» gm advice

by Elina Gouliou

The “Play to Lift” Technique

Vanessa James / Yannick Bonheur demonstrate a star position – image David W. Carmichael

There are some game sessions where all the characters shine and the action is awesome and cinematic. I thought it was a matter of luck or circumstance, until I encountered the Play to Lift technique and realised that it is often the result of all the players around the table (including the GM) lifting each other up and making their characters look cool.

This technique, also known as “Playing Up,” is used in some live action roleplay (larp) traditions, but it can easily be used in tabletop RPGs. With this approach, each player actively reacts to the other players’ characters in the way they want their characters to be portrayed. For example, if I want to play an intimidating and mysterious Seer, the characters of the other players will “lift my play” in their interactions with me, being fearful and respectful towards my character and believing in her prophecies. They may even turn their plot around so that the prophecies turn out true, or interpret events to fit these prophecies. This makes my Seer come alive in a way that I could never achieve without my fellow players’ buy-in.

A good example of playing someone up is in relation to their character’s status. High status can never be demanded in character; it can only be conferred freely by the people around the character. This includes the NPCs who are often controlled by the GM but it also includes the other player characters. If someone has asked to be played up as high status, I would talk to them in character with deference, give them priority and step to the side to allow them past. The same concept also applies if someone is meant to be low status, a great orator, or physically intimidating.

If my D&D character has a high Charisma, then that telegraphs to the other players that my character is particularly appealing in manner or speech. If my character’s Dexterity is low, then my character might be heavily built or clumsy. But there are many different variations of these broad characteristics. If someone has a high value in Intimidation, that might just mean their demeanour, or their overall behaviour. Play to Lift can be applied to any element that a player wants to emphasise for their character during play, including those not defined by stats, such as confident, overbearing, motherly, creepy or empathetic.

Playing to Lift is not just for character strengths, but also for weaknesses. So, if I want my character to be portrayed as clumsy or really absent-minded, then this is something that the other characters would pick up and comment on. The importance is that this is a characteristic that the player of that character wants to be emphasised, even though it is negative.

The opposite is “Playing Down.” This means playing on a trait that the player did not intend for their character and does not really want conferred on the character. For example, if I fail one Dexterity roll and another character says “well, you are always clumsy, remember that time…” or they cut a character mid-speech despite this character being a captivating orator. This creates a negative feeling of “but I did not want my character to be perceived like that” and either I need to negate the fiction (which means breaking character and trying to reverse engineer what has been established) or go along with it (essentially feeling forced to accept a character trait that I did not want). Playing someone down has a negative effect on the game.

Elements of the Play to Lift Technique

We need to know what attributes everyone around the table wants to be lifted. Where the attribute to be played up is a mechanical one, that attribute should match the strength or weakness. There is no point in asking for a character with a low fighting ability to be played up as a mighty warrior. In some cases, you can instinctively feel what the player wants and just give it to them. But the most fail-safe way is to ask in advance. This is best done at the beginning of the game when people introduce their character out of game. It’s a quick and easy process. For example “I am Elina, and I am playing Lucilla the Bard. I would love it if people could play up my musical skills”. Or “I am playing Lucilla the Bard. I have a terrible voice and no musical skill and I would love if you could play up how untalented I am.”

The play to lift technique relies on three elements: reciprocity, recognition and good communication.

The first element is reciprocity. You play me up, I play you up and we both get the story we want to tell. We actively make each other’s characters look cool.

The next element is the recognition – the idea that every player around the table is responsible for each other’s fun and for telling a great story. This also means that players realise that it is often a characters’ weakness what makes them interesting. If someone wants to be played up to be invincible, the best at everything, then it is pretty boring and it does not lead to a dramatic story.

What to Do When Play to Lift Requests Clash

Sometimes it can be that the players’ wishes for elements to be played up may conflict. That is where good communication comes in. A brief discussion around the table will make sure that everyone is on the same page about the style of game they want. At that stage, you should establish if (a) you can make the character concepts and play up requests fit together, (b) it is possible to tweak some of the characters to accommodate the request or (c) the play up requests really do not work, so that the other players cannot play up this aspect. It is infinitely better for players to know, than for hours of frustration because they are not getting the support they want and their character needs.

If someone wants to be played up in a direction the others do not like, then that might show a misunderstanding or at least different expectations of the game we are about to start. If I want to play angsty family drama and the others want to play “killing goblins and taking their stuff” then there is definitely some misunderstanding about what type of game we are playing and someone will end up disappointed.

Lifting someone’s character does not have to, and does not usually, dominate the plot. It is about the little things: a nod of respect, a sign of unease or a short side scene to persuade the reluctant hero. If your friend wants to play a dark and broody loner you can have a mini scene where he is trying to come to terms with their turmoil and follow the adventure should also explain that this will not be the focus of the game.

In my experience, there are only very few instances where it is genuinely not possible to marry two characters’ play-ups. Most of the times, it will be possible to accommodate everyone with some creative thinking. Let’s say that I want to be lifted up in being intimidating and my fellow player Cat wants to be lifted up in being a fearless, undaunted adventurer. With a quick first glance, it seems that these two requests are not compatible. However, there are many ways to accommodate them both. For example it may be that Cat’s fearless pulpy adventurer is usually undaunted, but my intimidating seer somehow sets her on edge. Imagine how scary the Seer must be to make even a brave adventurer feel unnerved!

Or it may be that the other characters are not scared themselves of the Seer but they can see the reaction of others. They describe how the villagers shy away from the Seer and how the town becomes deserted and everyone shuts themselves in and closes the shutters when the party approaches. This falls to a great extent on the GM who controls the NPCs but the other players can contribute with ideas. Perhaps the other characters wonder and ask themselves what she has done to make her so terrifying that even the mention of her name make people shake.

When the Dice Are Not on Your Side

What happens when I want to be played up but just failed my die roll in the ability I want played up?

First of all, a dice roll can be interpreted in many different ways. So, for example, if I lose in a fight that can be interpreted as “your character is really not scary, he is a weakling, you just lost in a simple fight, ha ha ha!” or “OMG!!!, David just took down Goliath, what a turn out!, this is incredible!!!” In the first interpretation, the character who lost is no longer scary, and if I wanted my scariness to be played up, this would totally negate that. In the second interpretation, the character maintains its scariness and the dice results are considered an outlier event that is very rare.

Secondly, sometimes the dice tell us something about the character and it is cool to incorporate that in the fiction if the player decides they want to. So, if I have rolled a one five times in a row, I may decide that my character is really jinxed, clumsy or weak. I may choose to incorporate that in my character’s play-ups. It is important that decision should come from the player themselves and not imposed by the others around the table. My group has been playing The One Ring for about a year now, and our ranger has been constantly failing his Travel rolls. The player has decided to make it into a feature of the game and he is making jokes about it. But it was the player who decided to incorporate that failing into his character, not the other players.

Play to Lift in Player v Player Situations

Playing someone up is more difficult in a PvP setting but it is also more important than in cooperative play. Because it is essential that, while the characters are at each other’s’ throats, the players are absolutely happy with it and with the direction the conflict is going. As a player I love it when another character back-stabs my character in a Hot War or Game of Thrones game. My character is furious, devastated or angry, but, as a player, I am loving it.

Of course, in a heavy PvP game it is not usually possible to avoid all difficult PvP interactions (as the game revolves around that) and therfore it is important to communicate up-front the style of the game. But it is possible to avoid areas that the other player does not want for their character and to dial down the escalation. Ultimately, the player’s happiness and well-being is more important than the game. If I am not sure, I will just check-in out of character with the player that they are happy with the direction the game is taking.

Finally, we must remember that it is possible to play up two characters who are conflicting, without undermining the other one. So, the fact that David won in the biblical story did not really make Goliath any less scary. It just lifted David without undermining the incredible strength and scariness of the giant. With practice it is possible to play up two characters on the same trait without undermining each other. And that makes for the best PvP fight, because there are two bad-asses fighting each other, both played up in awesomeness by the other player. And is that not the epic fight we always want to see in movies, TV series and ultimately at our gaming table?

Playing to Lift as GM

GMs can Play to Lift, too and to some extent they are the biggest influence in how the characters are perceived by the outside world, as they control the whole world environment and the NPCs. Where the other players can be the outliers, the GM can provide the reaction of the norm, the common folk. Respect, status, reputation often is cemented by these reactions.

As a GM it is important to remember that Playing to Lift does not mean winning without opposition. That would not be dramatic, nor cinematic. Playing to Lift means giving an amazing challenge to the characters while ensuring that everyone gets a chance to get the spotlight and shine. It means being the number one fan of the player character’s stories.

Conclusion

Some may argue that “we are already doing this in our gaming group.” I totally agree. I have seen many tabletop players who do this instinctively. I think that I used to do it sometimes. But since I heard of the technique and saw how effective it is, I actively think about “what does the other player want?” much more than before. It is as if I have put a vocabulary to my instincts and thus, I am trying to play people up much more frequently and proactively than before. I may still fail occasionally but when I do, I know what I have done “wrong” in terms of how I want to play.

When people lift each other up, everyone wins; when they play each other down, everyone loses.

Update:  My friend, the talented games designer James Mullen, wrote a game poem directly inspired by this article, intended as an exercise in using the Play to Lift technique. It is called On the Way Up and you can read it here.

REFERENCES

Susanne Vejdemo, Play to Lift, not Just to Lose. Nordic Larp

Bøckman, Petter. (2003) The Three Way Model: Revision of the Threefold Model. In Gade, Thorup, Sander. When Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp. Pp 12-16.

Willer Piironen & Kristoffer Thurøe. 2014. An Introduction to the Nordic Player Culture. In Saitta, Holm-Andersen & Back: The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, pp 33-36.


Elina Gouliou divides her gaming time between a wide variety of tabletop games such as Monsterhearts, Hot War and Fate Accelerated, and live action roleplaying games both large- and small-scale. She loves games that focus on the drama rather than rules and enjoys the process of co-creating a captivating story.

 

Have you, or someone in your game group, always wanted to give GMing a shot, but haven’t yet taken the plunge? What if we told you that by the first week in February, you could be an honest-to-goodness GM—and it’ll be easy!

January is New Gamemaster Month, and we’re joining our friends at Monte Cook Games and Atlas Games to give prospective GMs everything you need to run your first game of Trail of Cthulhu. Starting on Tuesday, January 9th, we’ll run a month-long course in the form of twice-weekly posts, which will take you through a step in the process, and include a brief lesson on an aspect of GMing followed by some quick, enjoyable activities that actually get you ready to run your first game. But if you’ve missed the start, never fear – all the posts from the start of the program are still available.

It’s not all academic, by any means—this is a hands-on seminar. By the end of the program, in early February, you won’t be a “prospective” GM any more: You’ll have GMed your first full-on RPG session, running it without a hitch and having a great time doing it!

So make a New Year’s resolution to join us, and finally take that leap into GMing! Follow along on the website, join the Facebook group and let us know how you’re getting on by tweeting us @NewGmMonth.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Having appeared on GM advice panels for lots of years, I’m always on the alert for changes in the types of questions audience members put forward.

These can vary quite a bit depending on the convention. An expensive destination show like Gen Con, or one directed to an ultra-dedicated community like The Kraken will feature challenging, graduate-level questions. At shows where local folks can walk on in to plunk down their admission fee the questions, questions tend to reflect the concerns of newer players—and thus the direction we might be headed in as tastes and experiences change.

This might be anecdotal or a blip in the radarsphere, but lately I’ve noticed a shift from the previous classic question to a new one.

The old question is “How do I deal with the overbearing player in my group?”

Now I’m hearing a lot more, “How do I draw out the shy player in my group?”

I’ve heard the second one over the years too, but the balance has shifted.

Whether this presages a new wonderful generation with heightened sensitivity or not is a sociological question that could spawn a hot take full of groundless generalizations. Instead let’s instead look at that evergreen RPG question.

My basic answer, going all the way back to Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, has been to recognize that many players who seem to under-participate actually like it that way. They prefer to sit back and quasi-spectate and aren’t waiting for you to coax them into the open. Maybe they don’t contribute as many ideas, strategies or brilliant character moments as the more outgoing group members, but they contribute all the same. Maybe they drive other players to game, supply the snacks, or just add to the social atmosphere in an indefinable but necessary way. They provide the social glue that makes quorum possible week in and week out.

In a D&D game, you can give the casual player a straightforward PC to play and tell him when to roll when he needs to. Cough, cough, human fighter, cough.

Investigative play, which dominates all GUMSHOE games, requires more participation. Even so, there are ways to decrease the burden on players who take a backseat by choice.

For a shy player, the most pressuring element of a GUMSHOE game is not the demons of The Esoterrorists, cultists of Trail of Cthulhu, or vampires of Night’s Black Agents. It’s the need to converse at length with possibly hostile people and wrest information from them.

When ensuring that all players get to take point in an interview scene of their own, you might wait for the shy player to step forward and volunteer for a particular encounter. If they don’t, don’t force it on them. Allow them to lob supplementary questions into interviews conducted by other players, even when their PCs aren’t literally present. And if they remain content to sit back and watch interviews without doing that either, this is also fine.

A semi-retiring player may be happy to interview less intimidating witnesses. You might make sure your scenario includes someone the player can talk to without fearing that they’re going to make a mistake or get the group in trouble. When introducing low-stress witnesses into the story, make a point of describing them in a way that puts the player at ease. If the player does choose to pick a tough or tricky suspect to talk to, dial back your portrayal, injecting less stress into the exchange than you would for a player who gives as good as she gets.

A GUMSHOE scenario usually assumes that the PCs are, taken together, experts in any field they need to understand to piece together the mystery. Still, building in a friendly expert for the less aggressive player to interact with may help the flow of your session.

A cooperative witness needn’t oversimplify the mystery. The group still has to interpret the information witnesses supply, even when given without resistance. (A shy player could be just as flustered by an overly forthcoming GMC as a withholding one, so take care not to bowl them over with a gusher of info and details.)

Casual players may prefer spotlight moments allowing them to interact with impersonal obstacles.

Technical investigative abilities suit shy players well. They can go off to the lab to run tests while the extroverted players interview suspects.

Academic investigative abilities, the things that their characters already know, remember, or can research, allow you to portray shy players’ characters as gaining clues for the group without fraught interaction.

If interaction in particular and not the spotlight in general hangs them up, you might build in moments for shy players to shine while using general abilities. These players often enjoy playing stealthy types, so this may be as simple as creating a place for them to sneak into and out of.

Players who don’t like tension can be guided toward supportive general abilities:

  • First Aid lets them patch up other group members after they go out and take the risks.
  • With Preparedness, they can open up their packs to pull out the piece of equipment that saves the day.
  • With Piloting they can swoop in to rescue the rest of the party as the shoggoths charge down the ice field.
  • Systems Repair has them turbocharging the spaceship’s engine for a surprise escape from the magnetic field while the rest of the group antagonizes enemies on the planet below.

Ultimately every shy player is cautious in a distinct, individual way. If your shy person does perk up and show a special interest in a facet of play, build more of that into future games.

But if they want to remain in their shells, respect that. For some, it’s the place where clams are happiest.

In GUMSHOE,when your character needs to do something tricky and where randomness adds tension, you roll a d6, add points you spend from an Ability pool, and if you make the Difficulty number, you succeed.

The number of points you spend on a test can represent the effort a character is making, but usually they reflect the player’s judgement on whether a success on a particular test is important. You might not care as much if your punch connects in a brawl, than if you have the master vampire in your sights. When these points run out, players look to other abilities which still have points in them.  This encourages players to use more than one method to deal with problems.  For GMs, ability pools are a method of managing spotlight time. Play naturally passes to the character with the points left in an ability which can be used for the particular problem the players face.

The archetypal example of this kind of character resource is hit points, – Health in GUMSHOE games. In many games, until you hit zero hit points, there is no effect on your character’s performance. So a character might take no measurable harm from the first gun shot, and yet the player knows that now they are on low hit points, the next bullet with most likely kill their character. It’s not that the first bullet didn’t have the same potential to kill as the second, it’s just not narratively satisfying or plausible for a protagonist to drop dead on the first hit.

So, I think of Health as a measure of the narrative plausibility of you not being damaged by a particular attack. As your Health gets lower, the chance of the next bullet not harming you decreases. That’s pretty abstract.. However, while almost all players accept that these abstract hit points can affect your chance of being wounded by an identical attack, there are a few who don’t like the idea that a Shooting resource affects your chance of wounding someone. GUMSHOE aficionados look at the characters’ success and failure across the entire game – picking and choosing which attempts to shoot are important – objectors look at the probability of individual rolls and see a sudden decrease when the points are gone. The resources management of hit points feels OK for them, but for shooting, not so much.It’s too “meta.” I entirely accept this is a matter of taste, and I’d like to offer an option to people who have an issue with this.

The argument goes like this. When my character uses Firearms, I can spend points to be sure to hit, or increase my chance of hitting. So, when I have run out of points being sure to hit, it feels like my character is bad at shooting. It feels strange to “decide” when a character is successful.

The first thing to say is that characters in most GUMSHOE are pretty good at what they do. If you have any Firearms at all, under normal combat circumstances you’ll hit half the time. So, spending all your points doesn’t make you “bad” at shooting just worse! However, that’s an aside. Here is the solution.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care about a lot of things – and here is another thing GUMSHOE doesn’t care about.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care when you spend your points. It’s entirely in your hands. If you don’t like the idea of sometimes being sure to hit, then don’t spend the points to do it!  Spend a fixed number of points every time.  Spend one each time if your pool is less than 8; two if it’s more. The chance of you running out of points is pretty low and your chance to hit will still be good. You can sit beside spendthrift, probability-manipulating meta-loving players, knowing that your character is obeying the laws of probability on a shot-by-shot basis. (The option to spend more is always open – and I hope you are tempted – but it’s not necessary).

Another option to consider which give a similar feel – but enforcing this restriction on all players –  is capping spends. This deals entirely with the auto-success issue by making it impossible for high levels of difficulty.

On an aside, it’s a joy to watch Annie Oakley blowing things away in this early movie shot at Edison’s studios.

 

exquisite-corpseby Steve Dempsey

Dreamhounds of Paris is a very rich game. The player characters, the surrealists, each have a detailed history. Paris, both in its mundane and magical incarnations, has locations, stories and conspiracies. And that’s even before you add in the Dreamlands and the rest of the Lovecraftian canon. As someone who runs improvised games, that’s a lot to take into account. The question for me the is how can I get player buy-in and build a decent story without doing days of preparation?

Well, I did do some preparation, I’m familiar with the geography and history of Paris as I wrote the parts of the book that deal with it. I’ve also been a fan of surrealism for ever, even before I heard a small girl in the Hayward Gallery proclaim, “Of course it’s not a pipe, silly. It’s a lawnmower.” I wouldn’t suggest however that anyone run this game without at least some introduction to the background material. So read some of the book, note down some of the things that catch your fancy. Surrealism is about flights of fancy, and have a look at some surrealist art, in the pages and margins of the rulebook and on-line.

You should also give the players their character sheets beforehand to familiarise them with the material (see here to download of the sheets).

But what can else the improv Keeper do to get the ball rolling quickly?

There are a couple of things. The first is to steal from the surrealists. This is a method I’ve employed at the start of the campaign and a one shot. It’s the Exquisite Corpse, a little game the surrealists invented and played to stimulate their imagination. It’s best played in character too.

Each player, and perhaps the Keeper too, has a pen and a blank sheet of paper. Each piece of paper is folded to create a number of sections equal to the number of participants, then flattened. In the first section each player draws part of a drawing, with connecting lines to the section below. They then fold the paper over to hide all of their contribution except for the connecting lines. Everyone passes their paper to the player to their left. This is repeated until everyone has written on each piece of paper. You then unfurl the drawings and talk about what you’ve done.

As a Keeper, look at the images and use these to start the game. In my campaign game, a fish motif was prevalent so I started with a chance encounter, not of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissection table, but inside a giant fish in the Dreamlands of all the characters. In the one shot, I used a cloud suffused with eyes which was the thing Erich Zann’s music was keeping beyond the threshold. The characters were assembled in the Le Cyrano, a bar on the place Blanche at the foot of Montmartre. Magritte’s dog Fifi had run disappeared up the hill in pursuit of a haunting melody.

Another way to start is to take a leaf from Drama System and have the players define what their characters want and have other players say why they can’t have it. These can be on an emotional or procedural level.

Dali – Q: When will everyone own up to loving my art? – A: When you redeem yourself with a selfless act.

Magritte – Q: What does the man in the mirror want?- A: To take your place in the Waking World.

Buñuel – Q: How can I master the bleeding eye? – A: Bataille*.

Alternatively as the Keeper you might come up with questions for the players to answer for their characters. Try to aim for a psychoanalytical (Freudian or Jungian) or surreal angle.

You could start Dreamhounds with these questions:

  • de Chirico – What does the fleeing child in the red dress represent?
  • Lee Miller – What is the hungry thing in the Dreamlands that is your father?
  • Kiki – How can you gain the strength to confront your shadow?
  • Man Ray – You see everything except yourself, what is so terrible about you?

As suggested in the book, let the characters explore the Dreamlands, let them change things and have these changes have repercussions in the Waking World. And when characters make art, have this art change the Dreamlands, in subtle ways for a campaign, in violent and unexpected ways for a one-shot.

Once the exploration is under way, start to draw correspondences between the two worlds. Allow abstract ideas in one world correspond to concrete things in the other, and don’t be afraid to bring in the Mythos.

  • André Breton is not present in the Dreamlands, but does he cast a shadow there – perhaps the sliced eye that haunts Buñuel? Or is he in fact the Waking World’s Crawling Chaos, improperly manifested as the angry leader of an anarchist movement that derides leadership.
  • The ants are on the march, the workers of the world, but which world and who is their (red) queen? Does a Surrealist rapprochement with the Communist Party require submission to her?
  • Eyes are a common motif. Who are they spying on and for whom? Perhaps it is the perpetual male gaze of many of the artists that can only be overcome through true sexual liberation and not just trite, and bourgeois fantasies.
  • Bataille’s ritual group that meets in the forest of Marly just outside Paris is represented by the Acéphale, an image of Y’golonac drawn by André Masson. Come on! This writes itself.

Above all, let your games be convulsive and beautiful.

[1]     Puns, visual or otherwise are a staple of surrealism. Bataille can refer to Georges Bataille, but it also means Battle in French.

interior11by Jason Fryer

“There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them…”

~ The Naked City (1948) 

Be it police procedural, horror, or spy thriller, characters are integral to the GUMSHOE campaign, influencing and expanding the narrative with their personal stories.  However, although ever-present, one vital character remains oft-forgotten – the City.  Time and again, the City devolves into little more than a hollow backdrop, indistinguishable from any other setting.  Yet, from New York’s concrete jungles to Tokyo’s urban sprawl, cities alter the story profoundly, shaping and defining not only the characters, but the story itself.  In Mutant City Blues and Trail of Cthulhu, the City’s influence is just as profound, if not more so.  As such, the GM should be mindful of the City’s unique personality and infuse its spirit into their campaign.  This consideration goes far deeper than Night’s Black Agents’ “Low-and-Slow” method, employing many of the City’s distinct aspects to that end. 

No city looks the same, differing topographically, economically, culturally, or any combination thereof.  Metropolises like San Francisco and Quebec City, known for intriguing geographical features, don’t adhere to standard urban development; adding unique complications and locales for the story.  Water features, such as London’s River Thames or Seattle’s Puget Sound, are equally important to consider, as they alter and restrict the cityscape.  Indeed, some supernatural entities can’t cross running water – a continual plot element in the vampire-thriller, The Strain.  Industries and economic growth (or lack thereof) define the City’s population size and composition, as well as its physical appearance.  Transportation hubs, such as highways and ports, further shape the City’s physicality and personality.  While specific landmarks are obvious symbols of a city’s identity, many are better known for their architectural qualities.  It’s no mistake, for example, that The Wire’s opening scene displays Baltimore’s signature row houses and marble steps. Adding these features into the narrative not only fleshes out the City, they offer countless story elements.     

Regrettably, urban blight affects numerous cities for various reasons ranging from economics to natural disasters.  As populations decline, once vibrant neighbourhoods descend into disrepair and squalor.  Residential areas become ghost towns of condemned houses and empty lots, while abandoned industrial zones crumble under their own weight.  Unchecked, nature has reclaimed entire sections of cities like Detroit and New Orleans, transforming them into lost worlds.  In Mutant City Blues, Detroit’s ‘feral’ areas provide groups like the Genetic Action Front the perfect haven away from prying eyes.  Tokyo’s sprawl of ‘ghost homes’ serve as hunting grounds for vampires (Night’s Black Agents)and Outer Dark Entities (The Esoterrorists).  Players venturing into these urban wastelands would face challenges unlike any encountered in the modernised city, as well as a complete change of pace.

Cities are divided by different boundaries, physical and intangible, creating neighbourhoods completely distinct and independent from one another.  Be they ward, district, or borough, these microcosms vary tremendously in financial and social strata, ethnicity, historical significance, urban/rural development, and even sexual orientation.  These Cities within the City not only expose players to exotic art, food, music, and history, but different languages, taboos, and beliefs that can leave them as virtual outsiders.  With their broad jurisdiction, members of the HCIU and Ordo Veritatis will visit the best – and worst – sections of their City.  In New Orleans, they’re as likely to encounter the French Quarter’s raucous nightlife as the Lower Ninth Ward’s silent desolation.  Each location should possess its own personality, unique in its design and fashion.  Players with specific cultural skills and knowledge can greatly assist an investigation, serving as interpreters and go-betweens.  Indeed, this social awareness could mean the difference between life and death in Night’s Black Agents exotic locales.

Similarly, many cities possess their own distinctive vernacular, including slang words, expressions, and nicknames.  This isn’t solely defined by physical location, as the campaign ‘world’ itself may affect language development.  For example, Heightened-specific slang would arise subsequent to Mutant City Blues’ Sudden Mutation Event (SME), adding to the cultural lexicon.  The GM can pepper conversations with these words and expressions, flavouring the local culture or adding historical context, such as by using 1920s slang in Trail of Cthulhu.  Furthermore, players knowledgeable in street language are at advantage during interrogations – not to mention gain street ‘cred’ when dealing with certain groups.  While certain word-use may be perfectly acceptable with one group, it could be highly offensive with another, creating further drama. 

Weather is another ever-present aspect of the City, some cities even renown for it.  Complementing the setting, the natural elements add texture and tone to the narrative.  Seattle’s grim weather, for example, reflected The Killing’s spiritual greyness, both of the story and the characters.  In contrast, Miami’s sunny and vibrant climate juxtaposed Dexter’s darkness and violence.  More importantly, weather interferes with crime scenes; contaminating and destroying evidence, hindering police efforts, and obscuring time of death. Additional tension can be added to the story by incorporating weather as a recurring plot element, such as an Esoterrorists’ central antagonist appearing only during San Francisco’s fog events.

GMs must consider the City’s otherworldly aspects, as well – be they mutant or monster.  Each GUMSHOE setting can alter the City’s development on many levels.  Ten years following the SME, the Heightened have invariably left their mark on Mutant City, claiming entire neighbourhoods as their own, much like gentrification.  Discrimination and prejudice may affect every level of society, from citizen to HCIU officer, with amendments to Article 18 and other mutant-specific legislation.  Similarly, different entities in the Night’s Black Agents Conspyramid may influence businesses, gangs, and political or civic groups, changing the City’s social dynamics and economy from within and without – which, in turn, changes its form and function.  Esoterrorists may have already weakened the Membrane in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, allowing the Outer Dark to bleed through, corrupting its idyllic nature.  Little touches like these can firmly establish the campaign’s mood and tone.

Finally, the City and the players themselves are inextricably linked together.  Local characters know their old neighbourhoods, having formed connections and contacts, and invested themselves over many years.  These relationships and experiences influence the narrative, even creating complications as their loyalties are tested or intimates threatened.  New arrivals need to earn the trust of their peers and the citizenry, feeling disconnected as they explore their new home turf.  GMS and players are encouraged to expand the City in mutual collaboration, creating NPCs and locales exclusive to their campaign.

Although unique and diverse, any city can be brought to life – even if the GM has never set foot there.  Television and film offer boundless inspiration, while the Internet and books provide information and insights into city-life across the globe.  The GM’s home region, no matter how small, contains unique locations, history, and culture to be used, if only they look closely enough.  Even fictional locations, such as Trail of Cthulhu’s Arkham and Innsmouth, can be incorporated in this manner.  That said, the GM should maintain a logical balance when utilising the City.  As exciting as solving an occult murder atop the Eiffel Tower might be, overusing well-known landmarks can prove counterproductive, even cliché.

The City as Character method can also be employed on a smaller, more intimate level.  Rather than utilising a small town, an Esoterrorists’ Station Duty campaign framework could be incorporated into a city’s neighbourhood or district.  Although surrounded by a thriving metropolis, the Ordo would be responsible for protecting a singular, tight-knit community.  This concentrated approach provides for focussed and distinctive storylines; an Esoterrorist cell operating in the Bronx would be far different from one in Paris’ 18th arrondissement.  The same method can expand a Trail of Cthulhu campaign, as well as Fear Itself.  The latter, in particular, by its nature would benefit from this intensive and personal approach.

Rather than globe-trotting, a Night’s Black Agent campaign could focus on a singular city, such as Istanbul or Hong Kong.  Players would oversee one or more safe houses, conducting their intelligence operations from this centralised locale.  The low-and-slow method combines perfectly with this style of city development. Player interactions with the Conspyramid’s street- and city-level powers would be more intimate and have direct and lasting consequences on the overall campaign.  One need only look at the sheer number of spy novels and movies set in Berlin to see the possibilities this style of play has to offer.

Like a living, breathing entity, Seven’s nameless City intrudes upon every moment, twisting the characters and their perceptions, as well as framing their investigation.  Strip away its influence and the story loses its emotional impact and narrative logic.  By infusing the city’s spirit into their game, the GM creates realistic and lush environments for the players, deepening their investiture in the story.  Not only will players become more engaged, the plot itself can be affected by certain developments.  The City itself becomes the players’ greatest ally and their most feared adversary.  Maybe their witness in Little Armenia doesn’t speak English.  Perhaps heavy snow hinders them crossing the city or pursuing a vital clue. Or, possibly, their main suspect is protected by mutant squatters in New York’s underground. No matter how subtle or profound this influence this may be, embracing the city’s spirit will produce a far more memorable and rewarding campaign.

nba-clawsThe Night’s Black Agents  book is  big, heavy and beautiful, but it can be intimidating to new GMs. The Night’s Black Agents game is a pulse-pounding thrill ride, pursued by vampires. How can we get from the big book to spy action, when the players are new, and you’ve never run NBA at a convention before? You can get away with a few holes in your system knowledge if you know the adventure really well, or hand-wave the adventure a little if you’ve mastered the system.

Bluffing the System

System-wise, at the very minimum, you should know the rudiments of GUMSHOE, both the Investigative side and the General ability side.You’ve run it for your home group. You need to know what a Test is, what a Spend is, the combat and chase rules and, surprisingly important, the use of Preparedness. If you don’t know these basics, the game is like to be uncomfortable for you, and confusing for your players.

First snag and read Kevin Kulp’s guide, and read the summaries in this article.

Offloading Onto Your Players

The biggest system cheat for the GM in a convention game is to offload some work onto players as fun options – in NBA these include the Thriller Combat Options and Stability tests- you can download these here.  This has some useful effects:

  • You don’t have to know all those rules. The rules are generally bite-sized choices or adjustments the players can use. You just need to know the results – and they’ll tell you.
  • You have less to worry about during the game. If someone else is determing when Stability tests are made, you have time for other things.
  • Players who care about those options will use them. Those who don’t, won’t. If no one wants to use them, no one will miss them.
  • Looking at these sheets is a great displacement activity for players when they aren’t currently doing anything.

Combat Summary

Most import of all, you need to understand the basics of combat, not because you’ll necessarily need to spend a lot of time in combat in the game, but because combat needs to be fast and thrilling. You should always know whose go it is, whether a test hits or not, and what your monsters can do. But combat is pretty straightforward in GUMSHOE.

  1. At the outset, ask everyone what ability they are using in combat (usually Weapons or Shooting) and what its rating (not pool) is. Characters and their foes act in decreasing order of that initial rating for the rest of the combat. List them.
  2. To try to hit an opponent, make a test (d6 + point spend) against their Hit Threshold (almost always 3 or 4). Spend points from the combat pool before rolling. If you match or beat the Hit Threshold, you hit – roll the damage listed on your character sheet. There is no dodging. Players who have read the Thriller Combat sheet may offer spends here – nod sagely and let them.
  3. Players can spend Investigative pointss in combat with suitable narration to get a +3 bonus on combats Tests (Military Science, Intimidate, Streetwise are good examples of these spends).
  4. When it’s your go, you make the same test againts the PCs Hit Threshold, but you really don’t have to spend the points to be certain of a hit unless you are playing a true bad-ass or a glass cannon. Roll openly, and tell them what you are spending. You can also consider the option of replacing attack pools with bonuses (no one cares about the GM’s record keeping). So, +1 for minor foes, +2 for scary opponents, and +3 for the real nasties.

Chase summary

Most NBA games include a chase – perhaps roof-top parkour, or smart cars smashing through stalls at a local market.  The summary and track is available in the rules summary.

Before you start – determine the chase ability (usually Driving or Athletics) and put the lead counter on the track at 5 .

  1. GM and players secretly decide their spend from the chase pool, which they then reveal. Players can narrate the use Investigative abilities here! Without a point spend, adjust a Chase Difficulty test by one; with a spend, increase the pursuers’ or pursueds’ chase pool by 3 per point.
  2. Both parties make a test against a Difficulty of 4.
  3. Compare the results of the pursuer and the pursued:
  • Both fail or succeed – lead adjusts by one in the direction of the victor.
  • One fails, one succeeds – lead adjusts by two in the direction of the victor.
  1. Narrate the outcome, asking for player input.
  2. If there is any combat, it goes here. The Hit Threshold is usually increased by 1 in a chase, and anyone directly involved in the chase (running or driving) needs to spend 3 points from the chase pool.
  3. If the lead narrows to zero, the pursuer has caught up without a doubt; if the lead increases to 10, the pursued have escaped.

Refreshing

Keep it simple – one chance in the adventure to rest up and refresh three General pools when they’ve had a fight or chase and appear to be gasping for points. They can of course use Shrink (to get Stability back) and Medic (for Health), too. If anyone spots the Technothriller Monologue option, let them use it.

Preparedness

Preparedness allows players to model their characters’ competence, without themselves knowing how to be a spy. It also shortcuts lengthy planning meetings, and gives players a fallback in emergencies. This is how it’s used.

  • Make a test to have something relatively unusual you haven’t mentioned.
  • If you have a rating 8+ allows you to have all ready done something you describe in flashback. If the action requires another test by you or another player (for example, Explosives or Conceal) you need to make that too, afterwards. You can have planted a bomb, swiped a key card, hacked a security system, sabotaged a car, bribed a guard…

Rules You can Take or Leave

Piggybacking and Cooperation These are pretty useful and very simple. If someone is sneaking into a building, or climbing, or any other task where one PC takes the lead, the other PCs spend one point each to stay with them. With cooperation, multiple PCs can contributed to a test, but you need to spend a point to contribute. Flag this up if you remember it and a suitable occasion arises.

Network is are pretty easy to explain, but don’t worry about the mechanics too much – just suggest if they need a hand, look at their network list. If you want the players to have more narrative control – just say “do you know someone who can help you?” If they ask them to do a whole lot, warn them they might get killed, burned, or turn coat. If you are using Network, restrict the pool to five at the most – in a full game, this rating cannot be refreshed, and is too much for a one-shot (hattip Gareth)

Cover in a convention game, this is effectively the same as Disguise – the long-term consequences of not having a solid ID are unlikely to arise. If someone wants to have multiple covers, just like the characters in Burn Notice, let them do it. Limit the pool to five or so.

Cherries – these should be marked on and detailed on character sheets, and be self-explanatory. Check the pregens first and make sure they are – or look them up if necessary. Don’t introduce them if they aren’t there.

MOS –  one ability you can always succeed at once in a session? Simple enough. If you use these, and they aren’t pre-detmerined, let your players decide on this when you hand out the characters. They should all chose a different one.

I wouldn’t bother with Heat, Safe House and Haven rules, Special Tactical Benefits, and the of minutiae of all the equipment in a convention game.

Adventure Knowledge

Night’s Black Agents adventures tend to be more player-led than other GUMSHOE games, and this makes it both easier and more difficult to run. In an ideal world, you will have run it for your group before, but often for conventions, you just get handed  something on the day. I find it helpful to sketch out a diagram of how scenes are connected, and punch down into the abilities and the set up of any fights or chases, or if any more unusual rules come up. Monster stats are really straightforward in GUMSHOE – but take a close look at any supernatural abilities so your vampires are competent and scary. I find two passes through a convention-length adventure – two 30 minute slots – does the basic job. In play, though, if the players are having fun, you are on the right track.

Introducing the Game

Open by telling them they are bad-ass spies, and that they are supremely competent at what they do.

Explain the basics – how Investigative and General abilities work. If anyone who is used to rolling dice to get information expresses puzzlement, tell them to play exactly as they always do when asking to use an Investigative ability. Explain that any Investigative ability can be used to get a +3 bonus on a General ability per one point spend –  use Architecture to get you an Infiltration bonus when breaking into a building, or Intimidation to get the drop on someone in a fight. Tell them you will suggest spends, but it’s better they do! Let them know they don’t have to memorize any of this stuff – you’ll remind them in play. Direct them to the GUMSHOE 101 player sheet.

They know how spy thrillers work – ask What Would Jason Bourne Do? The Night’s Black Agent’s character sheets and its abilities are a cheat sheet in themselves for playing a spy thriller. Abilities such as Infiltration, Forgery and Tradecraft and the meat of the spy genre, tell them to use them, and you’ll make it your job to ensure they get the chance.

It’s a convention game. Tell them to try anything, spend points recklessly and see what happens. Let them know they should try anything they’ve seen in a spy movie, and you will tell them how.

Don’t spend much time planning One of the big problems with spy games can be planning inertia, so tell about Preparedness – the actual mechanic can wait. Their characters will know what to do, even if they don’t, and if they do get bogged down in an extended planning scene, remind them of Preparedness, and show them evidence that if they don’t get moving, they’ll be the hunted.

Stay one step ahead, or danger will come to you. Hunkering down is always a bad idea. Spies stay ahead of their opponents. Your ability to collect information on your opponents, subvert and surprise them are your greatest weapons.

Handing Out Characters

Offer them characters filled in apart from their names, Drives and Sources of Stability (and MOS if it’s not marked and you are using it). Mention that combat-oriented characters have more options in a fight, if they want to take them.

These elements are a short cut to characterisation. Leave a few spare points for a floating pool (say 3) they can assign to any ability on the fly during the game. The characters sheets, along with the handouts, should tell them all the mechanics they need to play their specific characters, including special abilities, weapon damage etc, so they don’t have to look through books. Unless you want in-game paranoia (you are playing a Mirror game, perhaps) tell them they know each other and have worked together, so they are a team as much as spies can be.

At this point ask for a volunteer to keep an eye on whether PCs should make a Stability test – they need flag up if anyone should make a test. There’ll always be one player who is willing to do this, usually a GM; it’s one less thing for you to worry about, and they are usually stricter than you would be! You’ll probably need to remind them the first time.

Offer the Thriller Combat option sheets in the player handouts I created  (or even these cards) – note who takes them and who doesn’t. Tell them they have to be ready when it’s their turn to use one of those options. This will help when running combats. Likewise, point the Chase options out to the character with the ability which will be used in the chase in the adventure.

By now, your players should be fired up and ready to go, and so should you. The rest is up to you!

Evil Pelgrane Logo - WhiteGUMSHOE is the rules engine used in many of Evil Pelgrane’s products, from The Esoterrorists to Trail of Cthulhu to our newest (evil) release, Timewatch. (GUMSHOE is capitalised because it’s an acronym  – Generic Universal Mechanic Serving Henchmen Of Evil Why else would it be all-caps?).

It’s 10 years old this year, so let’s take the time to review the basics of Evil GUMSHOE.

If you want to take the advanced class, that’ll be $129.99, peons. And it doesn’t even come in a black cube.

NOTE: Pelgrane Press are happy and enthusiastic backers of the Invisible Sun Kickstarter, and are engaging in a bit of friendly teasing. Evil Gar’s opinions are evil, and are not shared by Good Pelgrane.

EVIL GUMSHOE FOR PLAYERS

Or, how to ruin your own fun.

USE YOUR INVESTIGATIVE ABILITIES!

Right there on your sheet, you’ve got a long long list of methods for gathering information. Use them all! All at once! All the time! I mean, the rules clearly say that if you use the right ability in the right place at the right time, you’ll always get the clue, no rolling. So, obviously, the right place is HERE and the right time is NOW and the right ability is ALL OF THEM.

 

Good Example of Play

GM: Ok, you time-travel back to the professor’s lab on the night before the explosion. It’s deathly quiet except for the occasional bleep from one of the instruments. The professor’s prototype time machine is still sitting there on the desk, hooked up to various monitoring devices. From the bluey science glow, you guess it’s already powered up and running, but hasn’t been activated yet.

Player 1: Can I tell anything more about the machine with my Science! ability?

GM: Are you touching it, or scanning it with your tether, or just looking at it.

Player 1: We know this thing is going to explode soon, so I’m being as careful as possible.

GM: OK, it’ll take you a few minutes to work out what it’s doing.

Player 2: Can I get the Professor’s emails?

GM: Do you have Hacking?

Player 2: Yep. I sit down at his computer and start using exploits that haven’t been discovered yet to get through his security systems.

GM: Do you want to spend a point to get it done faster?
Player 2: Nope.

GM: Ok, as you’re both distracted by your respective tasks, you don’t notice the presence of the night watchman until he’s right in the corridor outside. He’s about to come through the door – what do you do?

Player 3: I’ll disguise myself as one of the professor’s lab assistants and use my Authority ability to convince him we’re allowed to be in here.

 

Evil Example of Play

GM: Ok, you time-travel back to the professor –

PLAYERS (Overlapping): Anthropology! Charm! Architecture! Military Tactics! Streetwise! Medical Expertise!

GM: You’re using Charm on…

PLAYER 1: EVERYTHING!

 

GET CLUES BUT DON’T FOLLOW THEM

In fact, go in the opposite direction. Run away from those leads! Investigation only leads to fun, and Evil GUMSHOE isn’t about fun – it’s about torturing your GM and the other players.

 

Good Example of Play

GM: One of the professor’s emails is from a woman named Sybil. She wants to meet him at a café near the university – tonight, in about ten minutes. And attached to the email is a photograph of a weird symbol painted on what looks like the wall of a basement.

PLAYER 1: Ok, let’s go to the café and see what’s going on there.

PLAYER 2: Actually, I’m going to spend a point of Anthropology to blend in – I’m travelling back five years in time and getting a job in that café. I figure by now, I’m running the place and I’ve set up really good security and surveillance there.

 

Evil Example of Play:

GM: One of the professor’s emails is from a woman named Sybil. She wants to meet him at a café near the university – tonight, in about ten minutes. And attached to the email is a photograph of a weird symbol painted on what looks like the wall of a basement.

PLAYER 1: Ok, let’s ignore this obvious lead and obsess about something obviously irrelevant.

PLAYER 2: That night watchman had a moustache, right? WAS HE TIME TRAVELLING HITLER?
GM: No, he just –

PLAYER 2: FALSEHOOD DETECTION!

GM: That only works on NPCs!

PLAYER 2: TRUE. I go to Berlin anyway.

 

EVIL GUMSHOE FOR GMS

GUMSHOE’s core thesis is that the challenge of an investigative game shouldn’t be getting the clues, it should be deciding how to act on them. Evil GUMSHOE’s core thesis is that life is suffering and you can’t spell “frustration” without “fun” (and “tsr ratio”, apparently). So, as an evil GUMSHOE GM, your watchwords are:

LOVE MY NARRATIVE RAILROAD

If the players always get the clue, and the clue leads to the next scene, then you can just dispense with all that tiresome roleplaying and decision-making on the part of the players, and focus on what really matters – your unpublished novel. The players have two very important tasks – they need to use their investigative abilities to find clues, and they need to sit there while you explain what the clue means and how it fits into the story.

Good Example of Play

GM: Ok, you used Hacking to get into the professor’s computer and you’ve found that email from ‘Sybil’ talking about a meet in the coffee shop. What are you doing?

PLAYER 1: Let’s go and spy on them there.

PLAYER 2: One moment – that symbol. Do I know anything about it with any of my Histories? I’ve got Past, Contemporary and Future.

GM: It’s not from any of those, but you do recognise it from the Timewatch archives. There’s a parallel history where Earth gets invaded by aliens in the 1950s, and that symbol was used by the human resistance to mark the homes of collaborators. You know that the change point for that timeline was Roswell, in 1947 – a Timewatch team disabled the distress beacon on the Roswell saucer, so the alien mothership never came looking for it.

PLAYER 2: So, if someone wanted to change history back again, then Roswell 1947 would be the place to go?

GM: Yep.

PLAYER 3: I’m going to ask that night watchman if he knows this ‘Sybil.’

GM: He doesn’t recognise the name, but he does mutter about the car parked across the road from the lab. There are two people out there, and he’s convinced they’re watching the university. He describes them as sinister government-types. Men in black.

Look at that! Three possible leads for the players to follow. That’s far too much work. Railroads are much easier!

 

Evil Example of Play

GM: Ok, you used Hacking to get into the professor’s computer and you’ve found that email from ‘Sybil’ talking about a meet in the coffee shop. You go to the coffee shop, and you see the professor talking to the woman. Who has Spying?

PLAYER 1: I do.

GM: You sneak close enough to eavesdrop, and the woman’s saying that she knows the professor escaped from another timeline with alien time-travel technology stolen from Roswell and now you must go back to Roswell in 1947.

PLAYER 2: Can I talk to Sybil and –

GM: NOW YOU MUST GO BACK TO ROSWELL. LOOK AT MY SCENE DIAGRAM! IT CLEARLY SAYS THAT THE ROSWELL SCENE COMES IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE CAFÉ SCENE.

 

DEMAND THE RIGHT ABILITY!

GUMSHOE games have lots of highly specialised investigative abilities, allowing the players to interrogate the world in many different ways. When writing a scenario, note which clues can be found with which investigative ability, and stick rigidly to that note. Never relent, and never reward ingenuity on the part of the players.

Also, make sure you hide your clues in really obscure, non-intuitive places using inappropriate abilities. That’s always fun.

Good Example of Play

GM: Ok, you’re in Roswell air force base, disguised as military police. How are you going to find the flying saucer debris?

PLAYER 1: I could just order a soldier to tell me with Authority, right?

PLAYER 2: It’s probably top-secret. I’ll go to the base office and use Bureaucracy to find out where the restricted areas are.

PLAYER 3: It’s all probably been documented in history books – can I just check with Research or Contemporary History to find out which hangar contains the ‘weather balloon’?

GM: They’ll all work, although Research will take a few minutes. Which one are you using?

Bad Example of Play

GM: Ok, you’re in Roswell air force base, disguised as military police. How are you going to find the flying saucer debris?

PLAYER 1: I could just order a soldier to tell me with Authority, right?

GM: He doesn’t know.

PLAYER 2: It’s probably top-secret. I’ll go to the base office and use Bureaucracy to find out where the restricted areas are.

GM: They don’t tell you.

PLAYER 3: It’s all probably been documented in history books – can I just check with Research or Contemporary History to find out which hangar contains the ‘weather balloon’?

GM: No. It’s not in any of the books you check.

PLAYER 1: Ok… can I scan with Science for radiation emissions or –

GM: You don’t detect anything.

Two hours later.

PLAYER 2: Sigh. Ok. ANTHROPOLOGY! ARCHITECTURE! MILITARY TACTICS! CHARM!

GM: You can’t just shout out investigative abilities! You have to describe how you’re using them.

PLAYER 2: Ok, Military Tactics – I know how air forces bases work. If I was dragging in debris from a crashed object, which would be the obvious hangar to use.

GM: You can’t tell.

PLAYER 3: Can I find any tracks with, uh, Notice? Like, fresh tyre-tracks on the road from the ranch where it crashed.

GM: No.

PLAYER 3: Can I find any tracks on that road with Outdoor Survival?

GM: Yes! They clearly point at Hanger 3.

Don’t just make it a railroad – make it a painfully delayed and overcrowded railroad with a nightmarish ticketing system! That’s the Evil Pelgrane way!

There’s more bad GUMSHOE advice on twitter (look for #evilpelgrane), and we’ll happily give you personalised bad advice in the comments on this article, too!

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TimeWatch is a time-travel adventure RPG where brave agents of TimeWatch defend the timestream from radioactive cockroaches, psychic velociraptors, and human meddlers. Go back in time to help yourself in a fight, thwart your foes by targeting their ancestors, or gain a vital clue by checking out a scroll from the Library of Alexandria. But watch out for paradoxes that may erase you from existence… or worse.. Purchase TimeWatch in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

TombThe streets here are a concrete labyrinth. I try to go one block east, towards the ocean, and find myself crossing another bridge over the grey waters of the Miskatonic, and I’m back on the north side of the city, climbing up towards the civic monstrosity that squats atop Sentinel Hill. Transport Police, their faces hidden by gas masks – to protect against “typhoid”, according to the peeling posters in the subway – watch me as I march past. I don’t dare ask them for directions, and I can’t go back underground. I have to stay on the streets, even if I get lost again. Maybe if I find higher ground, a vantage point… a doorman ushers me in, making a familiar sign with his left hand as he does so, but too late I realise that the building I’ve entered is one of the cryptic and terrible windowless skyscrapers that loom over the city, their tops lost in the oppressive, low-hanging clouds. I cannot go back – I have to climb, struggling up flights of stairs that are clearly not made for any human frame…

Why, I am writing Cthulhu City, now that you mention it. Or rewriting, in parts, as the book has its own ideas about what it wants to be. A sandbox, maybe, where the Pillared City of Irem was lost long ago.

* * *

At Gen Con, I ran two prewritten scenarios: Kevin Kulp’s Valkyrie Gambit for Timewatch, and Ruth Tillman’s Midnight Sub Rosa, which can be found in Out of the Woods. In both games, I screwed up and misread key elements of the scenario (protip: running a game on the day after those Ennie Awards is never going to go smoothly). In both games, though, I was able to recover from my error and keep the game on track. Neither group noticed that anything was amiss.

Confusion & Conflation

In Midnight Sub Rosa, I conflated two locations. There’s one house where the main action of the adventure takes place, and there’s a guesthouse where most of the assembled non-player characters are staying. In my haste, I missed the guesthouse and assumed that everyone was staying in the same place. If I’d noticed my error in time, I’d have simply corrected the players, but a good fifteen minutes of play elapsed between me describing the building, and me realising there was supposed to be a whole separate guesthouse down the road from the country house, and rewinding play kills momentum in a convention game. I had to get ahead of the derailed train while it was moving.  (if you notice a mistake just as you make it, you can correct yourself – “oh, no, wait, they’re not staying here, there’s a guesthouse down the road” – but that’s a very narrow window. Once you’ve spent five minutes in-character complaining about the cramped rooms in the main house, that opportunity’s gone.)

Removing the guesthouse introduced two problems. First, it made it harder for the player characters to sneak around and investigate the various bedrooms. In a six-person con game, though, that problem solved itself: some player characters distracted the NPCs while the others committed a little breaking and entering. The second issue was a bigger one. Midway through the scenario as written, there’s supposed to be a ghoul attack on one of the NPCs as he walks down the isolated tree-shrouded laneway between the main house and the guesthouse. By moving his bedroom into the main house, I’d removed the opportunity for the ghouls to ambush him, and I couldn’t have the ghouls attack the main house midway through the scenario.

The ghoul attack scene is in the scenario to be a sudden visceral shock and to eliminate a particular NPC. It doesn’t need to happen on that laneway. So, I invented a reason for the NPC to leave the safety of the house. I described him as a smoker, and then later had one of the other characters complain about the smoke. Soon, a player character suggested that he and the NPC step outside for some fresh air where they could smoke in peace. They wandered into the gardens… and the ghouls were lurking in the trees nearby.

If the location of the ghoul attack scene was important, then I’d have had to come up with some other solution, but here all I needed to do was eviscerate one particular occult expert. Once I’d done that, and given the players a fright, the game was back on track despite my screw-up about the guest house. The key is to know the purpose of every scene, even if you have to change the setting or content.

The Case of the Missing Villain

In Valkyrie Gambit, I forgot to introduce the villain of the whole adventure. The villain’s supposed to show up in the opening scene, setting up a dramatic reveal at the end. (“It was you all along! Shock! Horror!”), but the players and I were having such fun brawling with mutant cockroaches that I ended the scene without bringing the villain onstage. I could have added another scene where the villain pops in, but it would have stuck out like a strange growth on the scenario’s spine. The shape of the story in a roleplaying game isn’t discernible when you’re in the middle of play; it’s only seen in retrospect, when the players look back and see the sequence of events from beginning to end. In a convention game, where you’ve got limited time and only a handful of scenes, I couldn’t get away with adding a new scene to add a new NPC – it would make the game feel unsatisfying at the end, even if the players didn’t notice in the heat of play, because it would have robbed that opening scene of its purpose. Pointless scenes are always rotten, even if they’re fun in the moment. (There’s a tension between the game that the players are experiencing right now, and the story that they’ll remember and tell afterwards. You can have a really fun, action-packed game, and then discover when you look back on it that nothing actually happened, that it was just running around and rolling dice without any consequence. You can have a perfectly structured compelling story that’s boring and frustrating to actually play through. For a good convention session, both the game and the story need to sing.)

It’s always better to call back and reuse material in a convention game. If the players introduce a concept in scene 1, then try to bring that into a later scene, even if you have to force things a little. In 13th Age games, for example, I’ll happily twist myself into knots trying to work in all the players’ One Unique Things, because it’s more fun for them to have contributed something that actually plays a part in how the story plays out. In Valkyrie Gambit, one of the players decided to play with the Timewatch rules by having his future self show up to help out in that initial fight. That gave me a justification for my replacement villain – it was a time-shifted duplicate of one of the mutant cockroaches, breaking the laws of time by skipping out in the middle of that first fight.

Using the time-shifted cockroach as the villain was the most parsimonious solution – it incorporated two existing elements (cockroaches, and the fact that time travellers can duplicate themselves), so it gave a sense of unity to the whole game when the player characters met the cockroach again in the final scene. It tied everything together. Look for ways to link back to earlier events and ideas, or to echo them.

Distraction With Shiny Clues

Another common landmine – which I gracefully leapt over this year, unlike the steps at the back of the Embassy Suites – is the logical contradiction, where you accidentally say something that breaks the logic of the mystery. You describe, say, an NPC closely examining a weird statue, even though it’s supposed to be locked away in a glass case. In that situation, look for a way to correct the mistake that involves the player characters finding out more information through active use of their Investigative Abilities. You could, for instance, describe the museum porter come back in with the glass case, complaining about how he has to clean it every few weeks because a strange black mold keeps growing on the inside, giving the player character with Biology a chance to whip out her microscope, look at some mold samples and discover that they’re very similar to a toxic mold found in certain Egyptian pyramids or somesuch (the clue doesn’t have to be relevant; it’s there purely to give the players a little reward so they don’t notice the plot bandage you just slapped on.)

Convention games are a particularly manic high-wire act for the GM when they go awry – as everything has to fit into one three or four-hour slot, you’ve got to find a solution to problems in time for that big finale. Always keep your nerve – if you screw up, keep going instead of backtracking. Prewritten scenarios are just suggested routes, they’re maps of what might happen, not strict scripts that you’ve got to follow. If you go off course, keep going and look for another turning to get back on track. Do it right, and the players will never suspect a thing.

13th Age GM Resource Book cover

Pre-Order the 13th Age Gamemaster Screen and Resource Book, and download the PDF now!

“We have targeted the game toward experienced gamemasters and players at all levels of roleplaying experience.” – 13th Age core book

13th Age assumes you already know how to run an F20 roleplaying game—in fact, you’ve probably already done it more than a few times. You’re comfortable customizing a game to fit your style of play, improvising adventures based on player input, being the final decision-maker on rules questions, building out a campaign setting based on a few cool ideas, and creating your own monsters.

As a result of this design approach, 13th Age sometimes asks more from GMs than other games. That’s why we’ve always tried to support 13th Age GMs by answering questions and supplying resources and guidance. A few months ago, we reached a point where we felt we knew enough about where our GMs needed a little extra help that we could write a solid GM’s guide for the game.

Using the Trail of Cthulhu Keeper’s Screen and Resource Book as our model, Cal Moore and I huddled with Rob Heinsoo and talked about what would be good to include in this slim volume (around 64 pages). Based on what GMs had been asking us over the years, what would be most useful?

We’d definitely need to talk more about icon relationship rolls, which were brand-new tech in the core book and have been relentlessly discussed, debated, tested, and tinkered with by 13th Age GMs and designers since then. We often see  questions about using terrain in combat, and Cal had lots of ideas he wanted to develop around that. His recent experience with the Battle Scenes books (still in development) gave him great insight that we could share about building better battles in the game.

13th Age GM Book NPC sampleThe Keeper’s Resource Book included NPCs, so I eagerly volunteered to create (statless) characters associated with the 13 icons that GMs could easily pop into their games as one-off encounters, recurring characters, or even major villains. I also wanted to revisit the subject of backgrounds, which I wrote about in a previous Page XX article.

ASH LAW had begun work on an ambitious toolkit for improvising adventures, but other priorities left it orphaned. I took it apart and rebuilt it into a lean, mean, GMing machine for running zero-preparation sessions of 13th Age. And hey, speaking of ASH, we decided that it was finally time to make his Montage mechanic from Organized Play an official part of the rules. So from now on, when someone asks, “Where are Montages described?” the answer is, “In the GM’s Resource Book”.

We also recruited Rob to write a section called “Six Things Rob Does Now”, and compiled general-purpose GM advice scattered across various books.

We hope you like it, and we hope you get a kick out of the accompanying GM screen, which features freakin’ gorgeous new player-facing art from Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell, and GM-facing quick-reference rules chosen with input from our community. (There’s also a map of the Dragon Empire, this time with the roads included. Huzzah.)


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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