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 RPG.net 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…
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.
A new adventure for Ashen Stars from Robin D Laws.
In this scenario of exploration and confrontation 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, and more.
The interstellar corporation Shrawley-Gosha Industries offers a contract for an extraction operation on a notorious Bad Planet called Tartarus. A recent SGI survey mission went awry there, with all hands presumed lost. The company seeks a crew to retrieve DNA samples from the dead team members, to see if they were exposed to an experimental viroware treatment, and, if so, whether it contributed to the mission’s failure. As a secondary objective, the lasers are to gather enough evidence to reconstruct the sequence of events leading to whatever catastrophe destroyed the original team.
To be released as a stand-alone PDF and in a print bundle with Terra Nova.
|Stock #: PELGA05D
||Author: Robin D Laws
||Pages: 27pg PDF
A revolt against a planetary despot disrupts your rescue mission. Do you intervene or stick to the brief? The latest installment of my StoryCraft column for The Ancient Scroll is eminently suitable for Ashen Stars. Check it out.
By Robin D. Laws
This is the second of two installments covering additional combat options for Ashen Stars. See part one for explanation and disclaimers. While the rules themselves are from the Esoterror Fact Book, the enhancements and gear are new and have not been playtested. Because, seriously, who playtests columns?
When your raw die roll on an attack attempt is a 6, and your total result after pool expenditures are taken into account exceeds the target’s Hit Threshold by 5 or more, you score a critical hit, rolling two instances of damage and adding them together.
Nadia, escaping from an organ harvesting complex run by radical cybes, punches a guard, whose Hit Threshold is 4. Her player, Piera, spends 3 Scuffling points on the attack, then rolls a 6, for a final result of 9. This exceeds the Threshold by 5, allowing a critical hit. Nadia deals damage equal to two punches, with a -2 damage value. Piera rolls a 5, for a modified result of 3 damage, and a 6, which modifies to 4 damage. The guard loses 7 Health, going from 5 to -2.
If PCs can score critical hits, their dramatically important enemies can, too.
Viroware Enhancement: Occipital Overclocker
Initial Therapy Cost: 1
This enhancement allows you to divert your brain’s processing power to visual acuity and hand-eye coordination, briefly granting you a supranormal ability to zero an enemy’s weak spot and execute the perfect attack against it.
Spend X academic or technical investigative points to turn any successful hit, regardless of your die roll or the difference between result and Hit Threshold, into a critical hit.
The value of X starts at 2 and doubles each time you use the occipital overclocker over the course of a single case. When a new case begins, the cost resets to 2. So in one case, the cost accelerates from 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 and so on.
By going into defensive mode, you can opt to decrease both your chance of being hit and your chance of hitting anyone else. For every 2 Athletics points you spend, your Hit Threshold increases by 1, up to a maximum increase of 3. When you try to hit anyone else, their Hit Thresholds against you increase by 2 for every 1 point your Hit Threshold increased. While in defensive mode, you duck, weave, backtrack, and otherwise concentrate on not being hit. Announce that you’re going defensive at the beginning of your action for the round; doing so does not cost an action itself. The effects last until the beginning of your next action, at which point you can renew them (provided you can afford the cost.)
Badly pressed and running out of Scuffling points, Nadia attempts to fend off a lipovore while waiting for her fellow lasers to swoop by on their shuttle, dangling an escape-ready rope ladder. Her player, Alex, declares evasive action and spends 4 Athletics on a 2 point Hit Threshold increase, taking Nadia’s threshold from 4 to 6. The lipovore’s Threshold increases (against Blake’s attacks only) from 4 to 8.
Viroware Enhancement: Limbic Defender
Initial Therapy Cost: X
The Limbic Defender virus harnesses the power of your fight-or-flight reflex, flooding your body with additional adrenaline. You needn’t spend Athletics to go into Defensive Mode. Instead, you may, once per case, add X, the cost you chose to spend when installing the enhancement, to your Hit Threshold. When you attack others, add 2X to their Hit Thresholds. The effect lasts for the duration of a single fight.
By fighting all-out, taking no precautions against being hit yourself, you can increase your chances of hitting your opponent—at additional risk of being hit yourself. Spend 1 Athletics to decrease both your and a chosen opponent’s Hit Threshold by up to 3 points. The minimum Hit Threshold achievable through a reckless attack is 1. Your opponent’s Hit Threshold decreases only against you, but your decrease occurs against all potential opponents. The decreases last until the beginning of your next action, at which point you can renew them by paying another Athletics point.
Confident that his clones will flee if their genetic exemplar is taken down, Nadia fights recklessly against the nufaith crusader Eln Tholar. Piera spends 1 Athletics point and decides on a 2-point decrease. Eln Tholar’s Threshold decreases from 3 to 1, but only against Nadia’s attack. Against the attacks of her crewmate, gunner Maggie Flatt, the exemplar’s Hit Threshold remains 3. However, Eln Tholar’s clones strike at Nadia as if her Hit Threshold is 1.
Viroware Enhancement: Rageaholic’s Delight
Initial Therapy Cost: X
This colorfully named virus awakens the latent aggression of your lizard brain (or lizard-like primordial evolutionary precursor, in the case of non-human species.) You needn’t spend Athletics to take Reckless Attacks. Instead, you may, once per case, subtract X, the cost you chose to spend when installing the enhancement, to your Hit Threshold, and from the Hit Threshold of a designated opponent (but only against your attacks.) The effect lasts for the duration of a single fight.
If you are a Tavak and use this enhancement in a fight, the Difficulty of any Resist Battle Frenzy tests taken for the rest of the interval increases by X.
If your Athletics rating is 8 or more, you may perform support moves. In a support move, you use your action to execute an Athletics maneuver, which then places one of your comrades in a superior position against an opponent. Describe, in exciting detail, how you intend the action to either improve your comrade’s position, or degrade an opponent’s. If your suggestion seems plausible, the GM clears you to make an Athletics test. Although your GM can adjust Difficulties according to described circumstances, you usually test against a Difficulty of 4. If successful, you allow your comrade to add the difference between your result and difficulty to a Shooting or Scuffling roll against the designated opponent. If the comrade fails to attack that opponent as his next action, the benefit is lost.
On New Peru’s windswept mountains, Nadia finds herself pinned in a narrow crevasse as a gelatinous native organism attempts to melt her face. Maggie, higher up on the cliff face, has dropped her rifle but wants to assist her comrade. Her player, Livia, describes a support move: “I rappel down and kick a loose chunk of rock so that it sinks through the thing’s outer translucence into the brain tissue below!” The GM rules that this is possible and not extra difficult (though dangerous—if Maggie fails, she’ll have to pass a second Athletics test or fall and hurt herself.) Livia adds 3 to her Athletics roll of 6 for a final result of 9. The creature attacks Nadia, reducing her Health from 11 to 5 as the flesh of her skin puckers and fizzes. Now it’s Nadia’s turn to act; she may apply a bonus of 5 (the difference between Maggie’s difficulty and result) to her roll. Piera spends a Scuffling point of her own, for a total bonus of 6, and rolls a 1, for a result of 7. This is just enough for Nadia to overcome the creature’s very high Hit Threshold and deal it the first of two stun attacks needed to down it.
By Robin D. Laws
In this, the first in a two-part series, I’ll be looking at ways to inject additional combat options into your Ashen Stars games. Next month’s selections adapt existing combat add-ons first found in the Esoterror Fact Book to throwdowns in the Bleed. This column floats a new rule concept in unplaytested form.
Before the rules, the disclaimer: GUMSHOE’s main focus remains on investigative action, with combat a secondary activity. We keep fighting simple so that it will also be fast, and not take up a disproportionate chunk of any given session. Most GUMSHOE GMs and groups prefer this stripped-down approach to fighting, considering it a feature. If you fall into this category, by all means continue to ignore the extra crunch. This material is for gamers who, for aesthetic reasons outside the game’s main scope, want its punching and shooting to feel more detailed. Although these rules add options, they still conform to the game’s central design credo, in which we emulate fictional models, rather than trying to simulate real-world physics.
As we value genre fidelity more than universality over multiple game iterations, we sometimes tailor combat options to particular genres. Mutant City Blues grenades work differently than in The Esoterrorists, because in one instance we’re emulating comic book reality, while in another we’re getting as close to Clancyesque as we’re willing to venture. Here we present quite a different take on suppression fire than appears in the Fact Book. This one gears itself to a universe of NLD fire, where the Fact Book version is more about your proverbial hail of bullets.
When opponents in a Shooting combat take Full or Partial Cover, and you are armed either with a disruption pistol or rifle, you may specify that you are laying down suppressing fire. As your action for the round, spend 1 point of Shooting and specify a single barrier or obstacle, behind which any number of combatants are currently taking cover. Specify also whether you’re using lethal or non-lethal fire.
You do not take a Shooting test.
Any opponent abandoning that cover between this action and your next gets hit.
If you specified lethal fire, the opponent is hit and damaged without the need for a Shooting test on your part. Armor reduces this damage as per usual.
If you used NLD fire, the opponent falls unconscious, regardless of its current Health pool.
Targets who are somehow immune to your chosen disruption setting are unaffected by your suppression fire. Protective gear, such as poppers, reacts as it normally would to the fire type chosen.
If a friendly combatant enters your specified cover area, you can (and probably will) choose to drop it. Your ally is unaffected, as are any enemies moving out of the cover area until at least your next action, when you may choose to re-establish your suppressing fire. Should you choose to maintain suppression fire, your ally is affected as an opponent would be. Expect the post-combat ready-room operations assessment to get heated.
In complicated cases your GM may find it clarifying to draw a sketch map of the fight and the positions of its participants. You can only create covering fire when you have a suitable vantage point from which to do so.
When there is more than one escape route from a covering position, and you can hit either from your present vantage, specify which of them your covering fire precludes. Your suppression fire kicks in only when combatants cross the line you’ve laid down.
Sentient or otherwise battle-savvy opponents avoid crossing lines of suppressing fire, doing so only as a desperation move. If your suppression fire strikes no targets during the course of a fight, you refresh all of the Shooting points you spent on it.
Upon entering an abandoned research facility on Asteroid Q-80923, you are fired upon by strange silica-based lifeforms. Two of them hide behind a partially dismantled console, granting them Partial Cover. They could abandon this cover either from the near side (advancing closer toward you) or from the far side (fleeing deeper into the complex.)
The entire melee pits four lasers, including yourself, against four silica lifeforms. You are the third laser to act. The lifeforms act after the lasers.
The first two lasers having fired, it’s now your turn to act. You don’t want the lifeforms to get away, and so declare that you’re laying down suppressing NLD fire, specifying the console’s far side as your suppression zone. You spend a Shooting point, dropping your pool from 8 to 7.
The last laser acts, then the four lifeforms. Neither of the two in your designated cover area tries to get away.
As the first action of the following round, a fellow laser drops one of the lifeforms with NLD fire.
When your turn to act comes up again, you decide to continue the suppressing fire. You pay another Shooting point to maintain it, lowering your pool by 1, from 7 to 6.
The next laser to act also drops his target with NLD fire.
The GM then describes your two pinned-down opponents as fleeing in panic through your suppression zone. They both fall unconscious.
From the GM’s point of view, this conveniently ends a fight whose conclusion is on longer in doubt. Since your suppression fire did in fact hit them, you get no refund for the Shooting points spent on it.
Disruption Accessory: Double Downer
This pistol or rifle modification bifurcates your gun’s barrel and adds a special targeting nanocomputer. During an action, you may both pay 1 Shooting to lay down suppressing fire, and make a second, standard Shooting attack.
Part 2 of Ashen Stars Combat – Duking it Out
There is a review of Ashen Stars over on Flames Rising by Todd Cash. It’s a positive review giving 4 out of 5 stars.
There are not many sci-fi settings that I like; however, this is a damn good setting. Law populates Ashen Stars with interesting alien races, an excellent back-story, and tons of ideas to get players started.
As with other GUMSHOE games like The Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars GMs are encouraged to look to the news for episode inspiration. Like the writers of the various Treks and the nouveau Battlestar, they might use the space opera form to examine issues of the day.
Alternately, they can start with pop science articles and either work their way to political allegory, or not, as desired.
For example, a recent study indicates that drug addiction piggybacks on the same neural impulses that lead animals to crave salt.
In the episode this inspires, the crew is hired to investigate a series of attacks on Combine ships near the Bleed’s far edge. They discover that the hostile party is a heretofore unknown advanced species called the gretherin. Although at first they seem merely xenophobic and implacably hostile, a twist reveals their motivations. A gang of human and cybe drug runners has infiltrated their home world, engineering a synthetic drug by hijacking the gretherin’s necessary craving for arsenic, a trace metal they require to regulate metabolic function. The gangsters aim to addict the entire planet to a substance only they can manufacture, draining it of its wealth. The gretherin take this for an act of war waged by the entire Combine. Can the PCs avert a nasty local conflict by taking down the drug gang and destroying the technology used to create the drug?
Ashen Stars is now available to buy and download from RPGNow. Go get your copy!