This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

In Make It A Gimme I talked about looking for instances where the resolution system offered by the rules should be jettisoned in favor of an automatic result—in this case, a success for the player.

This time we’ll look another case where outcomes determination should be taken away from the resolution system—when players and GM all agree that something ought to happen. If the GM alone makes an outcome determination without reference to resolution mechanics, we call it fiat. Here, by incorporating the players into the decision-making, it becomes decision by consensus.

Outcomes amenable to consensus most often occur in character development scenes. They’re harder to find in procedural scenes where the PCs overcome the obstacles of a set mission or battle adversaries.

For example, let’s say you’re playing Mutant City Blues, where the PCs are detectives with extraordinary powers investigating crimes involving the genetically enhanced. Two of the characters, Rafe (played by Wes) and Ted (played by Stan) are on opposite sides of a tricky case, as Rafe’s retired police mentor, a GMC called Sheila Teague, is suspected of murder. Ted comes out of the interrogation room after having treated Sheila with withering disrespect. Rafe has been steaming on the other side of the one-way glass, and confronts Ted in the police station hallway. Rafe is a hothead, and it’s entirely in character for him to take a swing at his colleague.

If the two come to blows and you use the ordinary resolution system, anything could happen. Ted and Rafe are easily matched in the fisticuffs department; either could beat the hell out of the other. However, if this happens, a realistic sense of consequences dictates that the series will go in directions that will displease both players, and you. To maintain fictional credibility, Rafe would have to be bounced from the force (if he wins the fight.) If Ted badly injures Rafe, he might or might not face similarly dire disciplinary hearings. Even if the GM comes up with some credibility-straining way to keep Internal Affairs from checking out a beatdown in the middle of the precinct, the hostility between Rafe and Ted would escalate beyond repair.

Rafe wants to clobber Ted. If Rafe goes for him, it would be out of character for Ted to do anything but return the favor, full-force. If Rafe doesn’t go for Ted, he’s out of character. Yet neither Wes or Stan, the players, want things to go this far. For that matter, you, as GM, would likewise be dismayed to see this get out of hand. You don’t want the dramatic logic of a serious outcome to force either character out of the series.

So instead you ask for a consensus. What do the players, as opposed to the characters, want to happen? Genre precedent suggests a dramatic physical action that nonetheless remains contained, requiring no lingering consequences afterwards. “What if I take a swing at him,” suggests Wes, “but he grabs my wrist as it’s coming toward his chin, and stops me cold?”

“Works for me,” nods Stan.

“That leaves Rafe pissed, but it’s enough to chill him out.”

“I imagine some hard-nosed words will be exchanged on both sides,” reasons Stan. “Sure.”

You accept the consensus, specifying that this is exactly what happens. They play out their dialogue as Rafe and Stan. They’ve managed to stay in character without forcing the narrative down a road that will make everyone unhappy.

Consensus may not appeal to players very strictly wedded to the immersive mode of play. They tend to dislike mechanisms that encourage them to think as both their characters, and as collaborative authors.

If you employ this technique, make it clear to players that they can ask for a consensus resolution at any time. To use the above example, it’s possible that Ted and Wes are thinking ahead to the possible series-wrecking consequences of a fight that gets out of control, while you’re worrying about other things, such as the empath character’s read on Sheila’s moods during the interrogation. They’ll be doing you a favor by prompting you.

Player-requested consensus might prove a handy way out of plot logjams. Let’s say you’re running a fantasy game in which the players are Greek heroes. They’ve retreated to an isolated fortress to plot out their next moves, but they’ve gotten themselves bogged down and don’t know what to do next. That the fortress is supernaturally well hidden is one of the major character schticks of the scholar Menetriaus (played by Ashleigh.) You could have a messenger show up and give them the information they need to get themselves out of their planning rut, but that would undermine one of the central coolness factors of Ashleigh’s character.

Fortunately, the players realize that they’re stuck and ask for a consensus result. “Can we stipulate that one of us has a secret to reveal, but which also contains the information we need to get us on the right track?” Ashleigh asks. None of the other players have any objection to this, and it gives you the opportunity to supply the needed nudge. You ask another player, Chris, if he has an objection to a reveal indicating he spent the night trysting with dodgy company. Chris shrugs and allows you to add this detail to his character’s recent backstory.

“Xenophides sheepishly admits that he was with the female gladiator Polydora last night, and that she told him something that might change your plans…”

By definition, every party has a veto over a consensus decision. If your players call for consensus suggesting that they bypass the famous fiery archway of Triopos and go straight to the minotaur’s lair, but you feel this too easily absolves them of the adventure’s challenges, you simply grin, say “Nice try,” and leave them to solve the problem the old-fashioned way, using their character abilities. If Rafe’s player felt so strongly about his characterization that he was willing to exit the series over it, he gets to refuse, too.

Resolution systems, like any other part of an RPG rules kit, are tools, to be used only to solve problems that require them. By adding this technique to your repertoire, you may find that you can leave them in their toolbox a little more often.

In 1893 a visionary spymaster in the British Naval Intelligence Department tried to recruit the perfect asset: a vampire.

Operation Edom contacted Count Dracula in Transylvania, set up a safe house and headquarters in England, and arranged transit. Then it all went wrong. Dracula betrayed his minder and double-crossed NID. British intelligence hunted him down on his home ground and terminated him with two knives and extreme prejudice — or so they thought.

Dracula lives. Now it’s up to you to finish the job.

Funded by a spectacular November 2014 Kickstarter campaign, the Dracula Dossier campaign for Night’s Black Agents follows in the fully improvisational path of the award-winning The Armitage Files campaign for Trail of Cthulhu.

Players follow leads in the margins of Dracula Unredacted, a rare edition of Bram Stoker’s masterpiece that reveals the terrifying truth behind the fiction. Players choose which leads to track, which scarlet trail to follow. The Director improvises a suitably blood-soaked thriller in response to their choices. Together you create your own unique story — and you learn why Ben Riggs at Geek & Sundry called The Dracula Dossier the greatest RPG campaign of all time.

The Bundle of Holding once again brings you the entire Dracula Dossier line. For just US$19.95 you get all three titles in this revived offer’s Agent Collection:

And if you pay more than the threshold price, you’ll level up and also get this revival’s entire Director Collection with six more titles worth an additional $80:

Get the complete Dracula Dossier collection at the Bundle of Holding now!

In the Community Content Spotlight, each month I write up a short review of a GUMSHOE community content title, all of which are available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!

Stick around after the review to hear the results of the GUMSHOE Community Contest!

An original supplement for Ashen Stars, Solo Laser is a clever (and cleverly simple) attempt to add a solo, improvisatory ruleset onto GUMSHOE. At only 14 pages, the PDF was a breeze to read through, but it accomplishes a lot in those pages, including adding a simple die roll to answer questions about a setting, event, or NPC interaction, and a system of tonal descriptors that function both to kickstart a new play session and to answer more difficult questions (perhaps investigative ones) that arise during play. This solo ruleset even includes lightly modified character generation instructions, to ensure that your laser (or rogue) will be well-rounded enough to meet (many, though not all, never all) of the challenges that come their way. The author, Peter Rudin-Burgess, of Parts Per Million Limited, has adapted several non-GUMSHOE systems to solo rulesets already, which gives him a handy background for this conversion.

Coming into this reading, I’ll profess to a certain hesitation about playing a GUMSHOE game solo — and we do mean solo, GM-less. What about the investigation? What about the clues? How do you have a fulfilling mystery story without someone who already knows the answer? The answer to this dilemma, for Rudin-Burgess, effectively comes through a re-orientation of the player-GM relationship (I mean, obviously, since we’ve nixed the GM in this equation). Rudin-Burgess points out that “solo roleplaying tools… are in fact used as writing aids by authors,” and Solo Laser will give you the tools to assume that authorship even while playing your spacefaring “hero.”

But don’t worry, you don’t write yourself a trail of clues or a scenario spine before play, there’s plenty of room for discovery and spontaneity (in fact, it’s all discovery). All you do at the outset is develop your contract and get to exploring. And I say “exploring” because that’s what this PDF really wants you to do: set out on a logical path, add a bit of randomness through the simple mechanics I’ve mentioned above, and then improvise. From those improvisations you acquire facts that we would call clues — some of which you’ll determine are relevant, and some of which aren’t. Eventually, after you’ve accrued enough clues and met enough NPCs, a picture will fall into place and you can “solve” the mystery. (I’m reminded of Chinatown: Gittes has two suspects near the end of the film, and the solution only coheres at the last moment.) As Rudin-Burgess says, “solo adventures are so spontaneous that no one will know who the culprit is until the clues fall into place!”

The big takeaway for me is that the systems Rudin-Burgess introduces are potentially portable into other GUMSHOE games. You’d likely a new list of randomized tone descriptors — dark and brooding for Esoterrorists, fantastical and swashbuckling for Swords of the Serpentine — but even that would be a fun exercise, telling you exactly what kind of scenario you’re interested in playing (picking the apparently non-interesting descriptors, of course, would also be a fun experiment). And, good news, Rudin-Burgess let me know via email that he has plans for future adaptations of Esoterrorists and Fear Itself.

Solo Laser was a fun read that got me excited to try roleplaying a GUMSHOE system (Ashen Stars, sure, but like I said, the ideas are super portable to any other GUMSHOE worlds — solo terror in Fear Itself, anyone?) all on my lonesome. Have you ever played a GUMSHOE game solo? Excited to try Solo Laser? Let us know in the comments!

Title: Solo Laser
Author: Peter Rudin-Burgess
System: Ashen Stars
Price: $4.95 PDF

GUMSHOE Community Contest Results!

We had a good turnout for our first-ever GUMSHOE Community Contest, and we’re excited to announce that the winners are:

  • First Place: Dark Entanglements by John WS Marvin
  • Runner Up: Game Reserve by Michael Duxbury (Michael has already made his entry available! Check it out!)

Thanks to everyone who participated, and keep an eye on the Community page on DriveThru — we’ll hopefully see everyone’s entry published there soon, and I’ll post a round up of all the entries once they are.

The Pelgrane Press Community Program brings you into the fold with other GUMSHOE game designers, affording creators (whatever that means to you!) the opportunity to post and sell their own products on DriveThruRPG. We currently accept material for Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch. Have a kooky idea you’d like to write up and get out there? A flushed out scenario you think others would enjoy? The Community Program is the place to showcase these ideas. If you’re interested in creating something for the Community Program, read more about it here.

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Like most creative endeavors, the GMing craft comes with its share of eternal conundrums. One classic example is the question of whether you carefully prepare adventures, or improvise them in response to player choices.

Carefully prepared adventures risk the accusation of railroading. In this particular application of a term I find annoyingly broad, the GM must be careful not to create the impression that anything that happens is predetermined, or that the players have anything less than absolute freedom of choice at all times. By its very nature, a prepared scenario can’t anticipate every possible branching action leading from a single plot premise. Otherwise even the simplest adventure would hit the table at the approximate weight of a telephone directory, and would consist almost entirely of carefully written responses to choices the players never wind up making. The more creative and surprising the choices made by the players, the more a prepared scenario becomes an improvised one during play.

On the other hand, if you’re completely making it up as you go along, some players (not, one hopes, the same ones who complain about railroading) find it more difficult to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief necessary to the enjoyment of any fictional presentation. If they can see you making it up on the spot, the game becomes less “real” to them. For players of this school, the game world is only genuine to them if they can believe that you’ve made certain immutable decisions and that certain of their choices will always produce the same results. Their desire for a sense of a bedrock reality behind the scenario persists regardless of your immediate need to adjust such factors as pacing, dramatic contrast, or degree of challenge.

In an investigative scenario, like one for any of the GUMSHOE games, you’ll generally need to designate certain facts as immutable from the outset. You’ll want to start the game already knowing a good deal of backstory, specifically who committed the act under investigation, how they did it, and why. (This is assuming that you’re not playing in a more avant garde mode, in which the players, acting as collective co-storytellers, help to collaboratively determine all these facts as they go along.) You can’t work out which clues might be available, even in improv fashion, if you don’t already know what facts the clues will eventually point toward.

For groups especially sensitive to the thought that you’re making it up before their eyes, a number of techniques allow you to convincingly fake it.

(Yep, I’m once again advocating a series of GM techniques which to a small extent deceive the players. If you find the entire idea of this scandalous, you may also be shocked to learn that there is gambling going on in the casino. Any author or screenwriter at all interested in the basic pleasures of narrative is to some degree a magician, relying on misdirection to eventually surprise and delight the audience. Just because players in an RPG take on pivotal duties that in other story forms are the sole province of the author doesn’t mean that the GM shouldn’t occasionally trick them into greater enjoyment.)

Several “tells” reveal to any halfway savvy group of players that you’re relying on a heavily prepared adventure. Disguise your improvisations by displaying these same tells.

Most notably, a prepared adventure takes an obvious physical form, as a sheaf of notes. To appease improv-averse players, create a fakebook. Use old notes from another adventure, perhaps with a new title page to keep it looking fresh and free of dog ears. Write a new title for the scenario, set to a high point size, so your players can read it from across the room if they “just happen” to glance at it. (For additional misdirection points, use your title for foreshadowing purposes. Choose an adventure title that creates a set of expectations, and then fulfill those expectations in a surprising way. A scenario called Darkness At the Bottom Of the Well might encourage your players to investigate an actual (and dangerous) well, when your real reference point for the title might refer to a book title, the name of an Internet forum, or your tale’s (entirely metaphorical) theme.

Refer to your fakebook throughout the adventure, especially when new scenes arise. This gives you something to do when forced to improvise your way through a situation that has you momentarily stumped. Don’t take as much time as the proverbial bad GM who’s constantly referring to his notes for interminable stretches—just enough to maintain your illusion of preparation. Even if you’re on a roll and don’t need the creative breathing room, make sure to take the occasional glance at it, to maintain the illusion of limited immutability.

Other fakebook techniques require some advance work—though not nearly so much as fully writing up a scenario in quasi-publishable format. Make sure, for example, to have not only the names of the characters you’ll need to use, but also a list of other unassigned names ready to go. A list of street names and business establishments may also prove invaluable Realistic sounding names are tough to generate on the fly, and are the deadest giveaway of an improvising GM.

Conversely, the most notable tell of the GM running a prepared adventure is the periodic break to read aloud sections of text. Personally, especially when running a published scenario, I find this technique way more disruptive to the fictional illusion than the notion that the GM is improvising. However, the same folks who get restless when they sense the GM is making it up may derive comfort from these canned textual signposts, which indicate that everything is still safely on track.

Ready yourself for this additional level of trickery by writing free-floating passages of text which can be dropped into any scenario. Descriptions of people are the most versatile, because you can assign them to characters who might pop up in any adventure. If you don’t wind up using a bored security guard, old coot watchman, or foxy librarian in the present improvised adventure, you can hold them in abeyance for a future installment. Because, like any improv whiz, you’re trying to minimize your prep time, you can keep these suitably short and sweet, avoiding the trap of the overlong text block.

Misdirection requires you to know your own habits regarding prepared text, and to duplicate them when improvising. Though I always try to paraphrase any prepared text, I often find myself at least half-reading passages from scenarios I’ve prepared. If you read lengthy passages as is, do the same when faking it with a free-floating text block. If you’d paraphrase all text snippets in fully prepped adventure, replicate that habit.

Ambitious fake improvisers can find further ways to mimic the behavior of a well-prepped GM. If your pre-written scenarios include hand-outs, create some free-floating maps, notes, and diagrams to fold into your plotline as you develop it. If you borrow images to represent people and places, keep a pile on hand for the same purpose, and so on.

Keep at it, and eventually you might convince even yourself that you’ve prepared!

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

We join a session of The Esoterrorists already in progress. The characters are FBI agent Juan Marino (played by Rich), science writer Martina Kruta (played by Lynne), and shady club owner Oscar Yorba (played by Tim.) In a storyline you, the GM, have ripped from the headlines, they are investigating a plot to mail human body parts to unsuspecting ordinary people throughout the nation. They have already determined that the first documented instances were the result of a horrible mistake on the part of a medical shipping company, and that presently unknown Esoterrorist operatives piggy-backed on the gruesome and surreal news story to foment public panic. Now the body parts are no longer misdirected medical samples intended for various tissue banks, but those of unidentified murder victims.

The previous scene’s core clue brought the group to a deserted former Christmas tree farm in the middle of nowhere. Entering the scene at night, their flashlights play across a battered old mail truck.

(Dialogue spoken in character appears in quotation marks.)

RICH: “Okay, are we ready to open the door?”
TIM: “Before we check it for booby traps? Are you kidding?” I use Surveillance to look for nasty surprises in or around the door.

Although Tim is arguably gathering information, a trap constitutes a plot obstacle, not a clue, and is therefore discovered with a general ability, Surveillance. Indeed, there’s a pipe bomb on the other side of the door, set to explode with a crude motion activator. The Difficulty of the test is 4. You are using the stringent, designer-approved option of requiring spends of general points before die rolls are made.

TIM: I spent 2 Surveillance on the attempt.

Tim rolls a 6; he succeeds.

YOU: There’s definitely something on the other side of the door. A pipe bomb, looks like. It would have gone off if you’d opened the door without checking.
TIM: “Pipe bomb, folks. Stand back.” Do I use Explosive Devices to defuse it?
YOU: No, that’s an investigative ability. You can use that to gather information about the bomb afterwards. But to actually defuse it, you need a general ability-Infiltration.
TIM: Right. I spend 2 Infiltration on it.

The Difficulty of the test to defuse the bomb is also 4. Tim rolls a 5, succeeding.

YOU: By sticking a screwdriver through the gap in the door, you manage to unhook the top of the bomb from the activator device. The door to the truck is safely open.
TIM: Okay, so now that I have a deactivated bomb in my hand, is there anything my Explosive Devices ability tells me about it?

Merely by mentioning that he has an applicable ability, Tim gets all the basic information gleanable from the bomb.

YOU: It’s a garden variety pipe bomb, the kind any maladjusted kid could put together with time and access to a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook. However, the neatness of the execution suggests that it was put together by an experienced, meticulous maker.
TIM: My street smarts haven’t really come into play so far. I really want to impress the others with some serious bomb knowledge. Can I learn more with a spend?

You hadn’t considered this, but quickly make up an additional cool-though only marginally germane-fact about the bomb.

YOU: Not of Explosive Devices, but are you able to make a 1-point Streetwise spend?
TIM: Sure.
YOU: From the blue tape on the handle, the style of the bomb seems at first glance to match that of the notorious Blue Tape Bomber, who struck a number of mob-run businesses along the eastern seaboard between 1987 and 1990. But, being the streetwise guy you are, you know for a fact that those were made by Sal “Four Fingers” Maldonado, who died after coronary surgery nearly ten years ago. So whoever made this bomb is trying to throw you off track.
LYNNE: “Very good, then, let’s check out the van.”
YOU: The air inside is rank-filled with the smell of rancid blood and wet cardboard.
LYNNE: [miming a handkerchief placed over her nose] “Auggh!”
RICH: We step inside. What do we find?
YOU: Blood spatters on the floor and walls. Several empty, half-assembled cardboard boxes, in the packaging style of well-known courier companies, sit stacked by the driving compartment. A big blood smear is visible on the wall right beside the compartment.
RICH: After taking a sample of the blood with Evidence Collection, I use Fingerprinting to check the smear.

You now provide Rich with the Fingerprinting information in your case notes.

YOU: There are four smeared but distinct prints running through the blood spatter. However, on a careful inspection, from the unevenness of the pressure, you figure that they were placed there by someone holding another person’s limp or unresponsive hand.
RICH: Unresponsive how, exactly?
YOU: Want to make a 1-point Fingerprinting spend?
RICH: Of course.
YOU: From the angle of the prints, they were made by someone manipulating a severed hand during the stages of rigor.
LYNNE: [Looking at her character sheet] Okay, what can I contribute? Architecture does me no good… Art History, no, Forensic Accounting, no. Oh wait, Forensic Entomology. Any insect evidence in here?

Your case notes say there is: the core clue, in fact.

YOU: Trapped in the blood is a dead insect-a mature American Grasshopper. This is worth noting, because this species isn’t found this far north. You’d normally expect it in the southeast: Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas…
LYNNE: “Hold on-Kentucky!” [Consulting her notes.] “The first hand mailed to Emily Schroeder in Pittsburgh-that belonged to Kenneth Cross, who lived in Cleveland. But his hometown was Independence, Kentucky. His neighbors said they thought nothing of his absence because they believed he was away on a trip. What if he really was away-if he went home to visit family? I bet our actual crime scene is down there. And who goes to a small place like that to commit a murder, if you don’t already know it? Our Esoterror cell has a connection to Independence, Kentucky.”
TIM: “I’ll put in a travel requisition right away-meanwhile, the two of you keep tossing the truck for any other clues …”

The above example shows you the players responding to specific details of the scene to choose which investigative abilities to use, and also trolling their character sheet for abilities that might yield something. It also shows two ways of handling investigative spends. In the first instance, the GM invents another layer of detail to give a player a desired sense of reward. In the second, the spend is in the case notes already, and the GM frames the description of the basic clue in such a way as to inspire the player to call for it.

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system seen in The Esoterrorists and upcoming follow-on games and supplements can be used for any mystery or procedural game. We’ll be presenting new settings in the future, but in the meantime, the game’s core engines are easily adaptable to whatever investigative genre you want to run. Here’s how to adapt GUMSHOE to emulate your favorite procedural, whether it be 24, Torchwood, CSI, or The X-Files.

Step One: Study Your Source

First, immerse yourself in the property you want to recreate. You may be adapting a specific procedural, or drawing from a broad subset of similar shows. It might also be fun to combine the structure and tone of a well-known TV show with the genre elements gamers love: “It’s Cracker, but with werewolves.”

For the sake of a default frame of reference, I’m assuming a TV show here, but the general principles apply equally to novel series: you could just as easily adapt Sherlock Holmes, Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, Iain Pears’ art-world mysteries, or Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-centric whodunnits.

Creating your own original property requires less homework but is tougher in some ways. You’ll have to portray your setting and narrative formula to the players without the shorthand that comes with the shared viewing experience of a popular show.

Start by identifying the structure of your source’s typical episodes. Look for standard elements that recur from one episode to the next; these will help you to construct scenarios. For a long running property with many cast changes over the years, determine if the various characters fall into distinct types.

Make a master list of the various GUMSHOE investigative abilities. When one of these abilities, or a close analogue, comes up in the course of an episode, put a tick mark next to it. If abilities appear which have no counterparts in GUMSHOE, make a note of that. Pay special attention to the interpersonal abilities, which are easy to gloss over, appearing as they do in the ebb and flow of dialogue, interrogation and interview scenes.

Take note also of what the characters are able to do during non-investigative scenes. Again, note what GUMSHOE abilities you see in action, and which other abilities you’ll have to define for your game.

Gauge how competent the protagonists are. Are the action sequences, if any, over the top and stylized, or gritty and real?

As is often the case in adaptations to the RPG format, you may have to adjust a series featuring a single protagonist (or a duo) to make an entire team of characters co-equal centers of attention.

Step Two: Investigative Abilities

Take the list of abilities you’ve compiled during your homework. Note how fine-grained the technical and academic abilities seem to be. Is a big distinction made, for example, between the various forensic disciplines? If so, you’ll likely want to use a large list of abilities, as seen in The Esoterrorists. Otherwise, a more stripped down, general list likely suits better. Such a list appears in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror book, Fear Itself.

Look at the abilities you haven’t seen in play in your source material. Can you envision them ever appearing? If so, include them. If not, leave them out.

Certain forensic techniques will be unavailable in non-contemporary settings. Forensic entomology is a very recent sub-discipline, for example. An ancient or medieval sleuth won’t be looking for fingerprints. Other disciplines might be available in more primitive form, providing less information. For example, a photographic expert in a 1940s hardboiled game will have less to go on than his contemporary, computer-equipped counterpart. In some cases, you’ll want to rename abilities: forensic psychology might become alienism.

Once you’ve assembled your final list of investigative abilities, divide the number of abilities by the number of players who you expect will regularly attend your game, then add a handful of points to this total. This gives you the number of build points the players get to buy their investigative abilities during character creation.

Step Three: General Abilities

Repeat the above process with general abilities. Most basic general abilities will apply to any setting, but there are a few that need tweaking for historical genres. Pre-industrial characters might use Riding or Carting instead of Driving, for example.

(When in doubt as to whether an ability is general or investigative, ask yourself if it can be used to gather information, or to perform some other task. If it’s the latter, it’s investigative. If the former, it’s general. If what seems to be the same talent can both gather information and perform other tasks, split it into two, making it both an investigative and general ability. The prime example of this are the Reassurance and Shrink abilities, which resemble each other thematically but have different narrative functions.)

If your setting is gritty and realistic, give the players around 5 build points for each general ability. For a more over-the-top setting, assign 8-12 points per general ability. Some general ability lists will include specialized abilities that few PCs will want; if so, omit them when tallying your total number of abilities.

In certain fantastic genres, you may want to create a subclass of special abilities, like super powers or psychic talents. Write descriptions of these so the players know how they work. It may be that some are investigative and some general; be sure to indicate which is which. Assign them a separate build point total, reflecting the degree to which you want these talents present in your game. You will probably also want to limit the number of special abilities each player can take, or allow only a restricted number of PCs to have them.

Step Four: Conceptual Aids

If characters in the setting tend to fall into definable categories, write brief descriptions of each type, to help the players fit their characters to the property.

Look at what motivates the characters in the property. If necessary, create guidelines or rules structures to assist players in acquiring the necessary mindset. For example, Fear Itself character creation requires the players to pick the worst thing their characters ever did. This provides a plot hook to use in flashbacks and scenes of character development. It also requires you to pick from a list of possible motivations to take the apparently stupid risks that get horror characters into entertaining danger. A rule then provides an incentive for reluctant players to make the choices that drive stories of this type.

Step Five: What to Leave Out

Just because a rule structure is present in current iterations of GUMSHOE doesn’t mean that it will work for your property. Stability, for example, is essential for horror-based mystery games but inappropriate for all but the most punishing and gritty crime or detective properties.

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Everybody knows this ancient joke: A guy goes to the doctor. He rotates his arm a bit and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” So the doctor says, “Don’t do that.”

When designing roleplaying rules to emulate narrative sources, much of the job consists of finding places to say the same thing: “Don’t do that.”

As we all know, the roleplaying form grew out of the war-gaming scene. Its earliest incarnations focused on tactical play. This was, and remains, a fun and rewarding play style. The choice to focus on dramatic structure rather than tactical choices is not a repudiation of the older mode of play, or an evolution to a superior state of being. It’s just aimed at creating a different sort of fun.

It’s also usually a matter of emphasis, rather than of aesthetic purity. Storytelling elements can suddenly intrude into the most determinedly experience-point grubbing dungeon crawl. Moments of tactical decision-making may become appropriate in even the most experimental of narrative games.

That said, many of us tend to default to the assumptions of the tactical style when we design or play narrative-based games, because that’s where the entire roleplaying tradition stems from. It can be profoundly liberating to question these assumptions, sometimes tossing them out the window in favor of simpler choices that better model the literary or cinematic sources we’re striving to emulate. To say, “Don’t do that.”

The “don’t do that” principle can be difficult to implement when players have grown emotionally invested in particular ways of doing things during their time playing tactically-oriented games. In my narrative-based game system, HeroQuest, I keep trying to get rid of the fine differences between various sorts of weapons and armor. In the fictional source material, they provide defining gimmicks for the various characters but rarely, if ever, serve as a determining factor in success or failure. A combative character who wields a strange or unlikely weapon is so well trained in it that it’s as good in his hands as the default weapon wielded by the average character. Incremental differences between armor and weapon types belong in the detail-crunchy world of tactical play, not in an abstract system designed to mimic dramatic structure. Yet players who are otherwise on board with the general concept of story play still have that love of those crunchy differences ingrained in them from their happy formative experiences with tactical games. You’ll see, when the upcoming generic version of the HeroQuest rules come out, to what extent I managed to win the battle this time around.

The central “don’t do that,” at the heart of the GUMSHOE system concerns the mechanism whereby players in an investigative scenario gain the clues they need to solve the mystery. The tactical tradition treats this as a skill use like any other, with a chance of failure corresponding to your investment of character resources into that skill. Say you need to find out what your suspect’s grandfather was doing during World War II. You roll your Library Use skill. If you allocated enough points to Library Use during character creation and/or manage to score a lucky roll, you get the information you need. If you invested lightly in the skill, or roll poorly, you’re screwed. In theory, that is.

In reality, GMs either fudge the roll, or improvise a workaround, giving the characters repeated shots at discovering the same fact with various abilities, until one of them finally succeeds, permitting the plot to free itself from its rut and lurch onward. The standard approach borrows some of the outward aspects of a tactical game, but in fact relies on GM kludging to prevent them from operating-as it must, to serve the demands of story structure, which craves ongoing forward momentum.

GUMSHOE says, “Don’t do that.” Since the end of the process is a foregone conclusion — the characters get the info they need-why waste time, focus and creativity with a system that provides only the illusion of chance? Instead, GUMSHOE provides a character generation system which guarantees that someone in the group will have made the necessary investment in every information-gathering ability, and which then grants access to clues on that basis. It is a simpler, streamlined way of achieving what good GMs are already doing-without the pointless and annoying faffing about.

Some GMs of investigative games have responded to second-hand descriptions of GUMSHOE by saying that, because it ensures that players always get the clues they need, it does what they are already doing. In other words, they’re saying that they’re already not doing that. I wonder to what extent this assertion matches reality. When a game design provides a rule, that rule tends to get used, even when it shouldn’t. Its use occurs reflexively, even invisibly.

The crystal ball I use to peer into other peoples’ houses while they GM is in the shop for repairs, so I guess I can’t conclusively say that commenters are mis-describing their own play style. However, my bet would be that most of them are:

• putting absolutely crucial information (what in GUMSHOE are called core clues) out in plain sight, with no skill use (and therefore no roll) required


• employing the above-mentioned workaround, continually finding new ways to reveal the same information, until somebody finally gets the needed roll


• still requiring skill rolls for less essential clues

We have probably abetted this misperception by emphasizing the fact that GUMSHOE never leaves you stuck on a failed die roll. The traditional skill roll method tends not to leave you stuck in practice, because GMs have grown used to clumsily working around it. For those folks, the value of the GUMSHOE approach is not that it does something they can’t or haven’t done before, but that it does so with smooth and seamless efficiency. It’s not only what it does, but how it does it.

The result is a faster, sleeker approach to emulation of the mystery structure. When the emphasis is taken off the finding of clues and placed on their interpretation, the pacing and tenor of sessions change substantially. This is the benefit of looking at established practices and saying, “Don’t do that.”

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

For the past couple of installments we’ve been examining investigative scenario construction from a macro perspective, mostly looking at the way scenes interact with one another. This time let’s zoom in a bit and talk about a couple of other narrative devices you can use to add spice to the basic mystery format.

Red Herrings

From the investigator’s point of view, any mystery can be seen as a set of possibilities, which through probing, legwork and the occasional confrontation with interesting danger, is eventually narrowed to the truth. It is a process of elimination. In any investigative scene, the characters separate what might have happened from what did. Especially in the opening scenes of a scenario, they’ll be busily ruling out suspects, motives and methods.

From the players’ point of view, it is the various competing possibilities that make the mystery into an interesting puzzle.

To create a mystery, first decide what it is that the characters are investigating: a murder, theft, kidnapping, mysterious apparition, whatever.

GMs enjoy an advantage over mystery writers. They often don’t need to create red herrings, because the players create them for them. Players love to speculate, frequently generating wildly off-base explanations to connect what little information they have available to them. Sometimes this slows the action down, and you’ll have to remember to rein them in and suggest that they collect more facts before attempting to reconstruct events.

However, sometimes you’ll find yourself wanting to add complexity to the storyline, rather than subtracting it. There are two ways to build red herrings into your adventures.

The first is preplanned, as you create the scenario. After you work out what really happened, look at the facts that will be available to the investigators in the first scene or two. Take these and construct plausible (but wrong) alternate theories that connect these clues. Then prepare scenes in which the investigators pursue these avenues. In these scenes, the clues they gather rule out the false possibility, allowing them to move back onto the right track.

The second method of red herring generation is improvised, as a response to player speculation. Players will often seize on an alternate theory of the case that you would never have considered in a million years. Rather than see these theories as annoyances to be dispelled, capitalize on them. Invent evidence which seems on its face to support their theory, leading them into scenes in which they eventually find the counter-evidence forcing them to go back to the drawing board, and move toward the actual solution to the mystery. (Especially flexible GMs may decide that the players’ bizarre theory is more entertaining than that given in the scenario and adjust to make that retroactively true. Because it’s hard to assemble an airtight clue trail on the fly, this is recommended only for talented improvisers who breathe story logic like oxygen.)

Whether preplanned or made up as you go along, a red herring should either be extremely interesting in its own right, or so boring that it can be dispensed with quickly. In the first case, the scene makes no contribution to the actual story, and therefore justify its time in the spotlight by being entertaining and memorable in its own right. Invent a crazy character. Vividly describe a unique setting. Inject some social commentary or fun topical references. Parody absent friends or obnoxious public figures.

In a supernatural or fantastic setting, you can use a red herring scene to enhance the apparent reality of your world. Do this by taking a familiar situation or type of behavior and place it within your outlandish boundaries of your chosen reality. In a police procedural set in a superhero world, you might, for example, include an encounter with an enraged citizen wondering how to track down insurance information for the masked crusader who totaled his car while using it as a weapon against a rampaging mutant.

Red herrings can also justify themselves by shedding contrasting light on your story’s themes and images. First, you’ll need to identify your scenario’s themes and images, if you haven’t already done so. These are often inherent in the crime itself. The underlying crime behind The Esoterrorist example scenario, “Operation Slaughterhouse”, is abuse of power. The scenario in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror supplement, Fear Itself, is about madness, and the random nature of its onset.

Suitable red herring scenes should throw a different light on these themes. If abuse of power is the theme, the players might meet a witness (who turns out not to know anything) who has been the victim of shenanigans by high officials. Or he might be an apologist for government corruption.

You can also find imagistic inspiration for red herring scenes. If much of your scenario is set in a forest, a red herring encounter might be shaded with images of wilderness of vegetation. Maybe it takes the players to a hunting lodge, its walls festooned with mounted taxidermy specimens. Or inside a greenhouse, where a frail non-witness pours all of her life energy into her precious forest of rare plants.

Ticking Clocks

Although GUMSHOE ensures that the players have all of the tools at their disposal to solve the mystery-provided they look in the right places, it by no means ensures success. As mentioned last time, they can fall prey to all kinds of disruptive events, which, if they fail, keep them from crossing the finish line.

Sometimes the finish line itself can be a disruptive event. Make use of a classic trick of suspense narrative by putting a time limit on the characters. If they fail to solve the mystery in X amount of time, something horrible happens. A bomb goes off. A buried captive runs out of oxygen. An innocent man is executed.

The use of a ticking clock requires you to keep closer track of elapsed time in the game world than is typical for an investigative scenario. When the players are discussing what to do, you’ll need a clock to keep track of how much real time they’re eating up. During action sequences and cuts between scene, you’ll tabulate game world time, adding it to the total.

Ticking clock plotlines only work when the players know that they’re on a deadline. They can also create some tricky timing issues: for example, they lose steam if broken up over a number of sessions. Casual groups who prefer a relaxed pace and plenty of room to chitchat may flounder or rebel if you tighten the pressure on them in this way.

However, for a dedicated group of problem solvers, nothing gets the adrenaline flowing better than the old ever-present countdown.

In the latest episode of their titanic podcast, Ken and Robin talk the Missouri Leviathan, Zakros Master, friendship across the aisle, and tarot illustrator Pamela Colman Smith.

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Click here for part II of the “Fear of Structure”

With The Esoterrorists now available and a series of GUMSHOE products in the pipeline, it’s time to embark on a series of columns supporting the game. Even if you’re not, heaven forefend, an Esoterrorists player or reader, I hope you’ll find something in these coming columns to chew on, whether you occasionally run or play in other investigative scenarios, or are broadly interested in the theory and practice of roleplaying game design.

If there are prevailing threads through my various different RPG designs over the years, one of them would be a desire to drill through theoretical preconceptions of what the roleplaying experience ought to be, to get to what is really fun about gaming. (This is not to say that all theory is inherently wrong. If that statement were true, it would itself be a theory, and would be wrong, thus opening up a rift in the space-time continuum that cause the universe to devour itself. And who wants that, really?)

My governing observation here is that there is often a gulf between what we think we want, or ought to want, and what really entertains us. We gamers are a cerebral lot and tend to construct theoretical frameworks, which we lean on heavily when articulating our tastes. Sure, sometimes these theories are reliable markers to enjoyable game play. But it’s always worthwhile to question them, and often liberating to chuck them out the window.

To take an example from an earlier design, Feng Shui questions the then-prevailing assumption that the GM should be entirely in charge of determining what is present in the characters’ environment. Its play advice section instructs players to help imagine what stunt-worthy props might be available for use during fight scenes. They don’t ask the GM if there happens to be an aquarium present, they simply assume it: “I leap over the table, using it as a springboard to land on his back and knock Mr. Po headfirst into the fish tank!” Though they retain veto power over completely implausible or abusive choices, GMs are urged to encourage this player collaboration. The game does this to further its goal of evoking the feeling of being inside a fast and furious Hong Kong-style action movie. Some GMs incorporated this trick into all of their subsequent gaming, Feng Shui or not, which I find incredibly gratifying.

In the case of the GUMSHOE system, my hope is that the people who adopt its core technique-which guarantees that players who look in the right place will find the clues they need to advance the storyline-will find it a powerful tool to increase the fun to frustration ratio of their investigative scenarios. This puts us into conflict with another long-standing assumption about good gaming-that scenario structure is a thing to regard with suspicion, as a sign of that dreaded phenomenon, railroading.

Most gamers have been burned by dictatorial so-called storytelling GMs whose heavy-handed, anti-collaborative techniques discredit all narrative-based play. We all know the kind-the guy who has an “epic” story to tell and wants the players to follow pre-assigned roles as he reveals to them, sequence by sequence, the script he has written in his head. When many players think of an adventure having structure, they think of this guy, and want to run as fast they can in the other direction. Even when, to painfully exceed my daily metaphor quota, they’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

This is unfortunate, because to emulate certain fictional genres in a satisfying way, the GM needs to be able to create a sense of structure, with an opening that leads to a series of interconnected scenes, and finally to a climax that wraps up the various plot threads dangled in the previous action.

No story format is more rigorously demanding of structure than the mystery, from which any investigative scenario must, by definition, draw inspiration. Its opening scene sets up a question. The intervening scenes move the protagonists toward an answer to that question, though often in a meandering or indirect way that enriches the puzzle with various tangents and red herrings.

This classic structure allows for some common variations. Sometimes the original mystery the protagonist investigates turns out to be a mere lead-in for a much more important problem. The modern mystery novel often weaves together two apparently unrelated mysteries-one serious, one of less seeming consequence-which the protagonist discovers to be connected. Also common in modern mysteries is a thread of tangentially related character development, which develops the protagonist from book to book. A more classical structure treats the detective as an essentially unchanging iconic character, who resists the efforts of the world to change him, instead altering the world by solving mysteries and imposing order on it.

If you’re not using some variation of the above structure, you’re simply not telling a mystery story.

The problem this genre choice presents us with, then, is that certain players, seeing the theory and not the practice of roleplaying, are overly fearful of a linear or so-called “bread crumb” plot structure, which they equate with egregious railroading.

I’d argue, first of all, that these fears are misplaced, and arise from a fundamental misperception. The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story. As mentioned in The Esoterrorist rules, we saw this at work during playtest, as all of the groups had very different experiences of the sample scenario, as each GM and player combo riffed in their own unique ways off the situations it suggested.

In fact, every RPG session (or series of connected sessions) remotely partaking of a narrative winds up being linear in retrospect. One scene leads to another and finally comes to a resolution. Every choice the players make precludes other choices. There is only one story in the end, made from a wider range of possible branches. It is the sum total of what happens in play.

The scenario, on the other hand, is a series of notes on what might happen when actual play occurs. Published scenarios, except where written by incompetents and/or designers who don’t play much anymore, are invariably presented as a series of possibilities. Game sessions are always linear. Scenarios are always multi-linear.

It would be convenient if players could be relieved of their fear of structure by mere exposure to this argument. However, it’s hard to dislodge one theory with another. In a battle of theory versus practice, you have to show players that their preconceptions are getting in the way of their fun, in actual play.

In the next installment of Page XX, we’ll look at ways to do just that.

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