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.
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.
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
SRD or SDD?
With 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 needs.
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 genre. 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.
Where Mutant City Blues nerdtropes the police procedural by mashing it up with the superhero genre, the new NBC series Grimm does the same thing with a dose of urban fantasy. In the premise-establishing first episode, police detective Nick Burckhardt discovers that he’s a hereditary fighter of evil creatures obliquely referenced in fairy tales. With his partner Hank Griffin and acerbic new wolfman pal Eddie Monroe, he investigates mysteries involving his ancestral foes.
In GUMSHOE terms, Nick clearly has a bespoke investigative ability called Grimm Sight, a sort of supernatural version of Bullshit Detector that allows him to detect people who are disguised supernatural beings, but only when they’re under stress.
Over the course of the first two episodes, we’ve also seen the following abilities provide additional insight, or act as core clues bringing on new scenes:
Nick: Cop Talk, Forensic Psychology, Inspiration, Reassurance
Hank: Anthropology, Data Retrieval, Evidence Collection, Research
Eddie: Occult Studies
In the case of Hank’s Anthropology, we see the classic justification for a needed ability that seems outside the character conception. Down-to-earth cop Hank, after identifying an exotic tribal artifact, explains to his partner that his second wife was an anthropologist.
After two episodes, it’s hard to guess if the series will make good on its early potential as a fun blend of recognizable formulas. I am however looking forward to seeing what else is on these guys’ character sheets.
Here we have two 5-Star reviews of Mutant City Blues from RPGNow.
“I loved the way that this linked in with the esoterrorist system. The quade diagram and the ability to create great drama with the system WITHOUT depending on the players getting the clues…..just asking the right questions. When I set it in Detroit with all the google earth maps the setting seemed to really materialize for my players and what they were doing. Great system!”
Steve Kyer, RPGNow.com 5/5 Stars.
“This game was my first exposure to the GUMSHOE system and it made me fall in love with it! This game is extremely fun. I really love how all the mutant powers are related to each other on a diagram, giving more plausibility to super-powers and how they would develop. The world is rich and full of color and interesting ideas. I highly recommend this game.”
Devon Kelley, RPGNow.com Featured Reviewer 5/5 Stars.
A review of Mutant City Blues by Matthew Pook.
Review of Mutant City Blues on GameCryer a “top notch game from Pelgrane Press”
On RPG.NET, Notty Reid gives Mutant City Blues a positive and detailed review.
“For the first time in months I’m excited about running a new game. I can’t wait for the new season at my local games club so I can get stuck in.”