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.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, to quote Lovecraft. However, when it comes to translating his fiction into games, unknown monsters can be tricky to handle. In a roleplaying game, the players need to be able to make meaningful decisions, and for that, they need some information to give context to those decisions. The more they know, the less unknown there is. (One reason why classic monsters like vampires work well in rpgs – the players know the rules already, and you can present them as a part of a bigger mystery instead of making the investigation all about the monster. They no longer draw their power from fear of the unknown – it’s all about fear of what they might do with their known powers and hungers.)

Sometimes, getting more information about an unknown threat can be scarier. For example, if the characters are the crew of an isolated research base, and they find the mangled corpse of one of their co-workers outside on the ice, that’s scary – there’s a monster out there! However, if the characters then discover another corpse inside a locked room in the base, that’s even scarier – can the monster walk through walls? Is it a shapeshifter, now disguised as one of the crew? Is it in the air ducts?

The players need to discover the ‘rules’ of the unknown monster, and there’s an awkward dance here, especially if the monster can only be defeated by exploiting a particular trait, and especially in a one-shot or short adventure. You need to ensure the players find the information they need without making it obvious or contrived (nothing spoils atmosphere like having a really obvious LOOK, LOOK, HERE’S THE IMPORTANT BIT scene), while still keeping the monster mysterious. So, what are some elegant ways of getting information to the players, without making it seem like you’re setting up the pins with one hand and handing the players a bowling ball with the other?

(An aside – one key question to ask yourself is always, “what’s the characters’ goal?” If the characters can achieve their aims – break the family curse, escape the nightmarish town, discover the fate of their old friend – without having to defeat the monster outright, you can get away with revealing less about the monster. But if your campaign setup or scenario hook demands that the characters take an active role in investigating or thwarting the Mythos, they’re likely to press on to a final confrontation – and if you want to avoid that final confrontation from becoming a chase scene or a shootout, it’ll have to hinge on a meaningful decision by the players, which means giving information about the unknowable horror.)

  • GUMSHOE, of course, promises the players will always get the clues they need if they use their investigative abilities. Try to use multiple tangential clues to the nature of the monster, as opposed to one core revelation that spells out what must be done. Say, for example, the characters are up against a horror from the logos – a monster that manifests when its name is spoke aloud. Dropping lots of hints that connect to this – a corpse with its tongue torn out (Forensics), Occult references to the unspeakable one, a bunch of references to the Scottish play (Art History) – lets the players make that final intuitive leap.
  • In The Dunwich Horror, the Son of Yog-Sothoth can only be destroyed by a ritual. Lovecraft handles this by having the first Whately brother draw attention to the book containing the banishing ritual in an earlier scene. Have the players discover information about the monster while pursuing an apparently unrelated lead.
  • Pacing out the information also helps. The bigger the gap between the players discovering information about the monster, and actually encountering the monster, the better. If the players run into a Colour Out Of Space five minutes after encountering the local inventor with his shed full of high-voltage electrical equipment, then it’s obvious that the Keeper intends for them to use electromagnetic fields as a weapon against the otherwise invincible foe. However, if the players run into the inventor near the start of the adventure, and encounter the Colour much later, then it feels much more like the players cleverly calling back to an established bit of background colour. Lovecraft uses something like this technique in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where Doctor Willett discovers the dismissal formula long before he finally uses it to banish Joseph Curwen. (Of course, the scene where Dr. Willett randomly starts chanting spells out loud would be intolerable railroading in a tabletop game…)
  • Another approach is to undercut expectations. Say the players find out that there was a series of murders fifty years ago when a cult opened up the Box of the Shining Trapezohedron, and now there’s another set of identical murders. Clearly, someone’s taken the gem from the magic box, and the obvious solution to the scenario is to put the gem back in the box. Twist this by having the cult destroy the box before the players can return the gem. Now, the players have to come up with their own variation on that original solution by finding another way to bury the gem before the monster finds them…

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Pity the poor monsters. With Halloween over, they’re nursing hangovers and anticipating fallow months of scant employment over the holiday season.

Here at Pelgrane we love our monsters twelve months a year.

But what happens when you love a monster too much to want your GUMSHOE characters to fight it?

We think of horror stories as featuring monsters as antagonists. Right from the start though, with Frankenstein, the genre has called into question the nature of monstrousness. For every out-and-out fiend, like Dracula, we get a beleaguered beast, like King Kong, we should merely have left alone.

Recapitulating horror tales where we empathize for the Other requires some translation to work in the GUMSHOE format. Investigative horror assumes that the protagonists learn about, and then vanquish, monstrous beings. For this to work the players have to want to see the creatures defeated.

Our key horror games handle this issue by keeping the creatures clearly predatory. The Lovecraftian beasties bedeviling Trail of Cthulhu investigators want to stick our heads in jars or drag us down into the watery depths. The Outer Dark Entities of The Esoterrorists revel in their planned destruction of our world. If they’re misunderstood, it’s by the poor human saps who think they can gain power by letting them through the membrane.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t evoke the more creature-friendly strand of the horror tradition. We do have to exercise some care, ensuring that players can continue to sympathize with their own characters when the monsters they confront turn out to be misunderstood.

Plenty of horror tales have us root for the Other as an instrument of just vengeance. They don’t feature investigators attempting to thwart them. Freaks wouldn’t make a lick of emotional sense if it centered around a team of cops or private eyes trying to protect the cruel Cleopatra and Hercules from terrible comeuppance at the hands of the sideshow performers.

If you’re structuring a GUMSHOE scenario so that the targets of the creatures deserve an awful fate, your players will eventually ask why they’re trying to stop them, instead of helping them.

For example, you might want to explore a social issue through the vengeful ghost trope. At first it might seem appealing to show ghosts of workers killed in 1911’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire fatally haunting sweatshop operators. But if you depict the vengeance as righteous, players won’t feel particularly motivated to protect their victims. If you depict the ghosts choosing the wrong targets, you’re making villains out of the people whose tragedy you meant to highlight.

You can answer that question by making your vengeance-seekers unsympathetic from the jump. Sure, Freddie Krueger wants to get back at the children of the people who burned him to death, but they did that to him because he was a serial killer. This, of course, solves the issue by entirely sidestepping it.

A monster can evoke sympathy even as it nonetheless has to be stopped. It might be justifiably enraged after being dislodged from its lair, or transported to the Broadway stage in chains. Still, its inevitable rampage threatens innocent lives, and the investigators have to discover the means to either pacify or destroy the creature before many more are killed. This allows the investigators to feel a sense of pathos when the beast meets its destruction.

Alternately though, you could design the mystery so that they’re trying to find a way to save both the creature and its potential innocent victims. Maybe they need to find the amulet allowing them to pacify the fish-man, luring it safely back to its lagoon. Or the scenario occurs in the creature’s island, grotto or isolated valley, with the heroes figuring out a way to stop the real antagonists, the showmen who want to capture the so-called monster.

A sapient monster might serve as an unwilling antagonist. A lycanthropy victim might be the one who contacts the investigators, begging them to find a way to cure her condition before the full moon next rises. She’s been through the whole routine of chaining herself up at night, but somehow that always fails, leaving her roaming the moors again. So far she’s only devoured cattle but she’s sure that eventually she’ll stumble across the wrong hiker and tear him apart. The real antagonists might turn out to be the sorcerers who cursed her, man-eating werewolves who don’t want the cure getting out, or the sinister researcher intent on using her blood as a pharmaceutical ingredient.

Your tragic monster might have already gone down the path of murder and destruction, while retaining enough self-awareness to regret it. The cannibal clone of a researcher’s dead husband has enough conscience to regret his flesh-eating compulsion. But then, only human meat grants him sustenance, and he isn’t up for suicide. Again, your scenario could give the players a moral choice between finding a cure or simply killing him.

You could twist this into your take on the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. The heroes discover that the killer they’ve been tracking is one of two personalities occupying the same body. Killing or imprisoning the monster means that the affable, helpful and entirely innocent alter ego suffers punishment too. Do the investigators prevail on the good half to make the ultimate sacrifice? Again, solving the mystery by finding a cure provides a less fraught conclusion for players who rebel when presented with no-win situations.

The easiest version of the sympathetic monster is one in which evil humans know of the creature’s existence and are framing it for their own crimes. The snake folk mind their own business in the remote mountains, until meth cookers familiar with his legend start dropping corpses covered in fake fang marks. When the investigators find out that the real monsters are people, they might take care of them on their own. Or, if they’ve established good relations with the reptile people, they might invite them to help clean up the nest of killers threatening their quiet, isolated lives.


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 Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

See P. XX

a Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

Was it a whole ten years ago that Simon Rogers and I sat by ourselves at a small table on the far fringes of the Gen Con exhibit hall? It feels like only yesterday, that forlorn time when we had nothing to lure passersby but a stack of The Esoterrorists first edition and some Dying Earth books. Yes, it’s the tenth anniversary of GUMSHOE and although we were slow burners at first, the system has gradually inveigled its way into gaming’s collective consciousness. We could have no more humbling/ego inflating proof of that than Pelgrane’s amazing showing at this year’s ENnie Awards. I should count myself lucky that Simon, Cat, Ken and Gar left a few medals on the table for Feng Shui 2.

View from Pelgrane Gen Con booth, 10 years ago (Artist’s Rendering)

On such occasions, one’s thoughts naturally turn to think pieces, and Simon has asked me to look at ways in which GUMSHOE scenarios have changed since the early days.

To me the key innovation has to be the addition of Lead-In and Lead-Out lines to the scene headers. These immediately show the GM where the scene probably fits in the investigative sequence the players create as they wend their way through the mystery. For example:

Harp’s Place

Scene Type: Core

Lead-Ins: The Bait, What’s Up With Chuck

Lead-Outs: Irland is Missing, Dawley, The Water Commission

Although we sometimes also still do scene sequence diagrams, they only really work for very simple, more or less linear scenarios. The more possible ways through the investigation a scenario provides, the more tangled and confused the web of scene connections looks when expressed in diagram form. Instead of acting as a play aid, a diagram makes the scenario look more daunting than it really is. Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs put the information in front of GMs when they really need it—while they’re running the scenes.

From a scenario design standpoint, they encourage the writer to include multiple ways in and out of their scenes, giving players additional options and fighting linearity.

* * *

The other big change, Gar has pointed out, can be seen in the way Investigative point spends are treated. Some early scenarios went a bit off-model by requiring overly high spends for benefits. If you see a 3-point spend in an early adventure, you can almost always strike that out in exchange for a 2 or even a 1. Other early adventures sometimes get stingy by making only the core clues free, and charging for other information you don’t need. Since those first scenarios we have more consistently adopted the approach I have always used, which is to provide plenty of info for free and make the players separate the pertinent from the incidental.

Over the years we have also learned how emotionally invested players become when they choose to spend an investigative point. I initially conceived of investigative spends as just a grace note, a fun minor occurrence that would happen every now and again. No big deal. That thought underestimated the cognitive difficulty of letting go of a resource—any resource. Early scenarios allowed you to find out information in an especially cool way, or add dimension to your character, in exchange for spends. For example, in one of the Stunning Eldritch Tales adventures you can specify that you already know one of the key characters—but it’s up to the player to squeeze a concrete advantage out of that. It turns out that players want a bigger, clearer gain when they spend points. So in more recent scenarios you’ll see us moving more toward palpable game advantages, like bonuses to general ability tests, or being able to avoid a clearly undesirable plot outcome.

You’ll see this thought carried through into the simplified equivalent of investigative spends that appears in GUMSHOE One-2-One. In that iteration of the game they become scarcer resources, and must always deliver something strong when they are spent.

* * *

Roleplaying scenarios in general sometimes lapse into extended passages of background information that might be of interest to the GM while reading but has no likely way to come up in play, and will thus remain undiscovered by the players. GMs need enough information to run the scenario and understand the logic behind the actions of the supporting characters they’ll be playing, in case players hit them with unexpected questions. But when writing it can be tempting to just start spinning out details of the fictional world without finding a way to make them pay off at the table. Even in the early years I think we mostly caught and fixed such passages during the development phase. The Great Pelgrane who sits atop our London eyrie remains vigilant against them today, snapping up transgressors of this principle with his piercing beak.

Another factor I’ve been more cognizant of over the years: the possibility that GMs will over-interpret a throwaway line of in-world description. For example the tradecraft Ordo Veritatis agents use to conceal their identities isn’t mean to become an obstacle during play. Instead the GM should describe it as challenging without making it a genuine uninteresting additional hassle. But if I don’t come out and say this while writing, I can easily mislead the GM into making a big deal of what I regard as an atmospheric element. The general fix for issues like this is to break more readily from fictional world voice to speak directly, designer-to-GM about what I hope to help you make happen at the gaming table.

Other than that the changes to scenarios mostly come from the emulation of the new genres we take on. Ashen Stars required a look at the way investigation works in shows like “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” Likewise with Night’s Black Agents and contemporary spy thrillers like the Bourne Trilo… er, Quadrilogy I guess it now is.

With Cthulhu Confidential and The Yellow King on the horizon, we’ll continue to refine GUMSHOE for particular experiences. I look forward to seeing what our scenarios will look like in another ten years’ time.