A Column about Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
When we of the Pelgrane-Industrial Complex write and test GUMSHOE scenarios, we take care to avoid short circuits—moments that, early in play, could conceivably allow the investigators to abruptly move to the end of the story. The dissatisfactions of short-circuiting are various. The players miss out on all the fun interactions, problems, and thrills set out for them to explore, leading to a feeling of anti-climax. You never want to end a scenario with the players wondering, aloud or implicitly, “Is that all there is?” Nor do you want to end a play session after an hour when the group expected at least their standard three to four hours.
Less well considered than the problem of short-circuiting is its opposite number, the need to hot-wire. Hot-wiring, a term I just made up*, refers to the process of cutting material from a scenario to fit a rapidly diminishing time window. You may need to hot-wire because:
- you have too much adventure left for one session, but not enough for two.
- one or more key players won’t be able to make it next time.
- you’re running a one-shot, perhaps at a convention.
- a key player has to bail early on this session.
The less linkage between scenes in an RPG scenario, the easier they are to hot-wire. In an F20 game like 13th Age, you can drop a couple of the fights. Where the connective tissue between battles seems too hardy to dispense with entirely, you can even elide your way to the climax with a few lines of description: “After several days fighting your way through the orc lands, you finally find yourselves standing at the foot of the Crusader’s grim tower.” Hillfolk’s scenes are so modular that you can stop at any time. Additionally, the narrative driving remains as much up to the players as the GM. And of course in The Dying Earth the picaresque characters continually skate on the edge of comeuppance, with a closing explosion of chaos to rain down on them never further away than the nearest Pelgrane nest.
GUMSHOE, however runs on way scenes connect to one another. Ripping out those circuits means finding the quickest route between where the characters currently are and a climax that makes sense and feels right. GUMSHOE is an investigative game, meaning that players want to come away feeling that they investigated something. Finding clues is the core activity, so you can’t elide that away from them. It would be like skipping not only the connecting fights but the epic final throwdown in a 13th Age run.
To hot-wire a GUMSHOE scenario, find the final scene you want to land on. Some scenarios present multiple climactic scenes based on player choices. Most converge the story into a single final scene, in which certain choices may be foreclosed, penalized or rewarded depending on what the protagonists have already done so far.
Given a choice of climaxes, pick the one that you think the players can work toward most efficiently without feeling that you shoved them onto a greased slide. The ideal hot-wire job doesn’t appear as such to the players. The way to achieve this is to still give them opportunities to be clever. The difference now is that the reward of that cleverness becomes a faster propulsion toward the finish line.
If given one final scene that can play out in various ways, quickly scan for the payoffs it provides to past decisions. See how many of them the players have already made, and how many still lie uncovered. If you can find a way to route them through some or all of those choices on the fast lane to the climax, great. Otherwise, them’s the breaks when you’re rewiring on the fly.
Your main task? Identify the shortest logical-seeming route from the current scene to the end point. Look at the section headers for the various Lead-Ins to that scene. Skip back to those scenes and locate the core clues that enable the investigations to reach it. You may find one or several.
Linear scenarios can be harder to hot-wire than ones that provide multiple routes to the conclusion. A journey investigation as found in Mythos Expeditions may have to use the narrative elision technique to get from the problem at point C in the wilderness to the final one at point J.
Where the climax boasts more than one lead-in, pick the core clue that you can most easily drop into the situation at hand. Or find a core clue that gets you to that penultimate scene, letting the players take it from there.
Let’s say you’re running a modern Trail of Cthulhu scenario** using abilities imported from The Esoterrorists. The climax occurs after hours at an aquarium theme park, where Deep Ones orgiastically empower themselves by tormenting killer whales. The investigators are partway through the scenario, having discovered the fatally slashed corpse of a rogue marine biologist in a gas station bathroom. As written, the corpse lacks ID and the investigators have to crack other scenes to learn who the victim was and then discover she was onto something fishy† at the aquarium. The investigators can discover the latter clue one of two ways: by tracking down and winning over her justifiably paranoid wife, or cracking her notes, as found in an off-site backup.
To hot-wire that scene to lead directly to the orca-torturing aquarium orgy, plant a clue to the off-site backup on the corpse. In the original, the murderers took her purse and car, to cover their tracks. After you hot-wire the scene, they were interrupted by a station employee while trying to steal the vehicle, and fled. This allows the team to find the victim’s tablet on the back seat of her car and use her Dropbox app to access her file. Present this so they have to, as would be usual, search the car for clues, and then figure out that her files might be accessible from a file storage interface app. That way they still get to feel like they’re doing the work of GUMSHOE investigators, feeling a sense of accomplishment as they screech toward their final assignation at that theme park.
*In its roleplaying context. Settle down, car theft enthusiasts.
**Warning: scenario does not yet exist. But GUMSHOE is OGL now, hint hint.
†Honestly extremely sorry about that. I am writing this the day before Gen Con, and it is also very, very hot.