A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

My designs for Pelgrane have all been modular. Each includes
several sub-systems one could drop out without affecting the way other parts of the game operate.

(I say “for Pelgrane” because one of my games does use a universal engine in which every action is handled in the same way as any other. That’s HeroQuest, from Moon Design, which isn’t paying me for this column, removing my need to fit that into any kind of grand theory.)

This enables you to take the bits you like and replace them with a system from another design, if desired.

You can pair the investigative approach from GUMSHOE with a replacement for
general abilities from whatever system you find most comfortable to work in.

Same with the procedural resolution system from Hillfolk.

Sometimes, as in both of the above cases, I’ll design a sub-system so that it doesn’t pull focus from the main point of a game, even to the point of allowing it to be aesthetically displeasing.

Procedurals from Hillfolk do the job but they aren’t meant to be sleek and fun to handle. I didn’t want those rules to be alluring. Instead, whenever a situation comes up that tempts someone to call for them, I want everyone around the table to ask, “Do we really need a procedural here, or can we just agree to narrate it?”

My approach to general abilities in GUMSHOE isn’t so extreme, but they’re not meant to outshine the simplicity of the investigative bit.

When first creating a new rule or sub-system I don’t worry about its additional implications. I’m only working to solve a problem immediately before me.

For example, for the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game one tool I needed was a way to get the players speaking like Jack Vance characters. So I came up with the tagline system. This naturally carried through into Skulduggery, the goal of which was to preserve the DERPG mechanics outside of the setting they were originally built for.

When I was assigned to turn Vance’s Gaean Reach SF books into a game, I assumed it would use the new, simplified Skulduggery mechanics—until I read the books and found that they were almost all investigative in their plotting. So The Gaean Reach became a GUMSHOE game. Yet the need to get players talking like Vance characters remained, so I ported taglines into GUMSHOE. Once there I was able to hook them into an entirely different context, GUMSHOE’s need for ability pool refreshes.

That said, now that I (and Ken, and Gar) have created a shelf full of games, that means a box full of tools stands ready to serve when I need X to do Y in a new design.

This always starts with the need first. I don’t ask myself how can I repurpose starship combat from Ashen Stars or the Quade Diagram from Mutant City Blues. Instead I start with the problem and see if a sub-system already exists that can do the trick. (Also I’m leery about stealing the defining element of an existing game, each of which needs to sustain its own distinct feel within the GUMSHOE line.)

In the case of GUMSHOE One-2-One, all the problems I needed fixes for were new to the one GM, one player format. Since we’ve never done a game tuned for that configuration I had to invent new tools to solve its problems—Challenges to contain possibilities in a way that protected the character from prematurely being taken out of the story, Problems to replace the sense of deterioration and attrition fostered by dwindling general ability pools, Edges to counter-balance problems and generate a sense of reward, Sources to give players access to a full suite of investigative abilities without making every PC a polymath.

Now that I’m embarking on the design for the Yellow King RPG, I’m looking at the solutions I need and seeing some of them already in the ever-growing toolbox.

One key campaign frame has the players portraying versions of their characters refracted through time and reality. Since you might be playing several characters throughout the course of a series, character generation has to be fast, yet allow for creative input and modification. That means borrowing the Gaean Reach modular card-based chargen system, which has already been modified from Skulduggery, to yet another purpose.

Not all borrowings are from GUMSHOE. There might also be a touch of Hillfolk in the character generation.

Yellow King focuses on Robert Chambers stripped of retroactively applied Lovecraftian elements. (Don’t worry; if you own Trail of Cthulhu you can stick the Hounds of Tindalos back in if that’s your desire.) Accordingly I want an approach to subjective horror other than the Stability / Sanity system that works so well for a classically Mythos-driven spiral into cosmic despair. It just so happens that the approach to mental disintegration taken for unrelated reasons in Cthulhu Confidential fits that goal swimmingly.

Or at least I think it does. Everything’s up for grabs when theory meets play table.

And presumably problems I have yet to discover will call out for new solutions, which one of the Pelgranistas can later slot into a new need, as yet undreamt of.

harlem-unbound-cover_350Investigate Mythos Mysteries in 1920s NYC’s Harlem Renaissance! 

From Chris Spivey, one of the writers of Pelgrane Press’s Cthulhu Confidential and the upcoming Out of the Woods, comes Harlem Unbound, an RPG sourcebook for GUMSHOE and Call of Cthulhu, published by Darker Hue Studios and written by Chris Spivey, one of the writers of Cthulhu Confidential and the upcoming Out of the Woods.

There are just a few days left to support Harlem Unbound on Kickstarter.

PICTURE THIS…

New York City in the 1920s: Prohibition is in full swing, and bootleggers are living high. African Americans flee the oppressive South for greener pastures, creating a new culture in Harlem. The music of Fats Waller and Duke Ellington pours out of the city’s windows and doorways, and the sidewalks are crowded with women in stylish skirts with silk stockings, and men in white gloves and Chesterfield coats. There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem is a powder keg. While classes and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song?

Harlem Unbound is a unique RPG sourcebook that takes players into the exciting world of the Harlem Renaissance at its height, to face terrifying horrors from the Lovecraftian Mythos. This groundbreaking tome gives Keepers and players everything they need to bring this unique place and time to life, and engage with the people who gave it its soul.

Harlem Unbound is compatible with multiple systems, with options for investigating the Mythos on New York’s jazz-soaked streets using either Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG or any of the several GUMSHOE-powered investigative RPGs by Pelgrane Press.

This sourcebook flips the standard Lovecraftian view of minorities on its head, putting them in the role of heroes who must struggle against cosmic horrors while also fighting for a chance at equality. By default, the protagonists of Harlem Unbound are African American, not white (which is the standard assumption found in Lovecraftian fiction). Our heroes and heroines come from all walks of life with regard to class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.

The heart of the Renaissance was a revolution aimed at changing the world through art, ideas, and the written word. It was a uniquely powerful movement against the unjust status quo, a time in history that still inspires today. The history, people and stories in this book shine the spotlight on the people of Harlem, their successes and their struggles.

More information about Harlem Unbound can be found on its Kickstarter page.

A rules option for GUMSHOE horror games

In situations where a Sense Trouble test might reveal the presence of danger from an otherworldly or eerie source, offer the players a chance to pay a price later in exchange for a benefit now.

One player gets an automatic success at a Sense Trouble test by agreeing to take on a Stability penalty that lasts for the rest of the scenario. Let’s call this a Stability Handicap.

In the typical situation in which Sense Trouble merely allows the element of surprise in a fight already guaranteed to happen, that penalty is -1.

If the test lets them entirely avoid a significant hazard or skip a fight with something nasty they don’t want or need to tangle with, the penalty rises to -2.

In the story, the moment represents a sudden flash of eerie awareness, attuning the recipient to eldritch energies. Depending on the situation, you might narrate:

  • a jackhammering heart

  • the nearly overwhelming urge to vomit

  • a jolt of rootless anxiety

  • an epiphany of cosmic dread

  • the appearance of a rash, welts, or other psychic injuries

  • an overpowering smell unsensed by anyone else present

  • an awful vision of monstrous violence that surfaces in the mind for a split-second and is then immediately suppressed

Make this a rare option, keyed to specific story events. You may decide that it only makes sense for characters already exposed to the supernatural, or those who have succumbed in some way to its influence.

Offer it only when the rest of the scenario holds out the possibility of at least 2 Stability tests.

The more physical symptoms for the Sense Trouble success might instead call for an Athletics or Scuffling Handicap. Instead of increasing your mental vulnerability, that rash that came out of nowhere makes it harder to throw punches.

For an additional fraught choice, you could even let the player choose which of the three abilities to Handicap. In that case you can allow the Handicap even if you aren’t sure that 2 or more tests of each ability still remain in the scenario. Correctly predicting which Handicap will hurt the least becomes part of the player’s challenge. Here the cost lies in the anxiety of decision making as much as in any actual penalties dished out in later scenes. If players always guess right, and Handicaps start to feel like a free gift, make sure they pay the piper next time around. See to that a penalty happens, in a situation with truly harrowing stakes.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Over the years I’ve occasionally been asked, most often by Simon, how GUMSHOE and player narrative control might work together.

My answer has always been the same—uh, they kinda mostly don’t.

GUMSHOE assumes that the solution to the mysteries the PCs investigate remains fixed once established in the GM’s mind. You and your fellow players aren’t trying to hit a moving target, but instead pursue the answer to a puzzle that makes sense and won’t change on you in mid-stream. Players recognize that some details surrounding the mystery might be indeterminate until they hit the gaming table, but not the mystery itself.

For example, no one’s going to much object if an Antagonist Reaction does or doesn’t occur based on how well the group has been doing and how far away the end of the session is.

But if you play half the scenario with the GM thinking that Mrs. Hatch was carried off by Deep Ones but then she decides to rearrange everything so that it was degenerate man-apes of the Everglades, and you find that out, you’ll feel cheated.

Allowing players to narrate details in scenes frustrates the investigation process of a fixed mystery. If you say, “and then I find an envelope with a blurry photo of degenerate man-apes in it” when your character searches the boat house, you’ve forced the GM to alter the mystery. Assuming she can even keep up with all of the player-inserted details and weave them into an internally consistent story on the fly, it’s still not the puzzle you were all working on before you brought that detail in.

If everyone at the table instead wants to play out a fungible mystery that becomes fixed only when the story reaches its conclusion, the apparatus of GUMSHOE’s investigative abilities and scene structures isn’t just unnecessary but counter to your needs. Instead, seek out Jared Sorensen’s Inspectres, which is all about creating the mystery collaboratively. Unlike GUMSHOE, it’s built to do that.

It might be tempting to say that players can add details to scenes that don’t relate to the central mystery. But those scenes can be hard to identify and wall off from the clue-gathering part of the game.

Even an Antagonist Reaction scene in which the investigators battle mercenaries or vampires or backwoods cannibals can contain info that could muddy the mystery.

With sufficient definition of who gets to describe what, you could let the players narrate simple elements of their environment during fight and action scenes, as is par for the course in Feng Shui. (Though you probably want to tone down the craziness in anything other than TimeWatch.)

If you say that there’s a garbage can nearby you can throw at the oncoming motorbike, or describe a rocky outcrop that ought to give you a decent vantage over activities down in the gravel quarry, the GM can probably roll with that—especially if she takes care to stage the actiony bits away from clue-bearing locations.

However, if the backstory driving the mystery’s logic depends on there not being a way to observe the quarry from above, the GM finds herself in a spot. By vetoing this detail, she may be pointing you to an avenue of investigation the characters didn’t earn.

Maybe that’s not such a big deal. While disallowing your proposed description of the landscape, the GM could charge an investigative spend, asking you to describe the sudden hunch that led your character to realize that lines of sight around the quarry matter to the case in some way.

It feels to me that this calls for a lot of fine meta-fictional hair-splitting that isn’t worth the effort. Declaring GUMSHOE a trad game when it comes to player narration remains the simpler and therefore clearer way to go.

That said, in certain games the solution of the mystery doesn’t end the story. In Night’s Black Agents you may learn who assassinated your contact at The Guardian, and then decide what to do with them. Ashen Stars mysteries often lead to a science fictional moral quandary the crew must then resolve for good or ill. The GM could declare that certain scenes freely permit player narration, including all post-mystery sequences. The Veil-Out at the end of an Esoterrorists run works more or less this way already.

GMs might look for other roped-off areas of a scenario in which player narrative can run and play without impinging on the central mystery. The collaborative process by which Gaean Reach players define Quandos Vorn, the interstellar arch-villain all the characters have sworn vengeance against, already fits that mold. Some similar elements will find their way into Yellow King. These happen at the outset of play but you could just as easily ask players to narrate interlude scenes between cases.

Maybe someday we’ll come up with a GUMSHOE game premise that requires a solution to this issue I’m not currently seeing. When we do that we’ll have to check to make sure that we haven’t merely stapled a Fear Itself cover around a copy of Inspectres.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of GUMSHOE we invited fans and Pelgrane pros all over the world to play their favorite Pelgrane Press games today! Here’s a sampling of the day’s goings-on and shenanigans thus far.

Games were streamed:

Upcoming books were playtested:

Upcoming campaign settings were playtested.

ipd_gartweet2

Designers shared their work:

ipd_willtweet1

ipd_willtweet2

ipd_bestultweet1

Monstrous Dramaturgy: Kostroma

Adventures were had:

Existing gaming plans were quickly changed.

ipd_kevin1

Campaigns launched:

ipd_richtweet1

Heroes made (and their horrible deaths predicted):

ipd_richtweet2

There are still quite a few hours left, and we look forward to seeing what else Pelgrane fans are up to in other time zones! If you want a social media banner or icon you can get them here.

I’ve been binge-watching last year’s seasons of “Arrow” and “The Flash.” One moment both shows frequently resort to, in keeping with their balance of superhero action and emotive interactions, is the inspirational exhortation. One character, the figure everyone else needs to save the day, succumbs to doubt. Another cast member then breaks the self-doubter from self-pitying despair: “You can do it! Because that’s who you are, Barry!” (Or Oliver, or Willa, or Cisco, or whoever it happens to be.) Buoyed by these words, the subject then summons previously untapped reserves of will and determination and steps forward to make the extra heroic effort required to do the impossible.

To model this in GUMSHOE, a character with Inspiration (in games that have it) or Reassurance (in those that don’t) can spend 2 points of it to aid another PC in the accomplishment of a task thought lost. The recipient then refreshes the general ability in question. Let’s call this the Refreshing Exhortation.

Conditions apply: the prospective recipient has to have already failed at a related task, either in the current scenario or the one immediately previous. Whenever it occurred, the player must have already portrayed the character as being in a funk over that past failure. The crisis of confidence must be seen at least one scene prior to the one in which the Refreshing Exhortation is attempted.

Also, both players have to sell the moment through roleplaying. The inspirational character gives a stirring speech, in character dialogue. The recipient perhaps interjects with thoughts of doubt, and certainly must play the moment when the turnaround occurs and heroic certitude returns.

Finally, in most genres you’ll want to restrict its use to once per scenario.

If playing a game with Drives, you might suggest that the exhorting character reference the nature of the recipient’s Drive. In series laden with an atmosphere of doom, such as The Esoterrorists, purist Trail of Cthulhu, or dust mode Night’s Black Agents, the GM might allow Refreshing Exhortations only in situations where successful ability use offers the recipient a good chance of attaining self-sacrificial destruction. Some genres might call for speeches in a different tone. In The Gaean Reach, a reminder of the many crimes of Quandos Vorn, and the character’s burning desire to see him destroyed, would better befit its dark, dry humor.

See P. XX

a Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

Was it a whole ten years ago that Simon Rogers and I sat by ourselves at a small table on the far fringes of the Gen Con exhibit hall? It feels like only yesterday, that forlorn time when we had nothing to lure passersby but a stack of The Esoterrorists first edition and some Dying Earth books. Yes, it’s the tenth anniversary of GUMSHOE and although we were slow burners at first, the system has gradually inveigled its way into gaming’s collective consciousness. We could have no more humbling/ego inflating proof of that than Pelgrane’s amazing showing at this year’s ENnie Awards. I should count myself lucky that Simon, Cat, Ken and Gar left a few medals on the table for Feng Shui 2.

View from Pelgrane Gen Con booth, 10 years ago (Artist’s Rendering)

On such occasions, one’s thoughts naturally turn to think pieces, and Simon has asked me to look at ways in which GUMSHOE scenarios have changed since the early days.

To me the key innovation has to be the addition of Lead-In and Lead-Out lines to the scene headers. These immediately show the GM where the scene probably fits in the investigative sequence the players create as they wend their way through the mystery. For example:

Harp’s Place

Scene Type: Core

Lead-Ins: The Bait, What’s Up With Chuck

Lead-Outs: Irland is Missing, Dawley, The Water Commission

Although we sometimes also still do scene sequence diagrams, they only really work for very simple, more or less linear scenarios. The more possible ways through the investigation a scenario provides, the more tangled and confused the web of scene connections looks when expressed in diagram form. Instead of acting as a play aid, a diagram makes the scenario look more daunting than it really is. Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs put the information in front of GMs when they really need it—while they’re running the scenes.

From a scenario design standpoint, they encourage the writer to include multiple ways in and out of their scenes, giving players additional options and fighting linearity.

* * *

The other big change, Gar has pointed out, can be seen in the way Investigative point spends are treated. Some early scenarios went a bit off-model by requiring overly high spends for benefits. If you see a 3-point spend in an early adventure, you can almost always strike that out in exchange for a 2 or even a 1. Other early adventures sometimes get stingy by making only the core clues free, and charging for other information you don’t need. Since those first scenarios we have more consistently adopted the approach I have always used, which is to provide plenty of info for free and make the players separate the pertinent from the incidental.

Over the years we have also learned how emotionally invested players become when they choose to spend an investigative point. I initially conceived of investigative spends as just a grace note, a fun minor occurrence that would happen every now and again. No big deal. That thought underestimated the cognitive difficulty of letting go of a resource—any resource. Early scenarios allowed you to find out information in an especially cool way, or add dimension to your character, in exchange for spends. For example, in one of the Stunning Eldritch Tales adventures you can specify that you already know one of the key characters—but it’s up to the player to squeeze a concrete advantage out of that. It turns out that players want a bigger, clearer gain when they spend points. So in more recent scenarios you’ll see us moving more toward palpable game advantages, like bonuses to general ability tests, or being able to avoid a clearly undesirable plot outcome.

You’ll see this thought carried through into the simplified equivalent of investigative spends that appears in GUMSHOE One-2-One. In that iteration of the game they become scarcer resources, and must always deliver something strong when they are spent.

* * *

Roleplaying scenarios in general sometimes lapse into extended passages of background information that might be of interest to the GM while reading but has no likely way to come up in play, and will thus remain undiscovered by the players. GMs need enough information to run the scenario and understand the logic behind the actions of the supporting characters they’ll be playing, in case players hit them with unexpected questions. But when writing it can be tempting to just start spinning out details of the fictional world without finding a way to make them pay off at the table. Even in the early years I think we mostly caught and fixed such passages during the development phase. The Great Pelgrane who sits atop our London eyrie remains vigilant against them today, snapping up transgressors of this principle with his piercing beak.

Another factor I’ve been more cognizant of over the years: the possibility that GMs will over-interpret a throwaway line of in-world description. For example the tradecraft Ordo Veritatis agents use to conceal their identities isn’t mean to become an obstacle during play. Instead the GM should describe it as challenging without making it a genuine uninteresting additional hassle. But if I don’t come out and say this while writing, I can easily mislead the GM into making a big deal of what I regard as an atmospheric element. The general fix for issues like this is to break more readily from fictional world voice to speak directly, designer-to-GM about what I hope to help you make happen at the gaming table.

Other than that the changes to scenarios mostly come from the emulation of the new genres we take on. Ashen Stars required a look at the way investigation works in shows like “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” Likewise with Night’s Black Agents and contemporary spy thrillers like the Bourne Trilo… er, Quadrilogy I guess it now is.

With Cthulhu Confidential and The Yellow King on the horizon, we’ll continue to refine GUMSHOE for particular experiences. I look forward to seeing what our scenarios will look like in another ten years’ time.

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!

=======

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.

Image from (and by) ilovekristenbell.tumblr.com, which for once I actually was looking at for research

Image from ilovekristenbell.tumblr.com, which for once I actually was looking at for research

Somewhere in the beautiful jungles of social media, or perhaps in the dappled glen that was Origins, some unheralded genius-slash-troublemaker asked me “so how would you drift Bubblegumshoe and Night’s Black Agents to play Buffy: the Vampire Slayer?” How, indeed, blithe spirit.

A couple of informational footnotes before we launch ourselves into that glorious void: first, Bubblegumshoe is the new teen detective genre GUMSHOE game from Evil Hat, by me, Emily Care Boss, and Lisa Steele; second, there is already a lovely B:tVS roleplaying game by C.J. Carella, apparently still available from Eden Studios unless George hasn’t updated his webstore. So this column is not actually about Buffy, because that would be tampering with the sacred gods of IP. This is about all the other sensitive teen girl vampire slayer series.

When Jason Met Veronica

The big problem, of course, is that Bubblegumshoe completely deprecates physical combat, while Night’s Black Agents completely celebrates it. This means you need to decide early on whether you’re playing “Night’s Black Agents with feels” or “Bubblegumshoe with stakeboxing.” Let’s play the second one, mostly because that way we only need to add one major system (fighty combat) to Bubblegumshoe instead of a whole bunch (Relationships and Cool and social combat and Thresholds) to Night’s Black Agents. But because we can, let’s see if we can add magic for your red-headed witch character to use, too.

As a horror drift, use the rules changes for Bellairs Falls (BGS, p. 187). Ritual magic works as in that drift, but “on screen” or tactical magic is a Cap ability. Most ritual magic probably turns out to be needed to stop a Big Bad of some kind, rather than break a curse, but who knows?

Characters with powers (Slayer, Magic, Psychic, Werewolf, etc.) take them as General Cap abilities (BGS, p. 21) but can raise them above 6. A Powered character will likely dump more and more of her experience into the Power; the GM may provide items (silver stake, crystal ball) containing spendable (even refreshable) pools of Power points. A scene spent practicing a Power in safety (working out katas, researching cryptic tomes) refreshes that pool. Powered characters can always spend Cool on Power tests, and even deflect the spent Cool onto a Relationship (BGS, p. 67) but at double the cost of deflecting lost Cool. It’s lonely having powers nobody understands.

The GM should set Difficulty 4 for Power tests to represent the level she wants the Power to usually function at: rip open a locked door, or find a stolen item, say. If it makes sense, a character can spend other abilities on Power tests — Athletics to rip open that door, for example — but she must spend at least 1 Power point if she spends at all.

Powers shouldn’t short-circuit the story, or at the very least should do so after a full Contest of the ability against a similarly-Powered vampire or other foe.

Monsters have Aberrance pools (NBA, p. 124), on which they draw for their fighting, fell powers, or whatever else awful they might do. If the GM likes, she can rename Aberrance to Vampire, Demon, Werewolf, or whatever. It works the same, and the key is the description of stuff. Use the vampire powers in Night’s Black Agents to calibrate costs and game effects. Most monsters refresh their Aberrance pool the next sunset, unless a specific game effect limits their dark healing. Non-fighting damage to monsters (sunlight on vampires, for example) comes off their Aberrance pool.

New Abilities

Fleeing (BGS, p. 188), Occult (BGS, p. 189), and Vampirology (NBA, p. 26).

Add Soap and Stakes

Player characters can take each other as Likes, Loves, or Hates; during character creation, the other player must agree to the tag (“Mimosa doesn’t Like Chandar, she Loves him.”). If one player’s PC wants to “make” another PC do something, and the second player is unwilling to allow it, the two players run a quick “auction,” bidding pool points against each other. Love and Interpersonal points count for 2, Like, Throwdown, and Cool count for 1. (In this auction, they can only spend from each other’s Relationship.)

Players can always deflect Cool damage onto other PCs without a test; as with NPCs, the player should roleplay the way her Sleuth hosed her friend in the scene.

This layer of PvP mechanics should produce the isolation and social drain effect seen in your better teen vampire slayer dramas.

Fighty Combat

Fighting works as in Bubblegumshoe, except: a character with a Power that could plausibly keep her alive in a vampire fight doesn’t go below Scuffed until her Power pool is empty, be it Slayer, Magic, or what-have-you. Once she’s spent hollow, she starts taking real damage.

Vampires (and probably most monsters) come in two kinds: mooks and proper villains. Any hit by a Slayer (or similarly puissant Powered character) using Power or Fighting dusts a mook vamp. An unpowered character who hits a mook vamp can dust it by spending 1 point from her Relationship with the Slayer. The GM may want to allow this at a considerable price jump for hits on villains with their true bane, for the occasional “normal human proves that human pluck is the key to goodness winning” type story, but the unpowered Sleuth should ideally have done something very clever indeed to set up such a hit, or at least succeeded in an almighty Preparedness test.

As a sort of compromise, the tweedy mentor character (if he’s a PC) might have a Cap ability in Crossbow or Kendo or Escrima that allows him to dust a mook vamp with one hit without spending from his Relationship with the Slayer.

Proper villains are like Powered characters; until their (usually large) Aberrance pool is gone, the Slayer can’t quite stake them. Narrate the exciting kickboxing sequence, describing momentum shifting and gory but nonfatal hits as Slayer and Aberrance pools get spent down. Some outré monsters have banes that kill them instantly, or are immune to normal fighting damage. (A PC with the power Werewolf, e.g., might have a similar bane — any hit with a silver weapon knocks them down to Dead, or perhaps to Gonna Be Dead Unless the Witch Can Heal Them.)

A Slayer (or other Powered character) can always make a Power test to block a hit on an unpowered character after the fact (“Bunny saved me just in the nick of time!”) at a Difficulty equal to the final result (roll + spend) of the monster’s attack die  on that hit. The GM might want to restrict this only to characters with whom the Slayer has a Relationship.

A Slayer or other fighty Powered character can use the various maneuvers, special attacks, etc. from Night’s Black Agents with the GM’s permission, with one caveat: any maneuver such as Technothriller Monologue (NBA, p. 77) that allows a refresh (of Fighting or Power) for narration must be accompanied by a spend of the same number of points from Relationships or Cool. Justify it with the narration, or play out the damaged Relationship in one of the next two scenes.

Know Thy Enemy

Mook or villain, a vampire can kill any character without Vampirology with one hit. (Any monster can kill any NPC with one hit if the GM decides it makes the drama better or scarier.) Any Sleuth with Vampirology knows enough to at least have a chance; hits act as normal for them. Really strong vampires can spend 3 Aberrance to blow through one layer against an unpowered Sleuth with Vampirology: a hit can skip Scuffed or Injured, but not both.

A character can spend her experience to give an NPC with whom she has a Relationship 1 point of Vampirology. This automatically burns out the Relationship to 0: coming out as a slayer/witch/Riley is never easy.

The GM may want to use a similar caveat for other monsters and Occult, or just combine both Vampirology and Occult into a single Lore ability for a more Supernatural-flavored “hot monster hunter” game.

Her Stupid Broody Vampire Boyfriend

Build the stupid broody vampire boyfriend as a Sidekick (BGS, p. 209), with 4 points in Cool for free. A Sidekick vampire doesn’t need to spend the initial 5 points on their Cap Power ability, which is probably Vampire.

See Page XX

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

During a session GUMSHOE players sometimes wonder if they can use their interpersonal investigative abilities on each others’ characters. I’m not sure this special case needs to be heavily featured in any of our core rule sets but here’s how you might handle it if it comes up.

This most often comes up in the case of Bullshit Detector— or Assess Honesty, for the genteel antiquarians among us.

In that case you can definitely indicate that one investigator’s untruthful statements trigger suspicion in others who have the ability. Players tend to volunteer to pay a point for the privilege but that’s unnecessary in almost any case you care to name. Often, the player with the ability already knows the other is lying and is merely asking game permission to proceed as if the character realizes it too. A point spend might be appropriate if the player of the lying character hasn’t made clear that she’s being deceptive. In that case, a point spend requires the target player to state whether she’s lying. As usual, Bullshit Detector never reveals the real truth, just that the character isn’t on the level.

On a more cooperative note, you might use Reassurance to assist another character. Let’s say you’re playing mythos-busting hobo Princess Sadie, with Marcel taking the role of Xavier Paradis, a reluctant new recruit to the cosmic horror scene. Xavier just lost some Stability after seeing the mangled victim of a Deep One attack. Accordingly, Marcel plays him as panicked and momentarily unwilling to let his Curiosity drive draw him further into an underground grotto. No one doubts that Marcel will eventually play Xavier as recovering his composure enough to keep the story moving forward; he’s just having fun getting to that moment. This gives you an opening to spend Reassurance points. Princess Sadie dispenses folksy hobo wisdom, showing why Xavier decides to get a grip. Instead of an interior moment in which Marcel takes one position and then switches, you have an interactive dialogue that gets him to the same place. For each point you spend, Marcel gets a +1 bonus on any general ability test called for during the ensuing action. This might be Xavier’s next Stability test, or any other situation requiring confidence.

You may decide that certain cases require too much of a logic stretch to qualify. For example, it’s hard to explain how a boost of confidence could have helped Marcel already have a needed item on hand. So Preparedness doesn’t make sense as a place to use that bonus.

You might likewise use Inspiration, in those GUMSHOE games that include that ability, to justify why a character overcomes his selfish motivations to undertake an action. Let’s say you’re Ashen Stars freelance law enforcement official Fodi Jones, and Marcel is playing gruff fellow crewman Uvuk. You’ve been hired to rescue a kidnapped industrialist. After poking around on the asteroid where she’s being held, you discover that her captors also run a gladiatorial combat operation featuring mind-controlled fighters. Marcel knows that the scenario has taken a turn from the original premise, but to remain consistent with his hard-bitten character, argues that the crew lacks sufficient profit motive to help the gladiators. As Fodi, you perform an extemporaneous monologue appealing to Uvuk’s carefully-hidden higher ideals. Marcel can now have fun playing his expected, grumbling foray into altruism. As with the Reassurance example, Marcel gains a bonus equal to the number of Inspiration points you spent on an ensuing general test of his choice.

You might repeat this pattern with Flattery, persuading a fellow PC to do something by boosting his ego, then allowing the player to convert the Flattery points you spend to a general test bonus.

To do this with Negotiation, you offer the other investigator a deal of some kind. To stick with the Ashen Stars example, you might agree to visit Uvuk’s home planet to assist him in a war ritual if he first helps save the gladiators.

Intimidation and Flirting present tougher cases.

Threatening another PC into taking action makes your character unsympathetic. The group’s acceptance of your bullying undermines suspension of disbelief. It might work if the target of the Intimidation has been set up as a skeevy, not-quite-trusted member of the group who has to be kept on the straight and narrow by the others. If one of you plays his character like Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or Quark from “Deep Space Nine”, the odd comic scene in which a more respectable member of the team puts the squeeze on him adds fun to the proceedings without breaking emotional logic.

Flirting could work if you’ve already established a will-they won’t-they romantic undertone to the relationship between the two characters. Although this sort of thing happens all the time in movies and TV shows, gamers usually steer clear of it. It requires two players with the panache to pull it off without coming aground on the shoals of awkwardness. Be 100% certain the other player is as down with this as you are before trying this.

Interpersonal abilities keyed to win the cooperation of GMCs from particular walks of life don’t much fit this pattern. Examples include Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Streetwise and Trail of Cthulhu’s various Credit Rating levels. I suppose you could get it to work if the target PC is a bureaucrat, former cop, or crook, but then they’d also have to have the same ability. So the chances of a practical example ever occurring remain rare enough that we don’t need to furrow our brows about it.

And Interrogation get us to the edge case of all edge cases. You can justify that only when you have the target PC under the duress of official (or quasi-official) detainment. If things between you and another character have gone that far, and you can both then lift that trainwreck back onto the narrative tracks, congratulations! But if you do make that happen, the target could well spend your Interrogation points on a later general test.

Previous Entries