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

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

[Cue flashback music as image goes swirly]

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

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

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

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

Except that’s not what happened at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew

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

A whew provides a 2-point refresh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gumshoe LogoAs a result of the Hillfolk Kickstarter, the GUMSHOE is now available under two open licenses; the Open Gaming License and the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

The document is a reference for game designers, and is not tuned to teach the game, or provide a playable game experience.

If you’re looking for a playable game, seek out such Pelgrane Press titles as The Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents, Mutant City Blues, TimeWatch or Fear Itself. Or watch for games the users of this license will build with it.

Version History

Version 2, released 20th July 2017, includes TimeWatch content added by Kevin Kulp, which appears as a result of a TimeWatch Kickstarter stretch goal.

  • Download the CC version 2 as a Word document here.
  • Download the CC version 2 as a PDF here.
  • Download the OGL version 2 as a Word document here.
  • Download the OGL version 2 as a PDF here.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

SRD or SDD?

logogumshoe

Cover_Final_TitlesWith editorial for Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow completed, it’s time to take a break from DramaSystem to work on another of the obligations arising from our November Kickstarter. That would be the System Reference Document for Open GUMSHOE.

On one level, this seems like an exercise in cutting and pasting, taking the basic iteration of the rules as found in the upcoming Esoterrorists Enhanced Edition (the text of which you can grab now as a preorder benefit), cutting out the setting-specific bits and then adding in elements from the other GUMSHOE games. It does however require some thought on what an SRD ought to be doing.

When you decide to throw a game system open to all comers, you naturally give up control over what happens to it as others present it for their own creative purposes. This is a concern because GUMSHOE departs from some standard assumptions and becomes a better play experience when GMs and players understand where, how and why it does this.

For example, rating points in abilities mostly don’t represent a simulated resource in the fictional world. Instead they function as a sort of narrative conceit, measuring the characters’ spotlight time and how they grab it. (A few abilities, like Health and Stability, can be regarded as measurable resources in the game reality—although of course they’re still an abstraction. When you break your leg, you can’t consult a numbered meter to see how many points you’ve lost.) GUMSHOE seems confusing to some players until they grasp this. This explanation, though not a rule, strictly speaking, serves as a key tool to enhance play. So while you might categorize it as GM advice or a player note, it’s really a pivotal component of the game. As such, the explanatory text should be available to anyone publishing their own GUMSHOE adaptation. We can’t require adopters of the license to use it—as indeed, we can’t force them to make any particular choice. We call this Open GUMSHOE, not Passive Aggressively Controlling GUMSHOE. Still, we can encourage people to include it by making it part of the standard boilerplate text in the document.

This reflects a broader priority. We’ve chosen to make GUMSHOE available to other designers. Yet we remain its foremost custodians. If we’re going to let it out of the nest like this, we’d better provide excellent care and feeding instructions. We want others not only to produce GUMSHOE games, but to design great GUMSHOE games. It should therefore contain at least some guidance on how to do this.

The GUMSHOE SRD differs from the most famous versions of its breed, the D20 and its descendant, the Pathfinder document, in that it won’t also comprise a playable game unto itself. It’s not The Esoterrorists with the IP elements scrubbed out, but rather the set of components you need to build your new game on the GUMSHOE chassis.

If you’re designing a GUMSHOE game, we want you to be able to do it well. So it has to contain at least some signposting showing you how to adapt it to your needs.nba cover

For example, the build point totals for purchasing investigative ratings vary with each iteration of the game, depending on how many of those abilities the game includes. So the SRD can’t just give you the flat numbers as they appear in The Esoterrorists or Ashen Stars or whatever, because you might include a different number of investigative abilities in your GUMSHOE game. The document has to break from the text as third-party publishers might incorporate it into their rulebooks to provide the formula to calculate what the build point totals should be.

At least in these passages, the System Reference Document becomes something else—a System Design Document. We’ve gone from SRD to SDD.

 

Extensive passages on how to design GUMSHOE games go beyond the scope of the project. That sort of thing is better saved for occasional columns like this one. But the SRD does have to provide designers with the basic tools to construct GUMSHOE games without having to reverse engineer from the existing books. A balance must be struck here. If the document contains too much advice, it might create preconceptions that might lead other designers away from what would otherwise be brilliant leaps away from the game’s current assumptions. Too little, and it doesn’t give them enough to simply reproduce what we’ve already established in another setting.

GUMSHOE is not a generic system, but a chassis on which you can construct an emulation of any investigative Trail Covergenre. For a classic example, see the grenade. Grenades in the real world work the same regardless of the context in which they’re exploded. In fiction, they can work quite differently, depending on the reality level of the genre at hand. So in the Tom Clancy-meets-postmodernism-meets-visceral horror mix of The Esoterrorists, grenades are pretty deadly. Mutant City Blues treats them as less effective than the super powers at the heart of that setting. If you for some inexplicable reason decided to fuse high energy action movies with investigation, you might make yet a third choice, depicting them as wildly damaging to property and inanimate objects, while allowing people to escape harm from them simply by jumping and being carried away by the massive fiery explosions they generate.

So again the SRD can’t just pick one grenade rule and make that the default for all genres. It has to provide a quick design note about genre emulation and point you toward the solution that works for your design goals.

Likewise we won’t be providing a complete list of mutant powers from MCB or virology implants from Ashen Stars. But we will give you examples of each special rule structure so you can then kitbash it for your own purposes.

In the process I might even learn something new about my own game, as I figure out what is and isn’t essential to it.