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.


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 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.


Or, how to ruin your own fun.


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…




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 –


GM: That only works on NPCs!

PLAYER 2: TRUE. I go to Berlin anyway.



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:


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 –




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.


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!


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.

pack shot

The 13th Age GM’s Screen and Resource Book features incredible new art from 13th Age lead artists Aaron McConnell and Lee Moyer, a 64-page resource book, and a fold out map of the Dragon Empire.

The Gamemaster Screen

The screen is three-ply and portrait-oriented, with the essential information a GM needs to run the game:

  • Skill Check DCs, Trap Obstacle Attacks & Impromptu Damage by Environment
  • Conditions
  • Chum the Adventure (d20 roll when you wish to be entertained)
  • Intercepting and Disengaging
  • Baseline Stats for Monsters, Monster Equivalents, Customizing a Monster, and Leveling a Monster
  • GP Per Full Heal-Up, and Optional No Math System
  • Item Chakras and Default Bonuses
  • Consumables Costs
  • GM Stuff to Remember
  • Rule Recaps for: Ambush & Surprise, Death & Dying, Fight in Spirit, Flee, Grabbed (new rules), Invisibility, No Recoveries, Ongoing Damage, Rally, Resistance, Shooting into Melee, Temporary Hit Points, Unarmed Attacks

13th Age GM Book NPC sampleThe Resource Book

The resource book includes advice, guidance and rules for:

  • Using icon relationship rolls, with variations on the icon roll mechanic and examples of how benefits and complications can work in play
  • Creating 13th Age adventures on the spot, with zero preparation
  • Running montages (introduced in Organized Play, and expanded here)
  • Incorporating terrain into battles, including creating environments and locations for different tiers of play
  • Building better battles
  • Helping players craft useful and interesting backgrounds, with advice on handling backgrounds that seem too powerful or too weak
  • Creating memorable NPCs, with a sampling of icon-related NPCs—each with a brief description, Three Things that bring them to life in player’s minds, and suggested monster roles and initiative to guide GMs in building them out using the DIY monster rules
  • And more!



Stock #: PEL13A10 Lead Designers: Cal Moore and Wade Rockett

Art Director and Developer: Rob Heinsoo

Screen artists: Aaron McConnell, Lee Moyer Type: GM screen and 64-page resource guide


Buy now

I’m glad tabletop culture still seems to respect elder wisdom. Otherwise I’d be reluctant to tell you how long I’ve been doing GM Masterclass panels.

Over time a few questions change, but some stay the same.

One question you don’t get much anymore: the once-standard, “How do we get new blood into the hobby?” This is because today’s con panels brim with teens and college students. Yes, OGs* who don’t get out much, the hallowed ones longed for by prophecy have finally come to save us.

A couple more perennial questions have persisted into the new generation, meaning that certain Things I Always Say must continue to be said. Saves me the cognitive trouble of coming up with new shibboleths, I suppose.

“How do I get the combat and tactics oriented players in my group to like story and characterization more?” is still a thing. (Answer I Always Give: If they’re interested, they’ll catch on in time. But maybe they’re not, and they’ve come to your table to combat and tactics.)

“What do I do about this one person in my group who is doing [fill in incredibly dysfunctional thing]?” also remains all too common.

The answer we all have to keep repeating is: talk to them, out of game, out of character, and tell them that you’re finding their behavior completely undermining. When they respond as desired, great.

When they don’t, kick ‘em out.

In a broadly attended, non-specialist panel, like one I recently took part in at FanExpo Canada, these three simple words provoke a ripple of delighted laughter. Attendees shiver at this thought of crazy liberation. “We can do that?” the laugh seems to ask.

Yes, you can do that. And should. The downside of geek culture’s fear of ostracizing behavior has been discussed at greater length elsewhere. To see how ridiculous it is to allow someone to constantly undermine the game, throw the question into another context. Would a football team tolerate a quarterback who constantly runs toward his own team’s goalposts, because that makes him the center of attention? Would aquarium fanciers invite somebody back after he drains everyone’s tanks?

Acceptance by others requires acceptance of others. Trying to continue with an undermining player will just kill your love of the game.

It doesn’t matter whether he drives others to game night, or brings the pizza, or is the one who introduced the rest of you in the first place.

If he insists on undermining your game after you’ve kindly asked him not to, three words pertain:

Kick ‘em out.

*Original Grognards, of course.

You can eject an egregiously undermining player from any fine Pelgrane Press game. For example, GUMSHOE the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Improvising With GUMSHOE by Steve Dempsey

logogumshoeThis article discusses an improvised variant of the GUMSHOE rules. It can be just as easily used for Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, or any other GUMSHOE game.

Most games of GUMSHOE are played using a scenario that the GM has written. Not only does she introduce each scene and play the non player characters but she also decides in advance what the clues are. Although the GM does not dictate the path the players will take through the adventure, she has a strong hand on the tiller as the clues she chooses will determine to a rather large extent what the players do.

There are some good reasons not to always play this way. Stephen King says in On Writing, “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” When you tie this in with the GM’s creed, “No scenario ever survives contact with the players”, you will see that the improvised game has some advantages over one written by the GM.

What you might lose on intricate plotting you are likely to gain on player involvement in the creative process and character play. Players will be much freer to take the scenario in directions that seem more natural to them and their input will have a greater impact on the story.

Improvisation is nothing terribly difficult to do, the main impact of playing this variant is that the game is not planned up front by a GM but is developed in play by players and GM alike. This means no prep for GMs, other than learning the rules. I’ll be discussing the details of how to do this in three easy stages. Finally I’ll give an example that shows how this works in play.

1. The set-up

As with any improvisation, you have to have a theme. It’s an improvisation on something. If you don’t have a theme, then the players won’t know what kind of characters to make.

So start with a theme. It doesn’t really matter how you come by this as long as there is some consensus within the group. You could let the GM choose (“You’re all students at a Japanese high school, getting ready for a school trip”) or you could have a group discussion about what sounds cool (“I want things lurking in doorways”, “I want magical rituals that take years to cast”, “I want a scene in an 80s disco”). You could also choose something that relates to a moral question (“How far are you prepared to go to stop the monsters?”) or a dilemma (“Family or Job?”).

But remember that this is GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, and Mutant City Blues. It’s all about investigation. Some terrible crime has been committed, the bastions of reality are under threat, and the characters are the ones to deal with it.

For your theme you should also discuss the nature of this threat or crime, even if you don’t want to know the details at this stage. For example, the Japanese schoolgirls are a shoe-in for some kind of mad slasher and the 80’s disco idea smacks of Son of Sam or Zodiac.50423

You could discuss who the villain of the piece is going to be. This could be oblique (some Mythos deity) or explicit (one of the schoolgirls). It helps the game if you have some idea of what you are aiming for. It should also help with pacing. You don’t want the bad guy to be revealed to the characters in the first five minutes.

It’s a good idea, although not necessary, to write down the outcome of your discussions regarding the theme. It’s a handy resource for players and GM alike who can refer to it when making decisions about characters or plot.

Once you know what the theme is, make up some characters. In many games, this is down in utmost secrecy lest anyone steal your cool idea. In improv, we have a different way of doing things. You all do your characters together. Talk about your characters to each other and say when you like something. Give positive feedback.

Improv thrives on feedback. You are the audience as well as the actors so big yourselves up. It’s not just about getting a good vibe, this is also about riffing off each other’s characters. If you’ve gone the schoolgirl route, you’ll need to know who is the class swot, who is the cheerleader and who has psychic powers. You’re characters don’t necessarily need to know, but your players do. You need to know where conflicts will arise because that’s what makes the game interesting.

You can do this by each introducing your character once generation has been done, but that’s a short cut that misses out the links that you can forge between your characters if you do the job collaboratively.

In improv GUMSHOE, investigative skills work differently. They still allow characters to automatically find core clues or to be spent on supplementary clues. That much does not change. However, because there is no prewritten scenario, the choice of skills determines what the characters are going to encounter. If no one has Art History as a skill, the characters aren’t going to be looking at many paintings. If they all have high trivia scores, then what happened in last week’s episode of Full Metal Alchemist is going to be much more important.

Decide how long you want the game to last. This can be done by deciding on the number of core clues. One is generally not enough but you can play a decent one session game with only three or four core clues. Don’t forget that some scenes will not be about clues but for transition or colour. Whilst you might like to go for a mammoth ten core clue game, this is probably a bit much and I imagine is best broken down into smaller three or four clue episodes, each with their own internal logic but all building blocks in the greater plot arc.

2. What do we do now?

Now you play. Without any kind of pre-existing scenario this sounds a bit scary but you do have something to go on, namely all the work that you’ve put in so far to create the theme and the characters. You should all have a pretty good idea of how the general direction of the game so now what you do is ask for scenes.

Anyone can ask for a scene, player or GM, but the GM gets to decide the order in which they are played. The first scene is usually called for by the GM who will use it to introduce the game, the characters and perhaps something about the mystery that’s about to be investigated.

A scene is where a least one character will attempt some kind of action. An action is where a character finds a clue, has social interaction with a PC or NPC or uses their general skills to some end. It’s a fairly loose definition but you’ll know one when you see one. For a scene to work it has to have some kind of danger, excitement, threat or drive the plot of the game.

It’s the GM’s job to set-up scenes and to play NPCs. They can take account of player wishes but ultimately it is there responsibility to decide who and what is in the scene.

It’s also the GM’s job to make sure that transitions between scenes are handled. This is essentially narration. It’s the bits in 24 that happen during the ad breaks when Jack Bauer drives to the next action packed scene, or at the start when the voice says “Previously on Heroes”. Transitions are important because they tie everything together. They can also have bits of exposition such as when a PC talks to his critically ill wife in hospital, flashbacks to a scene in the life of the villain or even foreshadowing of future events. The extent to which you expose plot to the players in these scenes is very much up to the will of the group. Some don’t want out of character knowledge but some relish the TV show style construction that has interposed shots of the bad guy committing his latest dastardly crime, think Skylar in Heroes.

3. How to improvise 

Here are some techniques that you can use to help with your improvisation. If you want more information on improvisation for roleplaying I recommend the Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley).

These techniques are not difficult to use and they have been shown in theatre sports (see Impro by Keith Johnstone) to improve stories generated through improvisation.

Don’t try to be too clever

If your character goes into a bar for the first time, they should probably order a drink, they probably wouldn’t do a back flip over the bar and shoot the pianist. If you do this kind of thing, you ruin spoil the narrative by doing things for which the other players can’t see the justification. Characters should act in character and do what’s natural for them to do. You’ll find that acting naturally helps the game along much better because the other players will come to know what to expect from your character.

Don’t block

This follows on from the first technique. You won’t be able to understand what the other characters are like if you try to block everything they do. So if a character proposes going into a bar, you probably shouldn’t say “It’s closed” or “I don’t go in bars”. It’s fine to say, “Well, I wouldn’t usually, but just this once”. In fact this is very good because this reveals something about your character as well as encouraging the other player’s development of the game.


Build on what’s already happened. If an NPC gets mentioned by name in an early scene, bring them back later on. If a detail is mentioned, make it appear in a later scene under a different light, make it more or less important than it was. The reason behind reincorporation is because it reinforces the narrative by drawing attention to the salient points.

Reincorporation is also known as Chekov’s Gun because he once wrote in a letter to a friend, “”If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

4. An example of play

So here’s an example. Brenda is running a game for Steve and Anya. They decide that they want to play Fear Itself set in the London in the 70s. The player characters will all be involved in the punk scene, the tone will be gritty and the game should involve some kind of parasitical infection.

Steve’s character is called Sanjit, a fanzine writer from Bromley. His writing has some influence in the small milieu but he’s not necessarily well liked, mainly because of the sarcastic tone of his writing. He’s unemployed.Scene from The Third Man

Anya’s character, Ariadne, has come down to London from Birmingham, to escape from Heavy Metal. She’s a competent drummer and has got a gig with a band called Dole Kids. Ariadne and Sanjit share a grotty room in Berwick St.

Brenda thinks that the plot probably involves something to do with some chord progression carrying the infection but that’s not something she can decide. But it is her job to frame the first scene . Given the theme, there’s nowhere better to start the game that at a club. (This is Not Being Too Clever .)

It’s a Friday night and the Dive, a club in Camden pub basement, is heaving. The floor is sticky with beer, the walls and ceiling dripping with sweat. Dole Kids are just coming off having done a decent set. Sanjit is in the off-stage area having a discussion with Molly, lead singer of Kick in the Head who are due on next. Molly has taken umbrage at something Sanjit wrote in his last fanzine. Her band is on stage and waiting for her.

The scene is played out to introduce the characters and any NPCs. From what happens it’s clear that Molly will feature later in the game. On this occasion Molly storms off up the steps to the stage barging into Ariadne. This only escalates the arguments. She spits at the group and she runs up to sing. They follow her and end up being beaten up by Kick in the Head and their loyal following. Molly takes pity on the PCs and gets them back to her dressing room where they share a joint.

Next, Anya calls for a Core Clue scene. As there hasn’t been anything horrible happen yet, this scene should introduce the first elements of horror. It’s probably time for someone to die.

Anya asks for the scene to take place at the after show party. Brenda sets the scene but allows the players to place their own characters. It’s after the gig at a party in a squat next to a kebab shop. There is no electricity in the building and it’s entirely lit by candles. Someone has a grotty tape player which is blasting out the rather indistinct sounds of Iggy Pop and the Stooges.

Anya says that Ariadne is snogging some groupie in a wrecked bathroom, candles reflecting off broken bits of mirror. Steve decides that Sanjit is holding forth in a damp and grimy kitchen to a small coterie of fanzine fans.

Brenda narrates what happens next. Suddenly a scream comes from upstairs. A teenage goth staggers into a stairwell, his face contorted in horror. He collapses and falls. People run up to see what’s going on. As Anya called the scene, it’s up to her what the clue is. She can take suggestions from the other players. Ariadne comes out to see what’s going on and uses Intimidation to get everyone else to back off so she can get to the clue. Anya says that the boy has passed out, he’s got a joint tightly clenched in his hand. Ariadne checks him out and takes the joint. (This is Reincorporation of the joint.) She goes to take a puff but just before she does, notices something strange in the joint. Brenda suggests that this might be some kind of small wriggly worm, and Steve adds that perhaps as Ariadne is leaning over the boy she notices something pass across his eyeball, although it’s not clear what.

wormAnya decides to go with the wriggling worm in the joint. Steve also decides on a supplementary clue, spending a point of Streetwise, he decides that Sanjit knows the unconscious lad. He’s a pagan called Perdition,also from Bromley who Sanjit knows is into some “heavy magic shit”.

Brenda narrates what happens next. Perdition wakes up with a start and looks around. He smiles strangely and attempts to kiss Ariadne. He is superhumanly strong but together they manage to force him outside. He chases after someone else. Everyone else has run away at this point, except for Molly, who announces “Oh my God, I’ve got the same dealer as that monster!” She gets out her weed and it too is infected with worms.

We have a plot! Everyone has smoked the infected weed, who knows what might happen to them now? The game will continue long into the night.

You now have some tools that you can use to improvise games. If you give this a go, remember that a light touch is often needed with this kind of game, don’t go trampling all over other people’s ideas, give them space and time to come to fruition. It’s a question of mutual respect.

Finally, the improvisation may well not work at all. You might find that you’ve painted yourselves into some kind of dead-end story. But don’t worry about it. Improv, like any other game technique, doesn’t always work. The thing is not to worry to much about this and to just try again from a bit before when things started to go off the rails.

With a bit of patience, you’ll seen be off again.

Steve Dempsey, the author of this piece, has written for Armitage Files and Dreamhounds of Paris, and is our most experienced GM.

GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

(originally posted in Dec 2007 Page XX)

Robin LawsTalking at Yourself

by Robin D. Laws


Experienced GMs know to avoid situations in which multiple NPCs carry on a conversation. These conversations with yourself are hard for GMs to sustain and for players to follow.

Most of the time you can engineer events so that this doesn’t happen. If one or more PCs are present in the scene, you can have one of the NPCs draw them into the discussion. This slices up a group scene into mini-scenes, mostly between an NPC and at least one PC.

Let’s say the king and his chancellor, both NPCs, are conferring to decide what to do about the bandits up north. The party stands by as they hash the issue out. The king prefers caution; the chancellor, decisive action. Express this not with long snippets of dialogue from each, but with leading questions that draw the PCs into the scene.

The chancellor might throw the question to a hotheaded player character: “Sir Eobald, I see you champ at the bit to put down that impudent rabble!”

The king might address the most cautious of the player characters: “Cedric, I see the rashness of Eobald’s proposal disturbs you.”

This allows you to establish the king’s reluctance and the chancellor’s hard line, without having them speak much at all to one another.

If you find yourself having to avoid these scenes often, take it as a sign of a larger problem. It suggests that you’re letting your own supporting characters upgrade themselves to protagonist status and drive the plot. It implies that the PCs have become spectators. The process of putting  them back into dialogue is just part of the broader objective: to return them to a central place in the storyline. Give them the power to move events. Have powerful NPCs work through them, giving them the leeway to make the key decisions that propel the narrative. Think of the NPCs as supporting characters who bring out aspects of the main cast, whether as foils or antagonists.

Still, sometimes you’ll find events pushing you toward inter-NPC dialogue.

In many cases you can simply keep the conversation brief, boiling it down to a couple of sentences per NPC. Dialogue sequences in roleplaying games go on for much longer than their equivalents in fiction. As we improvise them, we repeat ourselves, include placeholder pleasantries as we buy ourselves time to think, and fumble around in pursuit of the main point. In other words, we speak like we do in real life. Screenwriters in particular compress dialogue to the essential core, leaving in only as much of this extemporization as needed to make the words feel real. Do the same when forced to stage a self-conversation. Unlike a scene between you and a PC, or two PCs, you know what both characters want and what the upshot of the conversation will be. You’re improvising the words but know the outcome already. So compress like a screenwriter and get to it in as few words as possible.
But let’s say the premise of the scene calls for an extended conversation. A PC might be eavesdropping on two NPCs without their knowledge, preventing you from having the supporting characters acknowledge them and draw them into the dialogue. Player characters might listen to an already recorded conversation. Or the story might take you to a situation where it strains credibility for the NPCs to care about what the PCs have to say—for example, when a conversation occurs between two jailer NPCs keeping them prisoner.

A simple trick allows you to turn even these seemingly closed conversations into exchanges—not between characters, but between you as the GM and the players.

Elide these conversations the same way you would the details of a long journey, with summary narration instead of dialogue:

  • “The king and chancellor argue for a long time about your usefulness to the court, and whether he should risk your lives sending you up against the bandits.”
  • “On the tape, Chu and Big Head discuss a laundry list of triad business, most notably the pressure from the mainland cops to replace the rotating leadership with a single gang leader handpicked by them.”
  • “Your captors, clearly not suspecting that any of you speak their tongue, mostly make bored small talk about this crappy assignment and the pleasurebots back on Araatis Station. But they do let slip some guesses about the coming succession war.”
  • “Each of the cultists rises to toast Ephraim on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday. Bloch speaks wittily, Howard with inebriated gusto, while Derleth gives a fussy genealogical discourse. Smith finishes with a poem of cosmic insanity that sends you reeling, blood dripping from your left ear.”

These recaps invite the players to then ask for more details, which you can answer on a Q&A basis, in GM-to-player mode:

Ken (a player): Did they mention the name of the mainland cop?

You: It didn’t seem like they knew.

Ken: Any idea from the tape who might know?

You: Big Head was passing on gossip from his boss.

Ken: (consulting his notes) That’s Uncle Bell, right?

You: Yep.

Ken: Any idea where this mainland cop operates from?

You: Big Head says that Uncle Bell just got back from Guangzhou.

Carrie (another player): Do they say anything about who hit Uncle Gong?

You: Both agree that it was an inside job, but Chu thinks it was a spontaneous mutiny, while Big Head says they must have been paid off by Wai.

Daniela (another player): Do they say anything else interesting?

You: They mostly talk about the leadership situation and the pressure from the mainland. Anything else you’re looking for?

 Sometimes conversations between NPCs just provide flavor, as in the above case of the toasting cultists. But if a player does come up with an interesting question, the answer to which would move the scenario onward, you can improvise an answer to it.

When you have preplanned information to impart, make sure to imply a clear line of questioning the players can pursue to get it out of you. Otherwise your solution to the talking to yourself problem mutates into another classic dilemma, the pixel-hunt.

This month’s topic comes courtesy of “Professor” Ken Thronberry, as a perk of his Badlands Overlord reward tier from the Hillfolk Kickstarter. Thanks for the great question, Ken!


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