In the latest episode of their visionary podcast, Ken and Robin talk space opera RPGing, Jorge Luis Borges, Storyscape and Andrew Jackson Davis.

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

With Kevin Kulp’s TimeWatch RPG blasting through Kickstarter as only a chronoton can, you may be asking yourself if you can put time travel in other GUMSHOE games. We at Pelgrane are not in the business of telling you not what not to do with GUMSHOE. (Unless you want to use it to light your Hibachi indoors. In which case, don’t do that.)

That caveated, here’s how you might do it in the various existing GUMSHOE settings.

The Esoterrorists/Fear Itself/Trail of Cthulhu

One of my favorite treatments of time travel comes, of all places, from an old Batman comic. And not during a cool Batman phase, but from the kooky silver age. In that story, the details of which my memory is doubtless mangling, Batman and Robin go back in time hypnotically. (In fact, now Googling “Batman time travel”, I find that I like this idea because I’m remembering it wrong.) In my memory’s mistaken version of how this works, they possess the bodies of their ancestors, who happen to be conveniently located and remarkably similar in appearance in ancient Rome, the old west, the Viking era and so on.

Lovecraft likewise treats time travel as a mental journey, making it the specialty of the Great Race of Yith. In a Trail game you need go no further than to have a series of weird murders committed by a victim of Yithian possession. When the investigators capture the first suspect, the Yithian simply jumps to someone else—perhaps a PC whose player is absent that session—and forges ahead with the mayhem. To really shut down the Yithian menace, the group must figure out what the entity is trying to accomplish, and then take action to ensure that it is no longer possible. Otherwise the body-hopping from the ancient past continues.

Scrubbing the Mythos detail from this idea for The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself allows you to reverse the direction of travel. Outer Dark Entities come from the future, when they have already breached the membrane, to create the conditions that will later allow them to breach the membrane. They can’t travel directly into this time, but possess those emotionally destabilized by Esoterror provocations. Again the problem is that stopping one meat-form merely slows them down, requiring them to find a suitably vulnerable replacement. The definitive solution depends on rendering what changes they’re trying to wreak in the timestream impossible. After the Veil-Out, the Ordo Veritatis might take temporary relief in the thought that they’ve prevented a future in which their demonic foes win. But plenty of additional ways for them to do it remain, as a fresh manifestation quickly demonstrates.

Mutant City Blues

The conceit in this mutant-powered police procedural is that all weird abilities are already well explicated by science. If you do want to invent a mutant time travel ability you have to find a spot for on the Quade Diagram. Somewhere out near sector F00, where the weirdo dream manipulation appears, might fit the bill. You also want to establish the effects of time manipulation as already measurable, if not fully understood. So perhaps a time distortion field might emit some sort of radiation that enters the bloodstream, or induce over-production of a particular preexisting hormone. As members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit you can perform tests on tissue samples to determine whether victims, alive or on a morgue examination table, were exposed to time altering energies. Finding out who committed the time crime would then be a matter of finding out which local mutant miscreant has the mutation in question. That said, given the down-and-gritty reality level of Mutant City Blues superheroics I would be inclined to make time travel something that tantalizingly almost seems to exist, until the detectives get to the real truth of the matter. Perhaps false rumors of time travel could be connected to the alien beings some people in the world credit with the Sudden Mutant Event that created all weird powers.

Ashen Stars

The space opera setting of Ashen Stars seems tailor-made for timey-wimey activities. Like several sources of its inspiration, it includes godlike aliens. Or at least there used to be godlike aliens, the Vas Kra, who have devolved into the all-too-moral vas mal. And with those in the mix, even if only in the setting’s past, anything can happen. That allows you to nod to this key genre element without introducing brain-cracking paradoxes that rightly belong in TimeWatch territory. Needless to say the shift from universe with time travel to universe without would be an outcome of the Mohilar War. We might take a cue here from the current, degraded morphologies of the Vas Mal, the former godlike aliens. Now they look like classic UFO grays, which hook up to the motif of missing time. Perhaps in the Ashen Stars universe, missing time derives not from hypnosis or erased memories but from proximity to time travel and its contradictions in minds not capable of handling it. Back in the 20th century, when the Vas Kra came to earth to meddle with the human mind, those taken up into their vessels suffered gaps in understanding because they brushed too close with their transtemporal natures. This leads to the theory, oft-mooted by residents of the Bleed, that the Vas Kra ended the Mohilar War by interfering massively in the past of those forgotten beings. It explains how the war ended, how the Vas Kra lost so much energy that they had to devolve, and why no one remembers that this happened. The fear that this is so leads at least one powerful movement to oppose all efforts by the vas mal to reconstitute themselves, lest time travel come back, unleashing chaos throughout the cosmos—maybe bringing back the Mohilar, too.

Night’s Black Agents

What if the vampires are time travelers? They’re humans who, sometime in the future, discovered how to move through time. Problem: doing so warped their bodies. They became vulnerable to sunlight and had to drink the blood of humans uncontaminated by chrono-energy to survive. Their added strength and resistance to damage (except to the brain or heart) hardly counts as a fair trade. So they send agents back to the past, to prevent the chain of events that leads to their own development of time technology. Stopping those events requires a grand upsetting of the geopolitical power structure. To achieve this they must penetrate and destroy the world’s intelligence agencies. The PCs know too much about this, even if they don’t believe the truth, and hence find themselves on the run from somewhat sympathetic vampires from the future. Who still want to pulp them and take nourishment from their juices.

Santa Vas malby Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Most cultures mark the deepest darkness of the winter and the turning of the year with feasts and rituals. Festivals often spread from one culture to another when peoples engage in trade, though the celebrations may lose their original meaning and acquire new ones in the transmission.

By the time humans went to the stars in the 2130s, Christmas was a largely secular celebration marked by consumption of all manner of luxuries. Humanity’s client species and trading partners adopted their own versions of the holidays – as the humans took the last week of their year off, those whose businesses involved regular dealings with humanity had a good excuse to kick back and relax themselves.

The final defeat of the mynatid wasps on December 31st, 2261 and the ensuing foundation of the Combine solidified the week leading up to January 1st as the major festive holiday across all the Seven Peoples. Founding Day – January 1st, the anniversary of the Combine – is still the biggest day of celebration across the Bleed. Official ceremonies as well as parties and wild carousing  go on into the small hours of every January 2nd. On many worlds, ships chase the fall of night around the planet, prolonging Founding Day to give passengers more hours to party.

Before the Mohilar War, Founding Day was strongly associated with cultural exchange and integration, and was a favourite day for xenoweddings. During the war, ceremonies acquired a distinctly militaristic tone and, by the late 2450s, commemorations of the war dead dominated the once-joyous anniversary. Now the Combine uses Founding Day as a reminder of the strength and unity of the shattered polity, which means pro-Bleed factions attack the celebration as a day of cultural hegemony. Most of these attacks are restricted to speeches and counter-celebrations; terror attacks on Founding Day are rare – at least so far.

The run-up to Founding Day is marked in different ways by different peoples and cultures in the Combine. The human Christmas is the most widely celebrated of these festivals. In fact, several synthcultures elevate Christmas to the core of their philosophy. Yuleworld, for example, celebrates Christmas almost year-round, breaking only for the seasonal Gastric Repair Days. Other human worlds, influenced by the resurgence of spiritual belief across the Combine, hold that the religious meaning of Christmas must be extricated from the secular morass of commercialism. This is taken to an extreme on Briareus, where the holiday is a time of solemn prayer, and any merrymaking – even laughter – is forbidden on penalty of exile.

The kch-thk adopted Christmas during the brief Syndicate period of the 2230s. The Primal Mass attempted to reassure the humans that their new insectoid allies were not so different, and so kch-thk clans competed to be as ostentatiously human as possible. Christmas was especially suited for this purpose – if there’s one thing the kch-thk can do, it’s eat. Trillions of clone-turkeys perished in the name of diplomacy in the 2230s. The kch-thk kept the festival even after the collapse of that alliance. To this day, ‘having a traditional kch-thk Christmas dinner’ is a euphemism for grotesquely excessive gluttony.

The boisterous raconids also adopted Christmas from the humans, on the grounds that anything the humans can do, the raconids can do better, faster and louder. Raconid Christmas parties are notoriously debauched, often lasting four or five days before the participants collapse or get kicked off the planet by local authorities. To avoid such problems, many raconids take to the party fleets for the holiday season. These fleets are each composed of a dozen or so ships, each one packed to the gills with food and drink. They land only when the stocks are exhausted; allegations of party fleets turning to piracy to prolong the festivities are unproved but entirely plausible.

The balla find the raucous nature of many informal celebrations to be disconcertingly emotional, and prefer to remain aloof from them. They do mark the holiday season with mor-abol, a ritual in which members of a Balla family (or, for spacefarers far from home, the local balla community) gather together. At the start of the three-day ritual, one balla is chosen at random to be the abol-jin. The others prepare and fortify themselves with meditation and psychic exercises. After three days, the abol-jin is permitted to ‘speak from the heart’ on any topic important to them. They may even show emotion during this outpouring, as the other balla have prepared and shielded themselves against any contagion of feelings. Rarely, a balla may call upon non-balla to join in mor-abol. This expresses astounding trust and intimacy with any non-balla so favoured.

Being mildly radioactive, ndoalites can never be wholly comfortable socialising (as the saying goes, they’re the half-life of the party). Ever practical, though, they’ve turned their inability to participate in the social gatherings of the festive season into an advantage. Every year, ndoalites take on extra shifts at work or swap assignments to give their co-workers more free time. Ndoalites keep the Combine running over the holidays. It’s become a badge of honour for a ndoalite to bear extra burdens at this time of year and they refer to it as [happy work].

Alone among the major species, the tavak do not celebrate any festival in the run-up to Founding Day. Historically, this was due to the fact that many tavak hibernated through the darkest part of their winters until the spring when the insects became plentiful again. These days, though, the tavak eschew the holiday season out of sheer stubbornness, and get tetchy when anyone tries to draw them into the celebrations.

By contrast, the durugh took one of their minor holidays, the previously obscure King’s Gift, and made it into a huge celebration as it happens to fall on December 27th by the Combine calendar. Just as the kch-thk adopted Christmas to assimilate with human culture, the durugh used King’s Gift to assimilate into the Combine. On King’s Gift, each durugh is expected to pay tribute to the king. In modern times, this ‘gift’ usually takes the form of community service or investment, or even charity to the poor. The office of havrash, or ‘tribute co-ordinator’, is now highly sought-after, as the havrash of a large city or planet has control over all the money given by the durugh population and almost complete discretion on how this money is spent, as long as it somehow glorifies the king’s name.

Ironically, the durugh gave rise to another celebration that takes place around Founding Day. It was on December 26th, 2110 that the durugh made first contact with the primitive cloddhucks. Today, most cloddhucks still celebrate the Day of the Grey Gods, although they use it as an excuse for feasting and downplay their previous state as servants and footsoldiers for the durugh. Radicalised cloddhucks see the Day of Grey Gods as the day when their species was enslaved, and use it as an excuse to start trouble in any durugh neighbourhoods.

The haydross have little concept of seasons but were keen observers of the stars before they discovered space travel. Therefore, the solstice of great importance to them, and is marked by the recital of long equation-songs and the chanting of sagas. Haydross tend to be nervous in social situations and mask this nervousness by defaulting to their traditions. Pity the poor soul who gets trapped next to a haydross at a party and gets treated to the full seven-hour Song of the Fundamental Forces.

Icti also find some social gatherings difficult, but for very different reasons. For the first few years after a union, the icti must explain its changed status to every casual acquaintance of its host. Even the most entertaining party becomes a chore when one has to keep repeating the explanation of how you died, then got brought back to life by joining with an alien crab. Family gatherings are especially awkward.

For the newest additions to the Combine the holiday season is fraught with uncertainty. As they were created to fight for the Combine, many cybes have strong feelings about Founding Day so the run-up to that anniversary can be volatile. It really doesn’t help that two of the memory donors associated with the Cybe’s neural rewiring ability have powerful connections to Christmas. Professor Greenwater hated Christmas while Krk-krt absolutely adored the holiday, especially its cheesiest and most commercialised elements.

Verpid culture is even younger than that of the cybes, and they don’t have any references inherited from humanity to guide them. Verpids tend to use the holiday period as a platform to raise awareness of the plight of their nascent species, and encourage others to give the gift of genetic freedom by contributing to the Verpid Foundation. Pledge today!

Finally, most vas mal react to religious ceremonies the same way they react to philosophers and physicists – by giggling and muttering ‘wrong! Wrong! Close, but oh so wrong!’ They do enjoy dressing up as Father Christmas. After all, they once possessed cosmic omniscience, and know who’s been naughty or nice.

Artemis Tau systemAn Accretion Disk forms around massive bodies in space. Gravity drags in random objects and debris, spinning them around and bringing them in closer and closer, faster and faster, hotter and hotter, until something explodes.

It holds true for stars and black holes – and for politics and crime, too.

And let’s face it – you’re the ones who are going to be standing in the path of that explosive release. Better get ready.

Accretion Disk: The Ashen Stars Expansion Book includes:

  • Sample clues, special spend benefits, and added data on each Investigative ability. Learn how to use Kinetics to escape VR simulations, identify alien interference in pre-contact cultures, and trace viro-augmented criminals with endocrinological profiling.
  • More options and tactics for general abilities, including species-specific ones. Master zero-g martial arts, detect weapons as they charge up, and acquire corporate sponsorship for your Laser team to boost your cash flow!
  • Take your stations on board ship with options and tactics for each warpside and groundside role, then delve into player-drive Arcs and Drives. Guide your own destiny amid the guttering Ashen Stars.
  • Explore new character options with six new playable races.
  • Deckplans for every class of ship show you what it’s like on board – and new ship options and bolt-ons open up tactics for ship-board adventures.
  • When you hit dirtside, break out any of the dozens of new weapons, equipment items, cyberware or viroware – if you can afford the upkeep!
  • Hot Contracts gives a roster of jobs that only a Laser crew can handle. Pick your own challenge hot off the Bleed, and get to work!
  • Finally, twelve new hostile aliens ensure that the Bleed stays dark and bloody…

Writers: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Kevin Kulp, Kieran Turley

Status: In Development

Justice Trade cover

Now the war’s over, and you and your crew of freelance effectuators patrol the edge of civilized space, trying to pay the bills while you keep the peace.


But the competition in this line is fierce, and sometimes you have to cut corners — which makes you wonder if justice bought and paid for is any justice at all…

The Justice Trade contains three adventures for Ashen Stars – The Justice Trade, Terra Nova and Tartarus – written by Leonard Balsera, author of Profane Miracles and co-author of the smash hit Dresden Files; GUMSHOE designer and gaming luminary Robin D. Laws, and Bill White, author of The Big Hoodoo. It also includes a bonus twenty-minute demo game by Kevin Kulp to introduce players to the world of Ashen Stars.

The Justice Trade

When the PCs answer a distress call from the planet Cabochon, they become embroiled in the political machinations of two powerful figures who each seek to shape the future of the Bleed. Will they choose to do good and make the Bleed a better place – or to do well for themselves?


In a devastatingly hostile environment,  hard-bitten lasers – who know enough not to touch the gooey stuff or take off their helmets in an untested biosphere – investigate the demise of a survey crew doomed by the above mistakes.

Terra Nova

The Terra Nova,  last of the great luxury liners from the Combine’s heyday,  is dead,  a victim of disaster now drifting in the space between worlds. The last of the survivors clutch desperately to life,  waiting for rescue. All but one; who waits only for a chance to finish the job,  uncovering a secret which the Terra Nova has kept hidden for decades.


A twenty-minute demo,  which is a great introduction to Ashen Stars and includes six pre-generated characters.

Stock #: PELGA07 Author: Leonard Balsera, Kevin Kulp, Robin D. Laws, Bill White
Artist: Chris Huth, Pascal Quidault, Kyle Strahm Pages: 96pg Perfect Bound


See P. XX

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws



Cover_Final_TitlesWith editorial for Hillfolk and Blood on the Snow completed, it’s time to take a break from DramaSystem to work on another of the obligations arising from our November Kickstarter. That would be the System Reference Document for Open GUMSHOE.

On one level, this seems like an exercise in cutting and pasting, taking the basic iteration of the rules as found in the upcoming Esoterrorists Enhanced Edition (the text of which you can grab now as a preorder benefit), cutting out the setting-specific bits and then adding in elements from the other GUMSHOE games. It does however require some thought on what an SRD ought to be doing.

When you decide to throw a game system open to all comers, you naturally give up control over what happens to it as others present it for their own creative purposes. This is a concern because GUMSHOE departs from some standard assumptions and becomes a better play experience when GMs and players understand where, how and why it does this.

For example, rating points in abilities mostly don’t represent a simulated resource in the fictional world. Instead they function as a sort of narrative conceit, measuring the characters’ spotlight time and how they grab it. (A few abilities, like Health and Stability, can be regarded as measurable resources in the game reality—although of course they’re still an abstraction. When you break your leg, you can’t consult a numbered meter to see how many points you’ve lost.) GUMSHOE seems confusing to some players until they grasp this. This explanation, though not a rule, strictly speaking, serves as a key tool to enhance play. So while you might categorize it as GM advice or a player note, it’s really a pivotal component of the game. As such, the explanatory text should be available to anyone publishing their own GUMSHOE adaptation. We can’t require adopters of the license to use it—as indeed, we can’t force them to make any particular choice. We call this Open GUMSHOE, not Passive Aggressively Controlling GUMSHOE. Still, we can encourage people to include it by making it part of the standard boilerplate text in the document.

This reflects a broader priority. We’ve chosen to make GUMSHOE available to other designers. Yet we remain its foremost custodians. If we’re going to let it out of the nest like this, we’d better provide excellent care and feeding instructions. We want others not only to produce GUMSHOE games, but to design great GUMSHOE games. It should therefore contain at least some guidance on how to do this.

The GUMSHOE SRD differs from the most famous versions of its breed, the D20 and its descendant, the Pathfinder document, in that it won’t also comprise a playable game unto itself. It’s not The Esoterrorists with the IP elements scrubbed out, but rather the set of components you need to build your new game on the GUMSHOE chassis.

If you’re designing a GUMSHOE game, we want you to be able to do it well. So it has to contain at least some signposting showing you how to adapt it to your cover

For example, the build point totals for purchasing investigative ratings vary with each iteration of the game, depending on how many of those abilities the game includes. So the SRD can’t just give you the flat numbers as they appear in The Esoterrorists or Ashen Stars or whatever, because you might include a different number of investigative abilities in your GUMSHOE game. The document has to break from the text as third-party publishers might incorporate it into their rulebooks to provide the formula to calculate what the build point totals should be.

At least in these passages, the System Reference Document becomes something else—a System Design Document. We’ve gone from SRD to SDD.


Extensive passages on how to design GUMSHOE games go beyond the scope of the project. That sort of thing is better saved for occasional columns like this one. But the SRD does have to provide designers with the basic tools to construct GUMSHOE games without having to reverse engineer from the existing books. A balance must be struck here. If the document contains too much advice, it might create preconceptions that might lead other designers away from what would otherwise be brilliant leaps away from the game’s current assumptions. Too little, and it doesn’t give them enough to simply reproduce what we’ve already established in another setting.

GUMSHOE is not a generic system, but a chassis on which you can construct an emulation of any investigative Trail Covergenre. For a classic example, see the grenade. Grenades in the real world work the same regardless of the context in which they’re exploded. In fiction, they can work quite differently, depending on the reality level of the genre at hand. So in the Tom Clancy-meets-postmodernism-meets-visceral horror mix of The Esoterrorists, grenades are pretty deadly. Mutant City Blues treats them as less effective than the super powers at the heart of that setting. If you for some inexplicable reason decided to fuse high energy action movies with investigation, you might make yet a third choice, depicting them as wildly damaging to property and inanimate objects, while allowing people to escape harm from them simply by jumping and being carried away by the massive fiery explosions they generate.

So again the SRD can’t just pick one grenade rule and make that the default for all genres. It has to provide a quick design note about genre emulation and point you toward the solution that works for your design goals.

Likewise we won’t be providing a complete list of mutant powers from MCB or virology implants from Ashen Stars. But we will give you examples of each special rule structure so you can then kitbash it for your own purposes.

In the process I might even learn something new about my own game, as I figure out what is and isn’t essential to it.

The GUMSHOE system by Robin D. Laws revolutionized the investigative roleplaying game, and is the basis for RPGs that will appeal to fans of many genres: space opera, spy thriller, Lovecraftian horror and two-fisted pulp adventure — with more to come.

Its central premise, though, can be challenging for newcomers to wrap their heads around. What do you mean investigative skills automatically work? If we don’t roll dice to find clues, what do we do?

One of the best ways to introduce new players to GUMSHOE is to run one of our 20-minute GUMSHOE demo adventures for them. These scenarios have been tested through convention play, and provide a solid intro to the rules as well as to individual games based on the system. If you are running something else with your game group, 20 minutes isn’t a hard sell to run at the beginning of a session.

Currently you can download three short GUMSHOE demos:

20-minute demos for Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Mutant City Blues will be up next. Give these scenarios a try, and let us know how your session went in the forum.

Halloween is drawing near, and you might be looking for appropriately spooky games to run for your players. Here’s a quick roundup of seven Pelgrane Press games and adventures that might fit the bill:

  • Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite - The designer of this mashup of the spy thriller and horror genres describes it as “The Bourne Identity, if Treadstone were vampires.” The Zalozhniy Quartet by Gareth Hanrahan is a Bourne-style Night’s Black Agents run-and-gun adventure in four parts that can be played in any order.
  • Ashen Stars by Robin D. Laws  - An ENnie Award-winning science fiction game where the players are freelance troubleshooters and law enforcers in a rough sector called the Bleed. Tartarus is an adventure with a setup that strongly resembles a sequel to a recent SF/horror blockbuster movie: an interstellar corporation hires the players to investigate the disappearance of a survey team  on the notorious Bad Planet of Tartarus.
  • The Book of the Smoke: The Investigator’s Guide to Occult London by Paula Dempsey - 2012 Gold ENnie award winner for Best Writing, this supplement to the horror RPG Trail of Cthulhu takes the form of a guidebook to the actual (if somewhat fictionalized) occult landscape of 1930s London. In addition to being a rich source of horror adventure hooks, the book itself gives readers an opportunity to unravel the mysterious death of its fictional author — though nobody’s succeeded yet.
  • Fear Itself -  A game of psychological horror, where ordinary people face the terrors of the Outer Black.
  • The Esoterrorists - Elite investigators take on occult terrorists bent on tearing open the fabric of reality.
  • The Book of Unremitting Horror  - A supplement for Fear Itself and Esoterrorists that’s so unsettling a reviewer on deducted a star from his rating because it crossed too many boundaries. Not for the faint of heart.
  • Invasive Procedures – 2012 ENnie nominee for Best Adventure. In this adventure for Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu, players are patients in a hospital where something horrible is happening. There’s no chance to stop it — all they can do is try to get out alive. Listen to an Actual Play session on Role Playing Public Radio in which everyone who played the game died of terror. (Possibly. I haven’t listened to the whole thing, yet.)

Have fun rolling the bones…

All We Have Forgotten has been nominated for a 2013 ENnie Award as Best Aid / Accessory. More on this here.

All We Have Forgotten is music for Ashen Stars by James Semple, Marie-Anne Fischer and Yaiza Varona, the talent behind the chilling Eternal Lies Suite.

All We Have Forgotten contains 10 original tracks and 4 stings, short bursts of music to mark the end of a scene. The tracks are supplied as MP3s so can be quickly loaded onto any player to add that extra dimension and atmosphere to your game.

The music has been designed to be used with Ashen Stars but can, of course, be used with any number of sci-fi games.

You can listen to a sample here -

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Review Highlights

Read the reviews to date here.


By Robin D. Laws

The voraciously anticipated Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s reboot of the Alien franchise touched down to howls of disappointment from the fans who wanted it most. So much so that we’re plotting some remedial catharsis, in the form of an Ashen Stars scenario called Tartarus. Without encroaching on the intellectual property preserve of 20th Century Fox, it allows gamers to follow their characters to an irredeemably hostile planet and make terrifying discoveries without necessarily making a series of gobsmacking rookie blunders along the way.

The Alien movies, the new one included, function as procedural narratives. The characters tackle a series of practical obstacles in furtherance of a physical goal. In the first four movies, that goal is survival. With Prometheus the goals get a little opaque, but basically the ensemble is exploring an alien world in an attempt to understand the significance of a series of archaeological finds back on Earth.

To engage with a procedural, we have to be with the protagonists as they struggle against their obstacles. We need to see them want to achieve their goals. This may happen because we approve of those goals, or because we like the characters and want them to succeed. Often both factors come into play. Sometimes all you need is a riveting urgency of intent.

The phenomenon known as “idiot plotting” disrupts that connection between character and audience. This happens when the character creates or worsens his own obstacles by making foolhardy mistakes of simple judgment.

Here we’re not taking of the grand errors that drive a tragic hero to horrible realization and final destruction. Those occur in dramatic scenes, in which characters pursue inner, emotional goals. Lear’s error in abdicating in favor of his flattering daughters bodes ill as he makes it, but we see and understand the misplaced pride behind it. It’s a telling emotional error, not a petty practical mistake.

A petty procedural mistake would be taking off your helmet in the unknown alien environment just because your suit tells you the air is breathable. Or reaching out to touch the albino cobra vagina creature. Or deciding, upon retrieving an ancient alien severed head, that one’s first step ought to be reviving and interrogating it.

As gamers we find these moments especially painful because so much of a typical RPG session is taken up by debates over the best course of practical action. RPGs teach us to err on the side of caution, perhaps too much so. We look for the traps in situations and try to think our way past them.

When players engage in reckless actions like the above, it’s usually deliberate, and happens as the others cry for you to stop. The player may be bored and trying to start some trouble for the characters to confront. She may be acting according to her conception of the character—that is, making an emotional error instead of a practical mistake. Or she might be required to act by a rules mechanism, like GUMSHOE’s drives, that pushes the characters out of their cautious shells and into interesting danger.

In the last case, the other players have to take this with equanimity. As risk-averse as they might be, they know their characters have to take part in conflicts and face hazards.

The middle example depends on how convincingly the player portrays the emotional error, and thus how intuitively the rest of the group relates to it. If every character you play routinely gets the rest of the group in trouble by pursuing suspiciously similar inner goals, you can expect this habit to wear thin. That suggests that you start out wanting the power within the group that comes from being recalcitrant or a troublemaker, and then backwards-engineer the motivations needed to justify that behavior. By doing this too obviously, you create the same kind of sympathy breakdown we experience when we see idiot plotting on screen—the rest of the group withdraws from your character, seeing the contrivance behind the misstep.

The first case—the blatant, unmotivated lurch into trouble—earns resentment not only from other players, but from the GM, who has to find a satisfying response to your actions that doesn’t spin the session’s narrative into a credibility-draining comedy of errors.

(Unless, of course, that’s part of the premise, and you’re all knowingly working toward it, as you would in a Skulduggery or Dying Earth session.)

The disastrous mistake that gets the best response at the gaming table is the one that no one sees coming, that the players stumble into as unwittingly as their characters do. The resulting groan resounds with  mordant recognition, as the pieces of the disaster fall into place. Here the group retains its sympathy for the blunderer, because they didn’t see the result coming, either.

That’s part of the problem with idiot plotting in other story forms: it fails to deliver this sense of surprise. It’s predictable. Yes, we may feel suspense during the gap between the action and consequence. Exciting narratives hand us reversals—they set up an outcome, misdirect us away from it, and back toward it. Or they make us believe that the terrible thing is going to happen, then provide a rescue that surprises us while also paying off an earlier set-up. In both cases, we are surprised and have our expectations met at the same time. Creating expectations and then straightforwardly realizing them adds structural insult to the basic injury at play here.

That core injury breaches the implicit trust between character and audience, leading us to withdraw our identification from foolhardy characters.

Just as we get annoyed with a disruptive player who veers the narrative into tediously predictable negative paths, we refuse to invest in characters who betray our concern for them. We can root for sociopaths, megalomaniacs, the cosmically misdirected, and anti-heroes of all dimensions. In comedy, we can hope for the ultimate victories of the hapless, hopeless, and clueless. But, whether at the tabletop or on the big screen, we can’t make ourselves care about people who should know better, but do dumb stuff for no apparent reason. As gamers, we see this more acutely, and can maybe better articulate why more precautions should have been taken with all those alien contaminants, but everyone feels it.

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