A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

GUMSHOE core games present the GM with a default scenario structure you can use when creating your own mysteries to challenge your players. By following it you can ensure that the investigators have at least one, and preferably many, routes to solve the adventure’s key question, whether that be a killer’s identity, a vampire’s conspiracy, or a demonic entities’ location. It supplies a number of scenes in which the PCs can interview witnesses, examine physical clues, and hit the books in search of pertinent facts. Each key scene includes at least one core clue: a piece of information leading the team to another scene. As part of the standard header for the scene, we indicate its Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs–the scenes that feed into it, and that it propels investigators toward, respectively. This especially helps when writing published adventures, forcing the writer to make sure that each scene goes somewhere. Ideally the Lead-Outs line encourages the scenario creator to build in core clues that point in more than one direction. This gives the players the opportunity to make choices, deciding which leads to follow and in what order. These decisions ward off the dreaded linear or railroaded scenario. You can build in Alternate scenes that the characters can choose to explore, but don’t need in order to solve the mystery.  Both a Core and an Alternate scene can share the same Lead-Out. Designate the most obvious or likely scene as the Core scene and the one that feels like the sidelight as the Alternate. For a home brew scenario the distinction between the two doesn’t matter: bother with it only if you’re writing, say, a con game for someone else to run.

(Unlike a Core scene, an Alternate needn’t have a Lead-Out. Keep these to a minimum, and make sure they’re entertaining as heck in their own right. A session full of scenes that don’t pay off makes for a not only meandering but also confusing installment of your mystery.)

This isn’t the only way to put together a scenario but it’s one you can depend on to reliably deliver. Recently we have given this default structure a name, the Maze of Clues, to distinguish it from others.

Ken, in such scenarios as “The Carmilla Sanction” from The Edom Files, uses an alternate set-up called the Ocean of Clues. It establishes a mystery and a rich assortment of hooks you use to create your own scenes during play.

Both The Armitage Files and Dracula Dossier could be regarded as Ocean of Clues scenarios writ large over the course of an entire campaign.

When you prepare your own scenarios in advance, whether you write them in full or (more likely) as point form notes you will flesh out into scenes as you go, the Maze of Clues will help you elaborate your premise into a narrative that the players will fully realize when you play.

When you straight-up improvise without that kind of prep, don’t worry about the Maze of Clues and its different scene types. You’re not trying to reverse engineer your way into a scenario you can then assign Scene Types and Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs to. Nor will you have any reason to create the Scene Flow diagram that accompanies our published Maze of Clues scenarios. Focus on showing the players a good time. Almost any GM will find it more useful to focus their notes on details of the mystery’s backstory.

When I improv a scenario, I jot down names of people and establishments in a Google doc shared with the players. An example from a recent Yellow King session, from our “Aftermath” sequence:

  • Mercantilists previously under Castaignes want to go slow

  • Commercials want money
  • Jessie Daniels – chief of staff to Hank and perhaps his successor as war crime trial advocates
    • Melvin Mason – Guardian leader and a possible patron 

 

    • Theresa Tucker – patrol officer in psych ward at Bellevue 

 

    • Eula Mckenzie – nurse on duty at Bellevue 

 

    • Wilbur Salazar – original complainant 

 

    • Yolanda Howell – her kids were hacking around 

 

    • Ed & Andy Howell – her kids 

 

    • Lt Rita Woods – Theresa’s shift commander, hostile to the PCs 

 

    • Aaron Moran – got turned into a clown head 

 

 

Glorious Sun – dive bar near the cemetery, doesn’t take kindly to slinks and has a clown jar if you want to turn the red velvet sad clown painting around

 

Charles Cunningham – super of building where the mermaid is in the basement, wears sea captain outfit

I worry about distinct scenes and their placement in the Maze of Clues only if, and when, I later take that seat-of-the-pants session and write it for publication. (Sometimes I have to ask my players if they remember how they got from point A to point B!)

Some GUMSHOE games, including Ashen Stars and Yellow King, use a timing increment called an interval, which begins when one clue is discovered and ends when the next is found. For these games you do have to be able to decide what pieces of information count as core clues. But this is simple: a core clue is any bit of information, almost certainly derived from an investigative ability, that points to another scene. A shift in scene generally entails a change of location. In some instances that might be a virtual shift: for example, from the corpse you’re poking at in the morgue to the digital archive your forensics expert starts searching for obscure and suppressed biomedical research papers. Any info introducing another GMC, place or avenue of inquiry that leads the group closer to the mystery’s solution is a core clue. Should you ever ask yourself the question, “Is this a core clue?”, the answer is almost surely yes. Err on the side of declaring a new interval. Another test: if it’s not important enough to put in your notes, it’s not a core clue.

If the heroes get stuck and can’t see a way forward, you’ll solve that problem as you go, by inventing a new Core clue to pull them deeper into the mystery. Where the Maze of Clues exists to solve problems before they occur, you’re there to keep matters rolling in real time.

In short, scenario structures are here to serve you, not to have you serve them. Your improvised scenario can, in retrospect, be expressed as a Maze of Clues with Core and Alternate scenes and Antagonist Reactions and the rest. But there’s no reason for you to do that, or give yourself the nagging feeling that you ought to be able to.

Instead, use that time to figure out just how Aaron Moran got turned into a clown head–and what the team can do to stop it from happening to others.

EF cover_350The upcoming Edom Files, yet another part of the I-can-justifiably-use-the-word-epic-at-this-point epic Dracula Dossier series, is an anthology of eight missions, ranging from 1877’s Stoker: First Blood to the present-day Harker Intrusion . These missions can be used as one-shots with or without reference to the larger Dossier series, or as Flashbacks within a regular Dossier campaign, or – for the truly heroic – as part of a century-spanning Unto the Fourth Generation or Fields of Edom game.

One of the nice things about having an anthology of historical scenarios in a game about immortal monsters is that you can play with horrors in the past and reasonably expect them to survive into the present, making those historical missions more than just backstory.  If Edom fails to kill Carmilla in 1948, during The Carmilla Sanction, then she’s still around in 2016 to menace your Agents. That hellish mountain lair in First Blood is still there in the present day. For each scenario, we’ve included an encounter – a person, place, object, node or ravening monster – that might survive into a contemporary campaign.

In fact, due to a slight miscommunication, we nearly included two for the Carmilla Sanction. Ken’s NPC works better in the book for sinister plot purposes, so here, rescued from the cutting room floor, is another encounter tied to that mission.

Object: The Vordenburg Diary

Appearance: A handwritten manuscript from the late 17th century, written in a mix of Latin and German, that describes the occult research of a Baron Vordenburg, who was troubled by vampires when living in Moravia (present-day eastern Czech republic).

Supposed History: Baron Vordenburg – the younger baron, the one who shows up in Carmilla – described how his ancestor was a lover of Countess Karnstein, and when she became a vampire, he studied the curse and resolved to leave notes on how to find her tomb and destroy her when she rose again. The Baron’s notes may have been part of the bundle of papers in the possession of Le Fanu when he wrote his novel; Carmilla may have removed them to her new fortress, where they fell into the hands of Edom or the occupying Russian forces.

Major Item: The book contains detailed observations on vampire physiology by Vordenburg – observations that can only be the result of extensive experimentation on captured subjects. It discusses methods of dispatch, feeding cycles, the relationship between the vampire and its tomb, and lists several vampiric creatures destroyed by the Baron. For good measure, the Baron has also transcribed key sections of other texts (like Le Dragon Noir, DH p. 273, and reading it gives a 6-point pool that can be spent on Vampirology, Diagnosis or Occult Studies – or on general ability tests when fighting a vampire. Close reading with History also turns up links to other vampire hunters (possibly the Vatican, the Hospital of St. Joseph & Ste. Mary, DH p. 230, or the Fortified Monastery of St. Peter, DH p. 144).

One small downside – the book was written after Carmilla implanted post-hypnotic suggestions in the Baron’s mind and blood, and reading the original diary (but not a copy or scan) exposes the reader to the vampire’s influence. Call for a Difficulty 6 Stability test on reading the book; failing doesn’t cost the reader any Stability, but opens up a psychic connection. Cue dreams, nocturnal visitations, and an obsession with anagrams. If Carmilla’s still active, then she starts targeting the reader as her next victim. If she was destroyed, then she possesses the reader (if female and of a suitable age) or someone close at hand (a Solace, maybe), slowly conditioning her victim to seek out another vampire and return Carmilla to un-death in a new body. Diagnosis spots the signs of possession.

Minor Item: As above, but the Baron’s notes aren’t half so comprehensive, and there’s a lot more extraneous material about lesbianism. A cruel Director might make the notes on vampirism actively misleading or dangerous – maybe Carmilla deliberately had Vordenburg write the diary as misinformation, and it points towards some location or relic that Carmilla desires. A Vampirology spend spots the errors; if the players don’t make a spend, then give them a clue pointing to a trap laid by Carmilla.

Fraudulent: It’s a fake, written by Carmilla herself in the 1930s. The book contains no useful information, but it’s still got the hypnotic curse. She wrote it as a trap for Edom; optionally, it might be the key to the 1977 mole hunt, and the mole is some woman possessed by the spirit of Carmilla. Check out the library file on the book with Research to find out who read it last, and hence determine who’s secretly Carmilla – maybe the Balkans Specialist (DH p. 91) or the Sculptor (DH p. 100) or Lucy Blythe (DH p. 41). Perhaps there are several psychic doubles of Carmilla running around.

Connections: Doubtless Van Helsing (DH p. 31) and the Hungarian’s grandfather (DH p. 94) were contacts of one Vordenberg or another. The Former Gehlen Org (DH p. 82) might know what became of any Vordenberg Legacies that are still alive.

 

Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.