Cafe Casablanca

Philip Marlowe looking dead noirish and all.
Philip Marlowe looking dead noirish and all. (Thanks to Charlie Paull for the photo.)

Phew, it’s been a fortnight now since I played in Cafe Casablanca. This was a weekend-long game set in Casablanca in 1941, in the same mould as the King’s Musketeers game that I went to last year. (And don’t seem to have written about on here. Hmm, sorry about that.)

So these are both quite old games, dating from the 90s, originally written by Cruel Hoax Productions. They were extensively rewritten for the recent runs, but still have a very strong ‘classic game’ feel about them: if they were being written today, there would probably be significant structural differences.

The scope is considerable: 74 players, and six GMs. Six playing spaces (that I was aware of), and five time-in sessions over the course of the weekend. Stacks of rules, character background, item cards, macroscopic actual items, ability cards, and the like. It was a massive and complex undertaking, and it all went pretty smoothly, for which the GM team deserve considerable admiration.

Marlowe and Me

My character was Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s detective – see pic above. “What was he doing in Casablanca?” I hear you cry. Well, it did seem a little different to his normal Los Angeles mean streets. But the game contains plot elements and characters from a large number of films, mostly loosely ‘film noir’, all mashed up together. I won’t go into details about what Marlowe got up to there, as you might want to play it some time (and it’s the kind of game that would be harmed by spoilers). But suffice to say there was plenty of crime to investigate, femmes fatales and not-so-fatales to fall for, hoodlums to gunplay with, and valuables to recover and hand over to their rightful owners.

I really enjoyed myself and had a great time working off the great players who I was enmeshed with, but I realized afterwards that I hadn’t done a very consistently good job myself of role-playing the character… which was a bit personally disappointing. There were a couple of key decisions I took which he really wouldn’t have. And in both cases it was because I was, as a player, caught up in the excitement of the game, and what was going to happen – rather than being properly immersed in the character and thinking and feeling from his point of view. So in both cases I ended up acceding to, and getting involved in, things that the ‘real’ Marlowe wouldn’t have touched with a bargepole. And this was not because I’d evolved his character concept, imagining him off the leash when out of his native haunts: it was just role-playing laziness with me not giving his character a chance to express itself, instead going along with things that sounded like they would be fun and interesting. Which they were – and it made for good story – but it was story in which Philip Marlowe behaved out of character.

I’m not going to try and excuse my bad role-playing, but I think there is more of a risk of this in a very structured and rules-y game like Cafe Casablanca. Because there are constant reasons to pop out of character when thinking about the play of the game, immersion is difficult, particularly when you’re tired and (in my case) mentally lazy. I find it a lot easier to role-play characters solidly when I’m not distracted by having to think about system, or meta-gaming, or reading stuff: that all breaks the flow. (Or if there’s been a getting-into-character preparation for the game, such as a workshop, that can help.) But Cafe Casablanca is not that sort of game: which is not at all a problem with it – other players didn’t have any such difficulties – but a reminder that I need to work harder on my own thinking, feeling and expectations.

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