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

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

Contents

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.

The following articles originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

October heralds the relaunch of See Page XX to fit in with the new look Pelgrane Press website. But it’s more than cosmetic; there are other changes – this month features more articles than we’ve ever had before. We have two interview, one with Kenneth Hite, author of the forthcoming Trail of Cthulhu, the other Brennan Taylor, President of Indie Press Revolution. Graham Walmsley shows how adaptable GUMSHOE is, in this case as a basis for Live Action Roleplaying, and Robin D Laws shows you how to create use GUMSHOE with other settings. Fred Hicks talks about the fine balance between character empowerment and danger. As a resource for the forthcoming Trail of Cthulhu, Simon Carryer offers us a fact-packed article on air transport in the 1930s and finally, dear old Mystic Moo gives us the RPG Horoscopes for the season, and acts as an agony aunt for roleplayers with “issues.”

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

Tediously Obligatory Disclaimer

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

Design Watchwords

The design watchwords for GUMSHOE are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Rules

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

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

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

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

Scenario Note: GMCs Making Rolls

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

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

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

Thought Process

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

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

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

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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

You’ve found your way to Carcosa, and the bleak shores of Hali. A boatman, his visage concealed by a cloak, poles his way up to you. You ask for passage across the black lake. He leans forward, his caul falling partly away to reveal a mask-like visage.

“And what do you have to offer in return, my friends?”

Of the interpersonal investigative abilities, the ones you use to get information from people you talk to, Negotiation is a GUMSHOE staple.

Pretty much any mystery you read features a scene in which the detective makes a deal to get information. She might offer to intercede with a prosecutor on behalf of an arrested crook. Or promise a reporter that he’ll get the scoop when she closes the case. Most commonly, the offer comes in the form of just plain cash.

That last choice, the carefully folded, era-appropriate denomination of paper money, requires no creativity on the part of the player.

Once you get to more complicated tit-for-tats, however, you may struggle to come up with the roleplaying side of a negotiation. What offer do you make, and how do you make it?

This becomes more difficult still when you’re trying to wring something worth more than words from the character. Maybe you want the GMC to lay off your group while you enter her territory. Or to make peace with the clan across the river. Or to pretend she don’t know it was you who blew up the abandoned warehouse with all the vampires in it.

Start by giving some thought to your offer before you commence the scene. Players most often get stuck when the enter into a negotiation without an offer in mind. The GM might expect you to learn more about a character you’re talking to, so that you can figure out what they want. Mostly though he’ll be glad to see you take the initiative and show that you understand that you have to give something to get something.

Consider the scale of the request you’re making. A big ask calls for a big payout. When preparing to approach a character, ask not only what they want but how much they might want it. A favor that costs your negotiating partner little is easier than one requiring a major sacrifice of property, status, or ambition.

Players most often fail at negotiation when they realize, to their shock and horror, that the other party expects a concession of roughly equal value. “Wait, I want unfiltered access to the Necronomicon from Henry Armitage, and he wants me to go all the way to Machu Picchu and drop this amulet in a well? How dare he?”

A GM who portrays negotiations realistically may start out with a bigger request than the character hopes to receive. You may be tempted to break off talks when you hear the scope of an initial demand. Instead, try offering less and see where the point of resistance really lies. Professor Armitage might accept a lesser favor than the Machu Picchu trip, but isn’t going to loan you that book for nothing. Every time it leaves the library, the university’s liability insurance goes up!

In general, your GM wants you to move the story forward by succeeding at a negotiation. Make the offer credibly tempting and you’ll likely get what you want. That might entail a side quest that leads you into another fun scene of challenge and trouble, but that after all is what you came to the table for.

This doesn’t mean that the GM will let you negotiate successfully with every GMC you encounter. Negotiation will overcome small or intermediate obstacles, not the central scheme of the primary villain. Expect to be shut down when trying to bypass all of a scenario’s conflict and danger. When you get stonewalled, indulge in a bit of metagaming and ask yourself how anticlimactic it would be to actually get what you’re asking for. If the answer is “very much so,” you know that there’s no way your GM is going to let you away with that. Look for other, more thrilling and hazardous ways to resolve the central dilemma. As with any fruitless path you choose, the GM is probably signaling you to try a different approach. Your main enemy may refuse to talk altogether, send an emissary to insult you, or waste your time while setting up an ambush, or to quickly dismiss your offer. Any of these choices give you a chance to push the story forward, even if you don’t get everything you want exactly as you want it. The GM is using a “yes, but” technique, making something fun happen, even if it isn’t the successful bargaining session you were hoping for.

To sum up, the following list of questions may help you to formulate your position as you go in to negotiate for information, a favor, or other benefit.

“What does this person want?”

“Is that at all compatible with what we want?”

“If not, what do I have, or what can I do, to get them closer to what they want?”

When the answer to question 1, is “beats me,” you might consider doing some more investigation before opening talks. A third party could supply a more straightforward and revealing account of the character’s position than she will express directly.

When the answer to question 2 is no, you can shift footing to some other approach. In GUMSHOE, that might mean Intimidation or some other aggressive means.

Questions 1 and 3 prime you to expect to give a quo to get your quid. In most RPG situations, the readiness to yield a bit is most of the battle.

Don’t let pride sink you. Be ready to occasionally lose a bit to eventually win a lot.

You can tell Negotiation is a crucial part of roleplaying because we made a shirt about it at the Ken and Robin merch store. Unlike much in life, wearing it is a win-win proposition.


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.

In the Community Content Spotlight, each month I write up a short review of a GUMSHOE community content title, all of which are available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!
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Stick around after the review to hear the results of the GUMSHOE Community Contest!

An original supplement for Ashen Stars, Solo Laser is a clever (and cleverly simple) attempt to add a solo, improvisatory ruleset onto GUMSHOE. At only 14 pages, the PDF was a breeze to read through, but it accomplishes a lot in those pages, including adding a simple die roll to answer questions about a setting, event, or NPC interaction, and a system of tonal descriptors that function both to kickstart a new play session and to answer more difficult questions (perhaps investigative ones) that arise during play. This solo ruleset even includes lightly modified character generation instructions, to ensure that your laser (or rogue) will be well-rounded enough to meet (many, though not all, never all) of the challenges that come their way. The author, Peter Rudin-Burgess, of Parts Per Million Limited, has adapted several non-GUMSHOE systems to solo rulesets already, which gives him a handy background for this conversion.

Coming into this reading, I’ll profess to a certain hesitation about playing a GUMSHOE game solo — and we do mean solo, GM-less. What about the investigation? What about the clues? How do you have a fulfilling mystery story without someone who already knows the answer? The answer to this dilemma, for Rudin-Burgess, effectively comes through a re-orientation of the player-GM relationship (I mean, obviously, since we’ve nixed the GM in this equation). Rudin-Burgess points out that “solo roleplaying tools… are in fact used as writing aids by authors,” and Solo Laser will give you the tools to assume that authorship even while playing your spacefaring “hero.”

But don’t worry, you don’t write yourself a trail of clues or a scenario spine before play, there’s plenty of room for discovery and spontaneity (in fact, it’s all discovery). All you do at the outset is develop your contract and get to exploring. And I say “exploring” because that’s what this PDF really wants you to do: set out on a logical path, add a bit of randomness through the simple mechanics I’ve mentioned above, and then improvise. From those improvisations you acquire facts that we would call clues — some of which you’ll determine are relevant, and some of which aren’t. Eventually, after you’ve accrued enough clues and met enough NPCs, a picture will fall into place and you can “solve” the mystery. (I’m reminded of Chinatown: Gittes has two suspects near the end of the film, and the solution only coheres at the last moment.) As Rudin-Burgess says, “solo adventures are so spontaneous that no one will know who the culprit is until the clues fall into place!”

The big takeaway for me is that the systems Rudin-Burgess introduces are potentially portable into other GUMSHOE games. You’d likely a new list of randomized tone descriptors — dark and brooding for Esoterrorists, fantastical and swashbuckling for Swords of the Serpentine — but even that would be a fun exercise, telling you exactly what kind of scenario you’re interested in playing (picking the apparently non-interesting descriptors, of course, would also be a fun experiment). And, good news, Rudin-Burgess let me know via email that he has plans for future adaptations of Esoterrorists and Fear Itself.

Solo Laser was a fun read that got me excited to try roleplaying a GUMSHOE system (Ashen Stars, sure, but like I said, the ideas are super portable to any other GUMSHOE worlds — solo terror in Fear Itself, anyone?) all on my lonesome. Have you ever played a GUMSHOE game solo? Excited to try Solo Laser? Let us know in the comments!

Title: Solo Laser
Author: Peter Rudin-Burgess
System: Ashen Stars
Price: $4.95 PDF

GUMSHOE Community Contest Results!

We had a good turnout for our first-ever GUMSHOE Community Contest, and we’re excited to announce that the winners are:

  • First Place: Dark Entanglements by John WS Marvin
  • Runner Up: Game Reserve by Michael Duxbury (Michael has already made his entry available! Check it out!)

Thanks to everyone who participated, and keep an eye on the Community page on DriveThru — we’ll hopefully see everyone’s entry published there soon, and I’ll post a round up of all the entries once they are.

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The Pelgrane Press Community Program brings you into the fold with other GUMSHOE game designers, affording creators (whatever that means to you!) the opportunity to post and sell their own products on DriveThruRPG. We currently accept material for Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch. Have a kooky idea you’d like to write up and get out there? A flushed out scenario you think others would enjoy? The Community Program is the place to showcase these ideas. If you’re interested in creating something for the Community Program, read more about it here.

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

We join a session of The Esoterrorists already in progress. The characters are FBI agent Juan Marino (played by Rich), science writer Martina Kruta (played by Lynne), and shady club owner Oscar Yorba (played by Tim.) In a storyline you, the GM, have ripped from the headlines, they are investigating a plot to mail human body parts to unsuspecting ordinary people throughout the nation. They have already determined that the first documented instances were the result of a horrible mistake on the part of a medical shipping company, and that presently unknown Esoterrorist operatives piggy-backed on the gruesome and surreal news story to foment public panic. Now the body parts are no longer misdirected medical samples intended for various tissue banks, but those of unidentified murder victims.

The previous scene’s core clue brought the group to a deserted former Christmas tree farm in the middle of nowhere. Entering the scene at night, their flashlights play across a battered old mail truck.

(Dialogue spoken in character appears in quotation marks.)

RICH: “Okay, are we ready to open the door?”
TIM: “Before we check it for booby traps? Are you kidding?” I use Surveillance to look for nasty surprises in or around the door.

Although Tim is arguably gathering information, a trap constitutes a plot obstacle, not a clue, and is therefore discovered with a general ability, Surveillance. Indeed, there’s a pipe bomb on the other side of the door, set to explode with a crude motion activator. The Difficulty of the test is 4. You are using the stringent, designer-approved option of requiring spends of general points before die rolls are made.

TIM: I spent 2 Surveillance on the attempt.

Tim rolls a 6; he succeeds.

YOU: There’s definitely something on the other side of the door. A pipe bomb, looks like. It would have gone off if you’d opened the door without checking.
TIM: “Pipe bomb, folks. Stand back.” Do I use Explosive Devices to defuse it?
YOU: No, that’s an investigative ability. You can use that to gather information about the bomb afterwards. But to actually defuse it, you need a general ability-Infiltration.
TIM: Right. I spend 2 Infiltration on it.

The Difficulty of the test to defuse the bomb is also 4. Tim rolls a 5, succeeding.

YOU: By sticking a screwdriver through the gap in the door, you manage to unhook the top of the bomb from the activator device. The door to the truck is safely open.
TIM: Okay, so now that I have a deactivated bomb in my hand, is there anything my Explosive Devices ability tells me about it?

Merely by mentioning that he has an applicable ability, Tim gets all the basic information gleanable from the bomb.

YOU: It’s a garden variety pipe bomb, the kind any maladjusted kid could put together with time and access to a copy of The Anarchist’s Cookbook. However, the neatness of the execution suggests that it was put together by an experienced, meticulous maker.
TIM: My street smarts haven’t really come into play so far. I really want to impress the others with some serious bomb knowledge. Can I learn more with a spend?

You hadn’t considered this, but quickly make up an additional cool-though only marginally germane-fact about the bomb.

YOU: Not of Explosive Devices, but are you able to make a 1-point Streetwise spend?
TIM: Sure.
YOU: From the blue tape on the handle, the style of the bomb seems at first glance to match that of the notorious Blue Tape Bomber, who struck a number of mob-run businesses along the eastern seaboard between 1987 and 1990. But, being the streetwise guy you are, you know for a fact that those were made by Sal “Four Fingers” Maldonado, who died after coronary surgery nearly ten years ago. So whoever made this bomb is trying to throw you off track.
LYNNE: “Very good, then, let’s check out the van.”
YOU: The air inside is rank-filled with the smell of rancid blood and wet cardboard.
LYNNE: [miming a handkerchief placed over her nose] “Auggh!”
RICH: We step inside. What do we find?
YOU: Blood spatters on the floor and walls. Several empty, half-assembled cardboard boxes, in the packaging style of well-known courier companies, sit stacked by the driving compartment. A big blood smear is visible on the wall right beside the compartment.
RICH: After taking a sample of the blood with Evidence Collection, I use Fingerprinting to check the smear.

You now provide Rich with the Fingerprinting information in your case notes.

YOU: There are four smeared but distinct prints running through the blood spatter. However, on a careful inspection, from the unevenness of the pressure, you figure that they were placed there by someone holding another person’s limp or unresponsive hand.
RICH: Unresponsive how, exactly?
YOU: Want to make a 1-point Fingerprinting spend?
RICH: Of course.
YOU: From the angle of the prints, they were made by someone manipulating a severed hand during the stages of rigor.
LYNNE: [Looking at her character sheet] Okay, what can I contribute? Architecture does me no good… Art History, no, Forensic Accounting, no. Oh wait, Forensic Entomology. Any insect evidence in here?

Your case notes say there is: the core clue, in fact.

YOU: Trapped in the blood is a dead insect-a mature American Grasshopper. This is worth noting, because this species isn’t found this far north. You’d normally expect it in the southeast: Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, the Carolinas…
LYNNE: “Hold on-Kentucky!” [Consulting her notes.] “The first hand mailed to Emily Schroeder in Pittsburgh-that belonged to Kenneth Cross, who lived in Cleveland. But his hometown was Independence, Kentucky. His neighbors said they thought nothing of his absence because they believed he was away on a trip. What if he really was away-if he went home to visit family? I bet our actual crime scene is down there. And who goes to a small place like that to commit a murder, if you don’t already know it? Our Esoterror cell has a connection to Independence, Kentucky.”
TIM: “I’ll put in a travel requisition right away-meanwhile, the two of you keep tossing the truck for any other clues …”

The above example shows you the players responding to specific details of the scene to choose which investigative abilities to use, and also trolling their character sheet for abilities that might yield something. It also shows two ways of handling investigative spends. In the first instance, the GM invents another layer of detail to give a player a desired sense of reward. In the second, the spend is in the case notes already, and the GM frames the description of the basic clue in such a way as to inspire the player to call for it.

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system seen in The Esoterrorists and upcoming follow-on games and supplements can be used for any mystery or procedural game. We’ll be presenting new settings in the future, but in the meantime, the game’s core engines are easily adaptable to whatever investigative genre you want to run. Here’s how to adapt GUMSHOE to emulate your favorite procedural, whether it be 24, Torchwood, CSI, or The X-Files.

Step One: Study Your Source

First, immerse yourself in the property you want to recreate. You may be adapting a specific procedural, or drawing from a broad subset of similar shows. It might also be fun to combine the structure and tone of a well-known TV show with the genre elements gamers love: “It’s Cracker, but with werewolves.”

For the sake of a default frame of reference, I’m assuming a TV show here, but the general principles apply equally to novel series: you could just as easily adapt Sherlock Holmes, Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, Iain Pears’ art-world mysteries, or Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-centric whodunnits.

Creating your own original property requires less homework but is tougher in some ways. You’ll have to portray your setting and narrative formula to the players without the shorthand that comes with the shared viewing experience of a popular show.

Start by identifying the structure of your source’s typical episodes. Look for standard elements that recur from one episode to the next; these will help you to construct scenarios. For a long running property with many cast changes over the years, determine if the various characters fall into distinct types.

Make a master list of the various GUMSHOE investigative abilities. When one of these abilities, or a close analogue, comes up in the course of an episode, put a tick mark next to it. If abilities appear which have no counterparts in GUMSHOE, make a note of that. Pay special attention to the interpersonal abilities, which are easy to gloss over, appearing as they do in the ebb and flow of dialogue, interrogation and interview scenes.

Take note also of what the characters are able to do during non-investigative scenes. Again, note what GUMSHOE abilities you see in action, and which other abilities you’ll have to define for your game.

Gauge how competent the protagonists are. Are the action sequences, if any, over the top and stylized, or gritty and real?

As is often the case in adaptations to the RPG format, you may have to adjust a series featuring a single protagonist (or a duo) to make an entire team of characters co-equal centers of attention.

Step Two: Investigative Abilities

Take the list of abilities you’ve compiled during your homework. Note how fine-grained the technical and academic abilities seem to be. Is a big distinction made, for example, between the various forensic disciplines? If so, you’ll likely want to use a large list of abilities, as seen in The Esoterrorists. Otherwise, a more stripped down, general list likely suits better. Such a list appears in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror book, Fear Itself.

Look at the abilities you haven’t seen in play in your source material. Can you envision them ever appearing? If so, include them. If not, leave them out.

Certain forensic techniques will be unavailable in non-contemporary settings. Forensic entomology is a very recent sub-discipline, for example. An ancient or medieval sleuth won’t be looking for fingerprints. Other disciplines might be available in more primitive form, providing less information. For example, a photographic expert in a 1940s hardboiled game will have less to go on than his contemporary, computer-equipped counterpart. In some cases, you’ll want to rename abilities: forensic psychology might become alienism.

Once you’ve assembled your final list of investigative abilities, divide the number of abilities by the number of players who you expect will regularly attend your game, then add a handful of points to this total. This gives you the number of build points the players get to buy their investigative abilities during character creation.

Step Three: General Abilities

Repeat the above process with general abilities. Most basic general abilities will apply to any setting, but there are a few that need tweaking for historical genres. Pre-industrial characters might use Riding or Carting instead of Driving, for example.

(When in doubt as to whether an ability is general or investigative, ask yourself if it can be used to gather information, or to perform some other task. If it’s the latter, it’s investigative. If the former, it’s general. If what seems to be the same talent can both gather information and perform other tasks, split it into two, making it both an investigative and general ability. The prime example of this are the Reassurance and Shrink abilities, which resemble each other thematically but have different narrative functions.)

If your setting is gritty and realistic, give the players around 5 build points for each general ability. For a more over-the-top setting, assign 8-12 points per general ability. Some general ability lists will include specialized abilities that few PCs will want; if so, omit them when tallying your total number of abilities.

In certain fantastic genres, you may want to create a subclass of special abilities, like super powers or psychic talents. Write descriptions of these so the players know how they work. It may be that some are investigative and some general; be sure to indicate which is which. Assign them a separate build point total, reflecting the degree to which you want these talents present in your game. You will probably also want to limit the number of special abilities each player can take, or allow only a restricted number of PCs to have them.

Step Four: Conceptual Aids

If characters in the setting tend to fall into definable categories, write brief descriptions of each type, to help the players fit their characters to the property.

Look at what motivates the characters in the property. If necessary, create guidelines or rules structures to assist players in acquiring the necessary mindset. For example, Fear Itself character creation requires the players to pick the worst thing their characters ever did. This provides a plot hook to use in flashbacks and scenes of character development. It also requires you to pick from a list of possible motivations to take the apparently stupid risks that get horror characters into entertaining danger. A rule then provides an incentive for reluctant players to make the choices that drive stories of this type.

Step Five: What to Leave Out

Just because a rule structure is present in current iterations of GUMSHOE doesn’t mean that it will work for your property. Stability, for example, is essential for horror-based mystery games but inappropriate for all but the most punishing and gritty crime or detective properties.

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Everybody knows this ancient joke: A guy goes to the doctor. He rotates his arm a bit and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” So the doctor says, “Don’t do that.”

When designing roleplaying rules to emulate narrative sources, much of the job consists of finding places to say the same thing: “Don’t do that.”

As we all know, the roleplaying form grew out of the war-gaming scene. Its earliest incarnations focused on tactical play. This was, and remains, a fun and rewarding play style. The choice to focus on dramatic structure rather than tactical choices is not a repudiation of the older mode of play, or an evolution to a superior state of being. It’s just aimed at creating a different sort of fun.

It’s also usually a matter of emphasis, rather than of aesthetic purity. Storytelling elements can suddenly intrude into the most determinedly experience-point grubbing dungeon crawl. Moments of tactical decision-making may become appropriate in even the most experimental of narrative games.

That said, many of us tend to default to the assumptions of the tactical style when we design or play narrative-based games, because that’s where the entire roleplaying tradition stems from. It can be profoundly liberating to question these assumptions, sometimes tossing them out the window in favor of simpler choices that better model the literary or cinematic sources we’re striving to emulate. To say, “Don’t do that.”

The “don’t do that” principle can be difficult to implement when players have grown emotionally invested in particular ways of doing things during their time playing tactically-oriented games. In my narrative-based game system, HeroQuest, I keep trying to get rid of the fine differences between various sorts of weapons and armor. In the fictional source material, they provide defining gimmicks for the various characters but rarely, if ever, serve as a determining factor in success or failure. A combative character who wields a strange or unlikely weapon is so well trained in it that it’s as good in his hands as the default weapon wielded by the average character. Incremental differences between armor and weapon types belong in the detail-crunchy world of tactical play, not in an abstract system designed to mimic dramatic structure. Yet players who are otherwise on board with the general concept of story play still have that love of those crunchy differences ingrained in them from their happy formative experiences with tactical games. You’ll see, when the upcoming generic version of the HeroQuest rules come out, to what extent I managed to win the battle this time around.

The central “don’t do that,” at the heart of the GUMSHOE system concerns the mechanism whereby players in an investigative scenario gain the clues they need to solve the mystery. The tactical tradition treats this as a skill use like any other, with a chance of failure corresponding to your investment of character resources into that skill. Say you need to find out what your suspect’s grandfather was doing during World War II. You roll your Library Use skill. If you allocated enough points to Library Use during character creation and/or manage to score a lucky roll, you get the information you need. If you invested lightly in the skill, or roll poorly, you’re screwed. In theory, that is.

In reality, GMs either fudge the roll, or improvise a workaround, giving the characters repeated shots at discovering the same fact with various abilities, until one of them finally succeeds, permitting the plot to free itself from its rut and lurch onward. The standard approach borrows some of the outward aspects of a tactical game, but in fact relies on GM kludging to prevent them from operating-as it must, to serve the demands of story structure, which craves ongoing forward momentum.

GUMSHOE says, “Don’t do that.” Since the end of the process is a foregone conclusion — the characters get the info they need-why waste time, focus and creativity with a system that provides only the illusion of chance? Instead, GUMSHOE provides a character generation system which guarantees that someone in the group will have made the necessary investment in every information-gathering ability, and which then grants access to clues on that basis. It is a simpler, streamlined way of achieving what good GMs are already doing-without the pointless and annoying faffing about.

Some GMs of investigative games have responded to second-hand descriptions of GUMSHOE by saying that, because it ensures that players always get the clues they need, it does what they are already doing. In other words, they’re saying that they’re already not doing that. I wonder to what extent this assertion matches reality. When a game design provides a rule, that rule tends to get used, even when it shouldn’t. Its use occurs reflexively, even invisibly.

The crystal ball I use to peer into other peoples’ houses while they GM is in the shop for repairs, so I guess I can’t conclusively say that commenters are mis-describing their own play style. However, my bet would be that most of them are:

• putting absolutely crucial information (what in GUMSHOE are called core clues) out in plain sight, with no skill use (and therefore no roll) required

or

• employing the above-mentioned workaround, continually finding new ways to reveal the same information, until somebody finally gets the needed roll

and

• still requiring skill rolls for less essential clues

We have probably abetted this misperception by emphasizing the fact that GUMSHOE never leaves you stuck on a failed die roll. The traditional skill roll method tends not to leave you stuck in practice, because GMs have grown used to clumsily working around it. For those folks, the value of the GUMSHOE approach is not that it does something they can’t or haven’t done before, but that it does so with smooth and seamless efficiency. It’s not only what it does, but how it does it.

The result is a faster, sleeker approach to emulation of the mystery structure. When the emphasis is taken off the finding of clues and placed on their interpretation, the pacing and tenor of sessions change substantially. This is the benefit of looking at established practices and saying, “Don’t do that.”

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.

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