Sometimes the difference between an urban legend and a hoax can come down to the cluefulness of those propagating it. Take for example the ineradicable 21st century viral urban legend claiming that Mars will on an August night loom as large in the sky as the moon. This comes up every August, thanks to a correct but widely misunderstood email sent in 2003. In an attempt to drum up a little interest in astronomy, it said Mars would get as close as it ever does to Earth, an event called the perihelic opposition. It would be the second-brightest (not biggest) object in the sky, and, when seen at 75-power magnification, would look as big as the moon. Every August since then, messages circulate warning people that the two bodies will look about the same size to the naked eye. In fact the next perihelic opposition will take place 60,000 years from now. For a sense of historical scale, that’s 7,500 editions of D&D in the future.

Including the Dungeons and Dragons joke, that’s the banter the teenage characters in a game of Fear Itself might be having as they hike deep into the woods—or for variety, a desert or canyon. Though they all know it’s a hoax, that night one or more of them sees Mars as big as the moon. The others don’t. At first. Finally half the group sees it and the other half thinks they’re crazy. And from this weird perceptual anomaly, distrust and then violence sparks. When they fail Stability tests, the characters must distance themselves from, flee, and ultimately attack those who didn’t see the sky the way they did. Then unseen Others seem to be stalking them. The two sides can reconcile, but only if they all agree that Mars is as big as the moon. That allows them to team up against the marauders—who turn out to be homicidal, better-armed versions of themselves. Those who escape finally drag themselves back to civilization…only to find the entire world in the grips of a burgeoning civil war between the Mars seers and skeptics. A war stoked by doppelgangers, seemingly created by the celestial phenomenon. Is this an attack from Mars? Mass madness?

More to the point, is it the dark coda of a one-shot session, or the opening salvo in a series of post-collapse survival horror?


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

See Page XX

A Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A while back Cat asked me for guidance on an unheralded facet of tabletop RPG production, the gentle art of collating feedback from a group of playtesters into a single document of greatest use to the designer. After writing it up I figured that it might be more generally useful to budding line developers. They perform a tough job without access to as big a pool of advice to draw on. So I polished that memo up, inserting some strategic diplomacy, and here you have it.

As Cam Banks did a killer job assembling playtest feedback for Feng Shui 2, an alternate title for this piece could be “Cam Banksing Your Way To a More Efficient Playtest Feedback Document.”

Perennial playtesters could reverse-engineer this advice into guidelines for providing more effective feedback. However, if you fit that description, you’re worth your weight in gold already. Just keep on doing what you’re doing, and let the developer and designer worry about turning your reports into design and presentation changes.

The “you” found below refers to the line developer. The designer is either a singular “her” or a plural “us”, as context dictates.

The number one most useful thing you can do in assembling a feedback document is simply to group all of the comments in order, by chapter and major subject breaks within each chapter. Depending on how the designer laid out her manuscript, breaking it down to Header 1 categories ought to do the trick. (If your designer hasn’t formatted her document with headers, you need to have a talk with her about that.)

This ordering process alone saves the designer a ton of time. She now won’t have to jump around randomly in the manuscript as she addresses issues from various groups in sequence. Ordered collation allows her to consider possibly opposed views on particular issues at the same time.

The second most important task the developer can perform is to strip comments of any emotional petitions playtesters are making of the designer. Boil them down into tonally neutral observations of actual problems encountered during play.

A natural disjunction exists between the desires of playtesters and the needs of designers. People like to have opinions and to feel that they’re being heard. They want to feel their impact on the process when they read the final product. The designer, on the other hand, wants to drill past opinions into descriptions of experience. Here the line developer jumps in to reconcile those two divergent requirements.

In the able developer’s hand, “We hated hated hated the scuba diving rules. They were too complicated and disrespected the glorious field of oxygen tank repair” becomes “One group disliked the scuba diving rules, finding them too complicated.”

As developer, you will also find yourself encapsulating “It’s irresponsible in this day and age not to include a full character build system” as “one group wanted a full build system.”

By doing this you allow the designer to skip the cognitively costly step of processing the playtester’s unhappy emotions, moving straight on to fixing the problem, if indeed she finds that there is one.

Conversely, the stripping of pleas and demands from the original context prevents the designer from dismissing a valid concern because the respondent couched them in an off-putting way.

In the typical playtest, count on one group to vehemently reject the game’s entire premise and all of its attendant design goals. For a new iteration of an existing game, it is not unusual to get a group that asks for alterations to established elements of the core system that work perfectly well and are not up for grabs in the current playtest. You can safely drop these from your feedback report.

Sometimes the first class of objections, reframed in emotionally neutral terms, help the designer write the expectations management sidebars that explain why the game works as it does.

Now and then you’ll get feedback from groups expect the rules to serve their very idiosyncratic play styles, or to solve issues concerning their specific problem players.

“These rules don’t constrain Randy nearly enough. You know, Randy! He’s a jerk but he drives the rest of us to game.”

“When we heard of your English parlor mystery game we were really hoping for a rules set that fuses our favorite parts of Nobilis and Rolemaster. Your investigative game could still be that if you added fifty pages of combat results charts and dropped mystery solving for mythic interaction. And we’re going to keep emailing you about it until you see how important this is. Because everyone else must want that too.”

As developer, your job is to run interference, keeping your designer focused on meeting her design goals and undistracted by passionate campaigning to deviate from the premise. After all, it might be you who assigned her this remit in the first place.

When you do include a bit of feedback you find off-base, flag it as such. The designer can enjoy a chuckle and keep going.

Playtesters naturally find it way easier to spot problems than to call out the segments of the game that already work. When a group does do this, it is helpful to know, so the designer doesn’t drop a thing most groups have success with in order to satisfy a problem had by a few.

Whenever possible, indicate how widespread a particular issue is among groups. “One group found the procedural rules too complicated” calls for a very different response than “Two thirds of the playtesters found the procedural rules too complicated.”

You can safely omit another common strain of feedback: “We didn’t like the look of that rule so we made up our own and here’s what happened.”

If you sense, or are told, that comments are based only on a reading of the rules, throw them in the garbage. Do not waste your time sifting them for pearls. They’re guesses at what might happen at the table. Plausible-sounding guesses are the worst, as they can prove deeply misleading. The designer needs to hear what actually happens when rule X or Y hits the table.

Proposed solutions to design issues are almost always unhelpful. Nine tenths of the time they add additional complexity without taking the whole of the rules engine into account. Share them only if the designer asks.

As a designer, I’d rather just see the problems: combat was too slow, we had a TPK in the first scene, the players refused to get out of the starship once they realized there were Class-K entities on the planet, we found the procedural rules too hard to learn, the character with telekinesis outshone everyone else, the example of initiative doesn’t agree with the rules text, the arithmetic is wrong in the Fleeing example.

Specific notes on the balance of particular crunchy bits are quite helpful, even if I wind up disagreeing with some of them. Here theories by someone who has actually played the game but not seen a certain hosy combo come up can in fact be useful.

Comments rendered in the language of game theory or general philosophizing are of almost no use, except in expectations management.

Some groups really love composing detailed write-ups of what happened in their games. I’m always abashed at the work that goes into these, because I have to admit that I skim them at best.

One big exception: if play write-ups list what character types got played (in a game that has them), and you can collate those, that’s very useful. Here we might discover that every group has a hobo in it but none of them have professors, in which case we might want to buff up the professor because this is Trail of Cthulhu, dammit. We might also want to determine if people just really love hobos, or if we’ve accidentally assigned them twice the build points other starting PCs get.

Organizational complaints always arise in playtesting but are devilishly hard to evaluate. A raw manuscript without an index and page numbers is hard to learn from. Lacking the mnemonic qualities of art placement and layout, a work in progress is by definition a mess. Many observations stem from not being able to find a rule in a raw document. This one you simply have to expect and hope to address during production.

A nufaith For Ashen Stars

After the disaster of the Mohilar War, new religious movements swept the ravaged region of galactic civilization called the Bleed. Among these so-called nufaiths is a belief system dependent on the personal detachment inherent in long-distance electronic communications. Onandeteria, named after its balla founder, Onandeter, teaches that great spiritual force has always suffused the universe. Prophets of all religions accessed this, understanding it through a multiplicity of cultural experiences. However, the still-mysterious disaster that ended the war threatened to entirely destroy spiritual energy throughout known space. In order to survive, or perhaps as a unpredicted side effect of whatever happened at the war’s end, the universal reservoir of spiritual harmony fled into the deepest harmonics of communications grid. Now, say the Onandeterians, you can interact with divine energy only at a remove, filtered through various telecommunications technologies. This force, which they call the teleteleos, underpins all, giving purpose to an otherwise meaningless interstellar existence. Practitioners pray together only in virtual places of worship, beaming in their holopresences to chant, sing, and commune in fellowship. The more of these virtual services you attend, the holier you become. Devout attendance, the holopriests promise, brings a form of immortality of consciousness, allowing one to permanently harmonize with the teleteleos after death. However, physically touching another worshiper dissipates all of your spiritual attainment. Some sects say this puts you back where you started before you joined the cult. More extreme believers hold that such a disastrous event forever cuts you off from the teleteleos, no matter what you try to do to atone. This happens even when practitioners come into contact unknowingly. As isolated worshipers who appear to one another cloaked in various holographic avatars, accidentally bumps become all too possible. This encourages worshipers to become shut-ins, paranoiacally avoiding all unmediated interaction. Accordingly Onandeteria provides an ideal faith for fugitives and recluses.

The freelance law enforcers of your Ashen Stars crew may be looking for one of these fugitives as part of a bounty contract. They might have to find a way to intercept transmissions used for church attendance, to track a worshiper to his meatspace lair. Or they might be hired by one of the faithful to avenge a scheme that led to their inadvertently touching another worshiper. Another plot hook might have them tracking down the blackmailer who is accessing all the juicy data stored on a confessional server.

As you scour the spacelanes of the Gaean Reach for traces of Quandos Vorn, the interstellar arch-criminal you have sworn at all costs to destroy, you may find it advantageous to familiarize yourself with the very latest terms of abuse. Although humanity in its vast sprawl through the galaxy has retained a common language, local slang terms continue to form, mutate, spread, then fall into disuse. Spurred by ever-present bureaucratic obstruction, the language hungrily seeks new ways to express frustration, contempt and calumny. You may need to know these terms to understand when you are being mocked, or to spur the laggardly into satisfactory action.

Armback: a stupid and/or gullible person. As in, you could convince him he has a third arm growing out of his back.

“No, you wretched armback! I don’t want you to perform the emergency procedure! I want you to learn the emergency procedure!”

Blurniquet: a generally useless person or thing. Derives from the story of Blurn of Blurn’s Planet, notorious for selling substandard or quack medical supplies.

“Don’t just lie there like a blurniquet! The leopards are invading the station!”

Borb: a person whose conversation one immediately wishes to extricate oneself from.

“Why in the name of Diana’s moons did you not rescue me from that unrelenting borb?”

Corruction: to punish with enforced party attendance. Often connotes metaphorical or literal coercion to consume heavy intoxicating or psychoactive substances.

“Beware, Spavine, or we shall subject you to corruction at the nearest star port.”

Glummiker: a complainer or congenital pessimist, especially one who cannot respond in kind to any expression of hope or pride.

“Well, we see who the glummiker is on this mission.”

Goyster: a person or situation that fails to live up to initial promise. Named from the delicious-looking false oysters of Goyanus Prime, a rare example of a food whose nutritional content is negative.

“The intersplit drive looked like a bargain, until I got under the console and saw it was an utter goyster.”

Hasbad: a once fearsome, now risible, individual.

“Take the projac, for all the good it will do you, you pathetic hasbad!”

Quasling: a wishy washy person, who is neither here nor there. A waffler.

“After six hours of interminable blather the quasling would still not definitively say if he has the supplies we need.”

 


The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. This ingenious hybrid fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Page XX

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.

Pharmacist

A Trail of Cthulhu GMC in Armitage Files format

Name: Frank Warren

Physical Description: late 50s, papery complexion, thinning hair

Sinister: Frank Warren became a pharmacist to make use of the alchemical secrets his father taught him from the family collection of moldering Renaissance manuscripts. He chose to operate in this desperate urban neighborhood because it supplies him with an inexhaustible list of test subjects who will never be missed should something go wrong. In his insane rambles through the New England countryside he has stumbled across various remnants of creatures that should not be. These scraps of flesh he has distilled into an assortment of elixirs. Eventually he hopes to invent a cure for death, without the vulnerabilities of the quack system discovered by that fool, Dr. Muñoz. This noble ambition surely compensates for any number of quasi-indigents slightly hastened to their graves. Should Warren sense that the investigators pose a threat to him, he attempts to dose them with one of his more lethal concoctions.

Innocuous: Warren first set up shop when this was a nice neighborhood, before the rot set in. He notices the terrible things moving in the shadows, but doesn’t say anything. Who would believe him? Frank just wants to get home to his ailing wife Helen, bolt shut all three locks on his apartment door, and stay out of trouble.

Stalwart: Warren learned his profession at Miskatonic University. He could have established a pharmacy in the rich, safe part of town, but instead took over his father’s drug store. Here, people need him. He has only just begun to notice the moving shadows down on Fourteenth Street. Every time the hairs on his neck rise up, he makes a note with a stubby pencil in his notebook. Any day now he may ring up his old friend Armitage at the university to share his observations.

Alternate Names: Bob Du Brey, Sidney Alden, Wilfred Brecher

Alternate Descriptions (1): mid 40s, wavy hair, luxuriant mustache

(2): late 60s, inexplicably resembles Mark Twain

(3): early 60s, rounded glasses, forbidding brow

Defining Quirks: (1) suffers terrible hay fever; (2) hums songs from Astaire-Rogers movies; (3) looks at his fingernails when nervous

Academic and Technical Abilities: Medicine, Pharmacy

General Abilities: Athletics 2, First Aid 8, Fleeing 2, Health 2

Alertness Modifier: 1

Stealth Modifier: –1

 


 

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

An Ashen Stars scenario premise

Before the Mohilar War, many of the Bleed’s planets were settled by proponents of the Synthculture movement. They created worlds to replicate past periods of human and alien history, often filtered through a pop culture lens. The self-described film noir world of Lost Angeles (spelling intentional) functioned surprisingly well until the war came. But in the ensuing privations a new generation of people born and raised on Lost Angeles grew tired of the cultural limitations placed on them by their parents and grandparents. The old regime drifted into authoritarianism and fell to a coup. Now a new civil war rages, between upstart democrats and old-guard former rebels turned oligarchs. Neither faction cares much about the planet’s original hard-boiled style. Which is why one of its aging enthusiasts, now safely off-world, has engaged the PCs to recover one of its key heritage artifacts. A replica of the Maltese Falcon prop from the 1941 film of that name formed the centerpiece of the office belonging to the planet’s first ruler, Mayor Teddy Huston. It appeared in countless newsreel projections in which he delivered epigrammatic truths to his grateful people. Miles Bond, a noir enthusiast of the tavak species, issues the contract. He wants the lasers to wade through the active war zone that is the Lost Angeles capitol and recover that falcon. But it has to be the particular, slightly over-sized one Huston commissioned. Bond doesn’t intend to keep the precious artifact in his own collection. It should be in a museum, he declares, perhaps the Institute of Synthculture Development on Rosehaugh II.

Though neither warring faction seeks to enforce Chandler-era style any more, the statuette remains a vestigial symbol of prestige and authority. The rebels say they have it, and the government claim they do. Leader of the democracy movement, Lai Damron, says it will be destroyed when they take office, marking a symbolic end to calcified tradition. Or is that propaganda spread by current president Narcia Ugan, who wants to turn the Combine against Damron by painting him as eager to destroy a galactic heritage relic? Can the lasers find the thing that dreams are made of? When they do, how to they prove that they have the authentic replica?


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Field assignments as Ordo Veritatis operatives tend toward the short-lived. Confrontations with the beings of the Outer Dark erode mental stability over time. The organization does its best to monitor the readiness of its agents before sending them out on missions. When possible it pulls members who are no longer fit for duty into support positions as analysts, administrators, or assigning officers. If your character gets out in one piece, he may become a Mr. Verity.

Sadly, not all agents adjust well to life after the Ordo. The organization can’t afford to expend resources carefully monitoring all former agents. It cannot enforce its request that ex-personnel periodically undergo psych evaluations and report any untoward findings. Those most in need of extra help tend to be the least prepared to ask for it.

As a result, it is not unknown for retired operatives to drift back toward the occult, or slip into general debility rendering them susceptible to Esoterror influence. To date, no former agent has gone completely rogue and joined an Esoterror cell. But some wind up on the streets, muttering of impending apocalypse. Certain ODEs have long memories and keep psychic tabs on their past enemies across the membrane between realities. Their hunger for pain makes them exquisite practitioners of revenge.

On occasion, then, it may fall to active members of the group to investigate the disappearances of their predecessors. Most of the time, the missing are quickly found, having gone off the grid in response to a brief, containable personal crisis. They are ushered into counselling programs. The team detailed to find them files an unremarkable report and goes home.

However, where the ex-colleague has succumbed to psychosis and by intent or negligence has begun to abet the schemes of the Outer Dark, agents may need to not only bring the subject into permanent custody, but also take care that any evidence of supernatural activity be thoroughly scrubbed.

Unfortunately, an agent’s operational instincts may not deteriorate as rapidly as his grasp of reality. Paranoid, resourceful, often illicitly armed, your quarry may prove difficult to corner. And dangerous when you manage it. Especially if you’re racing extra-dimensional demons to get to him first.

 


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The most vivid GUMSHOE investigative abilities in play are the Interpersonal ones. They allow your characters to get information through extended dialogue with Game Master characters, requiring a touch more player skill than the Technical or Academic categories.

They also show, in the game’s imagined on-screen space, who your character is and what attitudes she brings to her interactions with others. It affects how the other players see her. So when creating your character, give some thought to what the ability you expect to use most says about her.

Figuring out what personal traits go with which interrogation tactic isn’t a complicated exercise. Here are some examples to get you thinking.

Bullshit Detector: A skeptic to the bone, you go into any situation expecting people to lie to you. The question is, which lies are reflexive, and which ones bear on the case at hand? Your caustic sensibility reveals itself in hard-boiled wisecracks.

Impersonate: A natural mimic and deceiver, you enjoy pulling the wool over others’ eyes. You observe people well enough to pretend to be them. A slickness and love of surfaces pervades your dealings with others.

Inspiration: A true idealist, you believe not only in your own principles, but in the capacity of others to rise to become their best selves.

Interrogation: You value the authority you earned from an official role as cop or law enforcement official. With that comes a taste for respect—a thing you expect, but dole out to others only reluctantly.

Intimidation: You bully your way to victory. You may be physically imposing, emotionally intense, or both. The first question you ask yourself in a new interaction is: how do I seize dominance here?

Negotiation: You see life as a series of transactions. You take pains to put on the kindly face of the reassuring questioner, but that’s all part of the wheeling and dealing. What does the other person want, you ask yourself in a new situation. How little can I give him to get it?

Reassurance: You project a kindly demeanor, and get what you want out of people through kindness and empathy. You start encounters asking yourself what everybody needs.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all Interpersonal abilities in the GUMSHOE SRD, or the only possible treatment of the ones described here. But it will get you started as you wonder which of them warrants the spotlight of a 2 or 3 build point investment.

Creative Commons Original Image Attribution: Double-M


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In DramaSystem players both work together as co-authors to build a story, yet also compete as characters in pursuit of their unmet emotional needs. By requiring you to call scenes featuring other characters who don’t necessarily want to give you what you seek, it bends you toward conflict. But if you’re used to a more traditional game in which you all work together to solve an external problem, like the mysteries at the heart of GUMSHOE, your group reflexively pulls together. Albeit with a little bickering as you plan solutions to problems, for spice and contrast. As players we have good reason not to want to get too harsh with each other: that goes against our social instincts.

That’s one of the main reasons why DramaSystem keeps a GM in the mix. When you’re in the GM’s chair, your task will often be to break up the group as it moves toward harmony. YouR primary weapon here are the externally pressuring plot developments found in each Series Pitch under the “Tightening the Screws” header. When the group gets too cozy and too lovey-dovey, pick a shift in their underlying situation that will again pull them apart.

Not coincidentally, this mirrors the flow of ensemble-cast TV shows. You can find the best example of this in the sitcom “Community.” The title tells you what you need to know. Again and again, a new situation shifts the equilibrium of its key setting, Greendale Community College. This pulls members of the core study group apart. Usually one or two of the characters is inspired by the shift to pursue an emotional need that trumps collective harmony. This leads to comic disaster, and the eternal, heartfelt realization that the group matters more than the individual. The group drifts apart, then reasserts itself.

A couple of cast members, chiefly Chang and Dean Pelton, orbit the group without being part of it, often generating or amplifying the conflicts that pull at the threads of group unity.

DramaSystem main casts organically tend to mirror this pattern, with a tightly knit if internally fraught key group, and one or two outliers. Many scenes revolve around efforts to bring the outlier more fully into the fold.

In my own group I’ve noticed that certain players gravitate to the outlier role and others to the harmonizer. This goes far beyond Hillfolk, repeating itself in more traditional procedural games as well. If you spot this in your own play, you might experiment by making a pact with your counterpart to step outside your comfort zone and switch roles next time.

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