With the release of Robin’s wonderful new story-explorer The Gaean Reach RPG, GUMSHOE extends its tendrils into one of the oldest and most reliable of dramatic forms: the revenge story. In that game, the player characters unite to destroy the indescribably vile Quandos Vorn in revenge for his prior cruelties to them. And just beforehand, the players (this is the really great bit) collaboratively describe Quandos Vorn’s vileness and determine his prior cruelties. The result? A fresh, involving take on a tale as old as Orestes, if not always quite so damp and naked. From Dumas’ Gothy Edmond Dantes to TV’s dreamy Oliver Queen, doughty heroes have sought revenge on Him (or Her, for Orestes) Who Done Them Wrong for millennia — and if Jack Vance’s SF is anything to go by (and indeed it should be) will continue to do so for millennia hence. So what about our own millennium right here? Why not adapt the brilliant story focus of The Gaean Reach RPG to another of your already beloved if not-quite-so-brilliantly-focused GUMSHOE RPGs? Why not, indeed?
Each possibility here introduces your game’s Quandos Vorn and gives a possible reason you want to get him, although the GM should begin with the good old “Why do you hate …?” and only prime the pump if player creativity seems temporarily throttled. Further possible Terrible Deeds appear, followed by the Quarry’s Masks (how he hides from you, possibly in plain sight) and Obstacles (what he can put between you and him) and then the game’s potential Taglines (things you do or say in play to get Tokens which you spend to pierce Masks and overcome Obstacles).
Night’s Black Agents: Chandler Vaughn
Chandler Vaughn is the guy who burned you. Or that’s one of his cover names. You aren’t actually sure he’s with the Agency any more. If he ever was. Maybe he was a double agent. You’re not even sure what he looks like now. Or looked like, then. But you know one thing: he burned you, and you’re going to bring him down.
Terrible Deeds: killed your partner, aided al-Qaeda in a (lot of) terrorist action, smuggled nukes, killed your family, perverted the Agency’s once-proud ideals into the Orwellian sham they are today, released the vampire virus, vampirized your partner, betrayed your country
Masks: cover identities, plastic surgery, can shapeshift, deniable dead drops, is a hive parasite that lives in many minds, cut-outs, brain-hacking, literal masks you know neat face-mask technology like in Mission: Impossible
Obstacles: billions of embezzled drug dollars for bribes, Russian mobsters, Iranian snipers, North Korean mentats with telekinesis, lots of pull with the corrupt helicopter-gunship-and-SWAT-team parts of the Agency, Renfields, secure immunity in isolated country, total surveillance of all computers
Taglines: Use the Night’s Black Agents Achievements, which are ideal for this sort of thing, as the source of Tokens, not of refreshes (except refreshes with Tokens, of course).
Mutant City Blues: “Quantum Born”
Not the least of “Quantum Born”‘s sins is to have a really lame pseudonym on the Internet. But he’s a mutant (“born of the quantum apocalypse that is ending your corrupt world system so-called”) and a terrorist and a murderer. At least.
Terrible Deeds: set off a bomb in the subway, killed your partner, leaked your case files all over the Internet and got a jillion hardened criminals set free on technicalities, killed your family, bio-engineered a worse version of the Quade virus for the most destructive possible power combos, provides foolproof schemes to other criminals and terrorists, hacked into a candy company’s mainframe and poisoned several thousand kids by altering its ingredient ordering software, is a serial killer among his other hangups
Masks: anonymous Internet existence with the Tor and the onion and such, hoodie and sunglasses, army of easily-gulled hipster anarchist wannabes to claim his identity, is blackmailing members of the force to cover his trail and feed him clues, shape-changing mutant power, is actually an AI given a computer analog of the Quade virus, surveillance-obscuring software, could literally be anyone at all
Obstacles: insanely devoted online love cult, not actually in your home country to say nothing of your actual jurisdiction, police red tape that says “it’s too personal with you and him,” super-powered goons paid big Bitcoin to hit you a lot, your own online history/credit report/everything ever, previous criminals you put away broken out (or legally freed!) by him, is protected from on high by government or corporations or a big seemingly cool charitable or progressive foundation, army of computer-controlled drones and makerbots
Taglines: Use Achievements, as above, or Taglines, as in Gaean Reach, or both, but sourced from either “gritty” comics dialogue or from police procedural TV shows.
Trail of Cthulhu: Kwan-Ho Wong
Or, sure, if you’d rather be torn apart by peculiarly intelligent wolves than poisoned by enormous purple centipedes, Gennadiy Voronin. He is a dealer in antiquities of a repellent aspect, and the lord of a criminal empire extending from Limehouse to Leningrad to Lhassa. He possesses perhaps the finest mind you’ve ever encountered, all the more terrifying because it is his brilliance that has led him to the Mythos …
Terrible Deeds: unleashed a shoggoth, killed your mentor horribly, stole your research and left you floundering and bankrupt, drove you mad and had you institutionalized in some charming colonial hellhole, denounced you to Stalin/Hitler, assassinated FDR, found the Ark of the Covenant first, raised a god or titan once and didn’t have the courtesy to die or go mad
Masks: master of an ancient serpent-man cannibal shapeshifting technique, is an identical twin, has never been photographed, wears an all-enveloping hooded robe at all times, mind-swapped or drug-enslaved pawns, plastic surgery, is (or commands) an ambulatory shoggoth, yellow mask
Obstacles: hideous and hideously-strong enforcer, Ahnenerbe or Black Ocean or NKVD favors, lives in an immense ruined temple to a Mythos entity, hyperspace gates for escapes, bribed or addicted officials in all countries, byakhee flocks, fanatical cultist followers, cannot die
Taglines: Gain a Token by suitable, effective, in character use of a properly Lovecraftian adjective.
As vengeful space effectuators of the Gaean Reach, you know what the interplanetary war criminal Quandos Vorn did to you—and what you must do in return to him, when you catch him.
That part remains more easily said than done.
Rejoice, then, in these latest intercepted transmissions. They detail some of the identities Quandos Vorn has recently traveled under in his never-ending quest for greater acts of barbarity. As is well documented, the chameleonic Vorn gains and sheds disguises with frustrating ease. Some of these people might be real individuals he has impersonated; others, his entirely fictional creations.
Elbin Throm, collector of rare militaria. The stooped, shaggy-haired Throm walks with the aid of a cane. Demanding and quick to take offense, Throm uses his wealth and expertise to bully finders, brokers and auctioneers of antique armaments. The tip of his cane contains a paralyzing toxin that dissolves its victims from the inside out, leaving the brain and screaming nerve endings as the last portions of the body to die.
Gascade, poet and troubadour. Famed for his quatrains in praise of Quandos Vorn. Of willowy frame and limpid blue eyes, he exerts a powerful sexual magnetism on women and men alike. His bright purple goatee precedes him into art festivals and bacchanals throughout the Reach. Dogged by accusations that he drugs his famous paramours in order to sell their organs to collectors. Evidence has yet to substantiate these rumors. May be a henchman of Vorn’s who occasionally lends him his identity.
Jebbas Mrin, hero of the rebellion on the planet Quane against starmenter (pirate) usurpers. Bald, broad-shouldered, with a musical baritone speaking voice. Never goes anywhere without the halberd he used to behead the starmenter Brerum Sosk. Though revered by the people of Quane, the taint of corruption surrounds his administration as its World President.
Castrel Flogg. A shadowy identity known chiefly as a set of signatures on documents claiming ownership over the platinum mines of Vesro.
The Ebbast, champion fencer and high priest of the religious order of Kolf. Won the tournament of Vosto by applying a neurotoxin to his epee. Described as possessing a skull-like countenance with deep-set eyes and a grinning, scarred mouth. By becoming a criminal and fugitive he invalidated the Kolf credo, leading to dozens of devout suicides. A schism among the surviving Kolfites centers around the question of whether the crimes were committed by the true Ebbast, or an impostor.
The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
Gen Con is almost here, and we have some great seminars lined up. Pelgrane Press has also submitted a GUMSHOE panel as well as an overall Pelgrane Press panel, and we hope to see those go live soon.
13th Age Adventure Design
Date & Time: Thursday at 1:00 PM
Duration: 1 hours
Location: Crowne Plaza : Pennsylvania Stn C
The freeform story rules in 13th Age require a different approach to adventure design. Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Philippe-Antoine Ménard and ASH LAW will talk about how to design with icons, backgrounds, uniques and more, and answer your questions.
13th Age GM Roundtable
Date & Time: Friday at 3:00 PM
Duration: 1 hours
Location: Crowne Plaza: Grand Central D
Rob Heinsoo, Mike Shea, Ruth Tillman and Wade Rockett share their advice on how to run 13th Age, from handling icon rolls to collaborative world building and beyond. Got questions? Bring ‘em!
13th Age: Year One
Date & Time: Saturday at 3:00 PM
Duration: 1 hours
Location: Crowne Plaza: Victoria Stn A/B
13th Age debuted one year ago at Gen Con! Join Rob Heinsoo, Simon Rogers and Wade Rockett as they talk about where the game is now, share what’s coming next and answer your burning questions.
13th Age Monster Workshop
Date & Time: Sunday at 2:00 PM
Duration: 1 hours
Location: Crowne Plaza: Pennsylvania Stn C
Join Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and ASH LAW as they build a new monster that’ll take advantage of the game’s mechanics to deliver all sorts of nasty surprises at the table.
We’ve been nominated for 15 ENnies including one for Page XX! Voting ends tomorrow, so we would appreciate your votes. You can find out more about our ENnie nominations, and a link on how to vote, here.
However, we’re not just resting on our nomination laurels. With less than three weeks to go until Gen Con, we’re beavering away to get a giant stack of new products out for the show. The first of these is now available to pre-order; Shadows of Eldolan, the first published adventure for 13th Age and The Book of Loot, featuring a raft of magic items for your 13th Age game. And of course, 13 True Ways is still available for pre-order, too. KWAS subscribers will get the August edition, Xeno-archaeology!, this month; meanwhile, non-subscribers can now buy Hideous Creatures: Serpent Folk as a stand-alone product in the shop.
- 13 True Ways – the long-awaited expansion book for 13th Age features six new classes, the lore of devils, the keys to Horizon, the Great Gold Worm’s secret assassin, and much more.
- Shadows of Eldolan – this first level adventure for 13th Age pits players against the problems brewing in the port town of Eldolan
- The Book of Loot – a collection of magic items for 13th Age to be found, stolen, given as rewards or otherwise looted by the player characters.
- Hideous Creatures: Serpent Folk – the new subscription of Ken Writes about Stuff showcases the Children of Yig
- Series Pitch of the Month – This month’s edition is Promised Land by Caias Ward
13th Age Resource page updates
- 13th Age Monsters List – Sean Dunstan and our man Detective Clayton have created a list of all the monsters in the 13th Age Core rulebook, Bestiary and 13 True Ways
- 13th Age character sheet – Ieuane has done a new version of the character sheet
See Page XX Poll
Our best intentions lay in ruins as we scramble, once again, to get all the books out for GenCon Indy. But our pain is your unalloyed pleasure, as we provide you with a slew of preorders and new releases for 13th Age, Trail and others. In addition, we have been nominated for a host of ENnie awards. Hideous Creatures: Serpent Folk is out now, and KWAS subscribers get Xeno-Archeology.
The ENnie Awards are an annual celebration of RPGs. Pelgrane has been nominated for a record 15 in all – and we would really appreciate you considering us in your rankings. Eternal Lies, 13th Age, Hillfolk Pelgrane Press, music and Owl Hoot Trail have all been nominated – a full list is here, along with a sampler.
The voting booth is here. You can rank as many or as few products as you like. Search for “Pelgrane” on the voting page to find all the noms.
ENnie awards mean so much more to publishers and creators than they do to customers. The recognition by carefully selected judges in the form of nominations against such a strong field is gratifying, and there are few greater pleasures than seeing shiney-faced writers and artists clutching their well deserved awards in their clammy hands. However, the journey from critical recogntion is tough, because it is a popularity contest, and this year the competition is partcularly strong – the armies of FATE and Numenara compete with Hillfolk and 13th Age, for example. We are honoured to be in their company.
Skip this if you aren’t going to GenCon.
This will be our biggest GenCon ever in terms of events, with more than 80 games booked in and more to follow, a big 13th Age announcement, seminars and at least nine new releases. Gareth Hanrahan and Steve Dempsey have written convention adventures and we’ll have a constellation of guests including Robin D Laws, Ken Hite, Gareth Hanrahan and Rob Heinsoo.
We are emailing all Shadows and Book of Loot pre-orderers to offer GenCon collection.
Scheduled Games and Games on Demand
You can see a list of scheduled games and seminars at GenCon here. New ones are being added all the time, but they fill up quickly.
If you are a GM it would be great if you could sign up for Games on Demand – a fantastic and growing initiative which allows people to sample a wide variety of RPGs for the first time. If you want to run Pelgrane games, then you can contact us to get convention scenarios for GUMSHOE, or ASH LAW for 13th Age games. Games on Demand encourage diversity (both in games and people), so it’s best if you are able to run a variety of games – if you only submit one game system you are liable to be rejected. If you are accepted, please let us know.
Printer willing, 13 True Ways will be shipping out in early August. All US Kickstarter backer books and pre-orderers will be shipped before GenCon and we think most of them will arrive before GenCon. Kickstarter Backers and pre-orderers will be given the chance to collect at GenCon. Kickstarter backers will hear through the Kickstarter interface, preorderers will get an email.
Rest of the World backers and pre-orderers will be shipped across the Atlantic to be on shipped from the UK. To make up for the fact that some GenCon attendees will get copies before Rest of World backers, Rob Heinsoo is putting a little something exclusive together for Kickstarter.
I thought you might also like to see the cover for the forthcoming The Eyes of the Stone Thief by Ben Wootten.
The Gaean Reach
The Gaean Reach and Gaean Reach Gazeteer are set in Jack Vance’s sprawling, idiosyncractic SF milieu, and feature Vengeance In Space!
It feels like the Gaean Reach has been travelling at sublight speeds across interstellar distances, but it has finally arrived. Both books are available on pre-order.
Trail of Cthulhu and Fear Itself
Dulce et Decorum Est, adventures set in the Great War is out now and Soldiers of Pen and Ink and Mythos Expeditions will be on sale next month.
Dreamhounds is in art direction.
Seventh Circle, Matthew Sanderson’s creepy haunted house adventure for Fear Itself will on pre-order next month. It’s compatible with Trail of Cthulhu, too.
Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars and Night’s Black Agents
- Robin Laws has started work on Worldbreaker, a globe-trotting set of linked Esoterrorists adventures. It has a very gruesome and disturbing prologue and gets worse from there.
- Accretion Disk for Ashen Starts is being illustrated.
- Ken and Gar are working on Dracula Dossier and Unredacted Dracula for Night’s Black Agents for a Kickstarter later in the year. Ken discusses it here.
- John Adamus has submitted a Night’s Black Agents adventure, The Dubai Reckoning for playtesting.
- Steve Dempsey and Gareth Hanrahan have written convention adventures for all our GUMSHOE settings.
The GUMSHOE Preparedness ability, which lets you test to see if you happen to already have the crucial bit of equipment you want, lets you skip the aggravation of equipment shopping with an on-the-spot moment of creativity in play.
Although the book definitions of Preparedness refer specifically to gear, GMs may find it plot-forwarding to expand it cover in-the-moment revelations of other prior planning.
Do the investigators need a car to pick you up in a desolate spot in the woods? A player can make this happen by a) supplying a credible retroactive explanation of how she arranged it, and b) scoring a Preparedness success.
- “Naturally I tampered with the elevator as we stepped out of it.”
- “Might I have set the sick bay diagnostic bot to sedate anyone with transferant DNA?”
- “I had time to put flowerpots on the fire escape, right?”
You might combine ordinary Preparedness (having a piece of gear) with the planning to have it in the right place, already doing its job.
“Well, of course I brought along a webcam and set it up by the door to catch video of anyone leaving after we came in.”
If Preparedness as planning seems to give a greater advantage than simply having a particular item on hand, increase the Difficulty above the baseline of 4. If it substitutes an anti-climactic moment for an exciting one, make it exorbitantly expensive. Or better yet, let the players have their moment of coolness and competence and find another, unrelated crisis to throw at them soon afterwards.
If not, don’t make it cost more just for abstract world logic reasons. As always, GUMSHOE cares more about emulation than simulation.
Night’s Black Agents GMs might rule that instances of Preparedness as planning involving the intercession of a GM character also require the expenditure of at least 1 Network point. Or maybe you charge the Network point only if the agents try to squeeze an additional benefit from having the character on the scene.
For example, the driver of the car costs 0 Network if you only have him take you out of the woods, as per the original framing of the Preparedness use. But if you then ask him to accompany you into the motel, to make sure you don’t get jumped by a pack of Renfields on the way in, you have to fork over some Network points to mark his transition from passive background character to source of active, ongoing, risky assistance.
Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.
There’s big excitement this month with the release of the pre-order of 13 True Ways for 13th Age. The phone has never rang so much here in the office! After a long wait, the PDF is now available to pre-orderers on their order link, and it’s off to the printers, too. We’ve released a few 13th Age Core Rules Limited Editions. Read more here.
KWAS subscribers are in for a treat with two new giant editions on their order page, GUMSHOE Zoom Voodoo 2: The Invisibles, and also next month’s edition, Hideous Creatures: Serpent Folk. This means that they’re now getting their subscription a month in advance – starting in July, subscribers will get the next month’s edition on the last working day of the previous month.
13th Age Resource page updates
See Page XX Poll
This will be a short Pelgrane’s Nest – the fledgings are demanding fresh freelancer flesh (say that three times quickly!).
The 13th Age work flow is now established, with the Bestiary printed, 13 True Ways on preorder, and two others in layout. Ken Hite has written much more than we expected for his latest KWAS Voodoo 2 and done the same with Hideous Creatures: Serpent Folk, so the subcription becomes even better value. The collection of Ken’s first 13 KWAS issues is available as a single download from the store.
More Content for Pelgrane Press – Project Shakespeare Monkeys
With magical PR chap Wade Rockett’s help, we’ve devised a social media calendar. We’ve been sticking to this schedule for a solid month now and it’s going well – from your perspective, is simply means regular articles from Robin, Ken, Gareth and the Fire Opalites which we then wrap up into Page XX for our monthly visitors. In particular, it means extra snippets of content from Robin to spice up your games, including the lines of ours which need more love such as Mutant City Blues and The Dying Earth.
The 13 True Ways print version is available for preorder – get the PDF download now. Kickstarter backers have their PDF already, and we’ll get you an update on the other Kickstarter goodies soon. I am particularly excited about the six new classes, and can’t wait to play the Occulist – unique in that if you play it – you are actually the only one in the entire world. I’ve scratched together some pages to create a sampler you can download here.
The 13th Age Bestiary is en route to our shipping points – those lucky Fire Opalites already have their copies. We’ve sent out the address change request to Bestiary customers, and I hope the Bestiaries will be shipping on Friday. Limited editions won’t be out for a while.
Chris Huth has moved from 13 True Ways layout to Shadows of Eldolan, and then The Book of Loot (you can see a sample of Loot here). We hope to have both of these at GenCon.
The Eyes of the Stone Thief is progressing – here is a sample of Herwin Wielink’s cartography.
Trail of Cthulhu
Soldiers of Pen and Ink now has cover art in the style of Spanish Civil War posters. It will be a 72-page mini-campaign available in print format.
Dulce et Decorum Est, our Great War collection has been printed and will ship to pre-orderers at the end of July.
Mythos Expeditions has been copy edited, and is waiting on layout.. Here is a double-page spread.
Ken Writes About Stuff Subscription
Ken has been rather over-excited in the past two or three months and has written much more more than he was supposed to for Voodoo 1, Voodoo 2 and Serpent Folk – the lastest releases of KWAS. For this reason, we have increased the cost of those individual episodes. However, the cost of the subscription will remain the same, at least for now – so it’s exceptional value. The more subscribers we have, the more all subscribers benefit with extra content at no extra charge – it’s like a Kickstarter in that respect. This month, subscribers are getting both Voodoo 2 and Hideous Creatures: Serpent Folk on their order links so that they will now have a month in hand.
For those of you who missed out, the first year’s subscription is available as a single volume from the store.
Gar has mainly been working with Rob on polishing up The Book of Loot; he’s also produced a list of suggestions for Fear Itself 2nd Edition which will change it so it better suits the specific genres for which it is designed, with campaign frames for different styles of horror game.
The Gaean Reach and The Gaean Reach Gazetteer have been printed and will ship to pre-orderers at the end of July.
Better Know a Freelancer – Robin D Laws
Robin D Laws wrote The Dying Earth, the GUMSHOE system, the Gaean Reach and DramaSystem. He created The Birds comic strip writes fiction and critical analyis and has access to Canadian ice wine.
Robin D Laws. Say that name, savour it, then read on. Don’t say it three times while looking in a mirror though, unless you want a mildly irritated Canadian in your bathroom. (This also works for Rob Ford, but you have to use a horizontal mirror lined with white powder). Robin D Laws is a game design powerhouse. To use a coding reference, if Ken writes source code for GUMSHOE, then Robin wrote the GUMSHOE compiler – he’s that badass. He annoys a few people with his game design innovations, and “transforms the way I game” with a bunch of others. Eventually though, it’s like “I was doing that stuff all along.”
Who, though, is the fool? The game designer who annoys people, or the publisher who pays him to annoy them? (This probably sounds better in Latin).
Aside from the quality of his work, my experience working with him on The Dying Earth gave me falsely high expectations of professionalism in the industry. Well, thank you for that. As a Canadian, he is ideally suited to his role of official translator between American English and English.
We didn’t quite burn him out with Hillfolk, but he needed some time to refersh with other projects and publishers, though he still produced a 13th Age adventure and monthly Page XX columns for us. He did all of this whilst knocking out a second edition of Feng Shui with all the latest gaming technology and produces half of a droll and award-winning podcast Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, which is released on time with terrifying efficiency – all the more extraordinary considering his co-host.
Now Robin D Laws, with his “Robin’s Laws of Gaming” hat on has written Getting Started with Tabletop Roleplaying Games. Read a sample here. He is knee deep in the outer black at work on his Esoterrorists campaign which will be shattering your brain towards the end of the year. As I mentioned above you may also have also have noticed more articles on our website by Robin D Laws – each one a polished stone of inspiration your GUMSHOE games.
“Robin D Laws, Robin D Laws, Robin D Laws. Ah, there you are. You have my ice wine, I hope?”
The Invisibles, more than spirits and a little less than gods, can fit inside stones, trees, and their servitors’ heads — but not into just one issue of KWAS! Whether you call them Loa or Orisha, these mighty beings demand your attention and your sacrifice, but give you hidden knowledge and awaken your interior fires. This second issue of our two-issue Voodoo series gives you plenty of Invisibles to summon, battle, invoke, and ally with whether you’re hunting Dagon in Haiti or rogue programs on your starship.
GUMSHOE Zoom: Voodoo 2 – The Invisibles is the third installment of the second Ken Writes About Stuff subscription (if you are a previous subscriber, you will need to buy a new subscription to see this), or it’s available as a stand-alone from the store.
If you have subscribed to the second KWAS subscription, GUMSHOE Zoom: Voodoo 2 – The Invisibles is now on your order receipt page, so all you have to do is click on the new link in your order email. (If you can’t find your receipt email, you can get another one sent to you by entering your email address here).
|Stock #: PELH17D
||Author: Kenneth Hite
|Artist: Melissa Gay
||Pages: 16pg PDF
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
We all believe that players should have meaningful choices when running their characters through adventures, whether they’re published, prepared by the GM, or created on the fly. Although we decry gaming stories that can’t go in multiple directions, you often also hear GMs at troubleshooting panels wondering how to keep players “on track.”
Published and prepared adventures that do offer meaningful choices have to account in advance for the many directions a premise might develop in. In other words, they require the writer’s time, and the room in a published book’s page count, to create more material than will be realized at any single gaming table.
Even improvised branches have a cost, in the thought energy of the GM as she thinks up a response on the spot and wonders how that might impact all the other dominoes she and the group have set up so far.
To help us wrestle with the eternal tensions between GM-driven and player-driven narrative, let’s step back to categorize the various ways adventures branch.
Whenever a game’s rules get used to resolve something important, it can change the direction of the story. If the cleric gets wounded, you have to take him back to town. If you fail to protect the witness, you lose her testimony. This is the most common type of branching, and one often that takes care of itself—as long as the GM or adventure writer remember to give the characters chances to use their abilities. Choices grow from an interaction of the random (the die roll) and choices previously made by the players, when they created their characters or boosted them through experience. However because it doesn’t involve a player huddle it’s easy to leave it off the list of choices that pivot the story.
A blind choice is one in which the players get to decide the direction of the storyline but have little or no context for the decision.
The classic example here is the dungeon corridor with two doors, one leading to the left and the other to the right. The adventurers have no advance knowledge to base their decision on, and must choose arbitrarily.
A more GUMSHOE-y example occurs at the start of an investigation, when the team decides which of several promising leads to pursue first.
Though blind choices aren’t the richest possible branches, they do show the players that they control the story’s direction. They might allow interesting character moments—by wanting to talk to the ladies at the nursing home before the bikers, I reveal something about my Ordo Veritatis agent. And because the players have little to go on, they have less to discuss, making for a quick decision.
A false choice presents the group with an apparent branch that isn’t.
The classic false choice is the dungeon corridor with two doors, one of which leads to an empty expanse of trackless passageways; the other, to all the monsters and treasure and fun stuff. The fun stuff is behind whichever door the players choose. So if we, the players, pick the red door, we go through it and have our adventure, coming back later to peek through the blue door and discover that we picked the best one in the first place. But if we’d picked the blue one first, it would have been the fun one.
To coin a phrase, this is one of those techniques that works only if it works. Your players may be quite happy to savor the feeling of choice, without ever knowing that you steered them toward the only option you prepared for them.
This goes to one of the great conundrums of adventure design, the subjective way in which we experience choice. Players given no true decision-making power can feel that they had it, and players who had many sharply different choices can still leave with the impression that they were railroaded.
An informed choice is one in which the players have enough information to weigh the consequences of their decision.
In the door example, they might have been told that there are orcs behind the left door and mushroom people on the righ. They can then decide which type of monster they want to hit first.
An adventure can frame an informed choice as a trade-off, with pros and cons on each side.
If you decide to ally with the kch-thk, you’re choosing the superior fighting force, but can exert less control over their actions on the battlefield. If you pick the ragtag human colonists, you can rely on them to follow orders, even if they can’t muster the numbers or firepower the kch-thk would.
Informed choices give the players a high degree of control over the story’s direction. However, if they’re not tough choices, the GM or adventure are actually still nudging the story toward a predetermined path. And if they are tough choices, they’ll take a while to make. How much fun they really are depends heavily on how well the group makes complex decisions. Players who always butt heads with one another may prefer less narrative control, if it also means cutting down on the wrangling. Also, many people feel they face enough tough choices in real life and prefer their roleplaying narratives to present them with simple, comfortingly binary right-or-wrong answers.
Player-driven branches occur when the players create a choice point the GM or adventure writer did not anticipate.
Instead of picking the red door or the blue door, they don’t even go to the dungeon. Instead they decide to foment a gnome rebellion in the dwarven mine they pass on the way.
Instead of interviewing the witnesses the adventure mentions, they decide to go delving into a suspect’s banking records—a logical step the scenario doesn’t anticipate.
The fun value of a player-driven branch turns on how readily the GM can respond to it. In a crunchy combat-driven game, it might be hard to whip up stats for dwarven slavers and whip up a satisfying environment to stage the battle in. Simpler rules sets foster easier improv.
The more logical the players’ surprise choice, the less freeing it will feel to them. Of course any investigator would check the bank records first! What’s the big deal?
This might also be called a GM-facing choice. Sometimes you’ll find an element in an adventure where a die roll, hidden from the players, determines the direction of a story. A scenario that tells you that “There is a 40% chance that this room contains a ghost” is engaging in random branching. As is any mechanism that asks you to roll on a random table to see who the characters encounter, whether there are any cabs driving by, what businesses ply their trades on a particular street, or if the planet the spacefarers see on their viewscreens is habitable.
Players expecting to interact with a modeled world that isn’t set up to provide them with story opportunities may prefer lots of random branching.
In general though, if a choice falls in a forest and no one is around to perceive it, the objective of multiple possibilities, to give control the players, remains obscure.
To give freedom-seeking players influence over the scene, another choice type must be arise from the random roll. Once they’ve found that statistically generated habitable planet, they might then decide whether they should explore it themselves, or merely sell the coordinates to the big settlement company back on the homeworld.