizes for all our games (Chaosium dropped us like a hot brick when we got banned). We invented a point system for distributing prizes to all the deserving players, not just to one player that everyone voted for at the end of the game. We bought our own black tablecloths to cover the gaming tables, which we then painted with eerie occult symbols. We put together a large scale LARP dance party event with a DJ and light show (all home brewed). We hand made black cultists’ robes costumes for all our GMs! And of course, we recruited more GMs and wrote more adventures. All this we put together in one year preparing for our triumphant return. There was just one thing; some of our ambitious plans would require cooperation from the convention organizers to pull off. We needed a private room for all our games, control of the room lighting, access to electricity, etc. So I called the Event Coordinator at GAMA (who had taken over the running of the con after WotC defaulted on their contract) to get approval for these things. That’s when I found out that WotC had tried to blacklist us. What should have been a ten minute phone call about “can we control the lights in the room,” turned into an hour and a half spin session with me selling GAMA on “The Big Show.” Fortunately, they loved our ideas and decided to give us a chance.
That was back in 2002. Since then, “The Big Show” has continued to grow. We have made numerous additions and improvements to our kit. The Cthulhu effigy has been replaced with a better one. Two more large inflatable decorations have been added. The prize table has grown substantially, with over a dozen companies and individuals contributing. The light rig has been improved and refined. The background score has been improved and expanded. We have amassed a collection of props and costume pieces for LARPs. We bring our own computer and printer set up to help GMs prepare for their games. Some years we have Cthulhu artwork projected twelve feet tall on the game room wall. Some years we host screenings of Mythos-themed movies in between game sessions.
All this takes a lot of investment, a lot of preparation and a lot of time and effort to load, transport, set up and tear down. But the atmosphere it creates makes the games that much more immersive. Our room set up has become our hallmark. People walk into the Rogue Cthulhu room and are awed. They know they are in for an experience.
How has the reaction to your style of table top Call of Cthulhu con games been?
Every now and then you get someone, either a player or a Game Master, who doesn’t like the low lighting or the background music. It can be a little distracting at first, but I’d say the response to the room effects is overwhelmingly positive. The same applies to the games themselves. Tastes in style differ from person to person, and sometimes a player will be in a “creature feature” game when they would prefer an investigatory one, but we try to give descriptive information about our events to help people find what they like. We were the first group (that I know of) to include a web address in their event descriptions at Origins, so that players could find more information about an event. We are very fortunate to have talented and enthusiastic authors and Game Masters in our group. Their passion comes through in our games and makes for a better experience for everyone. The vast majority of players we talk to have a great time, and some are completely blown away by the experience. We have had many players spend their entire weekend in our room. One player this year made a point to tell me that he came 3000 miles to Origins just to play in Rogue Cthulhu games. He pre-registered for thirteen of our events!
What other events is Rogue Cthulhu involved in?
It took us fifteen years to break out from Origins to another convention, but in 2012, we finally did it. Rogue Cthulhu ran just under twenty events at Con on the Cob 2012, which went very well for our first “away game.” We also scheduled nineteen events at AnCon (also in Hudson, Ohio), but player turn out for that one was poor. It’s very hard to pull together personnel and resources to run events at smaller cons. A lot of us can only afford to take time off from our jobs to attend one convention a year. Origins, in Columbus Ohio, is our “home field” and I expect it always will be.
Between all you do, do you get much of a chance to play any? If so, what are you playing now.
Oddly, I never play Call of Cthulhu at home. I only play it at the con. I have a weekly D&D game, and some of our other members that are local to me have a weekly Pathfinder game. When Origins time rolls around, I have to take a two month hiatus from my regular game so that I can focus on getting ready for the show. Our production requires an immense amount of prep work in order to run smoothly.
Thanks for sharing with us all about Rogue Cthulhu and “The Big Show” at Origins! For more information visit Rogue Cthulhu online at http://www.roguecthulhu.com/.