The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. 

This month we step beyond the limitations of the pixel and into the glorious world of sound. James Semple introduces us to the new theme for Esoterrorists, Luke Crane shares air with Vincent Baker, and Paul MacClean advises us on how to record our gaming sessions. Juila Ellingboe discusses how her game Steal Away Jordan, and points us at recorded actual play. Mystic Moo will appear shortly with her Moocast. Please answer our poll. I know lots of people read our webzine, but I don’t get much feedback. Your response will help me improve content.

Contents

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

[Ed.This was originally an internal design document, but it should come in useful for anyone interested in GUMSEHOE background creation.]

The GUMSHOE system departs from standard RPG design practice in a couple of significant ways. Neither of the two extant rules manuscripts, Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, expends much precious space explaining the theory behind these choices. To design rules add-ons for GUMSHOE, though, you have to think in the way the system demands. This document shows you how think GUMSHOE.

Tediously Obligatory Disclaimer

Before we start, please note that just because GUMSHOE makes a certain game design choice doesn’t mean that we’re saying that all games should be this way, or that these design choices are objectively better than others in all cases. They’re right for GUMSHOE. It is meant to perform a specific job. Other games built to achieve other ends might arise from completely opposite principles to be ineffably awesome. A crunchy, rules-driven, determinative, simulationist, integrated game could rock. It is not this game, though.

Design Watchwords

The design watchwords for GUMSHOE are:

  • Emulation of narrative structure (not simulation of imaginary reality)
  • Technique (not rules)
  • Simplicity (not crunchiness)
  • Modularity (not necessarily integration)

Emulation: The ultimate goal of GUMSHOE is to foster play that feels like a mystery novel, TV procedural, or occult adventure comic. Precisely what’s being emulated differs from kit to kit. The first question when designing a rule is: “How would this happen in the source material?” Supplementary questions include: “What structural effect do scenes involving this have on the story? What effect are they meant to have on the audience?” The logic is literary and structural, not literal or reality-oriented. If you design a rules add-on and its result is to encourage behavior or activities that characters in this sort of investigative fiction never engage in, you’ve gone off track, substituting extrapolative logic for dramatic logic. Do not attempt to introduce more verisimilitude than the source material requires.

Also, respect the power of clichés. Sometimes they are required to allow the machinery of genre plotting to work. Many players engage in roleplaying to get up close and personal with their genre expectations. A new spin on a tired trope can be fun, but if your add-on allows only a revisionist take on the material you’re emulating, you’ve created something eccentrically limited. Sometimes it might be appropriate to be self-aware and ironic about the clichés that come with your territory—in a Scream-type scenario, for example. More often you’ll want to find ways to make clichés feel fresh and powerful again.

Because we’re emulating narrative structures, not simulating an imaginary reality, scenarios should not call on GMs to make random determinations for anything that matters. Don’t tell us that the guards will react violently if they roll X and peacefully if they roll Y. Tell us that the guards will react violently under condition X or peacefully under condition Y. Better yet, make these two conditions dependent on player choices or the use of their general abilities. Give us decision trees for GMC actions and reactions, depending on how the PCs change the situation. (General notes on GMC plans and motivations might be preferable in many cases.)

Theoretically there is an investigative sub-genre which, to emulate properly, requires you to ignore any of the other pieces of advice given in this document. If so, do it—but be clear that your deviations from the norm address only that sub-genre.

Simplicity: When designing a new rule, challenge yourself to find the simplest possible expression of it. The urge to complicate is powerful, but must be resisted. Avoid crunchiness creep. Other games put rules front and center during the play experience, and that can be cool, too. But here we want the rules to get out of the way of the GM and players. Episodes of rules use should happen quickly, and take up only a small percentage of any given game session. Just because a rule is cool, doesn’t mean that it is necessary. A rule is never an end in and of itself; if it doesn’t justify itself, it’s so much mental smog.

Technique: The best way to keep a rule simple is to have no rule at all. A technique is a structured way of playing, for GMs and/or players, into which numbers and die rolling do not enter. The flashback concept from Fear Itself is a prime example of a technique. It shapes play in a distinctive way and refers to a narrative technique players will know from fictional sources. It is purely a novel way to perform interactive scenes, without a mechanical reward or consequence.

Another example of technique would be the stereotypes from Fear Itself. Where another game would realize its desired archetypes by giving them rules properties—making them templates for character creation, directly determining your game statistics—this is a simple list that you can take or leave. It is a springboard for player creativity. Again, it gets the players thinking about the source material, but leaves them free to realize them in whatever way, and to whatever degree, they want.

Modularity: First edition AD&D is a modular rules system; sub-systems operate independently of one another. No particular effort is made to make PCs and monsters conform to the same scale and list of capabilities. When Gary and company needed a new rule, they thought, “how do I make this work?”

Third edition D&D is an integrated design; all of the rules systems interrelate. When the designers came to each rules subset, they asked themselves, “How do I make this work in a way that’s congruent with the rest of the system?”

Design integration is considered an important goal for state-of-the-art crunchy games. Integrated rules are aesthetically satisfying and ought to be easier to learn and remember.

GUMSHOE is a modular system, with a twist. Where you can maintain congruence with the existing rules and still emulate the source material, you should do so. However, emulation takes precedence over congruence. The key example here is the way that the game handles abilities completely differently, depending on their relationship to narrative structure. Investigative abilities work one way; general abilities use a completely system.

Aesthetic neatness never takes precedence over function. Note how in GH some of the Psychic abilities use the Investigative mechanics, and others use the General. Again, this depends on their story role: whether they are used to gather information, or to handle threats. In the first case, failure is not permitted. In the second, it is.

There are also actions that use different abilities (and rules sub-systems) depending on their narrative consequences. In GH, you might use Investigative Procedures to find a hidden item that provides information, or Sense Trouble to find one that endangers you. In Esoterrorists, you’d use Explosive Devices to find a bomb whose placement doesn’t threaten you, but does provide a clue. If its primary purpose in the narrative was to threaten you, you’d use Surveillance instead.

Reassurance (gaining information) and Shrink (healing psychic damage) provide another example. Similar according to real-world logic, very different when you look at narrative effect—and therefore treated with different mechanics.

Another split: PCs are treated differently than supporting characters. GMCs need general abilities but aren’t actively investigating mysteries and don’t need investigative abilities. In most genres, important antagonists don’t need Stability scores — though text defining their areas of knowledge and mental states could be very useful.

These distinctions can be counterintuitive, so don’t introduce them for their own sake. When necessary, though, swallow your aesthetic qualms and embrace them.

When designing new rules, the configuration of other rules is important but is not a starting point for your thought process. If you need to devise drowning rules, don’t start by looking at the falling rules and extrapolating from there. Ask yourself how drowning works in the material you’re emulating and go from there. You’ll want to eventually look at the falling rules to see how they match up, and if a previous designer followed the same assumptions you did. If they solved the same problem you tackled in a more elegant way, then go back and tinker. If your solution works better for your situation, stick with it.

As you design new kits, modularity may inspire you to swap out portions of the core rules for something that works better for the material you’re emulating. Trail Of Cthulhu might require a different way of tackling Stability. Many other theoretically possible investigative kits, from Scooby Doo to Agatha Christie, would dispense with it altogether.

GUMSHOE is meant to be a tool kit, from which GMs can mix and match add-on rules to create the settings they want. Encourage this mind-set by indicating what other sorts of investigative games your add-on might be good for. Be clear which add-ons are suitable only for your sub-genre, and which ones have broader applications.

Anti-Rules

When attempting to design systems that facilitate the GMs and emulate narrative structure, you may find it useful to consider creating an anti-rule.

Even gamers who think they know otherwise will over-rely on any rule you put in a game book. Any Call of Cthulhu player will tell you that a good GM doesn’t make you roll for the really important clues. Yet when we play a conventional investigative game of any type, we do have the players roll for clues all the time, because the rules provide for it. Like a gun on the table in the first act of a play, if you introduce a rule, it’s going to go off. GMs who know better will use it anyhow, out of reflex. GMs who don’t know better will cause countless hours of bad entertainment.

An anti-rule is a rule that exists purely to prevent the GM and players from doing this. It looks like a rule and walks like a rule, but really its main function is psychological. It gives gamers the comfortable feeling that there’s a rule guiding their behavior, giving them permission to engage in organically creative play. Like a rule, it provides structure, but unlike a rule, it doesn’t determine what happens in play.

The investigative rules of GUMSHOE are a prime example. The entire rules structure exists to prevent you from rolling against an ability to get a clue. It’s a rule to tell you you don’t need rules. The point-spending for evocative but nonessential clues adds a comfortable and satisfying gamey element to the experience. It allows you to use a rule now and again, but safely, so that the rules don’t get in the way and spoil everything.

Scenario Note: GMCs Making Rolls

Something I should have thought about sooner: whenever possible, it’s best to take situations in which a supporting character makes a roll and turn it around to one where the PCs make a roll against a difficulty. [Ed: We call this approach “player-facing.”]

It’s not so much an issue in combat and physical situations, where both PCs and GMCs typically have about enough points to last through one confrontation. But in situations like perception, PCs and GMCs are not really congruent. PCs have to space out their point spending through an entire adventure. GMCs are usually there for only a scene or two, and so can spend huge chunks of points on a roll. Having the GM making this tactical decision for them suddenly puts her in an adversarial situation that doesn’t really gibe with the spirit of the game.

In some cases you won’t be able to get around it, but whenever possible, turn these situations around. Instead of having the GMC roll Sense Trouble to see through an impersonation, set out a condition which, if the player makes the wrong choice, triggers her suspicions. Instead of having the GMC roll to search the PCs and find weapons, have the PCs make an Infiltrate roll to hide them so well the frisker doesn’t find them. This is not only fairer to the players but makes them more active participants in their own adventures.

Thought Process

In conclusion, when confronted with a rules problem, ask yourself the following questions, in the following order:

  • How does it work in the source material?
  • Is there a way to do it as a technique, and not a rule?
  • If I need a rule (or anti-rule), how simple can I make it?

Having already worked out the narrative consequences of the action I’m trying to model, have other designers already tackled similar problems in a way I’ll find instructive?

Do I label it as a universal add-on, or specific to this sub-genre?

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com 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 DyingEarth.com 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 DyingEarth.com 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.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com 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.

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in September 2008.

Robin D Laws discusses the nature of believability in RPGs, and we present not one, but three interviews from Luke Crane. This month also sees the launch of a flurry of new products, including a Keeper’s Screen, and James Semple’s first Pelgrane release – music for Trail of Cthulhu. The sleeve notes are here for your edification. Finally, Jason Durrall has provided a summary of character creation guidelines for Trail of Cthulhu. Perhaps this is gilding the lily, but who I am to begrudge our customers golden petals?

News from Pelgrane Press

In August we had our most succesful GenCon Indy ever, with lots of demos, record sales and two silver Ennie awards for Trail of Cthulhu. This month we have seven releases for GUMSHOE including a new Keeper’s Screen and music for Trail of Cthulhu. Mutant City Blues got its first public airing at GenCon, too, with a limited edition and demos.

Trail of Cthulhu

As I reported last month, we reprinted Trail. We’ve sold about a quarter of them already, which is pleasing. We’ve also got four new releases for Trail – the Screen, our first music release, the leatherbound and a new PDF. There was a shrinkwrap problem with the new Keeper’s Screen which affected only retail versions, but they should be out next week from your retailer.

New Trail of Cthulhu Releases

  • Regular readers of See Page XX will be familiar with the inspiring and atmospheric music of James A Semple, and this month we release Four Shadows, four music tracks for use with Trail of Cthulhu (and dare I say it) other period horror games. The musicianship is of the highest quality, and features Pulp and Purist themes. You can get it at rpgnow.com, and the Pelgrane Store.
  • We’ve released the Keeper’s Screen and Resource Book for mail order sale from the Pelgrane Store.  The Keeper’s Screen is a three panel portrait affair, with all the important charts on the back, and the Resource Book lists sample clues equipment, foibles and benefits for abilities and occupations; and a set of NPCs.
  • Stunning Eldritch Tales took a while to reprint, because of machinery problems at the printer, but it’s available now, and we’ve also released it in PDF format at IPR, rpgnow, and the Pelgrane Store. Existing Pelgrane mail order customers will be able to get the PDF from their order page.
  • We have a few copies of the Trail of Cthulhu leatherbound edition available from IPR on a first-come, first-served basis. They are signed by Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws. They aren’t the last available copies – we still have another twenty to be released later in the year.

More Trail News

  • The final installment of Shadows over Filmland, a collection of adventures for Trail is finished, and ready for layout. The last adventure is a collaboration between Robin and Ken, in which the PCs are investigating strange occurrences on the set of the first talking version of a Call of Cthulhu movie. Here is one Jerome’s illustrations:

The Island

  • Gareth Hanrahan is beavering away at new Trail adventures for Arkham Detective Tales, a Trail adventure supplement.

Mutant City Blues

We printed up 60 limited edition copies of Mutant City Blues for GenCon Indy, and we still have a few of these left, but only for customers in the States and Canada. I’ll be adding them to the Pelgrane store by the end of the momth. Anyone who buys one will be entitled to playtest MCB and get a playtest version of the Hard Helix, some new adventures for MCB.

Esoterrorists

The adventures Profane Miracles and Albion’s Ransom PDFs are out now from IPR, the Pelgrane Store, and rpgnow.com.

The Esoterror Factbook, a big setting book for Esoterrorists, is ready to be illustrated and laid out.

The following article originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in June 2008.

by Simon Rogers

In this issue Robin D Laws discusses the use of genre conceits in Mutant City Blues, we have more music from James Semple, and a second interview by Luke Crane. This issue sees the return of Mystic Moo – learn how to get your fondest wishes, with cosmic ordering. I was very pleased with the results of the last poll – our readership is higher than I expected – so I’ve included another one, with a peculiar question. Your feedback really helps.

News from Pelgrane Press

Since the last View, we’ve sold out. But in a good way. We sold out of the first print run of Trail, released Stunning Eldritch Tales for Trail, and sold out of that, too – new stock should now be available. We’ve done reprints of Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, too. Trail is available in PDF, in a number of forms, two quite innovative. All our products are available from the Pelgrane Store and IPR.

Trail of Cthulhu Print Version

Trail of Cthulhu sold through the first 2000 copies, and we’ve just completed the reprint, along with a limited number of leather bound copies. I took the perhaps hubristic decision of printing another 2000. The leather bound version, limited to 50 copies for sale, will be released through various channels between now and Dragonmeet 2008, some through competitions, some for online sale or auction, and a bunch at GenCon Indie 2008. Stunning Eldritch Tales , a collection of adventures for Trail was released and sold out though most outlets. You can read about a review on Yog-Sothoth. A reprint has hit the warehouses already.

Other Trail news:

  • An exclusive Trail of Cthulhu adventure is available in participating stores for Free RPG Day, 21st June called The Murder of Thomas Fell. There will be limited copies, so grab them while you can.
  • The Keeper’s Screen and Resource Book is now laid out and illustrated, and is ready to be printed. It was written by Simon Carryer, who wrote the excellent transport articles in earlier Page XXs. Adrian Bott edited it, adding a dash of spice to the mix.
  • Gareth Hanarahan has completed the first of his Arkham Detective Tales – it’s now playtested and awaiting a partner.
  • Shadows Over Filmland, another collaboration between the Hite/Laws dream team is in playtest.
  • Some Trail of Cthulhu customers have produced GUMSHOE conversions for Call of Cthulhu, and conversion notes of for making your own conversions. You can find them here.

Trail of Cthulhu PDFs

In additition to the full version PDF, we’ve released the Trail of Cthulhu Player’s Guide PDF includes all the player’s stuff from Trail of Cthulhu, including the complete Trail GUMSHOE system, character creation, equipment lists, tips and forms. It weighs in at 100 pages. We also released Trail of Cthulhu Game Group PDF Bundle. The bundle was an interesting experiment in the spectrum of honesty of PDF users. The idea is, the GM gets the Trail of Cthulhu PDF, the players get three copies of the Player’s Guide between them. I’m very pleased with the sales, with about 20% of our Trail sales on OBS being bundles.

The Esoterrorists

Robin D Laws has finished the first draft of the Esoterror Factbook, an engrossing setting book for The Esoterrorists written in the style of an OV operatives manual. It’s a great read, disturbing and filled with gaming opportunities. A bunch of additional optional combat crunch for the Special Supression Forces are in need of testing, and Robin is writing a short adventure to test them out.

Dying Earth

Tooth Talon and Pinion (Excellent Prismatic Spray 7/8) is out now. Subscribers copies have just been sent out, and we’ll add the PDF version next month.

Mutant City Blues

Mutant City Blues is in layout. You can read the in house playtest report part 1 here and part 2 here. And, here is some of Jéromes excellent art:

(Ed. – the following art is from the first edition. You can find the second edition of Mutant City Blues here.)

Flight

Mutant City Blues cover

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. 


You can find James’ soundtracks for Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, and Esoterrorists.

by James Semple

As a composer and roleplayer, I’ve been very interested in using music in my games. At the moment I game once a week and generally my group plays music end-to-end through the session. Music can help to underline the game, both helping create an atmosphere and potentially blocking out any distracting external noise.

So Why Use a Theme Tune

The music discussed above is ambient backing music. A theme tune on the other hand is designed to draw attention to itself. It is used to create a sonic identity for a tv show that becomes recognisable and prepares the audience. Why might we want to use this for a roleplaying game?

The Transitional Period

A player of mine once commented on what he called ‘The transitional period.’ When the group gets together we spend time catching up, telling jokes and just being mates together. Not everyone starts the evening in the roleplaying mood, ready to immerse themselves. Whenever I tried to start a game the group went through a transitional period. This period varied from night to night but it was basically the time that it took for the group to really get into the game. During this transitional period the group were often distracted and still catching up with their discussions.

The Theme Tune?

So, to use similar techniques to Robin, we can play the Theme Tune to underline that the game is starting. Perhaps the GM says a few words over this, recaps the basic idea of game or whatever but the point should come across that the game starts now and hopefully the theme should help to get the group into the roleplaying mood more directly.

So What Should I Use?

Well this is an important point and we’ve often found ourselves using the same music throughout campaigns. It should be something that plays through in a fairly brief period. For me, not longer than 1 minute seems appropriate. For my group I found that playing the same music every week really helps to reinforce the effect. Some games have obvious music (Star Wars, for instance) but other games took a while to find appropriate music. For Call of Cthulhu I’ve used jazz, classical, film soundtracks and even some pop tracks.

…But If You’re A Composer?

Ok, I did write some music myself and this month I am very proud to present a piece I’ve written specifically as a theme for The Esoterrorists game. Although I am currently working on Trail of Cthulhu music at the moment, I am planning to complete an album of Esoterrorists music this year. For this specific theme I wanted to allude to the general mystery and add some anticipation with some heart-racing action music.

Update: The Esoterrorists Theme Tune

The Esoterrorists Theme Tune is now available with three other tracks from the Pelgrane Press store. You can listen to a 15 second sample here.

Sample

Esoterrorists Theme

Related Links


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. 

News from Pelgrane Press

We’ve had a great month, although some shipping issues have reared their ugly heads, mainly with shipments from the US taking their time to reach Europe. We’ve fixed those now. Leonard Balsera’s Profane Miracles, another fastplay Esoterrorists adventure is also out now from sale from Indie Press Revolution. You can also get it from the Pelgrane Press Store.

Trail of Cthulhu

Trail of Cthulhu is our quickest selling game ever, and I am delighted with the response, through all channels. We’ve sold through 70% of the first print run already, and I’m now concerned that we won’t get the reprint out in time. We had a great Trail of Cthulhu launch party, and I had the pleasure of going to see James Semple in his amazing studio. We are very lucky to have him working with us to create original music for the various GUMSHOE games. We’ll be putting together a package of sound effects music, and stings as a new RPG product.

Out Now

Out recently

Available from the Pelgrane Store and IPR.

Printing

Laid Out and Ready to Print

Stunning Eldritch Tales, a set of four Trail of Cthulhu adventures is in playtest,

Further Work

Robin is writing an action-packed new adventure for Mutant City Blues, and Jerome is working on new illustrations for MCB.

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