Spooky maskWhen running a most improvised scenario (either something as ambitious as the Dracula Dossier or just riffing off a paragraph or two of notes), One Useful Trick is to have a copy of the investigative ability list for your game to hand, and check off abilities as you call for them or the players use them. That lets you see at a glance which abilities you haven’t yet used in play.

Then, look for opportunities to bring in other abilities. Treat it as a prompt, a challenge – “what’s the easiest narrative route in the game from this moment to the action hinging on Art History or Pharmacy or Flirting?”

Often, in improv play, you fall back on the sort of scenes that you’re most comfortable with; I can riff mysterious murders, spooky locations and sieges off the top of my head, but need to remind myself to do interpersonal scenes, crowds, or car chases.

Prompting yourself to bring in abilities you don’t instinctively default to is a great way to vary the scenes in your game. The players in my current Night’s Black Agents game, for example, are much more comfortable hanging back and observing, either by blending into the crowd, perching on rooftops, or getting full value out of all those points invested in Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance and Digital Intrusion. Tracking the abilities used reminds me in the heat of play to put in more interpersonal scenes, forcing them to use messy touch-feely abilities like Reassurance or Intimidation.

A neglected ability doesn’t have to be central to the game, of course. If you’re trying to bring in, say, Astronomy, you could just mention that the characters knows offhand that tonight will be a moonless and especially dark night; often, reminding players that they have a particular ability will start them thinking about ways to use those assets.

Don’t neglect General Abilities, either. If no-one’s used Cover or Disguise in a while, try to drop in some obstacles that require those abilities.

With Crown of Axis out of its design and development phases and currently with the editor, I thought See Page XX readers might be interested in hearing how the adventure came about—a behind-the-scenes look at how one adventure came to be, for aspiring RPG designers or anyone who likes to hear how the sausage gets made.

It began with Rob Heinsoo emailing to tell me that Pelgrane wanted a new 1st level introductory adventure for 13th Age. Shadows of Eldolan and The Strangling Sea are both excellent, but they’d been out for a while and it would be good to have something fresh to offer. Would I be willing and able to write:

  • A 44(ish) page adventure for level 1 characters
  • Introducing GMs and players to 13th Age, its distinctive mechanics, and its approach to F20 roleplaying
  • With different types of antagonists than the other intro adventures (e.g. not undead)
  • As soon as possible?

This was the first time I’d actually been asked to write an adventure instead of volunteering myself. Wreck of Volund’s Glory began as a homebrew adventure I wrote to run at Gen Con, and I pitched it to Kobold Press as a product after a few successful sessions. The general outline of Temple of the Sun Cabal took shape at the 13th Age Adventure Workshop panel at Gen Con, and I offered to write it up as a full adventure for 13th Age Monthly.

This project would also be the longest and most complex RPG project I’d ever tackled. I love a good writing challenge (and seeing my name on the covers of things), so I said yes. Rob asked me to send him a pitch and a proposed outline.

I thought about the adventures that most excited me when I was new to RPGs, playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as a teenager back in the early 80s. As a huge fan of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, I loved city adventures—ones where armed and dangerous rogues wander through bustling markets filled with exotic goods, fight duels, chase pickpockets, evade the city watch, and become embroiled in the sinister schemes of the wealthy and powerful. A lot of introductory adventures are set in the kinds of places Fafhrd and the Mouser left behind in order begin their careers—for this one, the heroes would follow their example and head for the big city.

For a long-form creative project I find it useful to have a one-sentence summary of what this thing is and what it needs to accomplish, so I can refer back to it throughout the process in order to keep myself on track.  For this project it was, “An introductory 13th Age adventure in which the PCs are new adventurers seeking their fortune in a wealthy and powerful city, and which will inspire the same feelings of wonder and excitement I experienced when I encountered City-State of the Invincible Overlord as a teenager.”

And where would such an adventure be set but in Axis, the seat of Empire?

I immediately realized what I’d be getting myself into if I set this adventure in Axis. Writing an adventure to introduce brand-new players and GMs to a game is a heavy responsibility already, but to set it in arguably the single most important city in the game? What on earth was I thinking? But the idea grabbed me and wouldn’t let go: our heroes would test their mettle in the legendary City of Swords itself.

But only if Rob agreed.

NEXT: In Which The Author Adds Meat to These Bones, Researching Axis, Brainstorming Adventure Elements, and Constructing an Outline to Present for Rob’s Stern Judgment

 


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A valued customer asked: how to use GUMSHOE One-2-One, in its Cthulhu Confidential incarnation, to play Fall of DELTA GREEN? Mechanically, the One-2-One system works perfectly for DELTA GREEN play, ably handling the psychological disintegration and physical maiming expected of Agents with Problem cards. The investigative abilities also cross over neatly – I’d suggest the following abilities for the player character:

Agency, Architecture, Cop Talk, Flattery, HUMINT, Inspiration, Interrogation, Intimidation, Military Science, Notice, Streetwise, Survival, Tradecraft and Traffic Analysis, with the other investigative abilities allocated to Sources.

Add Bureaucracy to the list of General Abilities, so our hypothetical Agent has the abilities

Athletics 2, Bureaucracy 1, Conceal 1, Cool 2, Demolitions 1, Disguise 1, Drive 1, Filch 1, Firearms 2, First Aid 1, Heavy Weapons 1, Mechanics 1, Melee Weapons 1, Network 2, Pilot 1, Preparedness 2, Ride 1, Sense Trouble 1, Stealth 2, Unarmed Combat 2. (You could arguably keep Psychotherapy, but as its primary use is helping others, and you’re all alone… it’s probably not worth it.)

Sources & Bonds

Cthulhu Confidential has a supporting cast of recurring Sources who provide both emotional support and investigative abilities; Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, with its globetrotting adventures, has a Network ability and Contacts instead. The Fall of DELTA GREEN requires both. You can call up Contacts who’ll help out for one adventure, but you also have two or three emotional Bonds – people you care about. These people can be useful to your investigations – maybe your best buddy knows Chemistry, or your girlfriend has Art – but a Bond doesn’t have to have any Investigative Abilities.

In addition, you have a Bond with your DELTA GREEN Case Office – the recurring character who gives you your assignments.

If you pick up a Mythos Shock problem that would force your character to leave play at the end of the scenario, you can Burn a Bond, destroying your emotional relationship with that character. You can’t burn your Case Officer.

Sudden Death

Cthulhu Confidential recommends that the Gamemaster refrain from killing the protagonist; Langston may get shot, possessed or driven insane, but he’ll generally struggle on to the final scene before expiring, so the player gets to experience a satisfying story. The Fall of DELTA GREEN, though, is all about disappointment, misfortune and the unknowable nature of the Mythos – so more sudden deaths are perfectly in-genre. (After all, the player can always switch to playing another Agent investigating the disappearance of the previous character…)

All Alone Against The Mythos

So, why are you a lone DELTA GREEN Agent, instead of the usual cell of investigators? Some options:

  • Lone Globetrotter: It’s a lot easier for DELTA GREEN to get a single Agent out to a flashpoint than a whole team. You’re the first Agent in to investigate suspected Mythos activity. Your cover role is one that involves lots of travel (AFOSI investigator, CIA Operative, CDC disease hunter, FBN investigator, US Marshal, FBI Special Agent, journalist).
  • The Cleaner: You work directly for one of DELTA GREEN’s steering committee – you’re the trusted right hand of, say, Brigadier General Fairfield or Dr. Warren, and get dispatched to clean up messes or further your patron’s interests against rival factions on the Executive Committee or against the guys over in MAJESTIC.
  • Our Man in Havana: You’re DELTA GREEN’s go-to guy in a particular city or region; maybe you’re a CIA spy attached to the US embassy in Rome, or a Five Eyes SIGINT analyst in New Zealand who takes a lot of trips to isolated mysterious islands in the South Pacific…

The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Four Hallowe’en Horrors for the Yellow King RPG

(Photo by Rick Monteiro on Unsplash)

 

The Ugly Americans (Paris)

Hallowe’en is an American tradition – well, mostly derived from immigrants from the United Kingdom, but America added a lot of sugar and exported it back. Certainly, it’s not a French tradition – the French celebrate La Toussaint, All Saint’s Day, on November 1st.

But you’re American students in Paris – if you can’t be obnoxiously loud and tacky tonight, then something’s terribly wrong with reality.

So, the characters go on an absinthe-and-candy-fuelled bender across Parisian pubs and cafes, dressed in unlikely costumes. Obviously, they have to call in on the Montmartre Cabaret (du Néant, and de l’Enfir – Paris, p. 100), They pick up a couple of other revellers along the way. As the party wears on, with drunken Halloween games and superstitions, they end up in a bar around three in the morning, and someone in the party suggests they have to tell ghost stories. Everyone in the group must tell a ghost story.

Someone else in the party – some masked stranger they picked up en route – also tells a story. A haunting, surreal tale about a city of masked revellers, troubled by a masked stranger, and the coming of the King in Yellow.

The next morning – All Saint’s Day –  while fighting through handovers, the characters realise the following:

  • Something’s horribly wrong with the world. They can feel it in their bones, in their skulls. There’s a yellowish cast to everything.
  • None of them can recall how that stranger joined their company last night. One of their French introduced him to them… but they can’t recall exactly who or when. Finding out how they met that masked stranger is an ongoing mystery to be solved.
  • The stories each of them told have become their Deuced Peculiar Things.

 

Trick or Treat (The Wars)

October 31st, 1949. Your squad’s fighting in the Continental War. An enemy prisoner – any rumours that he’s a sorcerer are nonsense, of course – escaped from the facility where he was being interrogated, and has taken refuge in a nearby village. All routes leading out of the village have been secured, so he must be hiding in one of the houses – he’s probably holding some of the locals hostage, and forcing them to hide him. Your squad’s orders are to go house to house, searching each homestead in turn, until you find the escaped sorcerer. Correction – escaped prisoner. Not a sorcerer. He certainly has not conjured Carcosan entities, and the village is not a series of set-piece traps and nightmarish tableaus.

To navigate the village and find their quarry, the squad must deal with each house in turn, solve whatever Carcosan peril or weird encounter awaits them there, and follow a series of clues to discover where the escaped sorcerer is hiding.

Knock on each door in turn, and pray that a trick is the worst fate that awaits you…

 

Dress Up In You (Aftermath)

You’re all tired and traumatised by the events of the revolution; you need time to heal. One of the characters has a relative who lives out in a small town; they’ve got a big house, with space for all of you to stay. You can hang out in the countryside for a few weeks, take a break from the twin stresses of monster-hunting and politics.

Outside, the town’s getting ready for Halloween. Some small places like this came through the Castaigne years better than the big cities. It was easier to hide, out here. Fewer eyes. As twilight draws in, you see the town’s kids putting on their costumes. A lot of Dream Clowns, like always, but… yuck, some of them are dressed as Regime entities. Explosionists, Argus, Sphyxes, Carcosan visitors. Little siblings tagging along with their big brothers and sisters, dressed as cute Cancer Bags with legs.

Then… from downstairs, the sound of breaking glass. The house is under attack. Those aren’t costumes any more – the kids have been transformed into a cavalcade of horrors.

Some lingering supernatural threat (a Castaigne sorcerer, hiding out? A Carcosan tripwire? A spasm of fading magic) has made the make-believe horrors of the past real again. How to the characters escape the town and find the source of the transformation when they can’t kill the innocent children beneath the masks?

 

Your Face Will Stick Like That (This Is Normal Now)

The fun new gimmick this Halloween is a live face-swap app. You run it, and it swaps your face on video for that of your friend, or a cartoon character, or a celebrity. This Halloween, they’ve added a bunch of spooky faces – witches and vampires and goblins and… ew, that’s tasteless. There’s a Famous Serial Killers tab – Dahmer, Bundy, Jack the Ripper… and that freaky guy who killed those kids last year, the Halloween Stalker. They never caught him, did they? Anyway, don’t click on that.

Uh-oh. It was swapped your face anyway. And it’s swapped it in real life. Suddenly, you look like the infamous uncaught serial killer. Not on video. Physically.

How do you get your real face back? Does the killer have your face now? Or is this some sick joke where you’ve got to kill someone to earn your face back? And why is the logo of the app developer this weird yellow squiggle that you swear you’ve seen before?

Oh god – that was the doorbell. There are kids here, trick or treating! Quick, pull on a mask so they don’t recognise you – no, him! The Halloween Stalker! Get rid of the kids – NOT LIKE THAT – and then call your friends from the café, because you’re going to need help figuring out what’s going on!

 


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.

An Esoterrorists mini-scenario

Scene 1: House Call

It’s October 30th. Mr. Verity passes on a hot tip from the Ordo – there’s an Esoterrorist cell operating out of a house in Brighton, England. Proceeding to the house, the team discover it’s recently abandoned, save for a nasty trap left behind by the Esoterrorists – a Torture Dog.

After dealing with that, a search of the house discovers:

  • Data Retrieval: There’s a computer, but the Esoterrorists have trashed it as they evacuated. However, through Ordo Veritas internet-monitoring software and some backdoors, they can confirm that the cell was monitoring twitter activity closely.
  • Photography: There are some surveillance photos, printed out and stuck on a wall, showing the entrance to some sort of compound with high walls and what look like cages. Trivia/Architecture identifies it as a nearby private zoo, Jungle Adventure.
  • Evidence Collection: In the recycling bin out back, there’s the box for a commercially available toy drone.
  • Chemistry: In a bathroom, the investigators find a horribly stained bathtub. In the plughole are scraps of meat – raw beef – coloured a lurid bluish-purple by whatever chemicals were mixed in the tub. Analysis with Chemistry or Pathology is worrisome and inconclusive – there are compounds in there that shouldn’t exist, suggesting the Esoterrorists either had the aid of an Outer Dark Entity or – more likely – were using some substance extracted from such an ODE for the purposes of dark magic.

Scene 2: Jungle Adventure

The zoo is closed and there’s a police car outside.

  • Cop Talk: Someone stole a tiger from the zoo. The police are baffled as to how or why the tiger was stolen, and are speculating it might have escaped. The owner – in an outburst of nominative determinism, he’s called Gerard Jungle – insists that the cage was secure and the animal didn’t escape.
  • Evidence Collection: On the floor of the tiger cage is a bluish stain, matching the stain from the bathtub.
  • Interrogation: Under questioning, Gerard remembers some odd visitors the day before; awkward, intense men wearing black. They spent a lot of time in front of the tiger cage. He recalls one of them kept checking his phone and cursing.
  • Electronic Surveillance: There’s a security camera watching the tiger enclosure; checking the footage reveals:
    • The gang of intense young men – presumably, the Esoterrorist cell.
    • A 1-point Electronic Surveillance spend lets the investigators zoom in on the phone screen, and discover that the Esoterrorist keeps checking a particular twitter account – cavalorn. See Scene 4, I Never Thought Tigers Would Eat My Phase.
    • Later that night, a drone flies in over the zoo and drops a package through the bars of the tiger cage. It lands wetly and bursts open – it’s full of meat.
    • The tiger eats the meat – and vanishes in a flare of blue light.

While the investigators are at the zoo (or if they’re monitoring police radio bands), they get an alert of a nearby sighting. The tiger’s loose on the streets of Brighton! Go to Scene 3, The Thinning Veil.

Scene 3. The Thinning Veil

About two miles away from Jungle Adventure, the investigators come upon the scene of a curious traffic accident. A car’s driven into a tree. The driver, Karen Glossop, is unhurt but shaken; a small crowd of locals surround her with supportive cups of tea. Reassurance gets her account of what happened: she was driving along when a “glowing blue ghost tiger” appeared right in front of her in the middle of the road. She swerved and crashed; the tiger smashed her side window open, stuck its head in, sniffed her face – and then vanished.

  • Some Outer Dark Entities can slip between our reality and theirs, phasing in and out of reality. At a guess, the Esoterrorists have managed to… infect the tiger with that ability. It’s almost certainly unstable; our form of life can’t survive for long in the Outer Dark.

The police officers on the scene are singularly unconvinced by the account, and are busy searching Glossop’s car for traces of hallucinogens.

  • Reassurance or Streetwise: None of the locals saw anything. One of them, however, is loudly talking about how this is Halloween, when the veil between worlds grows thin. It was probably an Anomalous Black Cat, he reckons, that phased in from a Celtic otherworld. That happens this time of year.
  • Occult Studies: The whole ‘Halloween is when the veils grow thin’ thing is nonsense; the first occurrence of the concept is in the 1970s. In fact, it’s nonsense that aligns perfectly with the goals of the Esoterrorists – manipulating human belief to weaken the real veil between our world and the Outer Dark sounds like a long-term Esoterror plan.
  • Data Retrieval/Trivia: There’s this one guy online who’s very, very insistent on telling everyone about the modern-day origin of the Halloween-is-when-the-veil-is-thin meme. In fact, he’s probably painted a target on himself through his internet activity… and he lives in Sussex. Go to Scene 4.

Scene 4: I Never Thought Tigers Would Eat My Phase

By this point in the scenario, the investigators know the target of the Esoterrorist plot – they’re going after Adrian Bott, aka Cavalorn, to silence his unwitting demolition of their ongoing psychological operation. Data Retrieval or Streetwise can locate Bott’s home; alternatively, the team can track sightings of the glowing blue tiger as it blips across Sussex, phasing in and out of the Outer Dark. The animal grows more misshapen and monstrous with each interval.

To thwart the Esoterrorists, the team need to take down the monstrous tiger before it phases in and devours its target.

Phase-Eating Tiger

Abilities: Athletics 10, Health 12, Scuffling 10

Hit Threshold: 5

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0

Weapon: +1 (claws)

Armour: +1 fur

Scene 5: Veil-Out

The first problem is to dispose of the glowing blue tiger corpse; after that, it’s mostly paperwork and lies. The Esoterrorist cell who created the tiger have fled; the investigators might be able to track them down by backtracing the drone from the zoo, but if that fails, they can set a trap for them at Easter – as Mr. Bott is equally outspoken on the topic of the Easter Bunny

With thanks to Adrian Bott of this parish, who was very sporting when I DMed him and said “I’ve got an idea for a really awful pun, but it requires murdering you in an adventure…”


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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

Robin D Laws discusses the nature of believability in RPGs, and we present not one, but three interviews from Luke Crane. This month also sees the launch of a flurry of new products, including a Keeper’s Screen, and James Semple’s first Pelgrane release – music for Trail of Cthulhu. The sleeve notes are here for your edification. Finally, Jason Durrall has provided a summary of character creation guidelines for Trail of Cthulhu. Perhaps this is gilding the lily, but who I am to begrudge our customers golden petals?

Contents

Usage Dice are an F20 innovation for tracking consumables. The short version: a particular resource, like arrows in a quiver or burning torches, are rated by die size. When you use that resource, you roll the die – on a 1-2, the die drops one dice size. Roll a 1-2 on a d4, and you’re out of that resource. It’s a handy little mechanic that reduces book-keeping while adding excitement.

13th Age cares even less about tracking minor resources. Above 1st or 2nd level, I’ve certainly never bothered noting how many arrows my archer has, or how many days worth of iron rations the characters have in their packs. There are games where managing logistics and balancing the weight and cost vs the utility of a particular item is part of the fun; 13th Age is not normally one of those games.

In fact, 13th Age goes further, making gold and non-magical treasure virtually unimportant. So, let’s take the whole question of resources, and abstract it out!

Resource Saves

A Resource save is a regular saving throw, succeeding on an 11+. If you succeed, you have the item required. If you fail, you don’t have that item to hand.

There are two possible triggers for a resource save:

The GM can call for a resource save where the adventurers are at risk of running out of a particular type of resource (arrows after a long battle with lots of archery, food and water while lost in a dungeon). If the save fails, the adventurers are out of that particular consumable.

Players can also call for a resource save to determine if they have a particular unusual item. Do you have a healing potion to hand? Resource save! A weapon oil or rune? Resource save!

Each time you make a Resource save, make a note. You get a -2 penalty to Resource saves for each previous Resource save. To get rid of this penalty, see Refreshes, below.

Wealth saves

Wealth saves work the same way, covering the character’s cash on hand. Can you afford to stay in this pricy inn? Make a Wealth save. Can you bribe the guard? Wealth save! If you fail a Wealth save, you’re out of coin.

Failing a Wealth save doesn’t necessarily mean you simply don’t have enough coin. Maybe you got gouged by a greedy merchant, or your coin-purse got robbed, or you have a secret gambling problem, or you donated a portion of cash to the temple. Maybe, in the tradition of wandering adventurers, you squandered it all on ale and feasting, or weird arcane supplies. Look, if you were a prudent, fiscally sensible sort you probably wouldn’t be adventuring in the first places.

Again, each time you make a Wealth save, make a note. Take a -2 penalty to Wealth saves for each previous Wealth saves, successful or not.

Refreshes

You can refresh your Resources by visiting a market, a town or some other bastion of commerce and making a successful Wealth save to buy what you need. You can also refresh your Resources if you find a supply cache or armoury in a dungeon. When you refresh, erase all the penalties to your Resource save.

You refresh your Wealth by looting treasure. Simple as that. (Or finding some other source of wealth – going home to your rich family, collecting taxes from your domain, collecting a bounty on that ogre bandit, honest work, stealing from the guilds of Glitterhaegen…)

Character Tiers

Obviously, what counts as a common expense to a beginning adventurer is very different to a common expense to a mighty hero of the Empire or dimension-sundering master sorcerer. If you make a Hard save instead of a regular one, you get access to the benefits from the next tier up instead. Conversely, if you ask for an Easy save instead of a regular one, you get the benefit of the lower tier.

So, if you’re a Champion-tier character, you can make an 11+ Resource test for a Champion-tier potion, a 16+ save for an Epic potion, or a 6+ save for a bog-standard Adventurer potion.

New Feats: Wealthy & Well-Equipped

Wealthy: Once per level, reset your Wealth save penalty to 0.

Well-Equipped: Once per level, reset your Resource save penalty to 0.

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

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The Trouble With Tasers

Technology is ruining the storytelling business. Lately it seems like every new innovation of communications technology renders another classic plot device moot. GPS tracking, widespread closed circuit camera use and electronic paper trails make contemporary detective stories harder and harder to write. The screenwriter Todd Alcott, analyzing the works of the Coen brothers, noted that all of them are set before the cell phone era as we know it. Their plots inevitably revolve around disasters of miscommunication and couldn’t happen in a world where people can easily contact one another while in transit.

I recently underwent a tussle with another annoying piece of technology that threatens to wreak special havoc on roleplaying game scenarios. In real life, the taser may be, as its proponents argue, a useful piece of putatively non-lethal weaponry allowing for the peaceful capture of dangerous criminals. In game mechanical terms, they’re a freaking nightmare. They break the paradigm of suspenseful back-and-forth fights on which gaming’s bread is buttered. A taser rule that successfully models the way the things work in real life brings about an instant end to a physical confrontation in one shot. You get hit by a taser, you go down, end of story.

Roleplaying games have traditionally differed from the action genres they derive inspiration from in the ease with which it is possible to KO opponents. In a movie or novel, the hero can conk out an enemy with a karate chop to the neck, sap to the back of the skull, or old-fashioned Vulcan nerve pinch, raining no particular problem down upon the author. The characters are all under his control, so he can count on them not to transform into cold-blooded killers at the sight of an unconscious foe.

PCs, controlled as they are by players, exhibit no such compunctions. When it comes to the chance for an easy kill, players blithely have their characters engage in behavior they’d recoil from if performed by their favorite movie or comic book heroes.

Combat mechanics traditionally rush in to to fill this morality hole, by making it no easier to KO an enemy than to kill him. That way the PCs wind up killing in self-defense, or at least in the process of a fair fight against an opponent who chooses not to surrender. Some rules sets of yore make it even harder to grapple or disable a foe than to kill him, though this is as much a case of simulation gone awry as an attempt to enforce genre norms.

A designer can fudge the relative difficulties of a kill versus a KO when it comes to most forms of combat. It’s easier in genre fiction to render an enemy unconscious without lasting consequences than it is in real life, where vigorous thumps on the head lead to concussions and brain injuries. Taking on a heavily armed and armored opponent who’s trying to kill you probably does make it difficult to score a harmless knockout.

Several of the games I’ve worked on, starting with Feng Shui, allow characters to specify that they’re fighting to disable even while using the standard combat system, making it just as easy to kill as to KO.

Tasers, if rendered accurately, screw up this balance completely. They really do make it almost trivially easy to take an opponent out of the fight in one shot.

Here our genre sources do provide the answer. You’ll notice that sympathetic protagonists, even the cop characters in procedural shows, do not go around zapping perps with tasers. In TV and movies as well as in games, the one-shot nature of the taser makes for boring action sequences. More crucially, there’s the sympathy factor. We can accept heroes who shoot or manhandle the bad guys, but taser use just seems sinister. Perhaps it’s the humiliating nature of a taser bring-down that triggers a sympathy switch. We’d end up identifying with the defeated villain instead of the basking vicariously in the protagonist’s victory.

As audience members, we may also be haunted by real-life abuses of the technology. Anyone who follows the news on this subject has seen the horror stories, starting with sudden death by cardiac arrest. Because the consequences of taser use are, compared to a gun, advertised as negligible, cops and security personnel have shown a distressing tendency to treat it as a weapon of first resort. As it would be in a gaming situation, it’s too easy to use in real life. We’ve seen it deployed to curtail the civil liberties of peaceful protesters. (This will be a huge problem in the years ahead as mass non-lethal technologies come on line and fall into the hands of authoritarian regimes.)

In short, pop culture has, perhaps aptly, tagged the taser as a bully’s weapon.

Trying to reconcile these issues with the known properties of taser weapons sent me down several blind alleys as I worked to develop GUMSHOE rules for them. Before finally accepting the simple solution that was in front of me all along, I considered:

  • dodge rules making it easier to avoid a taser hit
  • fumble rules making a taser harder to use than it is in real life
  • allowing characters to shrug off taser strikes

None of these attempts to nerf the taser passed even GUMSHOE’s loose reality demands. Finally I realized that this was not a matter of rules mechanics, but of literary conceit: PCs in GUMSHOE don’t use tasers because heroes in pop culture don’t use tasers. For Mutant City Blues, there’s the suggestion that lawsuits over inappropriate taser use have led to mountains of paperwork and career setbacks for detectives who resort to them. Maybe in The Esoterrorists we’ll specify that tasers are the fruit of an occult plot to enable tyranny, and that their use weakens the membrane. But really these are fig leaves of credibility placed upon an overriding literary convention:

Real heroes don’t use tasers.

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

Tools, toys and transport are the theme for this issue of Page XX. Robin D Laws discusses the use of music to end scenes in GUMSHOE games, and James Semple provides some stings for Trail of Cthulhu. Jamie Maclaren says the fidgeting and playing with toys at the gaming table isn’t all bad, and Simon Carryer closes his excellent series for Trail of Cthulhu GMs with an article on the majestic liners and tramp steamers of the thirties. For Mutant City Blues, we present interview with Dr Lucius Quade, the world’s premier scientist in anamorphology, the study of mutant powers (toys for gamers, at least).

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

In this issue, Robin D Laws discusses three ways you can resolve interpersonal conflicts in the GUMSHOE system. Interpersonal conflicts also feature in Mystic Moo’s Yuletide pantomime, and Simon Carryer reminds us of the fun of festive travel with his article on Rail Transport in the 1930s. Finally, Steve Dempsey suggests a way you can improvise adventures using GUMSHOE, perhaps while sitting in a turkey induced stupor around the log fire.

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