In the latest episode of their well-oiled podcast, Ken and Robin talk fitting your PCs into historical events, the spy career Anton LaVey made up for Robert W. Chambers, ironic horror of the early 80s, and automaton maker John Joseph Merlin.

For International GMs Day, Ken’s favorite GMing tip is very timely indeed.

GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

This idea was suggested to me by the Chatty DM, although in doing due diligence I found that Rob already mentioned it in a “Rob says” sidebar in the 13th Age GM’s Screen & Resource Book. So, the first piece of useful, actionable advice in this article is “go read the Resource Book in detail, there’s great stuff there.”

And the second piece is “steal stuff from great GMs, but do it as an easily referenceable blog post as opposed to a twitter post or a sidebar, so people can link back to it and you get all the credit.”

The third bit:

A Campaign Win is the opposite of a Campaign Loss (13th Age, p. 166) – the penalty that the players incur when their characters choose to Flee. The heroes escape and survive, but at the cost of some horrible story-based setback. The village burns, the villain finds the relic they seek, some ally of the heroes get eaten. Campaign Wins, then, are story-based triumphs – the heroes rescue a prisoner who turns out to be a presumed-dead friend; the sun breaks through the clouds, weakening the undead host; the characters find a magical item they’ve long sought. Campaign Wins and Losses should always be orthogonal to the main story – they’re wrinkles, serendipities, complications, moments of grace or horror. In general, it’s best to have the players suggest options for a win or loss, and the GM then picks the most fitting suggestion. In a campaign, let the player save up wins and losses for a few sessions, so wins and losses can be applied to the most fitting unanswered questions.

The GM awards the players a Campaign Win when recurring villains escape automatically a fight that they’re about to lose. The heroes can’t stop the bad guys escaping, but they do get a Win in recompense. Just like Fleeing, not every fight can be escaped – the villains can run away the first time you beat them, but that just means you need to track them to their lair and defeat them there!

The players might also get a win from:

  • Playing Into The GM’s Hands by willingly putting their characters at a disadvantage. Of course I drink the wine – just because this guy’s called Petros the Poisoner doesn’t mean I’m going to insult him by refusing the goblet he offered me!
  • Pressing On when they’ve already had at least four major fights since their last full-heal-up and have significantly depleted their resources. In this case, roll a d6 at the start of each fight. On a 1, the characters earn a Campaign Win. The range of success increases by 1 for each fight (so, roll a 1-2 on the second fight, 1-3 on the third fight and so on).

Encourage the players to use Wins and Losses to spotlight stuff that interest them. A player who suggests a Campaign Win might result in the discovery of an ancient dwarven mine might be signalling they want a dungeon crawl – or that they want to do a spot of domain management, where they oversee the process of re-opening the mine, while a Campaign Loss targeting that village of sympathetic non-player characters might imply that the player wants some meaty tragic roleplaying scenes. After all, the real campaign win is finding out exactly what excites your players…

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Have you, or someone in your game group, always wanted to give GMing a shot, but haven’t yet taken the plunge? What if we told you that by the first week in February, you could be an honest-to-goodness GM—and it’ll be easy!

January is New Gamemaster Month, and we’re joining our friends at Monte Cook Games, Arc Dream Publishing, Chaosium, Inc, Evil Hat and Atlas Games to give prospective GMs everything you need to run your first game of Trail of Cthulhu, including a 10% discount off the core book in our webstore with the code NewGMMonth2021!

During January, we’ll run a month-long course in the form of twice-weekly posts, which will take you through a step in the process, and include a brief lesson on an aspect of GMing followed by some quick, enjoyable activities that actually get you ready to run your first game. But if you’ve missed the start, never fear – all the posts from the start of the program are still available.

It’s not all academic, by any means—this is a hands-on seminar. By the end of the program, in early February, you won’t be a “prospective” GM any more: You’ll have GMed your first full-on RPG session, running it without a hitch and having a great time doing it!

So make a New Year’s resolution to join us, and finally take that leap into GMing! Follow along on the website, join the Facebook group and let us know how you’re getting on by tweeting us @NewGmMonth.

Spooky maskWhen running a most improvised scenario (either something as ambitious as the Dracula Dossier or just riffing off a paragraph or two of notes), One Useful Trick is to have a copy of the investigative ability list for your game to hand, and check off abilities as you call for them or the players use them. That lets you see at a glance which abilities you haven’t yet used in play.

Then, look for opportunities to bring in other abilities. Treat it as a prompt, a challenge – “what’s the easiest narrative route in the game from this moment to the action hinging on Art History or Pharmacy or Flirting?”

Often, in improv play, you fall back on the sort of scenes that you’re most comfortable with; I can riff mysterious murders, spooky locations and sieges off the top of my head, but need to remind myself to do interpersonal scenes, crowds, or car chases.

Prompting yourself to bring in abilities you don’t instinctively default to is a great way to vary the scenes in your game. The players in my current Night’s Black Agents game, for example, are much more comfortable hanging back and observing, either by blending into the crowd, perching on rooftops, or getting full value out of all those points invested in Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance and Digital Intrusion. Tracking the abilities used reminds me in the heat of play to put in more interpersonal scenes, forcing them to use messy touch-feely abilities like Reassurance or Intimidation.

A neglected ability doesn’t have to be central to the game, of course. If you’re trying to bring in, say, Astronomy, you could just mention that the characters knows offhand that tonight will be a moonless and especially dark night; often, reminding players that they have a particular ability will start them thinking about ways to use those assets.

Don’t neglect General Abilities, either. If no-one’s used Cover or Disguise in a while, try to drop in some obstacles that require those abilities.

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

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The Trouble With Tasers

Technology is ruining the storytelling business. Lately it seems like every new innovation of communications technology renders another classic plot device moot. GPS tracking, widespread closed circuit camera use and electronic paper trails make contemporary detective stories harder and harder to write. The screenwriter Todd Alcott, analyzing the works of the Coen brothers, noted that all of them are set before the cell phone era as we know it. Their plots inevitably revolve around disasters of miscommunication and couldn’t happen in a world where people can easily contact one another while in transit.

I recently underwent a tussle with another annoying piece of technology that threatens to wreak special havoc on roleplaying game scenarios. In real life, the taser may be, as its proponents argue, a useful piece of putatively non-lethal weaponry allowing for the peaceful capture of dangerous criminals. In game mechanical terms, they’re a freaking nightmare. They break the paradigm of suspenseful back-and-forth fights on which gaming’s bread is buttered. A taser rule that successfully models the way the things work in real life brings about an instant end to a physical confrontation in one shot. You get hit by a taser, you go down, end of story.

Roleplaying games have traditionally differed from the action genres they derive inspiration from in the ease with which it is possible to KO opponents. In a movie or novel, the hero can conk out an enemy with a karate chop to the neck, sap to the back of the skull, or old-fashioned Vulcan nerve pinch, raining no particular problem down upon the author. The characters are all under his control, so he can count on them not to transform into cold-blooded killers at the sight of an unconscious foe.

PCs, controlled as they are by players, exhibit no such compunctions. When it comes to the chance for an easy kill, players blithely have their characters engage in behavior they’d recoil from if performed by their favorite movie or comic book heroes.

Combat mechanics traditionally rush in to to fill this morality hole, by making it no easier to KO an enemy than to kill him. That way the PCs wind up killing in self-defense, or at least in the process of a fair fight against an opponent who chooses not to surrender. Some rules sets of yore make it even harder to grapple or disable a foe than to kill him, though this is as much a case of simulation gone awry as an attempt to enforce genre norms.

A designer can fudge the relative difficulties of a kill versus a KO when it comes to most forms of combat. It’s easier in genre fiction to render an enemy unconscious without lasting consequences than it is in real life, where vigorous thumps on the head lead to concussions and brain injuries. Taking on a heavily armed and armored opponent who’s trying to kill you probably does make it difficult to score a harmless knockout.

Several of the games I’ve worked on, starting with Feng Shui, allow characters to specify that they’re fighting to disable even while using the standard combat system, making it just as easy to kill as to KO.

Tasers, if rendered accurately, screw up this balance completely. They really do make it almost trivially easy to take an opponent out of the fight in one shot.

Here our genre sources do provide the answer. You’ll notice that sympathetic protagonists, even the cop characters in procedural shows, do not go around zapping perps with tasers. In TV and movies as well as in games, the one-shot nature of the taser makes for boring action sequences. More crucially, there’s the sympathy factor. We can accept heroes who shoot or manhandle the bad guys, but taser use just seems sinister. Perhaps it’s the humiliating nature of a taser bring-down that triggers a sympathy switch. We’d end up identifying with the defeated villain instead of the basking vicariously in the protagonist’s victory.

As audience members, we may also be haunted by real-life abuses of the technology. Anyone who follows the news on this subject has seen the horror stories, starting with sudden death by cardiac arrest. Because the consequences of taser use are, compared to a gun, advertised as negligible, cops and security personnel have shown a distressing tendency to treat it as a weapon of first resort. As it would be in a gaming situation, it’s too easy to use in real life. We’ve seen it deployed to curtail the civil liberties of peaceful protesters. (This will be a huge problem in the years ahead as mass non-lethal technologies come on line and fall into the hands of authoritarian regimes.)

In short, pop culture has, perhaps aptly, tagged the taser as a bully’s weapon.

Trying to reconcile these issues with the known properties of taser weapons sent me down several blind alleys as I worked to develop GUMSHOE rules for them. Before finally accepting the simple solution that was in front of me all along, I considered:

  • dodge rules making it easier to avoid a taser hit
  • fumble rules making a taser harder to use than it is in real life
  • allowing characters to shrug off taser strikes

None of these attempts to nerf the taser passed even GUMSHOE’s loose reality demands. Finally I realized that this was not a matter of rules mechanics, but of literary conceit: PCs in GUMSHOE don’t use tasers because heroes in pop culture don’t use tasers. For Mutant City Blues, there’s the suggestion that lawsuits over inappropriate taser use have led to mountains of paperwork and career setbacks for detectives who resort to them. Maybe in The Esoterrorists we’ll specify that tasers are the fruit of an occult plot to enable tyranny, and that their use weakens the membrane. But really these are fig leaves of credibility placed upon an overriding literary convention:

Real heroes don’t use tasers.

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Works for me,” nods Stan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post originally appeared on between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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 between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

Last time we looked at the paradox inherent in running investigative scenarios, whether in GUMSHOE games like The Esoterrorists, or with other systems: structure is essential to the mystery genre, but players have learned to fear it, equating it with railroading or so-called “bread crumb trail” plotting.

What’s important is not whether the players really are following a set of scenes in a predefined order, but whether they feel like they have freedom of choice and are important participants in determining the direction and outcome of the narrative. They can feel straightjacketed when you improvise wildly, or think that they’re steering the narrative when you’re in fact running scenes in a flat-out linear order.

The simplest structure for a mystery scenario is, indeed, linear. All of the scenes occur in a predetermined order; at each scene, the PCs find a clue leading them to the next scene. During the climactic scene, they acquire the final clues. These allow them to piece together the solution to the mystery, resolving it. Diagrammed out, a purely linear scene structure might look like this:

More complex structures allow the PCs greater choice regarding the order in which they assemble the clues and move through the scenes. One scene might offer several clues, each leading to a different scene. The players decide where to investigate next.

Here, by creating multiple lead-outs from various scenes into others, we see that the same events can can occur in at least six different orders. Especially clever player choices may confer advantages; it may be, for example, that it’s easier to withstand the awful revelations of the Bag Of Hands sequence if the characters are prepared for it by what they learn of Mr. Pike’s Dilemma. Riskier choices may result in more hair-raising but faster play, as the investigators leapfrog over particular scenes. Maybe it’s smart to avoid the hazards of the Wood Chipper; on the other hand, maybe it provides an essential opportunity to regain precious mental stability.

There are as many possible structures as mathematical permutations of scenes. The more you rely on improvisation and rough notes, the easier it is to generate new connections between scenes on the fly. This is much easier to do as you go than to notate for someone else who’ll be running the adventure. Not only are alternate sequences of events difficult to convey clearly to the reader of a published adventure, but they chew up limited word count like crazy.

You could arrange your lead-outs so that the climactic confrontation could occur during any one of three scenes:


Here the climax can occur during the Wood Chipper, Fear Club or Ghost River scenes, whichever the PCs happen upon last. This also gives you the option to skip one of the three end scenes either for pacing purposes, or to reward the team for clever clue interpretation.

Players may create their own routes through your map of possible scenes, rather like Billy from those horrible Family Circus cartoons where you see his circuitous route through the neighborhood. They might return to a previous scene to scour it for clues they didn’t look for the first time around. You may deliberately introduce callbacks-for example, Mr. Pike may be only partially forthcoming the first time around, revealing a final bit of information only when confronted with evidence found near the Wood Chipper:

Although I’ve used a linear structure in the above diagram for clarity’s sake, callbacks can just as easily be done in a branching structure.

However robust your branching structure, there is still the matter of player perception to contend with. No matter how many possible sequences of events your scenario offers, the players wind up with only one. Like I said last time, scenarios may or may not be linear, but all remotely narrative RPG adventures are linear as played. To repeat a diagram, the possible structure may look like this:

But your story as played will look like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or whatever.

In other words, one of your tasks as GM of an investigative game is to make the adventure feel like it presents a multiplicity of choice and a complex structure-which is not the same as ensuring that it actually possesses those qualities.

Do this by salting your scenario with disruptive events unrelated to the collection of clues. The Esoterrorists ensures that PCs get the clues they need to interpret the mystery, but offers no similar guarantee that they won’t be dismembered by ichor-dripping beasties from the Outer Dark. Disruptive events can include action sequences, including fights, chases, evasions, and infiltrations. These can be instigated by the players, or by antagonists reacting to their investigation. In a more low-key but possibly more memorable mode, disruptive events can also include scenes of drama or character development that evoke an emotional response in players. Maybe they confront a moral dilemma, having to sacrifice one good to attain another, before moving on to the next investigative scene.

Disruptive events may be triggered by actions undertaken in investigative scenes. Or they can be free floating, to deploy as pacing demands. Since their entire purpose is to add choice and uncertainty to what might otherwise feel like a linear storyline, ensure that player choice reigns supreme in these sequences. Each must allow for a full range of success or failure. If they get to chase an antagonist, they must have a chance (perhaps slim) of catching him. Moral dilemmas should offer no easy cop-outs, and so on. In GUMSHOE, resolutions of disruptive events can confer advantages in investigative sequences, but cannot rule out the collection of core clues.

(In games with traditional clue gathering techniques, where you make ability rolls to gain information essential to investigation, failed rolls have served as faux-disruptive events. They disguise the basic linearity of the mystery genre, but they do it by introducing unnecessary additional scenes in which the GM frantically improvises workarounds to get the PCs the info they should have gleaned the first time around. Ironically, the traditional paradigm in effect uses failure and frustration to create the illusion of infinite choice and possibility. What it really provides is annoying extra padding.)

With the addition of disruptive events, your final branching structure might look something like this:

Hmm. Maybe we should have a contest and award a prize who can tell us who Mr. Pike is, what he has to do with the bag of hands, and what dread fate awaits him at the Fear Club…

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