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

One of the big differences between roleplaying sessions and the adventure stories from which they derive their inspiration is found in the degree of interaction between hero and villain before their conflict devolves into violence.

In a Bond flick, 007 typically meets the archvillain at least once before the final confrontation. Often they interact a couple of times before our hero finally starts blowing up the bad guy’s impressive hideout.

The archetypal action-based RPG is D&D, where the monsters conveniently check into hotels, which the heroes raid, one suite at a time, busting in the door and killing everything inside. Once one room is cleansed of its valuables, they head down the corridor to the next door, opening it, too, with their hobnailed passkeys. If the inhabitants of a room are ancient vampires with an awesome pedigree, or high-level characters with elaborately fleshed personalities, it doesn’t much matter. They’re going down, man, with no time-wasting conversation to separate the smashing of the door from the rolling of initiative.

If you don’t think roleplaying ought to resemble other narrative forms, this isn’t a problem, just a point of divergence.

However, if her players want to respond to the evolving story of a roleplaying session as they would to a movie or book, a GM has a tricky task to execute.

Part of the problem lies in the relentlessly first-person nature of RPG narrative. If the heroes aren’t in a scene, the players don’t see it. Contrast this with the shifting viewpoints found in most heroic fiction, or the cutting between scenes typical of a movie.

When writing a novel, if I know that the hero and villain won’t actually meet for a long stretch of the book, I can still introduce the bad guy early on in the proceedings. I just give him his own chapter, a bit of internal monologue, or a secondary character to interact with and presto, I’ve got a living, breathing antagonist with a bit of distinguishing depth to him. In a screenplay I can cut from one character to another just as easily.

However, there are a few fictional examples where we see everything through the lead character’s eyes. Most, if not all, detective novels are structured this way. Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels are a touchstone of this approach.

In film, we can go back to the Bond example. The classic template includes at least three meetings:

1) Non-violent conflict, in which the hero gets a sense of the villain’s character with a face-to-face meeting. Usually this occurs in public. The Bondian fascination with gambling is not only an evocation of Fleming-era high style; it’s a highly useful fictional device allowing the antagonist and protagonist to undergo a conflict that will not bring the narrative to a premature close. (Goldfinger gives us two of these scenes: a card game and, later, a round of golf.)

2) Capture. The hero is captured and placed in a trap. The villain and hero interact once more, this time with deadly stakes. The villain then departs, and the hero escapes. He lives, but once he is free, the bad guy is long gone. Again, they’ve come into contact, but the final confrontation is delayed.

3) Climactic action. Finally, the hero has learned of the villain’s nefarious plot and arrives to defuse it before mass carnage ensues. Once he’s neutralized the plot, his conflict with the villain reaches its ultimate, fatal resolution.

The introduction of a secondary villain or henchman often follows a similar pattern. Sometimes the hero meets the henchman in a nonviolent context before later coming to blows with him. In some of the Bond films, the henchman survives the main villain, showing up at the end for a coda fight scene, as in Diamonds Are Forever.

Adding these elements to your roleplaying scenarios is a matter of context and motivation. You must provide your heroes with a reason to hold off on the ultraviolence until a later scene. Solid motivations include:

Cover. Like Bond, the heroes have reason to make a least a token nod toward concealing their identities. They can’t blow their cover by blasting away the moment they run into a suspected bad guy.

Bystanders. Initial encounters can take place in public. If the heroes start a fight, innocents will be killed or taken hostage.

Public relations. If they have an authority figure as a patron, the heroes may be discouraged from staging their fights in places where massive property destruction may take place. They have a stake in the reputation of their stomping grounds – the king won’t like it if their villain-smashing activities make his nation seem like a dangerous, lawless place.

But above all, the most important reason for PCs to keep their cans of whup-ass sealed is information gathering-/-evil scheme preventing.

In the standard RPG plot, the villains are passive. They’ve done something bad already, and now are merely holed up in their well-trapped dungeon complexes waiting for the PCs to show up and slaughter them.

In fiction, the villains are almost always actively doing something. The PC’s main aim is not to kill them, but to stop the bad thing they’re trying to do. Any antagonist killing occurs merely as an adjunct to this main goal. The heroes are trying to save people, not just confiscate some loot after committing a justifiable homicide.

(The revenge movie, like Unforgiven or Gladiator, is an exception to this pattern. But even there, the protagonist and antagonist interact prior to the act that inspires the anti-hero’s quest for vengeance. In some cases, such as Kill Bill, the interaction takes place in the antecedent action, but it happens nonetheless.)

To stop the bad guys, the heroes have to find out what they’re doing. Interacting with them is a way of doing this – hence the time-honored Bondian technique of infiltrating the hideout and getting captured. (At the end of Diamonds Are Forever, Bond dispenses even with the pretence of infiltration and just has himself dropped on Blofeld’s doorstep, essentially reporting for incarceration.)

Capture sequences are tricky in an RPG context. PCs prefer death traps they can disarm before they climb into them. Many players game for a feeling of power and freedom and react with surprising anxiety if their characters are imprisoned. Some, oddly enough, prefer character death to capture. A less extreme reaction is a loss of hope when captured – you may have to be blatantly heavy-handed in pointing to possible avenues of escape.

By allowing the PCs to meet the bad guys before they get the chance to kill them, you’ll be delaying their gratification. In other words, you’re frustrating them in order to enhance their enjoyment at the adventure’s end. You’re employing frustration as a tool, which can be rewarding – but only if you use it with a laser-like precision to do Auric Goldfinger proud.

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Those of us make stuff up for a living face a wide variety of possible ways to make ourselves crazy. One of the fastest and most direct routes to self-induced insanity is to obsess over the ultimate worth of one’s work. This is hardly unique to game design, as any composer, artist, actor, dancer or writer fiction can attest. The game designer, should he be foolish enough to obsess over such matters, gets to wrestle an additional demon: the question of whether the entire form, let alone his or her contribution to it, will be of any interest to future generations.

There’s a good chance that roleplaying will be seen as an interesting movement in the history of narrative. It may turn out to be important either unto itself, or as the spawning ground for some future form of cooperative, spontaneous storytelling that grows out of Internet videogames or the LARP scene. If it does, the influential figures of rpg design might one day be remembered with the reverence that jazz scholars invest on the original greats of that music style. Gary Gygax can be our Jelly Roll Morton; Dave Arneson, our Buddy Bolden.

On the other hand, roleplaying could just as easily sink into footnote status, like other hybrid art forms. Ever heard of Rudolf Steiner’s eurhythmics movement, except as the inspiration for a band name?

If roleplaying does have something to contribute to history, I think it’ll most likely be in its methodology, its development of structures for the give and take of storytelling. The psychological element of compromise between players of different tastes may be what interests future PhDs in departments of Roleplaying Studies throughout the world of academia.

The aesthetic content of any given rpg session seems at first blush to be less interesting. Most sessions are stuffed with awkward filler, meander from one plot point to another, and are given over largely to ritualistic re-enactment of pre-established genre tropes. They adopt the trappings of the adventure only to explore its simplest, least challenging level, as a vehicle for power fantasy. Its emotional and thematic development is arrested: more Hopalong Cassidy than The Searchers or Once Upon a Time in the West.

On second thought, though, it may transpire that it is precisely the disjunctive nature of rpg narrative, its nature as a series of awkwardly-connected cool scenes that enter into a dialogue with an entire history of previous cool scenes, that makes roleplaying worthy of critical attention.

The world of film, both on the popular level and in the art house, is converging on roleplaying. Cinema is increasingly becoming a home for storytelling that is more about emotion and style than about traditional narrative coherence. More about ritual recapitulation of past cinematic experiences than about the reflection of real life. Narrative is becoming merely a glue to string together a series of set pieces in which emotion is conveyed through style. This is the cinema of gesture.

For example, the British romantic comedy Love Actually and the cult-fave Japanese horror flick Ju On (remade in Hollywood as The Grudge, with Sarah Michelle Gellar), both share the same gestural impulses. Love Actually crams together a huge number of characters, becoming its own greatest hits package. It plays like a compilation of a dozen other romantic comedies, consisting only of pivotal scenes. Connective tissue has gone out the window in favor of relentless movement from one emotional high point to the next. Likewise, Ju On fractures chronology and traditional identification with its lead characters to increase the audience’s sense of unease.

Director Takashi Shimuzi discards the usual orientation points provided even in a standard horror flick to move from one minimalistically freaky scare scene to the next. Again, it’s like a greatest-hits version of six Ju On sequels spliced together and shuffled at random.

Gestural cinema is nothing new. Maybe it starts with the 60s films of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. He combined an iconoclastic world view with a love of Hollywood genre cinema to create challenging but seductive movies in which moments of style, many obliquely referencing moments from classic genre moments, pop out suddenly from a static or circular plot structure. Generations of directors, inspired by his surfaces and structural looseness, have gone on to amplify and adapt his style. Call it post-modernism, call it trip-hop narrative, but it’s here, and its leaping the boundary from art culture into pop culture.

This path finds its ultimate outlet in a cinema dear to my heart, the genre-splicing, style-crazy movies of Hong Kong’s classic period from the late eighties to mid-nineties. Their veerings from low comedy to high melodrama to violence and back to sentimentality are initially off-putting to many Western gamers. This irony at its finest: its ragbag of tones and moods is perpetuated weekly in roleplaying sessions all around the world.

What is a roleplaying game session if not a series of stylistic gestures freed of the straightjackets of normal narrative progression? A tense action scene can give way to absurd comedy at the drop of a critical failure. An Elric clone can and will show up in the middle of a weird west game. D&D samples imagery from both the high-fantasy tradition of Tolkien and the sword and sorcery approach of R. E. Howard. Telltale tropes from H. P. Lovecraft can insert their non-Euclidean geometry into almost any game. To satisfy the various demands of players, many popular games offer kitchen-sink, genre-blending settings. I’ve long held that any commercially successful game will allow you to play a ninja.

Whereas in a gestural movie, the director is recapitulating his favorite fictional moments and moods for the delectation of an audience, the participants in a roleplaying session are activating similar tropes for their own enjoyment — and, sometimes secondarily, for the other players gathered around them.

If gaming warrants critical study, it will not be despite the craziness, pop culture imagery and self-indulgence of the typical roleplaying experience — it will be because of it. They are its essence.