A Column about Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
When we of the Pelgrane-Industrial Complex write and test GUMSHOE scenarios, we take care to avoid short circuits—moments that, early in play, could conceivably allow the investigators to abruptly move to the end of the story. The dissatisfactions of short-circuiting are various. The players miss out on all the fun interactions, problems, and thrills set out for them to explore, leading to a feeling of anti-climax. You never want to end a scenario with the players wondering, aloud or implicitly, “Is that all there is?” Nor do you want to end a play session after an hour when the group expected at least their standard three to four hours.
Less well considered than the problem of short-circuiting is its opposite number, the need to hot-wire. Hot-wiring, a term I just made up*, refers to the process of cutting material from a scenario to fit a rapidly diminishing time window. You may need to hot-wire because:
- you have too much adventure left for one session, but not enough for two.
- one or more key players won’t be able to make it next time.
- you’re running a one-shot, perhaps at a convention.
- a key player has to bail early on this session.
The less linkage between scenes in an RPG scenario, the easier they are to hot-wire. In an F20 game like 13th Age, you can drop a couple of the fights. Where the connective tissue between battles seems too hardy to dispense with entirely, you can even elide your way to the climax with a few lines of description: “After several days fighting your way through the orc lands, you finally find yourselves standing at the foot of the Crusader’s grim tower.” Hillfolk’s scenes are so modular that you can stop at any time. Additionally, the narrative driving remains as much up to the players as the GM. And of course in The Dying Earth the picaresque characters continually skate on the edge of comeuppance, with a closing explosion of chaos to rain down on them never further away than the nearest Pelgrane nest.
GUMSHOE, however runs on way scenes connect to one another. Ripping out those circuits means finding the quickest route between where the characters currently are and a climax that makes sense and feels right. GUMSHOE is an investigative game, meaning that players want to come away feeling that they investigated something. Finding clues is the core activity, so you can’t elide that away from them. It would be like skipping not only the connecting fights but the epic final throwdown in a 13th Age run.
To hot-wire a GUMSHOE scenario, find the final scene you want to land on. Some scenarios present multiple climactic scenes based on player choices. Most converge the story into a single final scene, in which certain choices may be foreclosed, penalized or rewarded depending on what the protagonists have already done so far.
Given a choice of climaxes, pick the one that you think the players can work toward most efficiently without feeling that you shoved them onto a greased slide. The ideal hot-wire job doesn’t appear as such to the players. The way to achieve this is to still give them opportunities to be clever. The difference now is that the reward of that cleverness becomes a faster propulsion toward the finish line.
If given one final scene that can play out in various ways, quickly scan for the payoffs it provides to past decisions. See how many of them the players have already made, and how many still lie uncovered. If you can find a way to route them through some or all of those choices on the fast lane to the climax, great. Otherwise, them’s the breaks when you’re rewiring on the fly.
Your main task? Identify the shortest logical-seeming route from the current scene to the end point. Look at the section headers for the various Lead-Ins to that scene. Skip back to those scenes and locate the core clues that enable the investigations to reach it. You may find one or several.
Linear scenarios can be harder to hot-wire than ones that provide multiple routes to the conclusion. A journey investigation as found in Mythos Expeditions may have to use the narrative elision technique to get from the problem at point C in the wilderness to the final one at point J.
Where the climax boasts more than one lead-in, pick the core clue that you can most easily drop into the situation at hand. Or find a core clue that gets you to that penultimate scene, letting the players take it from there.
Let’s say you’re running a modern Trail of Cthulhu scenario** using abilities imported from The Esoterrorists. The climax occurs after hours at an aquarium theme park, where Deep Ones orgiastically empower themselves by tormenting killer whales. The investigators are partway through the scenario, having discovered the fatally slashed corpse of a rogue marine biologist in a gas station bathroom. As written, the corpse lacks ID and the investigators have to crack other scenes to learn who the victim was and then discover she was onto something fishy† at the aquarium. The investigators can discover the latter clue one of two ways: by tracking down and winning over her justifiably paranoid wife, or cracking her notes, as found in an off-site backup.
To hot-wire that scene to lead directly to the orca-torturing aquarium orgy, plant a clue to the off-site backup on the corpse. In the original, the murderers took her purse and car, to cover their tracks. After you hot-wire the scene, they were interrupted by a station employee while trying to steal the vehicle, and fled. This allows the team to find the victim’s tablet on the back seat of her car and use her Dropbox app to access her file. Present this so they have to, as would be usual, search the car for clues, and then figure out that her files might be accessible from a file storage interface app. That way they still get to feel like they’re doing the work of GUMSHOE investigators, feeling a sense of accomplishment as they screech toward their final assignation at that theme park.
*In its roleplaying context. Settle down, car theft enthusiasts.
**Warning: scenario does not yet exist. But GUMSHOE is OGL now, hint hint.
†Honestly extremely sorry about that. I am writing this the day before Gen Con, and it is also very, very hot.
A while back we learned of the vials of supposedly destroyed smallpox virus that turned up in a laboratory storage room in Bethesda, Maryland. Luckily, no one was exposed to the deadly disease, allowing us to guiltlessly mine the incident for scenario inspiration. How you might use it depends on the game you’re currently running:
Ashen Stars: The lasers get a contract to find out what happened to an archaeological survey team tasked to explore the ancient alien ruins of the outlying world Cophetus. They arrive to find the team’s base, with evidence that they had located the tomb of a great emperor and were set to open its entry hatches. The team’s interpretation of the hieroglyphs found on the side of the complex alert them to a different story—this was the tomb of the ancient pathogen that nearly extinguished this mystery civilization. Can the team learn enough to locate, rescue and decontaminate the archaeologists before they succumb to the disease—or spread it to the stars?
Mutant City Blues: Conspiracy blogger Warner Osterman is found dead in your jurisdiction, a .22 bullet in his brain. His last story was about finding serum sample vials in a disused military laboratory. According to the contents of his laptop, Osterman believed these contained a version of the disease that caused people around the world to gain super powers ten years ago. That’s the angle that gets the case assigned to the HCIU. Did Osterman die because he got too close to the secret of the Sudden Mutation Event? Or just because he made people think he did?
Dying Earth: Locals in an isolated village your neer-do-wells happen to traipse through run a lucrative sideline in waylaying treasure hunters. When visitors come, they let slip the presence of an ancient treasure vault, one they pretend to be too superstitious to venture near. Over many years they’ve learned the right words to trigger the greed of arrogant freebooters. The adventurers head off to plunder the ancient temple, which in fact is the repository of an enervating energy left behind by a heedlessly experimental arch-magician. The magical plague kills off the visitors. Then, armed with protective amulets, villagers head on down to strip their corpses of valuables. Can our anti-heroes escape the fate of so many likeminded troublemakers before them. If so, do they turn the tables on the rubes who so impertinently used their own greed against them?
In his January Rolling Stone profile of Pope Francis I, writer Mark Binelli supplies a classic bit of color reportage:
Outside St. Peter’s Square, hawkers are selling everything from Sistine Chapel tours to airbrushed paintings of Tupac, Bob Marley and the pope. I ask one of the vendors, a tall Belizean with a shaved head, if the increased crowds under Francis have been good for business. He scowls and shakes his head, then answers in perfect, New York-inflected English, “Naw, this guy, all he does is talk about the poor, and so he’s bringing in these poorer tourists from places like Argentina. They ain’t got no money, these people! When Ratzinger was pope, Germans would pull up on a bus. They’re organized, they spend! Now everyone wants a discount.”
The reminder that vendors of religious souvenirs might be motivated by less than the utmost spiritual concerns put me in mind of The Dying Earth. It just so happens that the area around Shin’s Stadium near the Marketplace of Kaiin now teems with pilgrims. These hopeful believers have erected a tent city in hopes of getting near to the Glandive. This earthly representative of a once-moribund—one might frankly say obscure—creed has energized a new generation of worshipers. Her previous earthly incarnation, that of a doddering, querulous old woman, attracted an ever-dwindling core of adherents. With her passing, the matriarchs of Glandive pronounced that the unceasing spirit of the Glandive has rooted in the pleasing form of a young woman with silken gold hair. The newly charismatic and outgoing Glandive inspires travelers from all over Ascolais and Almery. None doubt the purity of her vision, encouraging charity and empathy toward all—none, at least, who do not desire a good kicking from intemperate followers. With her rising popularity has risen a brisk trade in memorabilia, from small ceramic portraits of the new Glandive, to locks of golden hair. (Warning: hair samples not guaranteed to originate on the head of the Glandive herself.) All of these items are considered to be powerful amulets conferring luck and protection from swindle and robbery upon their owners.
The head of the cartel selling these amulets, Imgo the Gaunt, surprisingly does not answer to the Glandive or her matriarchs. An independent operator, he fiercely defends his trade against unauthorized talisman hawkers. He doesn’t pursue relic sellers elsewhere in the city, but around the tent zone and the still-modest Glandive temple, his mighty-thewed enforcers ensure that only his merchandise winds up around the necks of the pious.
Your PCs might be engaged by the matriarchs to drive Imgo and his gang off, or by Imgo to prevent competitors from horning in on his action.
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Recruiting the Reluctant
Within any gaming group you’ll find a variety of tastes regarding any facet of the roleplaying experience. According to a Thing I Always Say, one of the main tricks of GMing is to find the sweet spot between those tastes and gratify it at the gaming table.
Yet you can’t even get to the gaming table if you can’t agree on what it is you want to play.
Some gamers love novelty. They follow design developments avidly and want to know the cool new thing by direct experience. They want to play the new games they’re excited about, not just hear about other people playing them. If you read columns like this one you may fall into that category.
Others could care less about that stuff. They know what they like and they’ll have more of that, thank you. News of a promising new thing brings them nothing but cognitive dissonance. It threatens to disrupt their groove, to deprive them of the pleasure they’ve already found by pulling the attentions of their group elsewhere. They do not read columns like this one.
A basic tenet of the Robin’s Laws theory is that you can’t really change someone else’s tastes. Players who treasure familiarity, or the element that their familiar game already delivers better than any new thing could, ultimately can’t be made to like something different.
On the other hand, some of the very people who are most averse to a new concept in roleplaying turn out to be its most fervent advocates, once they undertake the mental shift needed to embrace it. In these instances the very strength of their resistance turns out to be a symptom of that adjustment starting to take place.
You can’t always tell ahead of time which category a player falls into. Sometimes I’ve designed games thinking that a particular fan of one of my past designs is just not going to be on board for this one. Their initial responses prove my assumptions right. Until they surprise me by digging in anyway and becoming textbook cases of the conversion experience.
So, as a novelty-seeking GM, you can only lead a horse to water. But if you sharpen your sales pitch, he might just take a drink.
Pitch the fun, not the theory. Players leery of novelty don’t want to hear about how new and different this game is. They especially don’t want to hear about it in the abstruse terms the cognoscenti use to discuss game theory on their favorite forums. This may be why you’re interested in it, but for them the newness is a drawback, not a selling point. Instead, find the core activity of the game and describe that. What do the player characters do in this game? Make that the focus of your presentation.
So with Hillfolk, it’s not, “this system hinges on dramatic interaction, bringing to life the structure of emotional interactions from other story forms.”
It’s “you raid, feud and make alliances in as hardscrabble tribesmen in an age of hungry empires.”
Find a familiar hook. From having played the game she’s reluctant to set aside, you know what this player enjoys doing. So as you expand from that initial description of the game’s core activity, do so in terms allowing her to picture herself doing the stuff she enjoys.
“So if you played a character like Dagedin from our Earthdawn game, you can finally build that web of alliances she was working on before the horrors ate her.”
If she always likes to build items: “So let’s say your character invents stirrups two thousand years earlier than in our history. For you, the campaign would revolve around demonstrating them, convincing your tribe to use them, and then pressing your advantage before everyone else cottons on to your design.”
If she likes to bash stuff on the head: “So imagine a society where your bruiser isn’t a feared outcast, but a revered hero of her clan.”
Shorten the curve. Novelty-shunning players may be assuming that the new game you want to try requires the same enormous investment in time and memorization that their current favorite does. Chances are that a new cool thing of today is simpler and faster to get into than its counterpart from a decade ago. The Revivified version of Dying Earth, for example, gets you playing right away instead of asking you to participate in the usual involved character generation process of a traditional game. Assure the reluctant player that the effort cost of trying the new thing is much lower than he may be imagining.
Naturally the challenge of pulling this off increases if you’re pitching a game as or more complicated than the player’s favorite. Promise an introductory session taking the workload out of the player’s hands. Supply a pregenerated character. Build that character to be as simple to play as possible, both in terms of the rules complexity the player will have to handle at the table, and in its similarity to his past favorite PCs. If you do get the player to sit down and take part, teach only the rules you need as you need them, framed for maximum clarity and simplicity.
Acknowledge burn marks. Has the player been burned by past attempts, by you or other GMs, to introduce new games? If so, show that you’re aware of this and will avoid a repeat. Outline the key differences between the game you want to try and the one that crashed and burned. This may be more a matter of demonstrating that you see the mistakes that crashed the last swing at a new game, and will make sure that they don’t recur.
Play to please: If you do get the green light for a trial run, focus on the leery players and tailor the action to show them a great time. Draw them into the story. Invest them in their characters. And end on a question mark, to make them want to come back for more.
This month’s topic comes courtesy of Chris Bloxham and his play group, as a perk of his Badlands Overlord reward tier from the Hillfolk Kickstarter. Thanks for the great question, Chris!
by Jim Webster
[Editor’s Note: Jim Webster is the editor of the Excellent Prismatic Spray, and Peter Freeman is an excellent and prolific writer and contributor to both the Dying Earth and Stone Skin Press’s The New Hero anthology. Soon, they will be sharing excerpts from their enormous shared world fiction.]
For the last few years we’ve been running ‘the Land of the Three Seas’. It is a play by email game, but played in a more ‘narrative’ fashion. The procedure is simple, in character, and in real time I write an email, through the yahoo group. The other character replies in character and between us we move the story along. As the story progresses we inevitably create other characters, places, events and these are logged into a ‘sophisticated database’ (a table in a Word document.) These entries are not necessarily particularly large, for example -we have Madame Afflagar. Her entry merely comments that “she was chosen by lot to be Toelar Director of Low Entertainment, her program of moral decency is not entirely popular.”
Others get a more generous entry as with ‘Three Wheels Thorwillin’ who is recorded as “the itinerant purveyor of bad bargains, strange foodstuffs and occasional card sharp, who regularly used to stop traffic by having the wheel fall of a cart he owned and he would then pass amongst the crowds selling them food as they waited for order to be restored. Obviously this was in Meor, in Koggart’s Junction it might be days before traffic built up.
Eventually the Meor watch fitted an extra wheel and then made him pull the cart himself, two magistrates taking turns to steer by prodding him with his goad or flicking him with his whip.”
Then we have institutions, for example there are the Deacons of the Ninth Hell. For them the entry reads “A somewhat ignored priesthood which worships a particularly unpleasant collection of demons, apparently on the principle that someone has to and matters would go badly if the ninth hell was left unsupervised.”
Then there are places, take the village of Boranst. “Thirty miles north of Derths Crossing, it is a small hamlet, strangely fortified against the wilds. It is small but is dug into the rock, each family having their own cave in a cliff which overlooks the trail. The ground above the cliffs is a mass of briers and thorn bushes, the ground below they cultivate assiduously. The cliff face has been polished smooth over the years and the only way up is by narrow stairs which actually spiral into the rock.”
Then there are books and plays, again as an example ‘The tale of the Usurer Blevin fleecing the merchants of Beale’. Not as much a book (although there was a play once written) as a series of three paintings. The first is the classic ‘Usurer Blevin fleecing the merchants of Beale’, the second, less well known, is ‘The Usurer Blevin hiding in the dunny pit to avoid the searchers’, where we see the face of Blevin illuminated by thin shafts of light from between the boards in the privy floor, and the final, ‘The Usurer Blevin flees the nomad raiders’ which shows in the foreground the usurer desperately whipping his obviously dying horse whilst the nomads inexorably close on him.
When you add in animals, foodstuffs and plants, you can see why the current gazetteer is 185,368 words long
Obviously the original sketch map has been expanded, so now our cast of characters have a reasonable sized land mass to play with.
And the stories keep crawling out, interesting characters live complicated lives in real time, and Peter Freeman and I sit in quiet pubs, stare into empty pint glasses and tell each other that we really ought to do something with it.
And so, eventually I did. Benor Dorfinngil is a character I have ‘played’ for several years, I have written 3,500 emails as him, and both Peter and I feel we know the man.
A plot developed and with that basic idea in mind I started writing.
Characters created years before would enter the plot, strut and fret their hour upon the stage, and then be about their business. The naked body of a woman, hastily buried, was found at the edge of a swamp. The locals knew she wasn’t one of hers, they sent a messenger to a local Urlan lord to ask him to investigate it. The Urlan are warriors with a strong honour culture, not necessarily detectives, but they remembered Benor, who as a jobbing cartographer was obviously a scholar and obviously the man for the job. As the tale unfolds we have ambush, civil strife and even light opera.
Thus and so we now have the tale ‘Swords for a Dead Lady;’ This is now published and is available in electronic format here from Amazon.
As with all these things no one ever knows when to stop, the gazetteer keeps growing and we have a second tale with the publisher, ‘Dead Man Riding East’.
An adventure where the unintended theft of a tyrant’s concubine, followed by the inadvertent acquisition of a wife, leads to revenge, the fall of dynasties and over exposure to the world of high fashion.
The two comments that most cheered me about ‘Swords for a Dead Lady’ were where one reviewer described it as ‘Vancian’, and another reader commented “it certainly isn’t derivative. No sub-Tolkien fantasy here.”
At times the depth of the background we have inadvertently created almost frightens me, and we add to it, day by day, we’re probably adding 60,000 words a year, so it seems a pity not to make more of it.
The art for the Dying Earth Revivification Folio continues apace, with this one from Jerome. What do you think?
Welcome to the Dying Earth RPG’s magnificent, nay superlative, index of publications
The Dying Earth Revivification Folio – the latest incarnation-
Here you will find a brief listing of all the products available: each title linked to a full page of information
Dying Earth RPG (the original rulebook)
Turjan’s Tome of Beauty & Horror (advanced rules for Turjanic play)
Rhialto’s Book of Marvels (advanced rules for Rhialto-Level play)
The Primer of Practical Magic (Rules for taking D20 play into the Dying Earth, or the Dying Earth into D20 play)
The Dying Earth Revivification Folio (A different, streamlined way to run DERPG. A slightly tuned version of the Skulduggery rules.)
The Quickstart Rules (A downloadable free zipped pdf outlining the marvelous original rules system)
SOURCEBOOKS [Background information packs also using including adventure outlines]
The Compendium of Universal Knowledge (the DERPG encyclopedia if you will)
The Kaiin Players Guide (sheer tons of information about the city of Kaiin and it’s inhabitants)
Demons of the Dying Earth (bringing occult horrors into play to test your jaded and over-confident PCs)
The Scaum Valley Gazetteer (massive details on an entire region of the Dying Earth)
Cugel’s Compendium of Indispensable Advantages (items, cantraps & new rules to enhance Cugel-Level play)
Ascolais & the Land of the Falling Wall (bumper double edition of the XPS in paperback form)
Tooth, Talon & Pinion (bumper double edition of the XPS in paperback form)
Fields of Silver (an adventure series in and around Erze Damath and the Silver Desert)
PDF ADVENTURES (not currently available in hard copy)
The Day of the Quelo (The official sample Cugel-Level scenario)
Gomoshan’s Tomb (The official sample Turjan-Level scenario)
The Creep of Inaccuracy (The official sample Rhialto-Level scenario)
All’s Fair At Azenomei (Part 1 of the Footsteps of Fools series)
Strangers in Saskervoy (Part 2 of the Footsteps of Fools series)
The Lords of Cil (Part 3 of the Footsteps of Fools series)
Beyond the Mountains of Magnatz (Part 4 of the Footsteps of Fools series)
And Thence to Almery (Part 5 of the Footsteps of Fools series)
OTHER DERPG ITEMS
The Dying Earth Map Collection (proudly produced by Sarah Wroot)
The Excellent Prismatic Spray magazines (full of adventure and amusement)
Blank character sheets – FREE to download: Cugel-Level front page V1; Cugel-Level front page V2; Turjan-Level front page; a universal back page; a third page for magicians. Or ALL of these (zipped pdfs).
Plus the Rhialto-Level character sheet: one double-sided pdf.
OTHER DERPG PAGES
In the Footsteps of Fools (Overview page of that entire epic campaign)
Through Violet Cusps (a collection of authorized amateur articles and adventures, mostly free)
|Stock #: various
This issue of RPG Countdown has interviews with four Pelgrane writers
In at #7 Paula Dempsey with the Occult Guide
#4 Robin D Laws with the Dying Earth
#3 Graham Walmsley with Cthulhu Apocalypse: The Dead White World
and #1 Ken Hite with Bookhounds of London
The Dying Earth is available once more from the Pelgrane Press store.
A future, unimaginably distant…
The sun, now in its dotage is a swollen maroon orb. It stutters and blinks. At any moment it may finally go out.
Earth, immensely old… Dig anywhere and find a buried city or the shore of a vanished sea. Deodand-haunted woods stretch from decadent Kaiin to the Land of the Falling Wall. Erbs and grue hunt in the wilds. Isolated villages embrace surprising customs. Larger towns favor debauchery and mincing murder.
Magic, rich and colourful… Enchantment shapes the world. Any dabbler may know a few simple cantraps. Magicians in lavish manses struggle to master Earth’s last great spells, while all-powerful cabals intrigue against rivals or plot revenge for ancient feuds.
Visit the Dying Earth
Enter this vivid world in the first roleplaying game authorized by master fantasist Jack Vance. Here a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion.Create an adventurer for any of three different kinds of stories: a typical mortal such as Cugel the Clever, surviving by wits and cunning an ambitious magician searching for lost lore, like Turjan of Miir a supreme mage to rank with Rhialto the Marvellous, commanding the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins.
The Dying Earth features easy, fast-playing rules that encourage creativity and interaction. No knowledge of Jack Vance’s work is needed for play,but fans of the stories will enjoy the comprehensive summary of the world’s places, creatures,and known spells. Authorized and approved by Dying Earth fantasy novelist JACK VANCE Based on the Dying Earth book series by Jack Vance.Produced and distributed by agreement with Jack Vance c/o Ralph Vicinanza,Ltd.
Download the original character sheet here.
Plus one with Trumps and rules info here.
Click here: for a complete listing of DERPG products, and links to their pages
|Stock #: PEL001
||Author: Robin D. Laws, John Snead, Peter Freeman
|Artist:Ralph Horsley, Hilary Wade, Greg Staples
||Pages: 192pp Hardback
We have three new playtesting opportunities available at the moment. If you’re interested in playtesting any of these please email me with the name of the game in the subject field (e.g. Love of Money Playtest), stating whether or not you’ve playtested for Pelgrane before. The deadline for these playtests is the end of March.
The Love of Money – The Esoterrorists
This is a fantastic new adventure from Matthew Sanderson. Ordo Veritatis agent John Sheldon has gone off the organisations rader following the loss of his wife in a car accident. He has been tracked to Amsterdam and the shady Metallon Corporation, an industrial giant headed by Johan van der Hulst, a prominant Esoterrorist with a very influential ‘imaginary’ friend. Your team must travel to Amsterdam and discover the dark secrets of van der Hulst and the true goal of the Metallon Corporation before it is too late.
The Dying Earth Revivification Folio – Dying Earth/Skulduggery
In preparation for the re-launch of The Dying Earth, Robin D Laws presents The Dying Earth RPG with the new, simpler Skulduggery rules system. It’s a standalone book, you don’t need to own the Skulduggery core book.
Pathshoe – GUMSHOE/Pathfinder
Gareth Hanrahan has produced a supplement for Pathfinder which will open new ways to approach discovery and adventuring and enable players to bring in the investigative rules from GUMSHOE into your Pathfinder game.