The Time Card of Cthulhu

Hello Peter what’s happening. I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow. So if you could be here at around… 9 that’d be great…

-Bill Lumbergh, Office Space, 1999


Being in the tech industry, I was recently hit by those infamous layoffs you’ve seen in the news lately. My company’s layoffs didn’t make any headlines. As a company of 250, we’re barely a blip in the news of the past several months.

As I was searching for a new job (successfully, thankfully), I began thinking about employment within roleplaying games themselves. Certainly, a weird thing to think about. And I don’t mean the fact that producing RPGs is not a way to get rich quick, typically requiring some other full-time gig. What is employment like for characters inside RPGs?

This really depends on the genre. In some genres, a character’s adventures fit in rather well with their profession. Being Captain of a Federation starship is a full-time job, with part of the job occasionally fighting a godlike alien that wants to put you on trial for the crimes of humanity. Or you could be a “professional adventurer” like Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. What would a D&D character list on their tax forms for their sources of income?

What is involved in getting hired or promoted, though? I suppose in Starfleet, you’ve got the whole non-military military as your employer. But what about more independent operatives? When I’m looking for a new software job, I go through rounds and rounds of interviews. Three at a bare minimum. Sometimes more. And these rounds often involve showing I know how to write software. Ideally, with problems relevant to the job I’m seeking, though far too often various puzzles. Counting unique islands in a grid. Write a program to make changes when you have arbitrary currencies. What sort of “interviews” might D&D characters go through to join a party? Does the tavern have a mock dungeon for candidates to go through, being monitored from up above? Do they also evaluate teamwork? Instead of a Myers-Briggs personality test is an alignment test for compatibility with the rest of the party. “We definitely respect your power to create the undead, but we went with another candidate whose alignment was a better fit for the rest of the party.”

What about characters who have day jobs that are incompatible with adventure? I can assure you I’ve never had a job where I could vanish for a year in pursuit of Nyarlathotep. Remote work has its limits. “Sorry I was out of work for the past seven weeks; I had to run to Greenland, which is actually Hyperborea….” “Yes, I know it’s my eighth disability claim… You see, a cultist stabbed me….”

The superhero genre exhibits this problem—Peter Parker’s life and career would be much easier without his double life as Spider-Man.

Obviously, this has been a somewhat tongue-in-cheek discussion at the end of my own job search. Is there a place for such mundanities in gaming? Of course, the answer is “it depends.” If it’s something that gets in the way of a fun time, then its inclusion would be somewhat silly. However… silliness is not without its virtues. I could easily see a D&D game taking its cues from something like The Office.

In more serious games like Call of Cthulhu, the balance between needing to earn a living and taking off to save the world can be an important part of the campaign. Delta Green takes this one step further, where it becomes possible for characters to actually abuse their positions in search of the greater good, risking their reputations and freedom in their battle against the dark. Rivers of London supposes characters are police officers, albeit with a mystical mandate. Cubicle 7’s out-of-print Laundry Files RPG, based on Charles Stross’ series of novels, features characters employed as British civil servants.

Reflecting on the possibilities I’ve discussed, how could one apply this to campaigns? Depending on the game, a character’s occupation outside of the narrative may or may not have any bearing on who they are or how they develop as a person within the game. In either case, creative Gamemasters can bring in those elements to add interesting twists and touches of realism into an otherwise fantastical game. I think it can be done to good effect, as seen in the litany of games I cited above. Roleplaying games are all about expressing creativity and exploring the fiction; sometimes, mundanity is part of that fiction.

Photo Credit: Punch Clock image by Tom Blackwell, April 6, 2011. Used per Creative Commons CC BY-NC 2.0.

~ Daniel Stack

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