The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Started Loving Losing Control

by Fred Hicks

When I sit down at the table, I’m looking to feel.  I want my character’s triumphs to exhilarate me, and when he makes a bad decision, I want to squirm—and as an audience to his story, to feel my concern for him deepen (and, honestly, to enjoy how he’s sunk himself into yet another predicament).

While I wouldn’t call myself a full-bore immersionist in my play—I’m entirely comfortable spending some time outside of my character’s head—I do like to identify with my character.  At the very least, I’m best off when I feel empathy for him, even if I’m deciding that he’s going to kiss the wrong girl, let his greed lead him into a trap, or otherwise set himself up for some pretty awful consequences.  Heck, as a fan of TV shows like Farscape and Rescue Me, it could even be argued that bad decisions and nasty consequences are a need—even a craving—for my entertainment tastes.  If my hero isn’t in over his head and isn’t at least partly to blame for putting himself there, it’s just not good enough.  In the end, that’s how I build that sense of identification with my character—you and me, kid, we’re in this together.

When I’m playing “traditional” style games, achieving this can be a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition.  In these games, I usually don’t have a lot of choice in what sorts of things are going to get thrown at my character’s head, and the ability to get my character into deep doo-doo is dependent to a great extent on the ability of whoever’s running the game to step on up and douse me in sufficient amounts of predicament-juice.

So with that as my complaint (if it can really be called that), a number of folks I know would say, “Fred my man, you need yourself a story-game,” and to some extent they’re absolutely right.  A story-game (to the extent I’m familiar with the term) often gives players direct or strong authorial control over the circumstances of their characters.  If the players want their characters deeply embroiled in bitten-off-more-than-they-can-chew shenanigans, the players have enough control over the game to directly assert what those circumstances are.  In short, they have the power to author their own pain.

This is big mojo—and I’ve made plenty of use of it whenever I’ve played story-games.  But more often than not, the experience still feels a little hollow to me.  I can come up with a great character and jam his life up but good, producing a fun story, but it’s still missing that essential ingredient that I crave: identification.  All of this ability to author my own pain ends up falling flat, divorcing me from those emotional ties to my character.  It puts me into a stance where the character is a piece on a board to be moved around through a story.  As an audience, I may enjoy the stories that result, but it tends to come off as an action movie rather than a drama—a heavyweight on the explosions and cool effects, but light as a feather on the heartstrings.

A common thread I’ve found in many of these circumstances is that two things are going on.

The first problem: I’m retaining too much control over my character.  This means I lose the sense that the events of the story are happening to him; when I author my own pain, I’m both the guy making bad stuff happen and the guy that the bad stuff is happening to.  The problem, of course, is that I know what I’m doing to myself, so the surprises and twists and turns are few (or even nonexistent).

The second problem: Too often, the process of making decisions in the game is made outside of the character’s perspective.  It’s an odd thing, given that stories are anchored to characters, but in story-games I’m often seeing story trumping character—and for me at least it really ends up hollowing out the experience, leaving it all surface and no depth.

As I’ve come to realize this about my own play, I’ve started to analyze things more carefully, looking at the times when games have given me what I want, and trying to determine what’s made it work.  Commonly, I find myself identifying with my character when I don’t feel I have control over the things happening to him: my discovery (as a player) of what’s happening to my character does not precede my character’s discovery of it.  We’re going through the process of discovery together, and that’s how the story gets a chance to play close to my heart and, crucially, to make me feel.

So if I were so bold as to think I could request it of the design community, this is what I want: story-games that don’t put me in the driver’s seat.  For all the non-hippie sensibilities of traditional style games, I’ve come to feel they have something right by putting a lot of control over my circumstances into someone else’s hands (most often the GM).  Without that, even at a crowded table, I can end up feeling like I’m playing a solo adventure.

For a long while, I thought that this problem was just inherent to a lot of principles of story-games, but in some inextractable way that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Then I got a chance to play in Bill White’s superlative Ganakagok game at Dreamation 2007.  Ganakagok is “the bomb,” as they say in the old country, and despite being in a position where I was deciding (as a player) that some awful things would befall my character, despite having my hand deep in authoring events and circumstances befalling other characters, I still had a strong, strong sense of identification for my tribal truth-teller who, once trapped beneath the ice and drowned, became a cannibal ghoul and eventually sank into the depths to transform into the cancer that gnaws at the heart of the world.

Something special was going on there, and I think I figured out why.

Ganakagok does several things which, together, produce an amazing game-play experience that preserved my empathy for my character.  At the heart of all of those things is a common thread: everyone gets a chance to participate in every scene, but only in a way that happens through the “lens” of their characters.  Even when my character is not physically present in a scene, he can affect that scene through his possessions, others’ memories of him, and so on.  This is gold.  By making sure that I don’t ever step out of “my guy” to affect the larger story of the world, I remain identified with him without ever losing sight of the big picture.

This is a strange and magical kind of unity that Bill has crafted, here: a game where character and story interact and exist as peers, but where one cannot be affected at all without the use of the other.  My authorship of the story does not occur without the involvement of my own character.  And that is where my heart starts to beat with newfound warmth for the stories arising from play.

Ganakagok makes character and story into an inextricable pair, like a key and its lock, and it has already started to affect my designs—my 2007 Game Chef entry Schizonauts was among the first.  Much of that game follows Ganakagok‘s example, from its turn structure (which guarantees everyone participates in every scene), to the ways that absent characters can still be a part of scenes as they play out.

At the end of the day it might seem like Ganakagok is defying my “rules” for what I want—it sounds like I’m authoring my own pain here.  That raises the question: by forcing me to interact with the story through the lens of my character, has my control-concern been defused?  Well, a little, yes—but that’s not the whole of it.

Truth be told, I have much less control than it looks like—gloriously so, since that’s a fast track to joy for me. Here’s why: when everyone participates in every scene, there’s a ton of extra input to what’s going on besides my own (and besides the GM’s for that matter).  My voice, ultimately, can’t ever be the only one to speak as to what befalls my character.  In the end, the system enforces the idea that I don’t have total authority my circumstances—and I love my character (and the game) all the more because of it.

And that’s sort of a gaming full circle, isn’t it?  Traditional style role-playing games, it turns out, have been doing it the way I want it for ages.  But where they failed was in giving me too little control over guiding the story to the places I wanted it to go, leaving me without any authorship over the story I was in.  Rightly, they pushed me towards story-games and said “here is what you’ve been missing.”

But—at least in large part—much of what I’ve found in this previously undiscovered country was too much in the other direction.  Story-games fail (most correctly, story-games fail me) when they don’t limit my control effectively.  I want the game—through the system, through the efforts of the other players at the table—to steal my freedom, and in so doing, to give me the surprises that can only come as the result of random dice rolls and wacky, beautiful, unexpected ideas from my fellow players.

Perhaps this is why my own game designs—Don’t Rest Your Head and Spirit of the Century among others (though I can hardly take sole credit for the latter)—show signs of mixing traditional and story-game sensibilities, as do a few other games out there (such as Chad Underkoffler’s PDQ system games).  I want this combination because the tug-of-war between no-control and total-control (over the story) is best resolved (or at least most easily found) by fusing elements of both styles, allowing the player some control over the story to get the most of what he wants for his character, but still animating that story with strange and unexpected events, surprising and delighting him as his character descends further into peril.  By and large, that’s still pretty unexplored territory, though day by day it seems like the story-games and traditional sets are blending more and more together.  For a guy like me looking to feel something at the table, it’s an exciting time to be a gamer.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007, but could prove useful for the many subsequent GUMSHOE systems.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

On a fundamental structural level, RPG sessions are their own beast, and are unlike movies, TV, and books. However, these related storytelling forms are always worth looking at for inspiration. Many of their surface techniques remain unplundered by GMs. Most notably, the tricks they use to compress time and make proceedings less boring demand further study, if not slavish emulation.

For example, let’s look at the differences between a story of investigation as it plays out in a TV cop show as opposed to the way they usually unfold in an RPG.

In a cop show, each encounter or interrogation generally a few important points of information. Then the script quickly moves onto a new scene in which another character provides more information.

Often, though not always, the investigators must score a win by overcoming the informant’s reluctance to spill the crucial beans. The informants’ reasons for reluctance, and the means necessary to overcome them, will vary enough to disguise the formula and keep the proceedings entertaining.

You can’t break it down to a formula, but often the informant:

A) provides one clue

B) rules out one possibility

and concludes by

C) supplying a third nugget of information pointing the investigators to the next encounter.

RPG interrogations tend to unfold in actual time. In that, they’re like real police interviews: given the chance, the PCs will ask every question under the sun, looping around, repeating themselves, and amassing great reams of information from each informant, which they’ll then try to sift for the crucial point.

This poses a challenge to you as GM, because you want a sense of forward movement, to build excitement and stave off boredom and paralysis. Players become easily confused in investigative scenarios. Unlike real cops, they’re picturing their nonexistent people talking to your nonexistent people. As they go, they’re filling in the imaginative blanks, often mistakenly. The more editing and pre-sifting of information you can do for them, the happier they’ll be, and the more satisfying the episode’s pacing will seem.

By imitating a cop show trick, you can keep each interview quick and to the point. No one in a cop show has time to talk to the cops. (Maybe this is why most of the best cop shows are set in New York City, where no one has time for anyone.) The random group of eccentrics and semi-outlaws who compose the average adventuring group will earn even less time from the basic NPC civilian.

Here’s a form you can use for each interviewee in an investigative adventure:

  • Reason for Reluctance:
  • Overcoming Reluctance:
  • Clue supplied:
  • Possibility Ruled Out:
  • Next contact:
  • Cut-Off:

Just like a cop show screenwriter, you’ll want to create as many different reasons for brushing off the PCs as possible, for variety’s sake. Informants crucial to your storyline will require reasons directly related to the motivations you’ve preset for them. For walk-on characters, you can choose reasons at random — or start with the reason and build the character from that starting point.

Examples can include:

Complicity: Informant peripherally involved in the crime.

Confusion: Informant is cooperative, but his perceptions are muddled.

Greed: Informant seeks payoff before talking, and drives a hard bargain.

Guilt: Informant has done something bad, but unrelated to the mystery, and fears that this is what the PCs are investigating.

Hostility: Informant has good reason to hate adventurers as a group.

Ideology: Informant belongs to a group or class politically opposed to the PCs or their patrons.

Loyalty: Informant wants to protect someone she (rightly or wrongly) assumes to be the target of their investigation.

Paranoia: Informant assumes PCs are his (real or imagined) enemies.

Preoccupation: Informant more concerned with his own pressing business or agenda than with helping the PCs.

Snobbery: Informant considers himself social better of PCs; recoils at the thought of associating with them.

The manner in which the PCs must overcome the informant’s reluctance arises from the nature of that reluctance.

Complicity: PCs must convince informant they know what he did and can arrange for worse treatment if he doesn’t talk.

Confusion: PCs must sort through informant’s scattered recollections for the important fact.

Greed: PCs must pay him off, or convince him he’ll be worse off if he doesn’t talk.

Guilt: Must assure informant that her particular misdeeds are not their concern.

Hostility: PCs must mollify the informant, or use leverage his grudge against him with intimidation tactics.

Ideology: Informant must be shown how cooperation benefits his faction.

Loyalty: Convince informant cooperation will lead to a better outcome for the person she’s protecting.

Paranoia: Either reassure or terrify the informant.

Preoccupation: Show how lack of cooperation will hurt the informant’s business or cause.

Snobbery: Show how cooperation will lead to the PCs’ speedy departure.

Alternate methods of persuasion should always be possible. Otherwise you risk falling into a variant of the classic plot bottleneck, in which there’s only one way to get a particular piece of information on which all forward development depends. PCs should be able to intimidate snobs or bribe paranoids. For variety’s sake, ensure that no single tactic works on all informants.

Structurally, any investigative adventure consists of a trail of clues leading like bread crumbs from one encounter to the next, so the nature of the clue is up to you.

The next contact positions the encounter within that structure, telling you which new scene the character will point the PCs toward. In a cop show, the leads find the clues in a particular order. If you can prepare several different orders in which the clues can be assembled, you face less chance that a dead end point will arise in mid-scenario. (Putting the encounters on index cards helps if you intend to shuffle them as you go.)

Finally, under the entry labeled cut-off, slot in the reason for the NPC to conclude the encounter after the PCs have squeezed it for all of its information and entertainment value. It’s easier to get NPCs out of scenes in a modern setting with busy schedules and ringing cellphones, but self-respecting supporting characters in any era or genre should be anxious to get on with their own lives as your sense of expediency dictates. Cut-offs may refer back to the character’s original reluctance to talk. A snob wants to shoo uncouth PCs out of his manor as quickly as possible. A paranoid wishes to escape an imagined threat. If the PCs haven’t slapped the cuffs on a complicit character, he will want to leave the jurisdiction as soon as possible.

Unrelated cut-offs work just as well, and provide an added sense of reality to your world. Mundane details like crying babies, overflowing sinks, cookpots in need of tending, escaping horses, or goods in need of protection from the rain all provide otherwise helpful NPCs excuses to bring their discussions with the heroes to an end.

I’d stick around and elaborate, but you have all the clues to piece it together. I have an owl to feed. Or something! Good luck with that investigation, now!

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007. 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Last summer’s Origins convention in Columbus, Ohio gave me a platform for an eye-opening experience, and not an especially pleasant one, at that. It made me want to sharpen my own game as a designer and self-promoter, and to urge my colleagues to do the same.

As part of the con’s seminar track, I rounded up some of my fellow guests of honor for an event called Gaming Gurus Pick the Goods. Designer extraordinaire Jonathan Tweet, GenCon honcho Peter Adkison and supreme muskrat purveyor John Kovalic and I crawled the dealer’s hall looking for new, cool products to plug during a subsequent seminar.

We were looking for new and newish releases, so our recommendations had to be based on a quick initial impression. We didn’t have time to play games in detail and winkle out their hidden flaws. If a product caught the fancy of any expedition member, it won a spot on the pile. This is the lowest possible bar for product evaluation. Even so, we were devoting more concentrated energy to the hunt for hidden gems than any right-minded person would in a dealer’s room of that size.

I was shocked by what we encountered. At booth after booth, we had to wade through lazy, confused, indifferent and just plain non-existent product pitches. We presented ourselves at each dealer’s tables with way more energy and eagerness than most wary buyers. We didn’t need to be drawn in; we were serving ourselves up on a silver platter. Granted, some booth staffers knew us as industry types and may have figured an actual cash sale was not in the offing. Still, it was positively gobsmacking to ask the question “What have you got that’s new and w wonderful?” and hear, “Ehh, not much,” or, even more devastating, “Oh, the same old junk.”

Other bloodcurdling non-replies included “I really don’t know, I’m just working the booth,” and the time-honored, “I’m the girlfriend, you’ll have to ask him.” (A few weeks later Jonathan, Kenneth Hite and I repeated the event at GenCon; you really don’t want to hear the worst pitch from that event.)

Except for a small handful of well-staffed companies, most game manufacturers couldn’t run booths without volunteer labor, whether those roped in are friends, freelance creators, fans, or significant others. What our little adventure inadvertently highlighted was that most don’t take the time to provide even a minimal level of briefing to their conscripts before leaving them exposed to the teeming public. Projecting a welcoming persona does not necessarily come naturally to members of our glorious geek tribe. Many of us are alternately aloof or overly voluble, and either have a hard time speaking up, or of staying on point.

Anybody with any responsibility for running a booth at a show should be terrified that their booth staff, whether employees or volunteers, is giving the public dispiriting answers like the above. My hair stood on end. It made me question my own booth-weaseling skills, and whether I’ve become complacent after having been, in my early years, an energetic and successful pitchman.

Any booth runner, before every show, positively must, must, must, gather his volunteers together for a meeting. If they’re roleplayers, by golly, make ‘em roleplay. Run them through a scenario in which they pitch the product to you, the quasi-interested customer. Make sure they know what they need to about each product. Don’t let anyone work your booth till you can pull them aside and hone their spiel. Nobody wants an over-eager lunatic leaping into the aisle to corral unwilling participants, but you do need someone who can, once prompted, infuse the customer with the same enthusiasm about the product that led you to produce it in the first place. Do what any booth runner for any real industry trade show would do — give them a script! You don’t want them to robotically parrot it, but they need to know the bullet points.

That’s the second deadly, and far more common, sin we saw out there in the dealer’s hall that day. When prompted, most booth denizens were indeed able to reach for their newest, coolest thing — but almost none of them were able to quickly encapsulate its basic hook.

The successful marketing of any product starts with a unique selling point. What is it about this item that makes somebody want to buy it, instead of something like it? A unique selling point should be a quick, punchy sentence laden with both promise and information. Twenty-five words or less, preferably less.

We heard a lot of answers that didn’t at all resemble selling points. We were told that a certain book had a cult following because it was very popular in a particular country in the eighties. Sometimes the pitchman would flip through the rules book to his favorite game mechanic and then begin to describe it in detail — as he would if he were teaching the game, but devoid of all context. Or we would be told how incredibly great and different a product was, with the exact nature of this difference remaining elusive.

On several occasions I tried repeatedly to wrest a selling point from a struggling pitchman. With a roleplaying game there are lots of ways to phrase the question: “What do the characters actually do in the game world?” “I’m a GM; how do I convince my players to try this?” “How does this differ from D&D?” Or the blatant: “Tell me about it in 25 words or less.”

In some cases it was clear that there was a hook, and the booth guy hadn’t been properly prepared to supply it. Far grimmer was the realization that many of the books, cards, and playing boards strewn out on the tables had been envisioned, playtested, invested in, manufactured and brought to market without a valid, unique reason for being. The products had no immediately gripping points of distinction from the established games already dominating their respective categories.

The time to compose the 25-word encapsulation of your hook is not when you show up at the convention where your big product is due (gods of printing and courier services willing) for release. It’s about three minutes after you first conceive the desire to create and market the thing.

A handful of folks passed our test with flying colors. Their products immediately wound up on our plug piles. If you ever want to see how it’s done, try and get Alderac kingpin John Zinser to demo his company’s latest game for you. He’s a man who knows why you want to buy his game.

The impulse to create a game is a pure and beautiful thing, but if you want to sell it to other people (and spend money to do it) mere desire is not enough. We of the geek tribe adore elaboration and surface detail. We love to tinker and fix things. We may dig a particular game except for one apparently broken element. Though valid, most of these impulses should lead to the creation of a web page, not an expensively published game.

If you’re a civilian — that is, a gamer who quite sensibly wants only to play games and never design or publish them — you may be wondering why you should care about this at all. Maybe you shouldn’t. You certainly don’t owe anything to the folks who staff their booths with well-meaning but ineffectual volunteers, or who blow wads of dough on ill-conceived publishing ventures.

The value of a game to you, however, is directly related to your ability to find other people to play it with. The best way to predict whether a new game will yield a ready crop of fellow players is to ask the tough question: what’s the hook? What is it about this game that makes it different? Is the hook appealing enough to repay my investment of time and money?

Forget the health of the industry, or the financial well-being of new manufacturers. If we all get just a wee tougher about this, the games will get better.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007. You can find part one here.

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Last month we plundered the gilded halls of improv theory, appropriating for our own roleplaying purposes the “Yes, but” technique. GMs using this technique avoid answering player requests with a categorical no. Instead they look for ways to say yes, but with complications that preserve the coherence of the setting, add additional challenge, or both.

This time we’re going to take the concept to its funky extreme by using it as the basis for an impromptu scenario. Try it next time you’re forced for whatever reason to slot in a fill-in event for your ongoing game, or as a convention brain-teaser.

“Yes, but: The Scenario” works best with a freeform resolution system that allows character creation on the fly, preferably with simple or self-defined abilities. I’ve also run it using just a deck of cards as a resolution system, with a high draw meaning a good result, a low card indicating failure, and an ace indicating that the player gets to dictate the ideal result of his action attempt. However, if you’re the kind of GM who can spreadsheet an exquisitely balanced Champions character in your head, you might prefer to rely on a crunchier rules set.

This scenario is more fun and unpredictable if the rules system you choose triggers comparatively few assumptions about world and expected game play. If you haul out the D&D rules books, your players will likely plug themselves into a well-worn pattern and set about performing that game’s default activity, relying less on their own improvisatory creativity than on an off-the-rack set of roleplaying assumptions.

You can start a “Yes, but” game mere moments after your players get settled in. Game play is character creation.

Inform your players that this game depends on their ability to interrogate you. All communications with you must be phrased in the form of a yes or no question. When given a yes or no question, you may elect to supply more information than the query calls for. If given a question which cannot be answered with a yes or no, or a statement which isn’t in the form of a question at all, you will ask the player to rephrase.

Play goes around the table in a round-robin fashion. Players ask questions in turn sequence, one question per turn.

When you’re satisfied that the group understands the method of play (well, sort of understands — expect a certain degree of hesitant bafflement at this point), start play by pointing to the first player.

Expect even more bafflement. Prompt the player to ask a question. If the player can’t think of one, try the next one in the turn order. If everyone seems utterly stumped, start off with:

“You all wake up at about the same time. You’re in a room together.”

Then, once again, prompt for questions.

Soon, if not instantly, the players will see the open-ended game you’re playing. They’ll ask you questions like:

1. “Is it dark?”
2. “Does the room have a door?”
3. “Am I injured?”
4. “Is there anyone else in the room other than us?”
5. “Am I male or female?”

What you’re doing is allowing the players to define their characters, the nature of the scenario, and even the genre, by the questions they ask. The answer to all of their questions is either a simple “yes” or a “yes, but…” followed by a line or two of explanation that mitigates, modifies, or limits the facts their question has put into play. “Yes but” is almost always the most fruitful answer.

So your replies to the above questions might be:

1. “Yes, but there’s light coming from under the door, enough so you can faintly make out a light switch off to one side of it.”
2. “Yes, but it’s behind a barricade of broken furniture. Someone went to a huge effort to keep something outside from coming in.”
3. “Yes, but not seriously. Just a few scratches.”
4. “Yes, there’s a man in a trench coat. But he seems to be dead.”
5. “Rephrase the question.”

As you continue, the Q&A format will define characters, flesh out a setting, and define a goal for the PCs to achieve.

As players ask questions about their characters, you assign abilities and game statistics to them. Whenever an answer defines a character’s abilities, make a note of them, giving them game statistics as necessary. The first-mentioned abilities get the best game stats. Though courtesy or lack of devious imagination may prevent them from trying it, there’s nothing to stop players from asking questions that define other players’ characters.

Clever players will catch onto what you’re doing and tailor questions to their benefit. The “yes, but” format makes this, challenging, though:

“Do I have a shotgun?”
Yes, but no ammo.

“Am I super strong?”
Yes, but only for a few moments a day.

“Do I have the key to that door?”
Yes, but you know there’s a bomb on the other side of the door, wired to go off when a key is inserted into the lock.

Certain questions tend to foster weird or freakish results if you apply “Yes, but” to them. Unless you want a cast of hermaphrodites and mutant halfbreeds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), questions like “Am I male?” or “Am I human?” should be answered with a simple “Yes.” You control the freakiness level of the scenario both with your modifying descriptions, and by which questions you choose to answer with a plain “Yes.”

The default outcome is a scenario about people who wake up trapped in an environment without their memories. The amnesia option can be fun, as it mirrors the player’s attempts to piece together their characters by asking you questions. You can forestall it, though, by simply answering “yes” to the question “Do we remember how we got here?”

Likewise, the PCs generally wind up trapped by asking “Is there a way out?” Starting out trapped is a good way to foster cooperation between the developing PCs, but again you can vary the standard pattern just by saying, “Yes.”

If the players think they’re playing in a given setting, their questions will be tailored to it. They may invoke existing media properties anyway: “Am I a Brujah?” “Can I perform the Vulcan nerve pinch?” The “yes, but” protocol limits your ability to fight this, but so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to sue you for infringing their intellectual property. Expect the resulting adventure to surrealistically blend various genres.

At some point during the game, the Q&A will prove difficult to sustain as your improvised narrative gathers steam. Depending on how quickly your players catch on and how adroitly they manipulate the format, this may happen as early as an hour into the session, or very near to its natural conclusion. Usually it’ll happen at about the halfway point.

When this occurs, tell the players that you’re switching to a regular RPG protocol. Then play out the game as you would any improvised scenario, placing challenges in front of the players as they head toward an exciting climax that resolves the central problem they’ve established for themselves during the Q&A phase. This sounds like a tall order, but, assuming you can improv a scenario at all, you’ll find that the momentum you’ve established in the Q&A carries you along naturally.

Will next month’s column expand this concept into a screenplay suitable for a major motion picture? Yes, but those not equipped with alien senses will instead perceive a column on another subject, germane to roleplaying.

In Part One, I discussed the basics of running a pre-written GUMSHOE adventure. Based on a recent poll about half of you write your own adventures, or adapt ours, with a few brave souls improvising completely. This article covers the improvisation that’s required when characters go in unexpected directions or ask unexpected questions, whether in a pre-planned adventure or not.

Investigative Recap

I’ll start by reiterating a few core concepts for Investigative abilities:

  • If you have any rating in an Investigative ability at all, you are good at doing that stuff. If you run out of points, you are still good at it. If you walk into a scene, you are doing it through the lens of being a great architect, painter, researcher, or evidence collector. As the GM, you should deliver information to people with that ability anything which is obvious to a person with that ability, and if they ask questions using their ability, endeavour to provide as much information as possible through the lens of that ability.
  • Point spends should be confined to special benefits—information should be free. Benefits might speed up clue acquisition, but shouldn’t stop you from getting the information. For example, if you found a book, zero points and a few hours might extract what you need, or you could spend a point to have a flash of insight.
  • GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether the information is provided by the GM, or requested by the players. You can balance these approaches in reaction to your players’ style or even their energy on the night. But in general, it’s better for the players to interact with the scene in their imagination and suggest abilities they will use. Not only does it make the players more involved, it’s more likely to lead to fun improvised clues.
  • If a player with a suitable ability isn’t in a scene, there are three approaches for dealing with it. Either assume that everyone is kind-of, sort-of along for every scene, have the character remember a fact or technique taught to them by their absent teammates, or tweak the clue so it matches the abilities of the characters who are present.
  • Your attitude to giving out information will strongly affect the way your players act in-game. If they know they are going to extract all reasonable information in a scene, then they will stop the nasty habit of entirely tearing places apart and being too concerned they have missed something. So, my advice is, give out information, and if necessary, let them know there is nothing else to be found.
  • Finally and most importantly, Investigative abilities are not a straightjacket. Always err on the side of giving out information to players who propose plausible methods of obtaining information, and offer new ways of advancing to the next scene if they don’t get anywhere. Improvise around any blockages.

What Are Clues?

The investigative side of GUMSHOE is a way of delivering information that we call clues to the players. By a clue, I mean:

  • Information which takes you to another scene (a matchbook with a fingerprint on it)
  • Something which helps you prepare for a future encounter (you find the blackmail letter)
  • An item or information which provides a direct benefit like refreshing a pool or adding a new ability (a Mythos tome)
  • Background information which adds colour (the painting was created by famous cat artist Louis Wain)
  • Something which highlights themes of the game (a mummified foetus in a horror game)

Investigative abilities determine how the players will interact with the shared imaginary space of the game.  Sometimes these interactions provide pre-planned clues. When the adventure presents clues, it also suggests methods by which the clues can be delivered—one or more Investigative abilities. Any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario. So far, so good.

Improvised Clues

But what if the players examine something you didn’t consider or suggest great ideas in passing you want to incorporate? They really tend to glom on to things in the scene you hadn’t even considered—and that’s a great thing. For example, “Is there any correspondence around?”, “Is there a sale note for that painting?”, or “I look for scuff marks on the floor.” These are improvised clues.

The first thing to consider is what ability could plausibly interact with the clue? Encourage your players to be the ones to suggest what ability they use. Otherwise, check the ability matrix to see which abilities they have and might match (or just ask if they have an ability).

The next thing to consider is what type of improvised clue you want to deliver:

  • It can duplicate a pre-planned lead which takes you to another scene. This is easy, and very good practice as it encourages inventiveness and makes players feel clever. (Instead of the matchbook, it could be a cypher in a diary, an auction record, or some very distinctive mud marks on the floor.)
  • It can take you to another scene you hadn’t planned—an improvised lead (“We must visit cat painter Louis Wain to find out the provenance of this image.”). If you do this, you’ll need to consider how to move from the new scene back into the planned adventure, or whether it will lead to more improvised scenes. You don’t have to worry too much about when to do this—usually in a gap between scenes, and it’s easy to put another interesting breadcrumb in the way. First, for example, they might need to dig out Wain’s home address—throw it at the players how they might do this, and plan the encounter while they discuss it. If you have a scene diagram—add an arrow leading to this new scene.
  • It can provide a direct benefit. This one is easy and rewarding. In this case, it’s best to offer the benefit in conjunction with a point spend—see below. (For example, finding a case with antique guns and re-enabling the firing pin, or improvising gunpowder in a pharmacy.)
  • Background information which provides colour. If the players do you the courtesy of being fascinated by something in a scene, then add colour. (“Yes, the painting is very new, and you spot some ginger cat hairs on the antimacassars.”) These clues can easily turn into an improvised lead if players are really taken with them. If you aren’t feeling particularly inventive, or want to get things on track, make it clear that there isn’t anything special about it.
  • Something which highlights the theme of the game. If they insist on poking around in crevices in a horror game, reward them with something unpleasant. (There is a desiccated cat corpse under the bed, strangled by its own collar.)

Special Benefits

Finally, a note on special benefits. These are what players get if they spend their Investigative points. The mechanical role of Investigative pool points is to manage spotlight time, indicate to the GM how important something is to the player, and as a method for the players and GMs to signal “oncoming coolness” to each other. A player who says, “Can I spend a Bureaucracy point here?” is requesting something cool for his agent to do or discover during the scene. When the GM offers a spend she’s signaling that there’s something awesome available during this scene that she thinks the player (or players) would enjoy. This repartee will eventually become nearly seamless and automatic.

To reiterate core GUMSHOE rules, benefit spends include:

  • Giving you an advantage in a future contest of General abilities
  • Making supporting characters have a favourable impression of you
  • Giving you a flashback scene
  • Speeding up an investigation

In a more improvised game, special benefits can also be a way of players feeding the GM interesting suggestions without them explicitly having a GM role. These are usually in the form of a question: for example, “These old buildings often have priest holes, is there one around?” or “Is there another sketch concealed beneath the cat painting?” If this suits your group and play style—encourage this behaviour in your players. It will lead to more player involvement, and even take a little work for you.

Make sure that every point spend feels worthwhile, and if it’s at all possible, let them know what they are getting, and how many points it will cost before they spend.

by Simon Rogers

In most cases, GUMSHOE puts the dice in the hands of the players. Instead of the GM making a Stealth test for a creature to sneak up on a character, players make a Sense Trouble test to avoid being surprised. When the roles are reversed, it’s the players who make a Stealth test to get the drop on their opponent. We call this approach “player-facing.” The only time GMs make die rolls is in combat and in other, longer contests.  This article suggests how we can tear the dice from the GM’s warm and clammy hands during combat and put them in the warm clammy hands of the players.

How It Works

In standard GUMSHOE, when a GMC opponent makes an attack, the GM makes a test against the PC’s Hit Threshold, adds some points from the creature’s combat pool, then rolls damage if the test is successful.

In this new player-facing combat, the player makes a test to resist the attack and takes consequences if they fail. Conceptually, with this approach, it’s easier if the players think of their Health pool as Defense or Endurance rather than a measure of how much actual damage their character is taking. If this better for your group, simply rename Health as Defense.

Calculate the Difficulty of the Health Test

The base Difficulty for the player’s Health test is 3. This is increased by any points the GM spends from the creature’s Attack pool. We call this number the Attack Difficulty.

Instead of adding points from the Attack pool, another, quicker approach, is that the GM just adds a fixed amount to the Attack Difficulty equal to the creature’s Attack pool divide by three and rounded down.

Attack Pool Modifier
0-2 +0
3-5 +1
6-8 +2
9-11 +3

In most GUMSHOE settings, the GM will state the Attack Difficulty, unless the PC has no combat training, or the PCs are entirely unfamiliar with the creature.

Make the Health Test

The player makes the Health test against the creature’s Attack Difficulty. The player adds their Hit Threshold minus three to the roll plus any Health points they want to spend. Usually Hit Threshold is 3, meaning you add nothing, or 4, so you add +1.

Take the Consequences of Failure

If the player fails the test, they take damage equal to the creature’s Damage Modifier, with a minimum of one, and will take a Condition. The Conditions are Staggered, Hurt, Seriously Wounded, and Dead. Staggered is new to GUMSHOE, the others, you know already.

The first time a PC is hit in a combat (whether they take damage or not), they are Staggered. Being Staggered increases the Difficulty of Health tests by 1, and means the next time you are hit you are Hurt, regardless of your Health pool, the time after that Seriously Wounded, and then, you guessed it, Dead. After combat, any Staggered PCs can lose this status simply by resting for a few minutes. If you are Hurt by an attack, your Heath falls to zero. If you are Seriously Wounded by an attack your Health falls to -6.

If the PC is not yet Hurt and hits zero Health through spends on Health tests and damage, then the standard wound rules apply, but if a PC is already Hurt, they become Seriously Wounded (and their Health falls to -5),  and if Seriously Wounded, Dead.

Regardless of how they end up Hurt or Seriously Wounded, the PC must make the usual Consciousness test to stay on their feet.

Armour

You can use armour to avoid taking a Condition, but only once per battle, for each +1 the armour provides. So, for example, light armour (+1) will give you one chance to avoid being Staggered, Hurt, or even Dead on a failed Health test. Heavy Armour (+2) gives you two chances.

An Example of Player-Facing Combat

Bertha Wiseman is facing off against a thug armed with a knife. She is wielding an épée. Her Health is 10, and her Hit Threshold is 4 (she has 8 in Athletics). Her Attack pool is 5.

The thug has 7 Health, a Hit Threshold of 3, and an Attack pool of 8. Using the quick approach, the thug’s Attack bonus is +2 (his Attack pool divided by 3, rounded down). A knife has a-1 Damage Modifier. The minimum damage is 1, so that -1 becomes 1.

  • Bertha goes first as she has the highest Attack rating, spends two points from her Attack pool to ensure her blade strikes and rolls 3 points of damage.
  • Now it’s the thug’s turn. The GM announces the Difficulty of Bertha’s Health test. It’s 3 plus the thug’s Attack bonus of 2, so 5.
  • Bertha makes a Difficulty 5 Health test against the thug’s attack, choosing to spend zero points of Health. She has a Hit Threshold of 4, so she adds one to her roll and luckily rolls a 4, so she takes no damage.
  • She makes her attack, again spending 2 points, and rolling 4 damage. The thug’s Health is now 3.
  • The thug attacks. Once again Bertha makes her test against her foe, spending 4 points of Health to ensure she isn’t hit. Her Health is now 6.
  • She attacks again, but she has no Attack points to spend, and rolls a 2—a miss.
  • Bertha makes her Health test against the attacking thug, spending no points, and fails to make the test. She takes 1 point of damage and her Health is 5. She is now Staggered. If she gets hit again, she will be Hurt.
  • Bertha lashes out at the thug with her poker. She needs to roll a 4 or higher rather than a 3, because she is Staggered. She rolls a 4, and does 2 points of damage to the thug. He is at 1 Health.
  • Bertha spends 4 points of Health to avoid being hit, leaving her with just 2 points left, but ensuring that she doesn’t get Hurt.

Now it’s Bertha’s turn…

We will leave the Staggered Bertha facing the thug, and wish her the best.

An alternative approach which was an inspiration for this article can be found in Diceless GMing in GUMSHOE by MP Duxbury.

For a more abstracted, quicker, and entirely placing-facing alternative to this suggestion, take a look at The Yellow King RPG.

 

 

 

[Author Roland Rogers is a 13-year-old 13th Age player whose One Unique Thing is that he Knows All the Monsters. ]

Do you want to annoy your GM?

Do you want to never be hit by any attack?

Do you want to always get the most out of your most useful spells?

Do you want your teammates to always get the most out of their attacks?

Do you want to never miss?

Look no further.

Use these abilities that cause or force rerolls or allow another attack. The page references are in brackets.

Core Book

Lethal – Half-orc racial power (65)

Once per battle, reroll a melee attack and choose the preferred roll

 

Evasive – Halfling racial power (70)

Once per battle, force an enemy that hits you with an attack to reroll the attack with a -2 penalty

 

Justice or Vengeance – Cleric domain (95)

When an enemy scores a critical hit on you or one of your allies, you gain an attack reroll blessing to give to a nearby ally. They can use it to reroll an attack this battle.

 

Trickery or Illusion – Cleric domain (97)

Once per battle as a quick action roll a d20. This is your trick die. You can change an ally or enemy’s natural attack roll to the result of the trick die

 

Hammer of faith – Cleric spell (98)

Once during the battle when this spell is active, reroll a basic melee attack and keep the result

 

Prayer for readiness – Cleric spell (101)

5 nearby allies gain a blessing. Later during the battle, any targeted ally can use the blessing to reroll a missed attack

 

Comeback strike – Fighter talent (105)

Once per battle when you miss a fighter attack, make another attack with a -2 penalty

 

Hack & Slash – Fighter Maneuver (108)

When you get a natural even roll, and the escalation die is 2+, make a second melee weapon attack against a second target.

 

Spinning charge – Fighter Maneuver (109)

When you move before you attack and roll a natural even hit, then after dealing damage you can pop free from the target, move to a different enemy and make a basic melee attack against that enemy

 

Swift dodge – Rogue power (130)

Requires momentum – if you are hit by an attack against AC you can make the attacker reroll the attack

 

Assassin’s gambit – Rogue power (131)

Make a melee attack dealing half damage, and if you kill the enemy then you can make another attack

 

13 True Ways

Try again – Commander command (36)

Let an ally reroll an attack, but they must keep the reroll

Timely mistake – Occultist spell (108)

When an enemy hits you or one of your allies with a natural roll, you can make them reroll the attack and take the lower result

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming TimeWatch GM Screen and Resource Book by Kevin Kulp]

When you’re trying to figure out where your antagonists have come from, things can get confusing fast. Foes can be from the core or a parallel timeline, humans from Earth or aliens from another planet (or even entities who fit neither of those two descriptions), and either time travelers or contemporaries who are in their native time. It’s good to keep in mind who the antagonists are.

Core timeline origin

Creatures from the core timeline are ones from Earth’s unaltered history. That includes all the people and animals who have lived in the real world. Depending on your game, this may include “real world” alien incursions such as Area 51 or the existence of reptoids. Dinosaurs exist in the core timeline, but hyper-intelligent dinosaurs do not—unless you, as GM, decide to make that a secret part of your game history.

Creatures from the core timeline seldom have specific temporal powers linked to their origin, and usually lack the Tempus ability unless they’ve acquired time travel. Someone from our core timeline isn’t susceptible to chronal instability while they’re in their own native time, and they are unlikely to have any abilities that a regular person from that time wouldn’t have. For instance, psychic abilities are possible if the GM has decided that people develop psychic abilities in the future, but not otherwise.

In early 18th century London, Skegg throws a chronal destabilization grenade at Isaac Newton, who turns out to have secretly been an evil genius that TimeWatch needs to stop. Newton is in his own natural era and is unaffected by the blast, which only affects time travelers (people with Tempus or Chronal Stability).

Parallel Timeline Origin

In comparison, parallel timeline or parallel universe creatures are a hugely varied lot. They range from the stereotypically evil exact duplicate with a goatee, to individuals raised in an utterly different society (such as one where Carthage won the Punic Wars instead of Rome), to non-humans coming from a world that is mostly water, mostly ice, or an insect-controlled radioactive wasteland. As a reminder, creatures from parallel timelines tend to be more sensitive to chronal instability than usual, suffering from a 1 point penalty to the Difficulty and Loss of most Paradox tests until they adjust to our reality. That adjustment occurs solely at the GM’s discretion.

Skegg is from a parallel timeline that TimeWatch destroyed when they made sure an extinction-level meteor hit the Earth. Every time the rest of her team makes a D4/L4 Paradox test, Skegg has to make one that’s D5/L5. If her team somehow finds its way to Skegg’s fading home parallel, she’ll lose that penalty even as the rest of her team gains it. Around the point that both Skegg’s player and the GM keep forgetting about the penalty, the GM decides that Skegg has been in our reality long enough to have fully adapted. The penalty no longer applies to her.

Parallel timelines open up any tragic, ludicrous, imaginative, horrific or deadly possibility you can think of. You just need to be able to rationalize how it is possible. A world where neanderthals triumph over cro-magnon man? A world where the dinosaurs are not killed by a meteorite? A world where Tesla’s designs triumphed over Edison’s? All possible. Not only can supporting characters and antagonists come from these parallel timelines, with the GM’s permission player characters can come from them as well.

Such timelines are not always possible, and they’re not always self-sustaining. A parallel timeline created artificially when true history is altered exists for as long as that history stays changed. Timelines that are sufficiently well established (or that the GM finds interesting) may survive or slowly fade despite their separation from the main time stream.

Creatures from parallel timelines usually have a wide array of chronal powers that are powered by their Tempus general ability.

Human Origin

The type of foes will vary by campaign frame. A Conspiracy-style game, for instance, will feature more human antagonists (many likely employed by TimeWatch itself) alongside shape-shifting alien species who masquerade as human. Many TimeWatch games may never feature any non-human antagonists at all; let’s face it, if you look at human history, we make pretty good villains all on our own.

Just because you prefer to use human antagonists, however, there’s no reason you can’t use a variety of Tempus-powered chronal abilities. Pick and choose appropriate ones from the list later in this chapter.

Alien Origin

If it evolved on a planet other than Earth and it isn’t human, it’s most likely an alien. There are any number of different types of creatures this category could cover; innumerable TV shows, movies, role-playing games and science fiction novels are brimming with ideas to steal. For easy adaptation, borrow aliens such as the Kch-Thk and Vas Mal from the GUMSHOE game Ashen Stars. Humans from the future who were born on a planet other than Earth don’t usually qualify as aliens, unless there’s been significant changes in their physiology or psychology.

While space-faring aliens likely won’t possess chronal powers unless they’re also time travelers, there are plenty of Tempus-powered abilities or technology that your alien antagonists can wield. If you like, select chronal powers and simply explain them off as stolen technology.

Reptoids are shape-shifting reptilian aliens who have infiltrated human society, but they aren’t time travelers. Perhaps they’re waging a secret war against other aliens or time travelers here on Earth, a war that most humans never even notice. They possess the Tempus ability, which powers their unique capabilities.

Entities

We use “entity” to designate an intelligent creature that originated on Earth but is non-human. Hyper-evolved porpoises, radioactive giant cockroaches such as the Ezeru, and genetically altered intelligent dinosaurs all fall under this category. So do mysterious post-human beings from the end of time who have evolved into something far greater than our minds can comprehend. An entity could be an unnaturally intelligent dog, a sentient meme surrounded by a cloud of nanobots, an ephemeral time-ghost that possesses its prey, or a self-aware hologram projected from a distant corner of alt-history.ezeru

Entities have access to a wide array of Tempus-powered abilities.

Contemporary Origin

An antagonist with a contemporary origin is either a villain who has never time traveled, or one who has access to time travel but is not displaced in time at the moment. For instance, a TimeWatch agent who has returned to his native era to visit his family technically has a contemporary origin despite also possessing an autochron. This is an important distinction, because anyone with a contemporary origin cannot suffer from chronal instability.

Native era, in this case, is defined as “during an individual’s natural life span, so long as he is not overlapping himself.”

The GM decides that Mace Hunter was destined to die of disease five years after being recruited by TimeWatch in 1843. If he returns to the years 1843 – 1848 on a mission, he’s safe from additional chronal instability until he leaves, until he overlaps himself with another future or past Mace who is also visiting, or until he overstays his natural lifespan.

When someone with a Contemporary origin creates a time-related paradox, they don’t (and can’t) lose Chronal Stability. That paradox has to go somewhere, however, and local time and space are likely to do something unexpected; the GM is encouraged to be particularly clever and diabolical with the result.

Contemporary antagonists may still have access to a wide array of Tempus-powered abilities, and are arguably more dangerous than ever, because they don’t generally lose Tempus to chronal instability.

Time Travelers

If you’re existing in a time that you shouldn’t normally be alive in, or you’re overlapping yourself by existing in two or more places at once, you’re a time traveler. Congratulations! Hostile time travelers may target earth in the far future and far past and use their time travel to bedevil or influence events at different points in time.

Depending on GM fiat and the technology they’re using, time travelers vary in their access to the time stream. Some only have access to a very small sliver of history, while some have unfettered paths to all of time and the parallel universes that flow nearby.

It’s worth noting that not all time travelers have access to TimeWatch-agent levels of technology and science. They may use anachronistic weapons, suffer from no translator, and catch (or spread!) unexpected diseases; or they may bring weapons and technology to bear that even TimeWatch hasn’t encountered before.

As you would expect, time traveling antagonists likely have access to a wide array of technology and Tempus-powered abilities.