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 DyingEarth.com 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 DyingEarth.com 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 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 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…

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I’m still not sure where I come down on the whole laptop at the gaming table issue. Maybe my mind would be definitively made up if I were to see a GM make brilliant use of one. My main fear, I guess, is one of focus. I’ve always felt that one trait distinguishing really great GMs is their personal attention to the emotional dynamic of the room. Are the players rapt? Bored? Is a jolt of energy required, or maybe a snack break? I worry that a laptop serves as an even more formidable barrier between moderator and player than an oversized or overused GM screen.

Then again, it could be my Luddite side showing. I haven’t observed such a thing in the field, but I’m willing to admit to the possibility that there’s a new generation of instinctive multi-taskers coming up through the ranks who can keep one eye on their combat trackers, another on the minis table, and a third on their players’ attention spans. Or is that one eye too many? Sorry, I was busy checking my email in mid-paragraph and lost track of my number of eyes.

Maybe, with universal wireless connectivity lurking just around the corner, the GMing future lies in handheld devices. I already consider my PDA as my backup brain, and that’s without a wireless connection for instant net browsing. Whether it’s a mobile phone, a hyped-up pager or micro computer, we’re all used to seeing our friends fiddle with their devices of choice, to such an extent that they hardly steal focus in the course of a game session. You can consult a smaller device unobtrusively, without hiding your eyes, the key to your connection with others, from your players.

I’m already using a handheld program to track initiative order, that notorious bugaboo of smooth pacing, in my current D&D campaign. I don’t need to tell you about the wide variety of utilities for the wired GM, or the handy availability of searchable d20 rules.

Although it’s exciting to see solutions to game mechanical complexity appearing in mobile devices, other less obvious cheats and shortcuts await the wired GM. Rules rule in combat situations, but it’s when I’m inventing new plot material on the fly that I often find myself lusting for seamless, invisible browser access.

Real-sounding contemporary names are an example so obvious I only include it so you know I gave this list some thought. It’s tough to dream up authentic and memorable names without a cheat sheet. When caught without one, I often find my eye drifting to the bookcase. The authors of my film book collection, which is right at my elbow as I game, have lent their names to minor characters for ages. With a browser ready, mix and match names are waiting at any newspaper’s dot.com location. Avoid international and entertainment news stories, whose surnames are all too familiar, and instead head for the local news. Experts responding to science stories often have fabulous names. Naturally if you’re planning on published these names you need to swap out first and last names, so you’re not labeling that nice environmental science prof commenting on global warming as a cultist of Dagon.

A name is only the beginning when you’re suddenly called upon to flesh out a walk-on character. Without external prompting I find myself defaulting to a couple of standard characterizations: the dumb guy, the disinterested cynical guy, and the insinuatingly mocking villain. To find other personalities for minor characters, I hit the Internet Movie Database. I start by clicking on the first name I see on the site’s front page; then into their filmography, then down the cast list of a title somewhere in the middle of that list. (Top-most items for active performers are usually for films that don’t exist yet, and lack suitably long cast lists.) If I then need another actor to serve as inspiration, I alter one of the numbers in the film’s URL at random. That takes me to another film, which hopefully will be in English or include foreign actors I recognize. So instead of another dumb guy, that vendor at the market turns out to be played by booming-voiced comedy player Eugene Pallette. For a non-standard villain, I might cast against type when I stumble across the name of shambling genius thespian John C. Reilly. This trick works best for those pre-equipped with a deep knowledge of obscure character actors, but even the casual cinephile should be able to match up major stars with enough personality traits to distinguish a minor character.

Ebay is a great source of detailed descriptions for treasures. Need a McGuffin? Try its antiquities section. The jewelry and art categories allow you to pull up images and info on all manner of exotic loot.

Images provide not only a concrete sense of reality to stimulate your player’s imaginations, but can answer questions so that you don’t have to.

Real estate listings, including sites geared to apartment hunters, provide copious photos of contemporary building interiors. An afternoon of bookmarking will put the appropriate rental sites at your fingertips.

To get an image of what you really want, Google’s image source provides more reliable results. The photosharing site Flickr is good for shots of random, mostly young, contemporary people.

For imagistic inspiration, though, Flickr provides a free-associative paradise. Its large user base and often wonky self-defined tag system brings up a wealth of unexpected visuals at the input of a single word. It works best as a prompt for improv, helping out on nights when you’re completely flying by the seat of your pants. After a raw search result comes in, click on “most interesting” to get the most evocative images. Nearly any term, no matter how abstract, yields something that might spark an idea. As of this writing, Cthulhu had 399 photos in his gallery. “Mortality” got 155 hits; “treasure”, upwards of 1300.

I’ll depart with an exercise. Create an adventure hook for your favorite contemporary setting, drawing your inspiration from three images that come up on Flickr, one for each of the following tags: burden, hellfire, forget. Those interested in proving their free-associative superiority to all comers are urged to post their results to the Pelgrane Forum. [Ed. — this forum is no longer live.]

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

If you really want to understand the culture we live in, read a few introductory books on marketing.

I can already hear some of you screaming in desperate agony at this suggestion. And believe me, I feel your pain. However, those who feel a sense of hostility toward the pervasive influence of sales techniques on public discourse, are well advised to learn a few basics of marketing-think, purely as a self-defense mechanism. Arm yourself against the horde, as it were.

I personally have to admit to a profound ambivalence toward the worldview of the marketing expert. On one hand, I make my living in a creative endeavor and want to see my work, and that of others, appreciated for its merits, on a shining plane of incandescent purity. Or something like that. On the other side of the equation, I look around and see a host of colleagues expending time, effort and cash attempting to sell games without the benefit of the marketing principles they’ll need to find an audience. For more on this syndrome, see Pitches and Misses.

Like it or not, marketing principles work because they identify elements of communication that truly grab an audience’s attention, and linger in memory afterward. This may cause us to recoil in horror as we’re being bombarded with product advertising that doesn’t even apply to us, or watching mildly attentive voters fed misleading messages by political parties we dislike.

However, as game masters, our goals are oddly similar to those of the advertising maven. We aim to capture our players’ attention in the first place, and to leave them with vivid memories of their experiences in our games.

The most powerful idea in all of marketing is the unique selling point. Simply put, it tells advertisers that they have to emphasize the element of their product that makes it different from all of its competitors. Without a unique selling point, nobody has a reason to pay attention to whatever it is you’re offering.

This idea has applications way beyond the promotion of soaps and condiments. Employ it to make your games stand out from the pack. To sell a successful new product, it must have a unique selling point built into it. As you set out to create the ultimate roleplaying series, why not begin with a list of factors that make it different from others of its kind?

Before you start, remember that these differences have to be seen as positive by your players. You’re looking for cool, distinctive elements that make your Vampire, or Dying Earth, or D&D game different from all of the others your players have played before, or will play in the future. Be careful not to make it a point of negative difference, which removes from the core game its distinctive and attractive elements. A Vampire game in which none of the players get to be paragons of gothic cool will likely be regarded as different in a bad way. Likewise a Dying Earth game that advances a sentimental morality, or a D&D campaign stripped of its compulsive power accumulation.

This is not to say that no group will ever accept a revisionist version of a popular game. Unlike advertisers, you have the advantage of knowing your target audience on a one-to-one basis. Maybe your crowd is enthusiastically experimental enough to push the boundaries of a popular game to the breaking point. More likely, though, they’ll accept your tweaks to the elements they like with feigned tolerance, slowly losing interest over time.

High-concept games, in which the players are presented with a group identity from the outset, make for fine selling points. Always build a default activity into the group concept. Ideally, this is a further refining of your chosen game’s default activity.

For example, the Dying Earth roleplaying game provides three related default activities, depending on the power level around which you choose to base the game. In a Cugel-level (low-level) game, the default activity is:

You are a group of ne’er-do-wells wandering about swindling, getting swindled, and otherwise falling into picaresque trouble.

Your high-concept elaboration of this might be:

You are a group of wandering ne’er-do-wells who will inherit a huge fortune if you find the most gullible person in the Dying Earth, as judged by the daihak Crondowel.

Thus you’ve kept the selling points of the original game, while adding a level of specific detail that immediately tells your players what’s expected of their characters. If the campaign goes well, and they look back on it fondly, they’ll remember that narrative hook. “That wasn’t any old Dying Earth game. It was the one where we were searching for the world’s most gullible person.”

Games with extremely simple default activities can become distinctive through fairly straightforward elaborations. A D&D game might be made distinctive by focusing one’s dungeon looting activities on a single type of enemy, whether that be evil elves, extradimensional horrors, or mind-reading conspirators.

The more experience a group has with a given game and setting, the more open they may be to twists and variants on the basic formula. If you’ve all been playing Call of Cthulhu for a decade, you may be sufficiently steeped in the mythos to enjoy a game where you are not occult investigators hunting down the worshippers of impossibly alien gods, but a group of cultists engaging in reprisals against an organization of occult investigators.

Supplement your high concept with more modest stylistic cues. I often choose a certain naming convention, which applies to PCs and gamemaster characters alike. In one recent game the characters all had metynomous names expressing essential character traits, as you find in Restoration drama and Dickens novels. In the game after that, the main characters all sported pseudonyms based on local street names. For an upcoming game set in a standard fantasy world, the NPCs will all have English names.

Other cues might include always having an art reference for major NPCs, drawn from real paintings of a particular period. You might choose a theme song and play that at the beginning of the campaign’s first few episodes.

All of these techniques reinforce the same core idea: this isn’t just any old game you’re playing. Your players will never get another chance to play another one exactly like it.

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Whenever I serve as a guest at a gaming convention, I make it a policy to ask the seminar organizer to set up a panel on Game Mastering Troubleshooting. On a minute by minute basis, I’ve learned more about roleplaying as it actually occurs from fielding questions at these seminars than in any other forum. By keeping the focus on Q&A, as opposed to abstract panelist pontification, one gets a real sense of the practical problems that plague groups wherever polyhedrals are rolled.

The most common and most addressable class of problems consist of variances in taste between players. I’ve tackled these in-depth elsewhere, most specifically in Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and the opening chapter of the Dungeons and Dragons® Dungeon Master’s Guide II.

Dealing with gamemastering problems in print poses a thorny challenge. Experienced GMs know all too well that roleplaying sessions can occasionally devolve into exercises in severe frustration. Though this is hardly a secret, neither is it a fact you want to dwell on in a book that should be selling the reader on the fun of roleplaying. We emphasize the positive as a matter of survival. The hobby needs a continual stream of folks willing to take on the time-consuming and sometimes thankless task of running games. The fear is always that an overly candid discussion of the various pitfalls of the RPG experience could send would-be GMs running to the comparative shelter of their Xboxes.

In the less formal atmosphere of a web column, though, maybe it’s safe to admit what everybody knows. Many long-running games are just fun enough to bug the hell out of us. With its emphasis on planning, execution, and group effort, a session where a group of adventurers plots its assault on the goblin redoubt of Xanthrukor can easily resemble a brain-shredding meeting at any typically dysfunctional workplace. Each contains many of the same dispiriting interpersonal syndromes: the guy who won’t listen. The guy who won’t shut up. The co-worker who can’t stay on topic. The professionally obtuse one, who returns to hash over the same agonizing point just when the rest of you think you’ve got it put to bed. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Granted, roleplaying sessions hold a couple of advantages over workplace conferences. First, you get superpowers. Second, you get to kill things. Third, once you kill the things, you get their stuff.

Fourth, and most important, there’s you. The GM. You’re the ultimate arbiter of the world reality, adjudicator of all actions, and driver of the storyline. However, your real power to keep the evening off the rocks of pointless wrangling, is, for all of its potential power, a subtler one.

Many GMs, following an ancient unwritten protocol that got its start in the early days of the hobby, take a hands-off approach to interaction between players. In principle, this makes sense. The GM has so much authority over so many areas of the game that she shouldn’t go horning in one of the few domains of pure player control. And indeed, the GM should never try to push player planning sessions so that they reach a particular outcome. An outcome, any reasonable outcome, should be the goal.

Most players stuck in a rut of circular discussion are desperate for a way out. A few words from you can carefully guide the discussion back out of the ditch. The key here is not to make decisions or suggestions for the group, but to underline and organize the good suggestions they’ve already made. Be content neutral, but help to shape the discussion productively.

Discouragement is quick to settle over a group when planning has turned to wrangling, and too few acceptable options seem to present themselves. Paralysis often results after a group rules out perfectly suitable choices. When this happens you need to do more than provide a concise, upbeat recap of the discussion’s present status. Instead, gently rebut the assumptions that lead the group to reject viable options.

A few players are pessimistic by nature. Others have had pessimism trained into them by absurdly punitive past GMs. Perhaps most common is the adroit debater, who skillfully shoots down all plans other than his own.

Players live in the real world, and apply its system of logic to your game setting. This entails a collision of expectations. Almost every game world out there is based on the logic of adventure stories, where obstacles are meant to be overcome. No matter how much time players spend consuming genre stories, whether in print or on the screen, it’s hard for most of us to truly take this logic to heart.

How many times, for example, have you heard players assume that the villain’s lair will have impregnable security in place? Remind them that a skilled group can find a way into the best-guarded of fortresses. “Impregnable” in adventure genre terms means, “very tough, but I’ve got a crazy plan and it just might work.” It means the Death Star or Goldfinger’s headquarters, not the equivalent real-world installations.

If you fail to uphold the conventions that make adventure stories work, you should be unsurprised when planning sessions bog down due to a lack of credible options.

Your players should be able to count on the bad guys to fight them in waves, to create a series of entertaining fights. When they assume otherwise – and they will – remind them to apply the correct logic set to their problem-solving.

Selfish motives and power trips do drive a certain amount of wrangling. Players who engage in annoying behavior for its own sake are hard to deal with. At best, you can learn to spot their behaviors and try to divert them as symptoms first appear. Expect a hit and miss success rate with deliberate churls. Their disruptive behaviors often stem from an unconscious attempt to assume a sense of personal power and control otherwise lacking from their lives. Catch one of these types on a good day when he feels in control, and your tricks will work smoothly. Hit him when he’s tired, cranky and beleaguered, and you’ll see your smoothest interpersonal strategies go up the spout.

Fundamentally and permanently altering a player’s personality quirks are beyond the skills of even the most puissant gamemaster. These folks have to be either tolerated or dis-invited from your game. As always, this decision is a difficult one, in which you have to balance your desire to accommodate a friend against the ideal roleplaying experience. The calculation is hardly unique to roleplaying: every recreational group, whether it be a bowling club or an aquarium fancier’s alliance, faces the same issue.

Personally, I’m an advocate of tolerance. We all have bad days. None of us is free of irritating habits. Often those least capable of getting along with others are most in need of their company. On one level, I have to admit that I admire folks who are sufficiently hardcore about their hobby to freely issue pink slips to participants whose personal issues prove consistently irritating. When it comes right down to it, though, I guess I’d sooner regard myself as an accepting person than the GM of a brilliant game.

Or maybe it’s just that I’ve never yet been unlucky enough to have a truly annoying gamer in my group.

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.

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