When asked to explain GUMSHOE, a key section part of my standard spiel goes like this:

“GUMSHOE says that it is never interesting to fail to get information. When you use an Investigative ability, you never have to roll a die. If you have the right ability and use it in the right way, you simply get the clue. However, in the case of other abilities, it is interesting, if sometimes horrible to fail—you slip and fall when the vampire is chasing you, or get caught sneaking into the installation, or are thrown from your horse while trying to impress the empress and her sneering courtiers. These are the general abilities, which you do have to roll for.”

By definition I only present this pitch to people unfamiliar with the game.

Old hands, like the people reading this blog, might have a question, though.

How interesting is it, really, to fail at certain classic GUMSHOE general abilities?

Most general abilities lead to clear positive outcomes on failure and negative consequences on failure.

With the various fighting skills, you win a fight or land a blow. Sneaking / Infiltration gets you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Riding, Driving and Piloting avert disaster during chases and other dangerous transportation situations. Stability / Composure maintains mental self-control in weird or pressuring situations. In all cases, success gives the players a triumphant moment, while failure ratchets up the tension.

But what about the resource-related general abilities, you might ask. This list starts with Preparedness, the general ability every other member of the Pelgrane team were mad at me for picking first when we did the “My Favorite Ability” video series. Other examples include Network from Night’s Black Agents and Scrounging from Yellow King Roleplaying Game: The Wars.

On the surface, failing a test with these abilities leads a character nowhere.

  • A Preparedness failure means you don’t have the ingredients for an improvised explosive.
  • A Network failure indicates that your favorite Sevastopol gun dealer can’t sell you a Dragunov SVD because she just got bagged by the GRU.
  • A Scrounging failure establishes that you’ll don’t find a cache of stored rations to feed those starving villagers.

A less astute reader than yourself might consider these uninteresting failures. It is true that they don’t move the plot forward. Still, they carry an emotional resonance, because they allow the players to specifically envision what success looks like.

When you ask if you have explosives ingredients, know a gun dealer in Sevastopol or can locate a nearby food cache, you’re imaginatively envisioning a possible event. This gives you a moment of hope. Readers of Hamlet’s Hit Points will recognize this as an Anticipation beat. Should you succeed, you get a second emotional up moment. (HHP beat analysis calls this a Procedural up beat.) Should you fail, you instead feel disappointment, as the prospect of the explosion, gun buy, or relief operation you were picturing melts away on you. Either way, the failed test carries emotional content — or, you might say, interest.

If you always succeeded with resource-style general abilities, you wouldn’t get that. The possibility of failure, even when it requires you to scrap one idea and find another, is what makes these abilities exciting in play.


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.

He’s written several books and more than one chapter on the subject. In this Pelgrane Press video dispatch, GUMSHOE and DramaSystem designer Robin D. Laws distills it all down to his top game mastering tip.

GUMSHOE divides abilities according to whether failure at that ability can drive narrative. Because it is never interesting to fail to get information, you never fail with your investigative abilities. General abilities, on the other hand, do offer the possibility of something interesting—if often horrible—happening when you fail a test. You can fail to run from the shoggoth while Fleeing, fail to repair your sputtering Cessna’s instrumentation with Mechanics, or fail to keep your wits about you with Composure.

However, just because failure is often interesting doesn’t mean that any given instance of it will always best further the story.

As a GM, you may see no particularly entertaining outcome from a failed test.

  • Failing to Sneak past the security guards, as you have imagined them, doesn’t get you a classic interrogation and escape sequence. Nope, just an exasperating hassle that delays the confrontation with the escaped sapient lab rats.
  • When a character is Riding to impress the hardbitten rodeo clowns, a failed test prevents you from running that scene where they try to recruit the group into their ranks.
  • A Counterinsurgency failure might rubbish the otherwise cool plan the group has spent half an hour cooking up, forcing them back into planning mode.

A common and often useful solution to the boring failure calls for the GM to replace failure with a costly success. You get past the guards but lose 2 Preparedness points when you drop your kit bag. You impress all but one of the rodeo clowns, who later tries to brain you with a wrench. You blow up the revanchist hideout but are identified by witnesses while doing so.

However, the existence of this technique shouldn’t prevent you from doing the simple thing instead: sometimes, you can just let them win!

Success establishes the character as competent and impressive, a feeling the players might not get enough of in a tense session. You get a reward as well, skipping an unneeded complicating factor. In a scenario already packed with action, that wrench-wielding rodeo clown might be one plot wrinkle too many to squeeze in before the session clock runs out.

Even an action that should feel difficult and could yield a rewarding story turn in other circumstances, could in certain instances create more fun as an automatic success.

A failure at the top of a scenario, especially the first one, starts the proceedings on a sour or unintentionally comic moment.

Failures that slow the action just as you’ve gotten it rolling likewise get old fast. If you’ve already got plenty of suspense bubbling, yet another problem to deal with registers as demoralizing overkill.

This doesn’t mean that characters should be able to succeed at unbelievably difficult tasks just to speed your the pacing.

But so long as success feels credible, or can be made to seem that way by your adjusting your description of the situation, you may find the prospect of certain failures overrated.


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

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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I always thought that the great breakthrough of the roleplaying hobby into the pop culture mainstream would occur at a remove. As Hollywood’s obsession with brightly-colored genre properties ready for their CGI close-ups accelerates, I always figured it was only a matter of time before some enterprising producer sniffed out a gaming property and had a big hit with it. Sure, we’ve already had a D&D movie and a Vampire TV show. The comics field also had a long list of disappointing attempts — even some very successful ones, like Superman in the 70s and Batman in ’89 — before the success of X-Men prompted an all-out buying spree for the movie rights to comic book characters. Now that even the fourth-tier comics characters have been parceled out,it seems logical to expect somebody in Hollywood to pony up and knock one out of the park with a Shadowrun or Deadlands flick. (And, hey, I just happen to know a guy who owns this property that’d make a great vehicle for a Chow Yun-Fat / Jet Li pairing…)

Turns out I was, as is so often the case, wrong.

Who would have thought that the multi-million dollar media explosion would take its cues from the ever-so-humble, studiously non-commercial LARP? (Also known as a ‘freeform’ to the Brits in the house.)

All around the world, all around the TV dial, Live Action Roleplaying rules the airwaves.

What? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed all the LARPS!

Survivor? Big Brother? The Bachelor? Average Joe? The
Apprentice?

After, all, what are they but televised, pre-processed versions of those games of negotiation and hoodwinkery we all know so well? The guy with the goth-style top hat standing on the escalator at Origins, his crossed arms proclaiming his state of invisibility, is involved in the same essential activity as Richard from Survivor or Omarosa from The Apprentice.

The most immediate benefit of this phenomenon is to provide us with a new, more succinct and accessible way to describe our hobby to perplexed relatives and acquaintances. “It’s like a cross between Survivor and Lord of the Rings,” makes up in brevity and easy cultural reference what it lacks in precision. It certainly beats the ever-popular, “Well, you’re improvising a group story, but there are rules, so it’s more like a game, but there’s no ending and nobody ever wins.”

The nobody ever wins part is the second-biggest sticking point that prevents us from expanding beyond the comfortable hobbit warrens of fandom into the culture at large. The only larger obstacle is the requirement that participants exercise their creativity by creating a fictional character and contributing to a group narrative.

You might well argue that without these two elements, you no longer have roleplaying as we know it. Maybe so. Still, there could be great benefits to creating a gateway experience. This hypothetical LARP variant might act as a stepping stone to draw new people to our world. It could contribute to our hobby’s infrastructure by becoming a new sub-category of gaming, like CCGs or clicky-base games. It could move crowds into the convention halls and send traffic into game stores. Every little bit helps.

At the very least, a compare ‘n’ contrast between the reality TV genre provides an interesting thought experiment. What elements do they have that our games don’t?

Competition

Some LARPS provide clear victory conditions; others parcel out awards to an array of winners and generally celebrate the cooperative spirit of group storytelling. Reality-TV games are all about winning and losing. Our hypothetical gateway experience has to be a game in the purest sense, with one triumphant participant left bloodied but standing at its conclusion. Even those of us in the current roleplaying culture who love Settlers of Catan or Panzer Leader tend to be shier about pure competition than society at large, which trumpets its values at every stadium and sports bar.

Clarity

With competition comes clarity. Instead of the multifarious goals of a lovingly complicated freeform, which might revolve around succession in a vampire clan or the raising of a new goddess, reality TV pounds home a single, simple goal: don’t get eliminated.

Packaging

The big difference between reality TV and our kind of game is the spectator element: you can enjoy it passively, the way almost all entertainment in our culture is consumed.

On reality TV, events are heavily massaged through editing, background music, and other techniques of the medium to emphasize conflict, drama, and emotional impact. They build with epic, drawn-out pacing to the crescendo of each episode, in which the evening’s loser is chosen.

Even if you don’t want to play, you want to watch. Watching breeds excitement. It transforms a game into an event.

Punctuation

In Reality TV, player eliminations provide regular dramatic high points, generating a wave pattern of suspense and excitement. Our LARP-like events, on the other hand, give everyone the chance to participate for as long as possible.

The punchier, more ruthless reality games get their charge by having irrevocably bad things happen to certain participants at predictable intervals. There’s always a freight train coming; the only question is who gets tied to the tracks this time.

Emotion

Reality TV focuses the pursuit of primal goals: love and status. Participants seek the approval of others even as they plan to climb over them.

A huge number of these shows are high-stakes versions of the Dating Game, and appeal strongly to women. Although LARPS tend to draw more female participants than other streams of hobby gaming, in general we do a bad job at pitching ourselves to half of the population. Our LARPS tend to blunt emotional interaction by framing them in boy-friendly martial themes, history, and politics.

Relatability

Though few of us expect to be marooned on an island with a cast of buff, half-naked fellow outcasts, many reality games draw on more universal themes of daily life: trying to get along with the other people in your house, looking for a mate, or, as in North America’s latest reality hit, The Apprentice, vying for success on the job. It might be fun to picture a reality show with magic swords and talking dragons, but the imagery of successful reality TV hits much closer to home.

Money

And in the end, most of these shows offer the winners something everybody wants and can relate to: a big cash prize. With a kitty of money at stake, suddenly any game abstraction, any immunity challenge or contrived stunt, takes on a clear meaning.

Therefore, a more mainstream-friendly flavor of LARP would possess the following traits: simplicity of concept, a spectator element, constant suspense generated by dramatic events at regular intervals, accessible emotion, familiar imagery, and a big pot of money.

I can see the creation of a cash-prize LARP circuit as a serious business opportunity for someone with the capital and vision to make it work.

I can also see the result as something that many current players would flee from at maximum velocity.

That’s reality for you.

A column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I did it again. As heard in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, I made up a new term. Since it is easier to cite articles than podcast episodes, and because new terms want to be propagated, I’ll revisit it here.

The term: table sense.

It’s what developers look for when you write scenarios or source material for roleplaying games.

It’s what game masters need from you when they read your material.

Table sense is what it sounds like: the ability to forecast what will happen at the gaming table when the scene, magic item, background detail, monster or whatever it is comes into use.

How do you get it? By playing roleplaying games of the sort you’re writing for. And more importantly: by picturing the play experience as you write, away from your table.

Table sense may be a particular challenge for writers steeped in the story game world, which assumes a high degree of cooperation to jointly create the designers’ very specific preferred structure. They create a shaped or tailored version of agency with strong parameters.

If the designers doesn’t expect you to punch the bartender in their game of Bowler-Hat Show Ponies (to name a currently popular example), storygame players do not allow such loucheness to cross their minds. Instead their characters proudly stick to wearing bowler hats to equestrian competitions, because that’s the premise the entire game tailors itself to.

In games with a more traditional wide-open agency, where the freedom to act as chaos agents lies well within the expansive remit of any core activity, you can be that eventually some player is gonna at least contemplate some bartender-punching.

Using your table sense, as you write a scene with an annoying bartender and characters with fists at the end of the arms, you know to explicitly answer the question: what happens when someone takes this implicit option?

Table sense reminds you, when writing a setting’s deep backstory, to answer the question: how do the player characters learn about this? What difference does it make to them when they do?

When reviewing a scenario you’ve rewritten, table sense allows you to zero in on those moments when you assume that players will conveniently take this or that action that makes your sequence of action work. Once you’ve spotted them, you can ask yourself if they will really do that thing. You can move from there to the panoply of crazy powers, spells, or tech they might be able to deploy to blow past all of the obstacles you have carefully placed in their path.

Table sense tells you, when creating a new spell or magic item, to ask “will a player be excited to get this? What story possibilities does it create?” It leads you to imagine yourself as a player character gaining the item. Do you keep it, or sell it as soon as you can? If you keep it, what cool things might happen? Depending on the game system and its core activity, butt-kicking might be a cool thing, or a very cool thing. Or not a thing at all, in which case, your table sense reminds you that you’ve designed an item for a game other than the one you’re currently working on, and need to highlight and hit the delete button.

When you apply table sense to a description of a Game Master Character, you can spot the elements you’ve written that will be hard or impossible for a GM to activate. Does your grimy trader on a decaying space station dream of a new life in the core Combine worlds? If so, and you’ve also described him as taciturn and unwilling to reveal his true self, your table sense alerts you to a problem. You must then show how the players can overcome his reticence to learn of his yearnings. While you’re at it, table sense allows you to envision at least one situation in which that actually matters to the players.

In other words, as you write, always think about how the GM will take your text and put it on the table.

Table sense differs depending on the system you’re writing for.

The basic unit of fun in 13th Age is the fantasy fight. If the element you’ve created can feature into a combat sequence, your job is done. On the other hand, your description of the taciturn bartender who yearns to move to a great metropolis of the Dragon Empire ought somehow to relate to a fight the characters are headed toward or have just completed.

GUMSHOE’s core activity is investigation. When you create a monster, you have to ask how it might appear in a mystery scenario. A good old-fashioned ravening beast that lives only for slaughter might fit into a mystery. For the most part though you’ll be looking for cleverer, tricky creatures: less Conan, more X-Files.

Table sense also inspires you to structure information in a way that works at the table. The information on Government Lethal Chambers in the Aftermath sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game appears in FAQ format. This cues the GM to introduce a few key facts, and then encourage the players to ask questions about the world their characters grew up in. Those answers, laid out for ease of reference, tell them about much more than these devices. They allow them to imaginatively engage with the alternate reality of the post-Castaigne regime world. The GM could extract that info from a conventionally structured chunk of setting exposition. And indeed, other bits of world background are presented in that format. But for this key setting linchpin, I made a point of going beyond the reading experience to envision how information goes verbal as it passes from GM to player.

You get table sense from GMing, and then GMing some more, and also by GMing.

It fades over time and must be renewed. If you haven’t run games for years, your developer can spot that. She might also be able to pinpoint the era you came up in, and when you stopped.

Table sense acts as the fuel for the imaginative exercise of seeing sessions in progress that use your material.

Passages written with table sense not only avoid pitfalls and maximize fun, but also help the reader to imagine play in progress, and how great it will be to get a group together to run your game or scenario, instead of one of the many others their time and affection.

When choosing his favorite monster, Robin looked to three criteria: ickiness, impersonality, and versatility.


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.

If your Yellow King Roleplaying Game art students make it all the way to October 1895 unscathed, a dramatic news event awaits them. The Granville-Paris Express spectacularly crashes at 4 pm on the 22nd of October. According to history as it comes down to us, the driver enters the Montparnasse station too quickly and is unable to stop the engine. It rams through its buffer, continues on through the station, and plummets to the street below. It strikes and kills one pedestrian, the wife of a newspaper vendor. The wreck results in a famous photograph, here distorted by the cruel filters of Carcosa.

The investigators might be prompted to look into the crash after the fact, perhaps upon hearing rumors of strange masked figures cavorting in one of its six passenger coaches.

Or was a shipment containing multiple copies of a certain banned play concealed among the crates and parcels of its postal service car?

You may already be thinking that this choice squanders a perfectly good action climax. The player characters ought to be on the car, engaged in a desperate struggle against gargoyles, vampires or an ankou, when it blows into the station. Surely the driver and the guard who failed to operate the handbrake were under attack at the time. Perhaps with the diligent intervention of well-heeled young American artistes they might be spared the fines and, in the driver’s case, brief prison sentence, that faced them in non-made-up history. The court system can’t admit to the presence of monsters conjured up by Carcosan emanations, but an Officialdom Push could go a long way to get them off the hook on the quiet.

Another option: player characters are outside the station, down on the street, when the accident happens, and the derailment is an attack on them. In this version, they might pull the lone victim out of the way in time.Then all they have to do is figure out which of their Aldebaran-worshiping enemies would attempt to wipe them out in such an outlandish and theatrical manner.

Or is the supposed news vendor’s wife in fact an incarnation of Cassilda or Camilla? If so, it’s probably the other sister who tried to drop a locomotive on her.

In yet another version of this event, the player characters might be the ones taking over the train and using it to target one of the princesses. When dealing with the royalty of Hali you don’t want to take chances with a vehicle of lesser impact.

Whichever way you choose to go, it certainly would be a waste of a famous incident of 1895 Paris to do nothing at all with it.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Considering how focused roleplayers are on plundering and looting, it’s surprising how little stealing we’ve done from the world of improv. Like us, sketch comedy troupes use collective, on-the-spot creativity to make entertainment out of nothing. And they don’t even need d12s. Or whatever it is that we need when we say our hobby is like playing cowboys and indians, except with rules to guarantee that the dead stay down when they get shot.

Let’s hijack one of improv’s central principles right now. That fundamental principle is “never negate.” In an improv, you never merely cancel out another participant’s action. Imagine that you and I are performing an improv together. We’ve been given a location by the audience — a construction site — and that’s all we’ve got to work with. You start the skit by sitting down and miming as if you’re removing your lunch from your lunch bucket. Then you say, “Too bad we’re getting fired today, huh? And here I was, just a week away from retirement.”

Now, my mental wheels were already turning the moment I heard the words ‘construction site.’ I had a whole different direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to establish that we were merely amateur construction enthusiasts at construction worker fantasy camp. Maybe my idea was funnier than yours, but now that you’ve taken the lead, I can’t simply negate what you’ve done to clear the decks for my concept. The principles of improv forbid me from simply saying: “You are completely mistaken, Pete. We haven’t been fired at all. In fact, we are amateur construction enthusiasts attending construction worker fantasy camp.”

Instead, I have to set my thought aside and build on yours. Since I’m trying to be funny, I need to add a twist or reversal, or at least a set-up that my partner can turn into a joke. Such as: “Yeah, you kill one measly supervisor and they get all safety-oriented on your ass.” All of our mental prep work — all sixty seconds of it — is out the window, and we’re off in an unexpected direction, flying blind, creating in the moment. This process generates the energy and sense of surprise that makes improv seem funny — often much funnier than the exact same material would be if rehearsed it and polished into a finished sketch.

In the above example, I’m not negating you’re idea, but I’m not just accepting it and parroting it back to you, either. I’ve returned your serve while putting a new spin on the ball. I’ve said, “Yes, but.” Yes, we’re getting fired, but we deserve it — if anything, we’re getting off easy.

Few roleplaying game sessions present situations as open-ended as the very beginning of an improv sketch. There are game rules to take into account, PC backstories to keep consistent, and a certain amount of world detail and plot preparation you hope to preserve. Within these parameters, though, the ‘yes, but’ principle is a powerful technique to engage your players by rewarding their creativity while at the same time keeping them on their toes.

Let’s say you’re running a game in a landlocked fantasy nation with a vaguely ancient Bronze Age feel. A player building a new character, inspired by her recent purchase of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, really, really wants to play a pirate. Your initial response, based on the logic of your world and the prep work you’ve done, is simply to say no. It’s crucial to your geopolitical story arc that the kingdom be landlocked. That pretty much rules out naval piracy. However, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping that player happy, and having her contribute positively to the game, if you can give her part of what she wants. Say, “yes, but…”

“Yes, but in this setting the equivalent of the pirate is the bandit in the hills. The bandits in this world are the same unruly, rum-swilling outlaw types with stolen, ragtag finery and a perverse code of brotherhood you’re thinking of when you use the word pirate. But instead of attacking seafaring ships, they raid caravans from horseback.”

Maybe you hadn’t given any thought to bandits in your setting before now. Now you’ve allowed your player to help shape your world, by making your bandits into pirates with the serial numbers filed off. You’ve given her the feel she wants, while changing the details to preserve the campaign elements you need.

“Yes, but,” can be a useful tool during play, too. Is there a magic item shop in your fantasy city? You’ve decided that there isn’t. Not only do you find this gaming convention too ridiculous for belief, but you’ve also established that the city is ruled by a rapacious robber baron. If such a shop did exist, he’d surely have confiscated its wares long before now. However, when the players look for a magic item shop, tell them why, and then hit them with a “yes, but”:

“Here’s what you learn after a few minutes of asking around: there used to be a magic item proprietor in town, but the Black Baron absorbed its contents into his treasury. Now it’s run by one of his stooges, even though it hasn’t sold an item in years. If adventurers show up to sell something, the Baron’s goons confiscate their treasures and give them the bum’s rush out of town. If they show up to buy, the shopkeeper wheedles as much information from them as he can, then reports them to the Baron. The original owner fled the city and supposedly lives in the cave network by the river. He and a number of other exiles are looking for adventurers willing to aid in the baron’s overthrow. Rumor has it that he squirreled a few of his items out of town before the Baron’s tax collectors swooped in. Maybe he’d still be able to arrange a swap for you.”

Though you haven’t given the adventurers exactly what they want, you haven’t slapped them with a flat no, either. You’ve provided both a plot hook to follow up on, and a way of achieving their underlying goal (buying or selling a magic item) that doesn’t violate your own tastes or campaign logic.

“Yes, but” can, on the other hand, assist you in improvising additional conflicts challenges into what would otherwise be flat, uninspiring scenes of information gathering. Does the spice merchant know anything about the abduction of the high priest, the players wonder. You decide that the answer is “yes, but”: he saw one of the perpetrators, but will provide the information only in exchange for a favor: the adventurers must first forcibly persuade a decadent young noble to leave his daughter alone.

Though you don’t want to go overboard with side missions like this, the occasional instance can inject variety into your session — and also provide play opportunities for players who are more interested in butt-kicking, infiltration, intrigue or puzzle-solving than investigation.

The usefulness of this technique, however you choose to use it, stems from its origins in improv. It encourages you to add options instead of merely foreclosing them. Most importantly, it inspires you to think sideways before answering important questions, preserving surprise not only for the players, but for yourself as well.

As previously mentioned, I’ve been running Canadian Shield, my lighthearted Fall of DELTA GREEN riff, with QuickShock rules. This lets me find gaps in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game card set to rectify here on the Pelgrane blog.

Recently, an investigator’s careless words to a vengeful ghost resulted in an attack on an innocent person, who lost decades from his life to its premature aging power.

Paging through my folder of Shocks, I saw that the cards relating to shame and guilt in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game are all highly tuned to their circumstances. The most obvious candidates refer to the Morale ability, which appears only in The Wars and Aftermath.

Specificity of effect is a good thing, but it does leave room for more generic cards around this theme. After all, what typical group of player characters isn’t constantly pulling skeevy stuff that their fictional counterparts in other media would probably have to confront and possibly be altered by?

This card pair should cover most of the moral corners player characters tend to cut. As usual, the Minor card appears first and the Minor second.

RATHER THOUGHTLESS

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

Discard with a gesture of amends to the person you harmed.

CAN’T LOOK AT YOURSELF

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

If in hand at end of scenario, roll a die. Odd: becomes a Continuity card.

Discard with an act of self-sacrifice commensurate with your offense.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Whether designing for your home game, the GUMSHOE Community Content program, or an independent product using the Open License, the process of designing a scenario for GUMSHOE One-2-One breaks down the same way.

With a few adjustments, detailed here, the process matches that for designing a mystery for standard or QuickShock GUMSHOE.

I built GUMSHOE One-2-One on the assumption that the pressures and focus of running a game for a single player calls for a solid foundation of preparation. When you’re engaged with a player throughout the session, you lack the thinking time to heavily improvise your way through an investigative scenario that holds together in the moment and will make full sense in retrospect. In multiplayer, the group often misses key points in the chaos of discussion and speculation and never looks back. In a solo game the player is much more likely to spot plot holes you inadvertently leave in an on-the-fly session.

Standard GUMSHOE presents two main scenario structures:

* the maze of clues, which presents a flow between established scenes the players can navigate in several directions and to varying outcomes

* the ocean of clues, which lays out a broad situation, relying on player choices to create a narrative by seeking information, with the GM responding to each choice along the way

My scenarios tend to follow the maze model; Ken gravitates to the ocean.

For published One-2-One scenarios, and your own games when getting started, I recommend the tighter maze structure. These allow you to anticipate the Challenges you’ll need to create, described in greater detail below.

If designing a One-2-One scenario based on an existing GUMSHOE game, refer to the GM section of that book, where you’ll find its steps for scenario creation.

Let’s say you want to write a scenario more like the full-on Lovecraftian ones found in Trail of Cthulhu, as opposed to the mythos-noir mashup of Cthulhu Confidential.

Flipping to page 192 of the core book, you see that scenarios consist of:

  • a hook, the initial problem or question drawing the investigators into the mystery
  • the horrible truth, the much worse, Mythos-inflected problem lurking behind the hook
  • the victory condition, a scene or set of circumstances in which the character resolves the central mystery — but perhaps also realizes, in a jolt of cosmic unease, that true and final triumph over gnawing emptiness of the universe is impossible
  • antagonist reactions, scenes that can happen at any time, as the opposing cultists, creatures or other opposition forces of the scenario strike back at the investigator

You then build scenes into a maze of clues, as you would for multiplayer GUMSHOE, making four main adjustments (one of them optional.)

Before doing that, create the character who stars in your scenario.

This allows you to perform the first adjustment, making sure that the plot allows the hero access to Sources whenever she needs information outside her set of investigative abilities. Sources are the Game Master Characters the investigator consults when confronted with areas of knowledge outside her own expertise. So if your final sequence has the investigator plunging down into a Yithian complex buried deep under mysterious Davenport Iowa, write that bit so that she never needs an ability she doesn’t have. Once she lacks the freedom to visit one of her reliable band of experts, she can only rely on her own information-gathering skills.

The second difference between multiplayer and One-2-One scenario construction is that you create structured Challenges instead of the straightforward general ability tests found in Trail.

In a Trail scenario a Difficulty 4 Hypnosis test simply lists what happens when a player succeeds:

A character performing a Difficulty 4 Hypnosis test permits another to remember his

dreams.

For One-2-One, you instead build a Challenge and create its associated Edge and Problem cards, as detailed on p. 44 of Cthulhu Confidential.

Advance 6+: Miles recalls his dream. Also, you are able to implant a suggestion of emotional resilience, protecting him against any further dangers that may lie in wait for him. Gain the Edge card “Power of Suggestion.”

Hold 4-5: Miles recalls his dream.

Setback 3 or less: Miles falls into feverish nightmare, shrieking and groaning for mercy. Gain the Problem card, “Price of Hubris.”

Extra Problem: The process of hypnotizing Miles dredges up your own dread worries of Deep One ancestry. Gain Problem card “Ancestral Glimmerings.”

POWER OF SUGGESTION

Edge

Proposing an outcome that makes story sense, spend this card to allow Miles to extricate himself from any situation.

PRICE OF HUBRIS

Problem

-1 to tests of Mental abilities.

Discard when you fail such a test.

ANCESTRAL GLIMMERINGS

Problem

That fear you suppressed over the family portrait you found in Innsmouth comes back.

Mythos Shock.

Like other Mythos Shock cards, Ancestral Glimmerings might come into play in the Emotional Coda, which brings us to the third adjustment between multiplayer and One-2-One scenario designs. Find places in a standard scenario where a character might die, and instead design that point of suspense into a Problem card that only activates at the end, after the mystery has been solved.

In multiplayer, one investigator might be shot to death in the middle of a session. The player creates a new character while the others continue on, waiting for a moment where the replacement might credibly arrive.

In One-2-One, the character takes a Problem card:

GUNSHOT WOUND

Problem

Discard by Taking Time to get your bullet hole sewn up by a competent doctor or equivalent.

If still in hand at end of scenario, you die.

And finally, preferably during the victory condition scene but maybe earlier, try to write in a scene that emphasizes the character’s aloneness and lack of backup. A particular event at the end of “The Fathomless Sleep” can only happen to a solo character, and plays out as a memorable moment again and again, for multiple GMs and players. I don’t want to spoil it but if you check out the scene you’ll see what I mean. Scenarios don’t absolutely need this element, but they sure pay off when you can fit them in.

To recap, then, scenario design for One-2-One requires XX adjustments from multiplayer:

  1. check access to Sources
  2. create Challenges
  3. move character demise to coda
  4. (optional) find a signature moment that underlines aloneness

GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and other GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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