In my last Page XX column I promised a rule for a rare instance of procedural resolution. This occurs when the caller of the scene wants to be surprised by the outcome of an external event. I admit to being surprised that people want this, but it turns out that a few groups do. It does fit certain genres where the group works together toward a common goal that regularly repeats itself. This might apply to series set in the worlds of sport, the arts, or around other occupations.

In the standard procedural system seen in Hillfolk, you fail more frequently than you would in a standard adventure-oriented RPG. Compelling drama arises from failure, from the tightening of the screws on the characters. So the system skews to that, just as action and investigation games like GUMSHOE and 13th Age favor success.

By contrast, the Surprise Outcome resolution option outlined below assumes a 50/50 shot of success, which you can calibrate in whichever direction you prefer to allow for the desired possibility of surprise.

Surprise Outcome Procedural Resolution

The caller poses a yes or no question about a possible procedural outcome:

“Will Chessboard win the race, beating Percival’s horse?”

“Will our band have a great gig?”

“Will this be the time when one of the firefighters gets hurt?”

The caller then draws a card from a freshly shuffled deck. If the result is an 8 or higher, the answer to the question is Yes. If not, the answer is No.

When the card is revealed, the scene caller narrates accordingly, then frames the dramatic interaction arising from it.

A surprise procedural outcome never counts as a scene unto itself. It is always a prelude to a scene.

Callers seeking additional complication can specify any card as the target to hit, allowing adjustment of the odds upwards or downwards from roughly even. (Well, 54%, but this is DramaSystem so who’s counting?) I’m not sure why you’d bother to call for a surprise and then skew the odds to lessen the chance of having one, but there you go. Each card represents a difference in odds of roughly 7%. So if you want a 21% chance of success, make the target a Queen or better. For a slim 21% chance of failure, make it a 5 or better.

DramaSystem doesn’t use dice or coins or spinners but if you’d rather substitute a randomizing method of your choice, it is unlikely that the Great Pelgrane will swoop from its perch in Clapham Common to devour you.

a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

When characters in DramaSystem want to accomplish something practical, external to their emotional goals, the full procedural system seen in Hillfolk allows you to narrate a detailed scene around that. It determines not only what ultimately happens, but lays down a series of suspense beats along the way.

The system’s default assumption is that you will use this only rarely. Mostly when you want something practical to happen, the scene caller just describes it happening:

“The village is on fire and the Horseneck tribe are riding through, pillaging! I go to Tallbeard to urge him to renounce his vow of non-violence and lead the charge to drive them off!”

“Ann has altered the library into a vast black labyrinth and locked out all the students. Doc, who she did not see over by the study carrels when she wove the spell, comes over to complain.”

“Chessboard, Asim’s horse, wins the third race by a nose. Asim approaches Percival, hoping for congratulations.”

Only in two cases would you bother to treat these changes to the ongoing situation as anything other than a fait accompli:

  1. Not everyone in the group agrees that this should happen
  2. The caller wants to be surprised by the outcome (a rare case I’ll deal with in a later post)

The original procedural system as seen in Hillfolk serves as something of a Rorschach test for player group culture. Of the groups who’d rather use an alternate, some want the procedural system to behave even more like a traditional RPG resolution system. Others want to set aside the suspense of the current system in favor of the quickest possible answer to the question at hand.

Here are two options for those belonging to that second camp: one simpler, one way simpler. They let you dispense with the red, yellow and green procedural tokens entirely, stripping the game down to two resource types: drama tokens and bennies.

They also assume that there is no such thing as a scene consisting only of a procedural action. Here, the procedural only serves as a prelude changing the conditions before the real meat of the scene, a dramatic interaction.

This removes the option of calling a procedural as a way of ducking the commitment of placing your character in yet another emotional situation. As with so much else in the highly personal play experience DramaSystem provides, this might be a plus or minus, depending on the tastes of your particular players.

The GM checks to see how many players care about the outcome, and what they want to happen. The caller draws two cards from a freshly shuffled playing card deck; each other player who cares one way or the other draws a single card. The GM does not take part. Players may spend bennies to draw additional cards. Each card costs one bennie. After everyone has had a chance to draw as many cards as they wish to pay bennies for, the players begin turning them over.

You could:

  1. have all players whose characters are taking part in the action flip over all cards at once. The player with the highest card describes what happens.
  2. narrate the ups and downs of each card outcome.

The first choice, Quick Narration, cuts to the chase, giving you a speedy outcome so you can get right back to the drama.

The second, Suspense Narration, draws out the suspense, getting you a little closer to the set-piece action/thriller sequence feeling the established procedural system permits.

Ties between cards of the same value, as always, resolve using this suit order, from best to worst: Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs.

In either case, the outcome a player wants might be the opposite of their character’s desires. This happens when your plans as author and the motivations of the character contradict each other. Ava the player might want to see the situation shaken up by a successful enemy raid on the village, even though her character, Ashwind, doesn’t want any such thing. When you’re rooting for the group to get into more trouble, you might well narrate bad stuff happening that your character either fails to stop or is not directly involved in.

In both of the following examples, Ava, Bob and Carla think it’s more interesting to let the Horsenecks successfully raid the village, with Darius, Emily and Fran hoping to see them driven off. Ava is the caller.

Quick Narration Example

Ava draws two cards. Darius, who plays Tallbeard and doesn’t want to be put in this position, pays a bennie to draw an extra card. Everyone turns their cards over at once. The highest card is the King of Spades, drawn by Emily. She narrates:

“The village may be on fire, but we rally and send the Horsenecks packing without Tallbeard’s having to draw his sword. His vow remains intact.”

This requires Ava, who is still the caller, to revise her intention of the scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.

Suspense Narration Steps and Example

In Suspense narration, the caller reveals the first card and describes a step in the action that goes her way. Then you go around the room from the caller’s left with each other player who wants to influence the outcome revealing his cards in turn. With each card reveal the player turning a card over describes:

  • a step toward his desired outcome (if this card is the highest so far, or if the highest card so far has already been drawn by a player driving the story toward the same outcome)
  • a step away from the desired outcome (if this card does not beat the highest so far, which is held by the other side)

Keep going around the room until you get back to the caller, who reveals her remaining card(s).

With all cards drawn and narrated, the player with the high card concludes the description by describing the final outcome.

(As the King of Spades is the highest card and can’t be beaten, its appearance prompts an exception to the rules. A player revealing it narrates an immediate end to the action sequence, in her favor.)

Example: Ava, the caller, reveals a 4 of Diamonds. The first card is always the high card when drawn, so she says: “The village is on fire! The Horseheads come riding in.”

Darius, on her left, wants the village to repel the attack and has paid a bennie for an extra card. He reveals the 8 of Clubs. That’s better than Ava’s card, so he describes events turning the village’s way: “Using Tallbeard’s training, the people spring into action, flinging sling bullets at the hated foe.” He turns over his second card, an 8 of Diamonds: “The Horsenecks break formation, and the people cheer!” (Suit order tells us that this is the new high card.)

Bob, on his left, reveals the 6 of Clubs, worse than the highest card so far. He has to describe events going against his desires, which favor of the invasion: “Even our smallest children join in the defense, pelting the invaders with well-aimed stones.”

Carla, on his left, reveals the 9 of Clubs, the best card so far. She favors the invasion: “Then their mightiest warriors regroup, sending our hurlers fleeing with terrifying swings of their great bronze war clubs.”

Emily turns over the Jack of Spades, now the best card. Opposing the invasion, she says: “Our best fighters, Tallbeard excepted, clash with theirs, sending them toppling from their mounts.”

Fran shows her card, the 7 of Diamonds. That’s not the best card but she’s with Emily in wanting the invasion to fail, so she gets to describe a positive result. “Seeing this, the Horseneck auxiliaries flee.”

That takes us around the room back to the caller, Ava. If she draws a Queen or King, she can turn this back to her original intent. But she only gets a 10 of Clubs, and must describe an opposite step: “Still on horseback, our war leaders herd the downed Horsenecks past our fortifications.”

As owner of the high card, Emily gets the final narrative touch: “We jeer them, hurling dung and insults, as they limp back toward their dry and wretched lands.”

As in the quick narration example, Ava, the caller, then revises her intention of the ensuing scene. Her character, Ashwind, still goes to Tallbeard. Now, however, she uses a bit of tribal reverse psychology, congratulating him on training the others so that his own hands don’t get bloody any more.

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.

SourcesDriven By Our Loves

A New Sources of Stability System for Trail of Cthulhu by Cat Ramen
Trail of Cthulhu makes it clear that the Investigators are not simply pushed by their own need to investigative the Mythos; they also need the support of the people closest to them, their Sources of Stability. This system expands on the basic rules to give players and Keepers more options for using Sources of Stability. While it can work in conjunction with Pillars of Sanity, it can also serve as a replacement for them.

There are two components of this system: a statement for the PCs Drive and each Source of Stability, indicating what the Drive or Source means to him or her; and the use of hard and soft Drivers by the Keeper on the Sources, using the Statements as guides to the form the Drivers will take.

Value Statements

A Value Statement is a brief sentence indicating how the PC views that Source or Drive. A good Statement will provide a hook for the Keeper to introduce negative elements of that Drive or relationship in play.

For example, Joyce Summers is a pilot with long experience of fighting the creatures of the Mythos. Her drive is adventure, so her player writes “Violence is always an option” as her Drive statement. Joyce’s player can expect the Keeper to give her Drivers pushing Joyce towards violent action even when not appropriate.

Janet is an investigative reporter who has been caught up in the fight against the Mythos. One of her Sources of Stability is a private investigator named Jimmy Wright; their relationship is ambiguous, leading her player to write “Whatever else, Jimmy always protects me” as her statement. We can expect her Keeper to give her Drivers about how she feels about Jimmy’s latest rescue mission.

Drivers and Statements

During play, the Keeper can introduce Drivers against Sources of Stability as well as against a PCs Drive. These can be hard or soft Drivers, as per the rules on pp. 72-73 in the Trail of Cthulhu corebook. However, the Keeper should use the Values Statements to guide the form the Driver takes; a PC who has the Statement “I always tell Father Brown my worries” should get Drivers urging him to go to Confession, even if the summoning ritual is happening later that day…

Challenging Statements

As the player characters adventure, their experiences will change them, causing them to examine their values in a new light. At certain dramatically appropriate moments, doing so may give them a sudden surge of resolve. This process is called Challenging a Statement.

When a player Challenges a Value Statement, she should tell everyone which value she’s Challenging, and explain why what she’s doing or about to do is causing her to change the value. She can then refresh a number of General Ability points equal to her PCs Sanity. She can even use these points to refresh Stability or Health, but not Sanity. For the rest of the session:

  • She cannot Challenge that Value.
  • She cannot recover Stability from that Source. She can still lose Stability for refusing a Driver against that Value.

At the end of the session, she must rewrite the Value to reflect how it has changed.

Any session in which a player character Challenges a Value earns the PC an extra experience point, to reflect their growth as a person.

For example, Joyce Summers currently has her Drive’s value as “Violence is always an option.” Trying to escape from an insane asylum, one of Joyce’s companions convinces her that attacking a guard will be too noisy and attract too much attention. Joyce’s player decides to Challenge her Drive’s Value, and uses the refresh on her Stealth, enabling her to escape. At the end of the session, Joyce’s player changes the Drive Value to: “Sometimes it’s better to strike unnoticed.”

Shattering Values

Sometimes, the Mythos overwhelms a person, forever changing their relationship with the world. This can result in a Value Statement becoming shattered.

This works essentially the same as Shattering a Pillar of Sanity (see pp. 75-6 in the Trail of Cthulhu rules). The player character takes the same penalty–6 Stability and 2 Sanity. Whatever that Source of Stability associated with the Shattered Value is, the PC can never recover Stability from that Source again.

Like an invalidated Drive, player characters are still subject to Soft and Hard Drivers from the Keeper against the Shattered Value.

At the end of the session, players should rewrite any Shattered Values to reflect how their PCs have lost all hope in what they once held dear. Players can change them at the end of any future sessions if they like, but they’ll never be able to Challenge them or utilize that Source of Stability.

For example, Janet has suffered some bad times, but has managed to hold on to her Drive’s value of “The Truth will break the spell.” In a horrific moment she discovers that all along she has been manipulated by Nyarlathotep, and nothing she has done will stop his plans. Her Value shatters, and she changes it to “Plaything of the Immortals.”

Recovering Shattered Values

In some campaign modes, it may be possible to recover lost Sanity. For every two points of Sanity a PC recovers, he or she can rebuild a Shattered Value, and thus regain use of that Source of Stability–although, depending on how the player writes the new Value, it may make more sense to change Sources as well.