I’m glad tabletop culture still seems to respect elder wisdom. Otherwise I’d be reluctant to tell you how long I’ve been doing GM Masterclass panels.
Over time a few questions change, but some stay the same.
One question you don’t get much anymore: the once-standard, “How do we get new blood into the hobby?” This is because today’s con panels brim with teens and college students. Yes, OGs* who don’t get out much, the hallowed ones longed for by prophecy have finally come to save us.
A couple more perennial questions have persisted into the new generation, meaning that certain Things I Always Say must continue to be said. Saves me the cognitive trouble of coming up with new shibboleths, I suppose.
“How do I get the combat and tactics oriented players in my group to like story and characterization more?” is still a thing. (Answer I Always Give: If they’re interested, they’ll catch on in time. But maybe they’re not, and they’ve come to your table to combat and tactics.)
“What do I do about this one person in my group who is doing [fill in incredibly dysfunctional thing]?” also remains all too common.
The answer we all have to keep repeating is: talk to them, out of game, out of character, and tell them that you’re finding their behavior completely undermining. When they respond as desired, great.
When they don’t, kick ‘em out.
In a broadly attended, non-specialist panel, like one I recently took part in at FanExpo Canada, these three simple words provoke a ripple of delighted laughter. Attendees shiver at this thought of crazy liberation. “We can do that?” the laugh seems to ask.
Yes, you can do that. And should. The downside of geek culture’s fear of ostracizing behavior has been discussed at greater length elsewhere. To see how ridiculous it is to allow someone to constantly undermine the game, throw the question into another context. Would a football team tolerate a quarterback who constantly runs toward his own team’s goalposts, because that makes him the center of attention? Would aquarium fanciers invite somebody back after he drains everyone’s tanks?
Acceptance by others requires acceptance of others. Trying to continue with an undermining player will just kill your love of the game.
It doesn’t matter whether he drives others to game night, or brings the pizza, or is the one who introduced the rest of you in the first place.
If he insists on undermining your game after you’ve kindly asked him not to, three words pertain:
Kick ‘em out.
*Original Grognards, of course.
You can eject an egregiously undermining player from any fine Pelgrane Press game. For example, GUMSHOE 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 the world of Mutant City Blues, so-called muters pursue an obsessive hobby. Fascinated by people granted extraordinary powers by the Sudden Mutation Event, they attempt to log personal sightings of mutations used in the wild. Like bird watchers, they maintain journals logging their sightings. The object of the exercise is to tick off all the major powers of the Quade Diagram. Incidents of powers in use must be spontaneous in order to fully count. Attending a scheduled performance by mutants, or worse, paying a mutant to deploy venom or flame blast so you can tick it off in your journal constitutes a huge no-no in muter circles. To fully score a sighting with the World Muter Association, one must witness without participating.
Mutant rights groups describe the hobby as discriminatory, casting genetically altered as exotic Others to be ogled and cataloged. The threat of constant surveillance by muters adds another level of anxiety to life with an expressed helix. It doesn’t just border on stalking, mutant leaders say; the entire hobby is one of harassment, full stop. Yet some mutants themselves participate in the hobby. Any mutant in need of a little status can easily find it at the nearest muter gathering. Cooperative mutants may lead muters on a tour of your city’s mutant district, either for the emotional rewards, or perhaps for covert payments. After all, you don’t have to write everything down in your journal, do you?
Muter groups can feature in your Mutant City case files in a number of ways.
- A hate group sets itself up as a group of harmless muters, giving themselves quasi-respectable cover as they stalk their victims.
- A muter witnesses the murder of a mutant, but fears to come forward due to the slayer’s heavy duty connections. Your officers must convince the witness to testify in court—and keep him alive long enough to do so.
- A muter is shot to death by a mutant he was trailing. The shooter claims self-defense. Did his quarry have reason to fear for her life, or was the deadly incident set up by a third party, hoping for a fatal outcome?
- A muter’s journal, collected as evidence in one case, contains evidence of more serious crime committed by a dangerous mutant the squad has never been able to hang a charge on. Yet the warrant doesn’t cover that incident, and the muter, fearing for the integrity of his beloved hobby, refuses to voluntarily release its full contents. Do the cops use his notes to capture their quarry now, and hope the assistant D.A. can smooth over the differences in court? Or do they find another way to bring down the perp that won’t get tossed on constitutional grounds?
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.
In Raymond Chandler’s short story “Nevada Gas,” Johnny De Ruse, one of his proto-Marlowe protagonists, pays a hotel detective for answers to questions. In GUMSHOE terms, he’s clearly using the Bargaining ability. Before De Ruse gives him the dough, he extracts a promise not to tip off the man he’s investigating. A few beats later, he discovers that the house dick, Kuvalick, went straight to his target to spill the beans.
GUMSHOE handles requests for benefits other than information as spends. You spend a pool point associated with the investigative ability you’re using. You’d get the info from Kuvalick, then spend a point to get him to shut up.
De Ruse naturally is plenty steamed when he finds out that Kuvalick double-dealt him. You can expect your players to be even more annoyed than their characters if they make spends and get less than nothing for them. Yet to never permit a supporting character to betray them means that you can never use this basic genre situation.
To retain the possibility of petty sellouts in a way players find acceptable, frame it as a choice. As the PC extracts the promise of cooperation from Kuvalick, suggest, in GM authorial voice, something along the lines of “you can see the wheels turning in the backs of his eyes. Trusting him might be a crapshoot.” When the player has 2 points in Bargaining, you could indicate that 1 point lends the chance of cooperation, while 2 buys certainty. Even if the player has only 1 point, she can still decide whether spending it on an untrustworthy recipient is still worth risking. Then when the betrayal comes, the player at least made an aware choice.
(In a scenario you could easily roll randomly to determine whether your Kuvalick equivalent rats the characters out or stays bribed.)
Except in the bleakest setting, let’s say a Purist Cthulhu scenario, I’d then refund the spent point.
This uncertainty principle could extend to other Interpersonal spends, adding suspense to the proceedings. The investigator senses that a 1-point Reassurance spend might or might not keep the scared maid from staying put while you go off to find the ghoul. That the recipient of your 1-point Cop Talk might agree not to record your interaction in his notebook, and so on.
One could argue that characters ought to have Bullshit Detector in order to sense that a bribe might not stick. On the other hand, you could also say that Bargaining includes the ability to assess honesty during a Bargain, Reassurance can test whether your calming words will stick, and so on.
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.
Face Madness and Corruption… Alone!
Los Angeles, 1937. Fast-growing city in the world. Suicide capital of America. By day, a place of blue skies and palm trees. By night, a town ruled by the smell of fear. The System, a tight-knit conspiracy of cops, crooks, politicians and businessmen, holds L.A. in its grip. One lone private detective, equipped with smarts, fists, and just maybe a code of honor, uncovers the town’s secret truths. But what happens when you scratch past the veneer of human malfeasance to reveal an eternal evil—the malign, cosmic indifference of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos?
You get Cthulhu ConfidentialTM.
You get GUMSHOE One-2-OneTM.
One Game Master, One Player
GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and reenvisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set, as seen in such hit roleplaying games as Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, for one player and one GM.
Together you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format.
Can’t find an entire game group who can play when you can?
Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience?
Play face to face.
Or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops to play online.
Includes all the rules you need to play, plus a detailed approach to building your own mysteries.
Horror Goes Hardboiled
Cthulhu ConfidentialTM drops your hero into the noir nightscape of hardboiled-era Los Angeles. Meet its powerbrokers, from the kings of its vice rackets to the Hollywood studio bosses who mold America’s dreams. Rub shoulders with cultists and radio evangelists. Frequent its legendary restaurants and glittering nightspots. Just don’t get hit by that careening Packard while standing at the end of the Lido Pier. There’s a dead man at the wheel.
The Party Girl With the Stolen Sanity
Includes a fully rendered scenario, “The Fathomless Sleep.” How exactly did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. Explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism.
A hard case like you won’t stand for any flimsy, half-hearted introductory adventure. “The Fathomless Sleep” serves as a complete model for further mysteries of your creation in the city of fallen angels.
Status: In development
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.
See P. XX
a column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Some mysteries, like that of life itself, never resolve themselves in anything other than new, stranger questions. Deconstructed mysteries like David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) retain the outward form of the mystery genre, with clues and questing investigators, without the reveal at the end. Some supposedly straight mysteries, for example Edgar G. Ulmer’s Grade-Z oddsterpiece Murder is My Beat (1955) present such a peculiar set of clues that they too seem to throw the sureties of the genre into a spiral of arbitrary result. From Zardoz (1974) to Inception (2010), many dreamlike, trippy, or alternate reality films follow the seemingly structureless structure of the existential mystery.
In The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, the Mystery Man’s Ocean Game, created by master monster-maker Dave Allsop, very much follows in this tradition. In case you missed it, it’s right there in the name of the psychologically sadistic outer dark entity: the Mystery Man. This enemy targets the protagonist, turning his life into a series of clues that leads anywhere but out. He destroys his victims by gradually enmeshing them in a hellish, hallucinatory pocket reality.
At first the Mystery Man’s invasive bubble version of the world bleeds into the real one. The hero goes about his everyday life, as weird manifestations bubble in its periphery. Over time they take greater focus, intruding more often, with increasing intensity. Finally the target becomes completely mired in the Ocean Game illusion.
Existential mystery could likewise torment your Trail of Cthulhu characters. Due to pineal gland experiments, a ritual gone awry, or an accidental drift into dreamland, characters could find themselves trapped in an otherworldly realm. In Ashen Stars this effect might occur when your ship drifts into a stellar anomaly, quantum disturbance, or the disembodied aura of a dead Vas Kra. Though it would impose a big drift in genre, even Night’s Black Agents spies might find themselves running operations in a psychic reality created by blood magic. Alternately, you could ditch the genre trappings of the various GUMSHOE game lines for an exercise in unspecified modern weirdness. Or jump publisher boundaries to create your own GUMSHOE-powered iteration of Over the Edge. Whatever the trappings, the solution to the mystery might require the victims to comprehend how and why their reality shifted out from under them. But then there’s still the final question: how to get out.
Before trying this, get buy-in from your players to make sure they’re ready to care more about experiencing the mystery than solving it. For many groups, you may prefer to present the mood and structure of the existential mystery but allow for a scene where they finally figure out what’s going on, get the heck out of there, and put everything away in a neat little box.
A scenario in which investigators do not seek realistic clues which lead them from one actual location or see into another requires some questioning of what is a scene and what is a clue. You might sprinkle a number of weird facts into a scene. You could determine in advance which ones are sufficiently creepy or evocative to pull them further into the story toward another scene. Alternately, whichever detail the players most obsess over becomes the pathway to another, equally puzzling follow-up. This of course requires you to improvise more than a standard scenario might. But then you don’t have to worry about it making literal, as opposed to thematic, sense, making your task considerably easier.
The ending of an existential mystery depends on a central question: are the characters resolving something inner, about themselves, or outer, about existence itself? In the first case, the scenario is most likely resolvable. The characters interact with people, places and situations reflecting their internal conflicts. They either overcome these and escape, healed, into an ordinary reality where questions have answers, or fail, and are trapped forever in the labyrinth or otherwise destroyed. If it’s existence itself they’re tackling, they’re screwed, baby. It’s labyrinths all the way down. Enjoy the minotaurs!
The witnesses, shady characters and monsters they meet along the way will even more than usual embody universal symbols and archetypes. As a student of that classic existential horror mystery, The Wizard of Oz (1939), you already know the drill. Along the way the heroes will meet psychopomp characters who point them on the way, twisted antagonists bent on turning them from the road, and companions of various outre stripes whose limitations the hero must overcome to in order to access their full aid. In many RPGs, this last category might be filled by the other player characters.
Naturally you skin these figures as dictated by the signature tropes and images of your game’s genre. The psychopomp might be the manager of an underground club, an alien star child, a Bucharest arms dealer, or a deceased professor, his advice appearing in the form of a scrawled final diary.
In existential mysteries locations take on a looming significance. Describe a dreamscape version of reality, with ordinary locations distorted, twisted, and blown up to cavernous scale. Render workaday places eerie by depopulating them. Instill the sense that events are unfolding just out of the characters’ sensory range. They hear a party, or the disturbed laughter of maniac children, but no matter how quickly they run toward the source of the sound, never manage to fully behold it.
As GM you don’t have to decide at the outset whether you’re running a journey of inner or cosmic significance. You can instead gauge what the players expect and either deliver that, or satisfy them with the switcheroo of their secret desires. Generally they’ll want to solve the problem but in a horror environment they may instead feel let down if they fail to shamble their way toward to a sanity-blasting outcome.
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.