From the Bubbling Vat of Playtesting a New GUMSHOE Rule Arises

One of the great things about in-house playtesting is that an off-the-cuff improvisation can suddenly prove so apt that it goes immediately into the rules draft.

Or rather, the players can suddenly all at once cry, “That’s so cool! You’ve got to make that a rule!”

[Cue flashback music as image goes swirly]

Why, I remember it like it happened just last night, during the ongoing in-house test for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Kickstarting now

The players have now entered the third segment of the game, Aftermath, in which they play ex-partisans who took part in the toppling of the Castaigne regime. Investigating the murder of a colleague, they entered his home, from which delicious cooking aromas wafted.

Now, the number of rodeos my players have been to greatly exceeds zero, so this detail elicited a terrible groan. The conclusion was obvious: they were about to find the rest of the victim, charred to an appallingly tantalizing-smelling crisp.

So terrible did they find this prospect that only two of the players were willing to send their characters in to brave the awful sight—and face the Shock cards they might wind up holding if they failed the Composure tests that would surely result.

Except that’s not what happened at all.

In that classic horrible-thing-turns-out-to-be-innocuous moment from horror films and literature, it transpired that the victim had a pork shoulder in the slow cooker.

Not thinking much of it, I rewarded the two courageous players with 2-point refreshes of their Composure pools. This reflected the positive benefit this moment of extreme relief would grant them.

That’s so cool, the room collectively cried. Is that in the rules?

Uh, I thought, surprised by their delight, it is now.

Rules that exert a palpable emotional impact on players are rare and golden. They get to go to the big show.

So this morning I added it to the YKRPG rules draft, where it goes something like this:

Whew

One type of partial refresh is the whew. It emulates the moment of relief in a narrative when the trepidation surrounding a daunting circumstance turns out to be nothing. Whew!

A whew provides a 2-point refresh.

The whew most often applies to Composure. Award one when players clearly dread an upcoming story turn which instead proves completely innocuous:

  • A tantalizing cooking aroma wafts from the apartment where the investigators expect to find the rest of a murder victim, horribly charred. Nope—he just had a pork shoulder slow cooking in the oven. Whew!
  • A thumping emanates from the attic above. The group steels itself to confront the scythe-wielding cannibal they’ve been hunting. But no, it’s just the cat. Whew!
  • Cassilda left the group a flask of absinthe she claimed will heal any wound. The students won’t get Ida out of the cavern with her leg broken like that. She’s halfway sure the potion will kill her on the spot, or eradicate what’s left of her free will. But when she swigs it down it her leg heals, as promised, to no further ill effect. Whew!

To maintain the emotional power of the whew, use it sparingly and only when it fits. Often the players will set up a whew for you, by showing genuine terror of an upcoming moment you never intended to play as anything other than innocuous.

Look particularly for situations where the group sends in only some of its members to confront the imagined awfulness. That way the brave get the reward and the cautious lose out.

Whews that refresh other general abilities don’t come easily to mind but if one that makes sense presents itself during play, rule it in.

Even if my players hadn’t explicitly demanded it, I like to think that I would have spotted their enthusiasm for this little fillip and written it into the rules.

So much of alpha playtesting consists of discovering that the ideas that worked on paper flop at the table. It’s always refreshing when you make something up on the spot and it immediately declares its place in your manuscript.

This rule works perfectly well with any existing GUMSHOE game that uses Stability. Just swap out the word Composure and replace it with Stability and you’re good to go.

As I write this, The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Kickstarter perches a mere £636 away from hitting the stretch goal that adds its new rules content to the GUMSHOE Open Source reference document.

Make the humble whew, born full-fledged from its own scrappy determination and propelled by a bootstrap attitude we can all admire, part of Open Source GUMSHOE, by helping us smash that stretch goal threshold today.

2 Responses to “From the Bubbling Vat of Playtesting a New GUMSHOE Rule Arises”

  1. Hypersmurf says:

    Of course, a standard trope of horror films is the WhewOH-GOD!

    A thumping emanates from the attic above. The group steels itself to confront the scythe-wielding cannibal they’ve been hunting. But no, it’s just the cat. Whew! Have a two point Composure ref–OH-GOD! A scythe blade rips through Tim’s chest in an explosion of gore!

  2. Lisa Padol says:

    It’s the Val Lewton bus rule!

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