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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Works for me,” nods Stan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your high-concept elaboration of this might be:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Julia Ellingboe

[Editor] Julia Ellingboe is the author of Steal Away Jordan, an RPG about slavery in the United States.

“Steal Away Jordan is about playing heroes” has become my mantra of late. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan can be as accessible as any story game which doesn’t make race a theme. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan, despite the brutality incorporated in the mechanics, is fun and is not an exercise in futility. I declare it to illustrate that all Americans share African American history. We all own the stories of slaves who survived against all odds.

I’ve been saying this hero thing quite a bit lately and I believed that any misunderstanding of this idea was based in culture. My mother is an American History professor. I am a descendant of slaves and other African American “heroes”. This is the message my parents taught me. I come from a long line of survivors. I figured that most African Americans believed the hero myth of their ancestors. I recently had the chance to test my belief, and was pleasantly surprised that others shared part of my mantra.

The director of the Digital Moving Image Salon and the head of the computer games section of the Computer Science Department at Spelman college invited me to give a presentation on Steal Away Jordan . My audience would be one with whom I’ve never had an opportunity to play or discuss my game: mostly African American women who have never played a role playing game before. This was a whole new choir for me. I assumed they would get the desire to create a game where the characters looked like us, even if they didn’t get the whole role playing game thing. I started to squirm about the hero idea. While lurking on a forum devoted to people of color interested in comic books and comic book heroes, I discovered that quite a few black folks find the whole notion of playing a slave less than fun. I didn’t know what to expect.

I gave a short dress rehearsal presentation and demo in a Computer Science seminar class on operating systems. I opened by asking, “When you think of slave narratives, what comes to mind.” A young man, a Morehouse student, sheepishly raised his hand. “Suffering, punishment, pain.” He said. Another student offered similarly dismal words.

“No one thinks, ‘hero’?” I asked. The students replied with blank stares. I’ll show ’em! I thought. I started a quick demo. I gave the three women standard slave names from the game text: Abyssinia, Button, and Jane. I named the Morehouse student Caesar. They each created characters. When they went around the table and introduced their characters, All four players had created highly skilled, intelligent, attractive, slaves; powerful in their own right. In play, they certainly acted like them. The midwife protected a mother from an angry mistress, despite the risk to herself. Caesar, a blacksmith, waited for the right moment to exact revenge on an abusive owner even though it meant his hard work and expertise would go unrewarded and unrecognized. They all created characters who certainly rose to the occasion. I was encouraged. Maybe this slave as hero thing wasn’t just part of Bond family lore. Maybe there was something universal about it.

That evening I gave my presentation to a crowd of about twenty which included some relatives. Two were seasoned roleplaying gamers. All but two attendees were African American. I preached my hero gospel and used a short clip from a Boondocks episode (“The Story of Catcher Freeman”) to illustrate my point. And I ran a demo with three volunteers with two men and a woman. The men were the seasoned gamers. The woman was my cousin, an Atlanta native who came to see what this whole roleplaying stuff was all about. One of the players was one of the not black folks in the audience. Thankfully, Sam Chupp of the Bear’s Grove podcast, recorded the presentation

In Steal Away Jordan, the GM gives you a name and a worth, which is the number of dice you roll in a conflict. Players create tasks, motives, and goals for their character. The GM is not privy to these. After character creation, I left the room and the players, with audience assistance, created their tasks, motives, and goals. I had never heard this process until I listened to Sam’s recording. All that stuff about heroes, while I still maintain as the key to fun in Steal Away Jordan , paled in importance to another theme: community. Sure a roleplaying game of slave narratives is about heroes, but in order for any individual character to rise to heroism, she needs the support of her community. Heroes don’t act in a vacuum, and when there are no superhuman feats to achieve, pure survival against all odds requires networking, friendship, and someone with your back.

I gave the players five minutes to discuss their goals, decide if they wanted to share goals (such as rebellion or forming an underground railroad), and I asked the other audience members to help them out. It took them fifteen minutes to do this. I didn’t hear their conversation until I listened to the recording of the presentation. It was a game designer’s dream. The players started roleplaying while they discussed their goals. They, both characters and players, made friends with each other. The other people in the audience gave suggestions, and from what I heard, enjoyed the “performance”. When I came back into the room, unbeknown to me, the game had already begun. I ran through a few examples of the mechanics, and wished I’d had more time to actually play the story. Little did I know they already had.

So back to my “hero” mantra. When I want to convince potential players that Steal Away Jordan is just like any other role playing game, except, perhaps in setting I still bring up the hero thing and the survivor thing. To it I add that the game is also about building a community and surviving together. Heroism cannot happen in vacuum. The reason we play is to spend time with our friends, strengthen our own community, and in the process, have fun.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in December 2007. 

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system focuses primarily on investigation and by default assumes that moments of interpersonal conflict will be handled through roleplaying. As such it lacks an equivalent of the Persuasion/Rebuff system that lies, for example, at the heart of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. However, if you’re seeking a more mechanically robust way to adjudicate the outcomes of arguments, negotiations, debates and seductions, there are plenty of options to choose from.

When contemplating a new rule or technique, the GUMSHOE way is to look at the source material, see what techniques it typically uses, and find the simplest possible means of implementing it, consistent with the rest of the system.

Scenes of interpersonal conflict in mystery novels and TV procedurals are usually handled as in any other dramatic genre, although usually in a more compressed and decisive way.

In resolving a character conflict in fiction, an author ideally finds a plausible and organic way to portray a plot development he deems to be necessary to his story. This necessity may arise from, among other reasons, a desire to illuminate character, jolt the audience, or move a story toward its inevitable conclusion. In a roleplaying game, the outcome is not preplanned. The PC may or may not bring about a plot turn that moves the group toward a successful resolution. Two elements must be in place: the player has to devise a believable plan, and then the character must have the wherewithal, and perhaps luck, to implement it.

In the case of interpersonal conflicts, what is plausible and organic depends on the motivations of the character being persuaded. What the GM does determine in advance are the motivations and intentions of the NPC with whom the PC enters into the verbal exchange.

The motivation is what the character wants. This goal can be specific or general. The more proactive the NPC, the more specific the goal will be.

Specific goals might include:

  • gaining the Botticelli secret
  • killing Carson Gersh
  • selling the Winston house
  • getting the suitcase full of money

General motivations are more inchoate and psychological:

  • earning approval
  • hiding sense of insecurity
  • destroying father figures
  • pursuing affection

If you want to get fancy about it, a specific goal might be rooted in a general goal. Ernest Combs may want to gain the Botticelli Secret to destroy a father figure, his hated former mentor Elias Thwaite.

Greater complexity can be added in the form of multiple or even contradictory motivations. Mrs. Spooner may want to rent the downstairs apartment, earn the flirtatious attention of handsome men, while still proving that she is a respectable citizen.

GUMSHOE is player-facing, meaning that it treats PCs and NPCs differently. PCs are the protagonists, who act. NPCs exist only in relation to them and tend not to make rolls on their own. So if an NPC sneaks up on a PC, the action is resolved not by the GM rolling for the NPC, but by the player rolling against his Surveillance or Sense Trouble ability to see if he notices.

The implication of this principle in interpersonal conflicts is that the PCs are not open to being persuaded or bamboozled, as they are in Dying Earth, by a rules resolution. Only when the players decide it’s in character to be deceived or inveigled do they act against their better judgment. This is in keeping with the procedural genre, which can be described as a romance of competence.

In a scene of personal conflict, then, a PC must overcome the NPC’s resistance, rooted in his motivation, and pivot him so that he becomes open to an action he is at first unwilling to embark upon.

We already have this in the system with Interpersonal Investigative abilities. NPCs are often resistant to giving out information until the players figure out what ability (Bargain, Flattery, Seduction, Streetwise, et al) can best be used to overcome their objections.

Interpersonal abilities can also be used to overcome resistance in other areas. To do so, the player must specify a tactic. The tactic is an approach, offer, or argument made to overcome another person’s resistance. This might or might not cite an interpersonal ability. Let’s say that Ernest Combs has taken a hostage, who the PC wants to him to release.

If the player comes up with a tactic, which, given Combs’ motivations, will make his capitulation seem plausible, the conflict is resolved in his favor:

  • “Through Intimidation, I make myself seem like a forbidding father figure, then offer to swap places with the hostage.”
  • “Through Flattery, I tell him he’s better than this—if he hurts a hostage, Elias Thwaite will be elated by his moral failure.”
  • “I Bargain with him, promising him a photocopy of the map room if he lets her go.”

Sometimes non-Interpersonal abilities might apply:

  • “I use Theology to remind him that these are not the actions of a man of faith.”

A prepared GM can designate one or more possible successful tactics ahead of time, but should also be ready to accept unexpected yet equally plausible suggestions from the players.

This system not only emulates the source literature, but gives investigators a reason to learn more about the NPCs in any scenario—you never know when you’ll need to persuade them of something later on in the story.

The extent to which ability ratings influence outcomes is a matter of taste.

The minimalist approach is the triggered result—here, resistance is overcome simply by citing an ability plus a plausible tactic (or even a plausible tactic to which no ability applies.) The triggered result is congruent with the clue-gathering mechanic.

You may wish to have players pay a toll to succeed in interactions which yield non-informational advantages. In this case, require an interpersonal spend. The player succeeds after paying 1 or 2 points from the cited ability. Combs releases the hostage on a 2-point spend of Intimidation, Flattery, or Bargain, depending on which tactic the player selects. Add complexity by assessing different spend levels reflecting the relative aptness of the various tactics: the Bargain might cost 1 point, whereas the Flattery, which is a bit of a stretch given the investigator’s previously expressed antipathy for Combs, costs 3.

Finally, you might prefer, even with a plausible tactic, an uncertain or chancy outcome. In an interpersonal contest, the GM assigns a Difficulty to the persuasion attempt, based on the aptness of the tactic. A Difficulty of 4 is standard; higher than that represents an especially tough challenge. The player can add to the die result by spending points from the relevant investigative ability, gaining a +2 result bonus for each ability point spent. This approach is in keeping with traditional roleplaying approaches to the problem, and introduces an element of suspense, and, therefore, uncertainty. On the downside, it is less like the source material, and therefore less GUMSHOE-y.

You may always find that one of the three techniques—the triggered result, interpersonal spend, or interpersonal contest—is best suited to your style of play. However, you may find that certain situations call for the automatic certitude of the triggered result, while others cry out for the plot-branching potential of the interpersonal contest. Creators of fiction vary their techniques to achieve a range of effects, and GMs should do likewise.


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.

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