A while back we learned of the vials of supposedly destroyed smallpox virus that turned up in a laboratory storage room in Bethesda, Maryland. Luckily, no one was exposed to the deadly disease, allowing us to guiltlessly mine the incident for scenario inspiration. How you might use it depends on the game you’re currently running:
Ashen Stars: The lasers get a contract to find out what happened to an archaeological survey team tasked to explore the ancient alien ruins of the outlying world Cophetus. They arrive to find the team’s base, with evidence that they had located the tomb of a great emperor and were set to open its entry hatches. The team’s interpretation of the hieroglyphs found on the side of the complex alert them to a different story—this was the tomb of the ancient pathogen that nearly extinguished this mystery civilization. Can the team learn enough to locate, rescue and decontaminate the archaeologists before they succumb to the disease—or spread it to the stars?
Mutant City Blues: Conspiracy blogger Warner Osterman is found dead in your jurisdiction, a .22 bullet in his brain. His last story was about finding serum sample vials in a disused military laboratory. According to the contents of his laptop, Osterman believed these contained a version of the disease that caused people around the world to gain super powers ten years ago. That’s the angle that gets the case assigned to the HCIU. Did Osterman die because he got too close to the secret of the Sudden Mutation Event? Or just because he made people think he did?
Dying Earth: Locals in an isolated village your neer-do-wells happen to traipse through run a lucrative sideline in waylaying treasure hunters. When visitors come, they let slip the presence of an ancient treasure vault, one they pretend to be too superstitious to venture near. Over many years they’ve learned the right words to trigger the greed of arrogant freebooters. The adventurers head off to plunder the ancient temple, which in fact is the repository of an enervating energy left behind by a heedlessly experimental arch-magician. The magical plague kills off the visitors. Then, armed with protective amulets, villagers head on down to strip their corpses of valuables. Can our anti-heroes escape the fate of so many likeminded troublemakers before them. If so, do they turn the tables on the rubes who so impertinently used their own greed against them?
Given the persistent weirdness of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, it should come as no surprise that they were the first major sports administration to permit the use of mutant powers in professional competition. In the DNA-twisted future of Mutant City Blues, only one thing has changed about the world’s love of football: America now adores it too. After all, the US team boasts such world-class players as Kirk “Force Master” Larson, Lyle “Nonstop” Watts, and Shane “the Ghost” Lowe.
Larson uses his concussion beam to move the ball around, and kinetic energy dispersal to fizzle the opposing team’s kicks. Thanks to his pain immunity and endorphin control (self), Watts simply doesn’t tire. And, attracting the greatest hate from rival fans, Lowe’s mutant brain makes lightning decisions, instantly evaluates threats posed by the other side, and allegedly reads their minds from time to time, too.
This year the World Cup has come to Mutant City, with all the revelry and security issues needed to keep a police officer up at night. HCIU officers have been pulled from normal duty to keep the city safe for visiting fans from around the globe.
The juxtaposed atmospheres of celebration and terrorism fear that accompany any high profile sporting event might hang as a background element over several other cases the squad pursues as the World Cup rolls on.
After sufficient foreshadowing, a case puts the tournament center stage. Options include:
- The squad gets evidence of a credible death threat against one of the above-named players. FIFA won’t hear of a star player being pulled, so the players have to track down the would-be killer without being able to stash the victim safely.
- Anti-mutant terrorists, angry that non-mutant players have been pushed to the sidelines, regard the games as a prime target. This allows you to stage your super-powered, footie version of Black Sunday.
- Trinidad Güngör, the FIFA board member most responsible for bringing mutation into the game, is found brutally murdered in his hotel suite, with several underage prostitutes dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Initial indications point to an attack by a non-mutant player whose career declined after the genetically enhanced were permitted on the field. Investigation points to another possible angle— Güngör was about to implicate fellow board members in a bribery scandal over the bid to hold the next games.
Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
A Calgary dentist who two years ago bought John Lennon’s tooth at auction says that he looks forward to cloning him in the near future. After finding a jurisdiction with loose bio-ethical regulation, he intends to raise the child in a music-friendly environment—though without exposure to drugs and cigarettes.
Rip this story from the headlines for Mutant City Blues with a case involving a murder at a gene sequencing lab. The HCIU catches the case because it specializes in prenatal screening for mutations. Co-founder Allen Gould turns up dead in the underground parking lot beneath his office at Sequencing Services LLC. Initial indications point to a business dispute between the vic and his partner, Helen Mack. Further digging reveals Gould’s scheme to divert especially promising samples to an illegal cloning program. Did Mack kill him when she found out, or was it Gould’s shadowy partners in the clandestine cloning operation? A moral dilemma arises when the detectives discover that several clonings have already taken place. Women get implanted with super-powered fetuses in the Grand Caymans and then return home to Mutant City. Sometimes they’re surrogates, in other cases the women who intend to raise them bear them. Although the murder of Dr. Gould clearly falls under their jurisdiction, the scheme itself occupies a legal gray area, far above their pay grades. Still, the way they handle publicity arising from the arrest will likely shape the political outcome. Can the detectives influence how the children born as a result of the scheme are treated? Do they even try, or do they keep their heads down and move on to the next homicide on the whiteboard?
Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Pick up Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Your Mutant City Blues characters may spend their on-stage time putting down major cases with an extra-human slant. But just like their TV procedural counterparts, we see them only when they’re working the interesting cases. We can assume that they investigate plenty of routine cases between episodes. Most of their arrests stem from easily solved, and therefore less than compelling, crimes. In real police work, the most obvious suspect is almost always the guilty party. (That’s why it’s tough to be innocent when you fit the profile of a usual suspect.) The criminals you mostly deal with aren’t masterminds. Far from it—they’re easily tripped up in the interrogation room, don’t know their legal rights, and fall again and again for basic interrogation ploys.
Nor are all the cases you work major crimes. Other squads are happy to bounce cases to the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit at the slightest hint of mutant involvement. So you get not only the big cases, like murders, kidnapping and high-dollar heists, that seem to have an extra twist in their helixes. You get to track down mutant vandals, petty thieves, flashers and street corner drug slingers.
Any of these cases might lead into a more complicated crime with a mystery at the heart of it, one fitting the GUMSHOE modus operandi. If so, your GM kicks off a scenario with it, or drops it in at the relevant moment. Most of the time, the day-to-day efforts comprising the bulk of your career hang as an implication in the background.
Add cop show flavor to your character portrayal by using minor offstage cases as springboards for banter. Scenes in which partners exchange dialogue on the way to an interview are a staple of the genre. Roleplaying groups often engage in banter and digression to give themselves time to think when they’re stumped. Combine these two functions by doing your digressions in character, making them less digressive.
Invent a routine case and drop it into your dialogue as an exercise in dark police humor. Find powers on the Quade Diagram and meld them with tales of typical police work. Regale your fellow mutant officers with such gems as:
- How you identified an invisible peeping tom.
- The animal rights activist who spit acid all over a furrier’s inventory.
- The guy with gills you caught hiding in a building’s water tank.
- The landlord who hired a guy to scare his rent-controlled tenants into leaving by attacking them with rats, via his control mammals power.
- The landlord who called to complain that a tenant was interfering with the thermostat, making the apartment warmer than he needed legally to pay for. The landlord accused the tenant of using his reduce temperature power to blast chill air at the thermostat. You told them to take it to small claims court.
- “Stupid arson squad had me working overtime on that warehouse torching. I was halfway through my list of suspects with fire projection, when they found the accelerant.”
- The extortionist who wanted protection money not to blow a new condo’s glass balconies into the street. Maybe you caught him by showing up at the payoff site and spotting the dude with the asthma inhaler. (You’ll recall that asthma is a defect associated with wind control.)
- The guy who confessed to a fatal stabbing in a prank gone wrong. He went after his frat brother with a knife, because the bro had blade immunity. It was a trick they’d pulled a dozen times to impress the college girls. But the frat bro didn’t tell him his identical twin was visiting that night, the twin was a norm. So it all ended in a puddle of blood and an involuntary manslaughter collar.
- “My sister wants me to talk some sense into my nephew, who’s been jolting. If I knew how to talk to kids, maybe I would have had one. I don’t suppose if I introduced you, that you’d do the heavy lifting…?”
- The citizen who accused his ex-husband of chopping off his finger. It turned out that the guy did it himself, which he could afford to do because he regenerates. Later the two reconciled and the citizen dropped the charges. Later still you get another call, and this time the falsely accused has really chopped something off the hubby. But this time it’s not the finger.
Mutant City Munchausen
You could also steal a trick from a classic game by friend-of-Pelgrane James Wallis, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. In that game, you challenge your competitors to weave entertaining anecdotes from a simple premise. While essaying a squad car banter scene with another Mutant City Blues player, you might toss them a premise and see what they do with it. It could relate to a case, another aspect of mutant life, or some off-duty cop matter. For extra points, pick an idea that highlights the contrast between your characters. Or pitch an idea that might draw the other player into a shared sub-plot.
- So what’s the deal on that entangling hair kink club case you’re working?
- Hey, did I hear right that you’re dating a telepath? If you don’t mind my saying so, that’s crazy.
- Are you still thinking about studying for the sergeant’s exam? I bet they skew the scores against lixers. They’re aren’t enough of us to work mutant cases, so they want to keep us outta the desk jobs.
- It sucks that the perps in that barhead bar brawl case walked. We should go pay a visit to the property clerk who screwed the pooch on the chain of evidence and put the fear of God into him.
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.