This month’s ENnie Award-nominated See Page XX is a mini offering of 13th Age related goodies. Wade Rockett talks about his experiences playing 13th Age with lead designer Rob Heinsoo. Ash Law gives two examples of how normal items, such as a dwarven hammer, work in 13th Age. Bedlamdan tells us what actually happens when the Icons interfere. There is information on the Kickstarter for the forthcoming companion book, 13 True Ways and the fully laid out first chapter of the core book. Robin D Laws explains roleplaying decisions and their dramatic consequences and Simon Rogers gives us a mini round-up of all things Pelgrane.
No Page XX would be complete without a poll, so this week it’s options for Eternal Lies printing.
Get your monthly dose of See Page XX here.
The bumper January/February edition of See Page XX is now out. Read about Ashen Stars combat options, improving your scenario writing, constructing and destroying conspiracies in Night’s Black Agents and loads more. Also take our Page XX Poll where we ask your opinion on options for a new GM Screen.
We have playtest opportunities, an open call for artists, new releases and updates on Eternal Lies and Razed. Read all about it here.
A primary goal, if not the primary goal, of fourth edition D&D is to bring balance to fight sequences. The latest build of the RPG mothership seeks balance across several axes:
- between players, so that everyone gets to be effective during a fight
- throughout combat, so that you can do something useful even after firing your big guns
- against enemies, more evenly matching PCs and their opponents
- across levels, so that the game performs equally well at low, mid and high levels
To achieve balance, 4E compartmentalizes its crunchy bits by function, into combat and non-combat categories. A few character elements, like skill checks, cross the line between combat and roleplaying sequences. Most, however, are tuned for either one type of scene or the other. Powers are part of the combat balance. Rituals aren’t.
A parallel use of compartmentalization appears in GUMSHOE. It also privileges a type of activity, and divides character elements according to their relationship to it. In D&D, the activity is combat. In GUMSHOE, it’s investigation. Investigative abilities work differently than general abilities and are initially purchased from a separate set of build points.
In play, the line between compartments is harder and brighter in D&D than in GUMSHOE.
D&D combats are scenes unto themselves. They have their own sense of timing and draw on different mental acuities than scenes of discovery or character interaction. When PCs switch from talking to the orcs to whaling on them, player attention radically shifts. While in interaction mode, they’re thinking about what the characters want, how they’re trying to get it, and how they behave. They’re imagining the scene in their heads. When the throwdown commences, they shift perspective: often literally, moving from comfy couch to loom over the tabletop. Now they’re thinking about their positions on the battle map, what powers they’re going to use, and how to coordinate tactically with the other players. Typically, they’re looking at a map and a set of minis, and conjuring mental images only intermittently.
In its scenario structure, GUMSHOE divides scenes to some degree: antagonist reaction scenes, for example, are sequences of action and suspense in which general abilities predominate. Investigative scenes, as the name suggests, focus mainly on information gathering and draw mostly on investigative abilities. However, you don’t get the same cognitive shift when you move from one to the other: the picture of events is always in your head. PCs might easily gather information and then perform a general action back-to-back, then go back to an investigative ability use, all in the same seamless sequence.
4E’s hard line between scene types, and the cognitive shift that accompanies it, can take some getting used to. Even when it appears to be a drawback, I’d argue that it’s a small price to pay for fights that are as varied, tactically challenging, and easy to run as 4E’s are.
That said, once you’re aware of the hard line, you can begin to use it to your advantage as a DM. Compartments become the building blocks of story structure.
The classic dungeon delve scenario requires little shifting because its compartments for combat are large, and its non-combat scenes minimal. The latter provide flavor and a sense of continuity, but are essentially transitional in nature. If you prep three rooms where the group will, respectively, fight kobolds, rumble skeletons and confront an assortment of traps and monsters, you’re building the cognitive shifts into the literal architecture of the scenes. Fights occur in rooms. Exploratory transitions and character banter happens in the corridors. Moreover, the room/corridor setup gives the players the salutary illusion of narrative freedom. You know they’re probably going to engage with all three of your prepped encounters. But they get to pick the order, albeit blindly, by deciding which hallways to head down and which doorways to bash open.
Story-oriented adventures, where the connections between fight scenes are not doors and hallways, but rather interaction sequences that forward the plot, challenge your ability to provide a sense of narrative freedom. Here you might establish a story premise, or dangle several premises in front of the players and see which ones they go for. You’ve prepped three encounters, but haven’t nailed down how they connect or what their significance to the overall narrative might be.
You know that the characters are going to battle kobolds, skeletons, and a trap/miscellaneous monster mix. What you don’t know up front is why these fights will occur, the story elements that will connect them, and the impact they’ll have on the overall storyline. This you discover as you respond to player choices. Here, the non-combat compartments don’t just connect the fights—they invest them with meaning and heightened emotional stakes.
Now the combat and interaction/exploration compartments aren’t operating in two separate vacuums; they’re informing one another.
An agenda for the PCs allows you to link the two compartments. You might provide this as part of the campaign premise, request that the players generate it themselves, or go into picaresque mode. This last approach sees them adopting and rejecting various goals as they wander through your campaign.
Let’s say they’re amnesiacs seeking a magical orb containing their stolen memories. Your introductory interaction/exploration sequence starts with their realization that they can’t remember their pasts. They head into the nearest village, where, by talking to its inhabitants, they get the first inklings of what might have happened to them. You establish a choice point that propels them to one of two future scenes. They might seek the advice of a sage, or decide to follow the trail of a sinister-seeming peddler who passed through town on the night they lost their memories. Tying these into combat compartments, you could decide that the sage is being held prisoner by kobolds, and that the peddler maintains a secret lair guarded by traps and trained creatures.
Whether the group chooses between sage and peddler knowing about the kobolds and skeletons is a matter of taste. You could leave them in the dark. You might let them discover this while gathering information. That way, they can factor the sort of fight they’ll likely face into their decision as to which choice to pursue. As a third option, you might let the dice decide, providing the scoop on either or both sets of guardians on successful skill checks.
By withholding prior knowledge of the guardians, you get to keep the unused encounter in reserve for later. This way, if the group focuses on the sage, you can couple the skeletons to a fresh narrative thread later on, with none of your prep time having gone to waste.
In part one, we talked in general terms about preparing players used to Call Of Cthulhu for their first session of Trail Of Cthulhu. In particular, you want to show that the GUMSHOE system’s core investigative mechanic isn’t as radically alien or mechanical as some readers of the rules assume.
Here’s the demo that illustrates the point. Use it before your first session, prior to character creation. This is a solo demo. Pick the player who you think will be most resistant to learning new rules in general, or to stepping out on his beloved CoC rules in particular.
Paraphrase the following quickie scene so that it comes out in your standard GMing voice.
You are Dr. Tyler Freeborn, assistant professor of anthropology at Miskatonic University. You enter a hotel room, expecting to meet with a colleague, Professor Hamilton Simonsen. Instead you find the man’s nearly beheaded corpse crumpled next to a desk chair. Lying next to him, in the middle of his pooling blood, is a tribal fetish of some kind.
Improvise whatever details you require in response to player questions. When paraphrasing, preserve the way that the text above heavily leads the player toward the fetish. Eventually the player should put the anthropologist-fetish connection together and ask if he can identify it.
First, run the scene-let under Call rules. Have the player roll his 75% Anthropology skill. Run the skill use just as you would in any CoC session: the player might explicitly mention his ability, or might just ask the question, requiring you to confirm that he’s using Anthropology.
If he rolls successfully, tell him that it’s a curse fetish created by the notoriously degenerate Jharo-Jharo tribe of the lower Amazonian basin. The foremost expert on the Jharo-Jharo is Wallace Welkley, former adjunct professor at Columbia University. Notoriously, Welkley was denied tenure after a paper by Professor Simonsen accused him of fabricating his interviews with the Jharo-Jharo.
If the roll fails, tell the player that he thinks he ought to remember the style of the fetish, but can’t. Maybe a trip to the library will remedy that. Then cut to a scene in the library, where he makes his 80% Library Use roll. If he succeeds with that, give him the above info. If not, cut the demo short, saying that eventually the Keeper would find yet another way to get the information to him.
(With a 75% skill level, and a higher Library Use as a backup, chances are that the player will succeed in the first version of the scene, as well as the second. The point here is not to show off GUMSHOE’s main feature, that you never fail to get an important clue. Here you’re illustrating that, except for this feature, the process of gathering information is essentially the same as it is in CoC. You’re heading off the mistaken assumption that the guaranteed availability of clues somehow allows players to short-circuit the normal give-and-take of interacting with the scene and calling on appropriate abilities.)
Then replay the scene under Trail rules. Show how it plays out exactly as it did for Call, except that there’s no roll, and the information is supplied right away. As before, the player might explicitly call on an ability, or ask the question, requiring you to confirm that the ability is being used.
At this point, the player might raise the railroading question—if he can’t fail to get a clue, doesn’t that mean that he’s simply being led around from scene to scene, without being able to make meaningful choices?
In response to this, you might show how the ability to fail simply masks what is essentially the same structure under both rules sets. Eventually Freeborn will connect the fetish to Wallace Welkley. The only difference is that he always gets it right the first time in Trail, whereas the Call Keeper has to keep generating plausible alternate ways to convey the information in the face of initial failure. In both games, what happens when Freeborn meets Welkley remains up for grabs.
Let’s say that Welkley is the innocent victim of an occult conspiracy and doesn’t know who to trust. How the player chooses to treat him when they first meet determines whether Welkley cooperates, or flees and is killed by the real villains. If he’s hostile or sneaky, one story branch occurs. If he keeps his cool and reassures Welkley, he brings him onside—but must then protect him from later threats. This choice point doesn’t change the identity of the real villains, in either Call or Trail. In either system, the endpoint might be predetermined or improvised. In neither case does the choice point change how the story plays out on the way to the unmasking of the real villain. Trail no more or less railroady than Call. What it lacks is the confusion and backtracking arising from repeat attempts to uncover the same piece of information. This might feel like choice, but is anything but.
Having illustrated this key sticking point with your mini-demo, you might then go on to lay out the other ways in which Trail diverges from Call. Show how the Sanity/Stability dichotomy allows for insane cultists who are nonetheless stable enough to effect their sinister plans. Mention the Drive system , and how it works to ensure that players create the sorts of characters who are impelled to take the actions required to make a Lovecraftian horror story work.
Additional demos might reinforce other aspects of the rules the players find challenging.
If a player tends toward the risk-averse, hyper-rationalist decision making that kills horror plotting, run him through a dangerous situation first as a Call character, without drives, and then as a Trail PC, who of course must move forward and engage with the story. A mini-scene hinging on the classic “do I go down in the basement where I think there’s a shoggoth” question should suit the purpose admirably.
Although the general abilities are quite simple, the focus on investigative abilities might give a skewed idea of the system. Remedy this with a third mini-scene in which Freeborn must use his Athletics to jump a fence. (To keep other players engaged, you might swap off who gets to play Freeborn in each scene-let.)
If investigative spends seem puzzling, return to the interaction scene between Freeborn and Welkley, assuming that Freeborn has decided to seem reassuring. Show the differences in response that Freeborn might gain with different Reassurance spends—1 point might calm Welkley for a scene’s worth of dialogue, after which point he succumbs to paranoia and flees. 2 points keeps him calm and available for a day, while 3 points gets him to stick around and follow instructions for the case’s entire duration.
A narrative genre is a set of prefab expectations. Whatever the medium, storytellers use genre to attract an audience. When you draw on a popular genre, you hope to capture a built-in audience that returns repeatedly to stories told in that mode. By signaling that the story we’re about to tell belongs to a given genre, we’re telling the members of our audience that we’re going to play with its associated expectations. Memorable effects can be created by subverting those expectations. But in the main, you’re promising to honor a good proportion of them. When you promise a genre tale but deliver something else entirely, a big chunk of your audience emerges from the experience feeling cheated.
Expectations are established before the story is told, in what we roleplaying gamers would call a meta level. A novel tells you what genre it is with its book design and back cover copy, not to mention the style and content of its cover illustration, if any. Films signal their genres with trailers, titles, posters, and promotional blitzes.
In roleplaying we can shorthand the genre signaling by identifying the game we’re running. If I say I’m starting up a Champions campaign or a Vampire one-shot, you tailor your expectations of that experience to your past knowledge of the game in question. If I’m running something new, or a game you’re unfamiliar with, I have to spell the genre directly: we’re running superheroes, or a contemporary horror story concerning the interactions of Machiavellian bloodsuckers.
Rules systems, as distinct from games, communicate no genre expectations. Tell me you’re running a GURPS or Basic Roleplaying game, and I’ll need to know the genre you’re running to start to imagine what might happen in it.
Settings contain highly specific genre information—by telling me you’re running Delta Green, you’re leading me to anticipate a mix of genre elements drawing on both the horror of HP Lovecraft and the techno-thrillers of Robert Ludlum.
Expectations become more precise as narrower genres are signaled. Broad genre categories suggest a tone, probably the emotional payoff you’re meant to feel at the end, and a very rough concept of the story’s structure. If all you know about a movie you’re about to see is that it’s a comedy, you expect to laugh, and probably to get a happy ending. Conversely, if you know you’re about to see a bawdy teenage comedy, you’ve plunked down your money for lots of gross-out humor and probably a plot-line concerning the heroes’ efforts to get laid. Specific cliché elements come to mind at this level. If the movie is set at a summer camp, you won’t be surprised when the third act revolves around a contest against the non-underdog camp on the other side of the lake.
Roleplaying often embraces specific cliché in a way you’d never tolerate from other storytelling mediums. Its more directly vicarious nature invites us to creatively enter and take part in our favorite works, reimagining ourselves at the center of them. If a new movie series features a two-fisted 1930’s archaeologist who chases relics and fights Nazis, and his name isn’t Indiana Jones, we’ll scorn it as derivative. But if a player shows up to a pulp-inspired game with a character clearly based on Jones, that’s part of the point of the exercise. If genre is the addition of ritualized repetition to narrative, roleplaying genre is to a great extent an imaginative interaction with the characters, situations and images from our favorite stories.
When genre suggests specific structural elements, or even stock scenes, a collision can occur between our genre expectations and our preferences as roleplayers. These preferences vary by player type. We tend to see the preferences of our own type or types as objective markers of the ideal roleplaying experience. Those connected to tastes we don’t share are, depending on our level of detachment, either annoyingly off-point or steeped in darkest blasphemy.
The degree of adherence to genre, especially to its structural elements, varies depending on the relative value you place on freedom of choice.
Storytellers, the group most likely to seek an overt interaction with a suite of genre elements, want the GM to steer the story toward key story elements. They value choices, except for those that keep them from engaging with the genre tropes they want to play with.
Specialists, who play the same character types every time out, want you to import their favorite images and story elements into every game, regardless of genre. Their choice is to be the ninja, the weird dude, or the winged cat bard. Genre elements are their bread and butter—provided their fave type fits the genre at hand.
Butt-kickers want to get to the next fight; stock story elements that move them to the next battle with a minimum of fuss are good. Choices that do not concern whose butt to kick are extraneous.
Tacticians maximize choice to minimize risk. They prefer to operate in a world informed by genre imagery, but without reference to narrative conceits. This type yearns for a world in which genre elements behave according to speculative logic. A GM who steers the story toward a key sequence messes both with their sense of cause-and-effect, and with their highly valued freedom of choice. That includes the choice to avoid drama, which is often the tactician’s goal.
Method actors may also place maximal freedom of choice, which allows them to identify with their characters and make choices from inside their headspace, over ritual adherence to a promised formula.
In some cases, you can get around this variable interest in recapitulated narrative elements by explicitly announcing that it’s what you’re up to. Warning the players that the dramatic logic of your Bond-inspired game requires their characters to be captured at least once per scenario may lower the resistances of players who usually chafe at this sort of thing. But more explicit recitations of the fictional contract you’re putting on offer only go so far. If what I want out of roleplaying bears no connection to this goal, I may need to sit out a game or session that revolves around it. By the same token, if I show up to a WWII game wanting an evocation of Hollywood war movies and instead get an open-ended experience with outcomes based entirely on simulative principles, I’ve made a category error. It will interfere both with my own enjoyment, and the players who’ve signed on for exactly what the GM is dishing out.
At its core, the GUMSHOE system makes an adjustment to the way we have traditionally run investigative scenarios. Although dramatic in effect, it is actually a small change in practice. Ironically, it’s this very simplicity that can sometimes make the transition from the traditional model to the GUMSHOE approach a tricky one. Some GMs and players expect it to be more radical in practice than it actually is, and have get themselves tangled up in the process.
Many of the groups reporting challenges in making the shift are longtime Call Of Cthulhu-ites now checking out Trail Of Cthulhu. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s harder to go from Call to Trail than it is to play any other GUMSHOE game after being steeped in the traditional investigative model. It may just be that there are more CoC partisans trying ToC, because Trail is, unsurprisingly, the best-selling game in the line to date.
Nonetheless, it’s useful to look at ways to transition a group who have Sandy Petersen’s brilliant and classic game encoded in their DNA to the different take offered by GUMSHOE.
Here’s the basic point to takeaway from these two articles: GUMSHOE is a small change with a large effect.
Help your players make the transition by reinforcing it as you introduce them to the game, and again during play.
Start by asking yourself how resistant your group is likely to be to a change in technique.
Some players are frequent adopters—they like to try all of the new RPGs that come down the pike. They keep up with news of upcoming releases. These days, your frequent adopter is probably a fan of the indie movement. Frequent adopters enjoy learning new rules. Since they do it all the time, they’re quick to figure out how rules work, and to work out their implications in play.
Many other players are system agnostics. They want to play, and don’t care what rules you use. System agnostics may express skepticism about the influence of rules on play. They believe, rightly, the main factor in the success of a session is the quality of the participants. Their disinterest in rules per se leads them to discount the degree to which differing rules sets impact play, given the same GM and players. It makes them reluctant to learn new rules, period.
Others are system loyalists—they’ve been playing the same game since they discovered that it was their favorite. Often they have several faves, each in a different genre. Loyalists may identify culturally with their game of choice, the way they might with a sports team or favorite band. When they participate in online forums, it’s often to defend their chosen game from comments made by its detractors. Whatever their game, their passion and commitment demands respect. In the case of Cal, they also deserve props for their great taste. (Did we mention already that CoC rocks?)
It is natural to expect resistance from Call loyalists when trying to move them to Trail. It’s like asking a Yankees fan to suddenly start rooting for a some goofy new expansion team! Loyalists may be open to learning new rules for completely unrelated settings, but may see a switch to Trail as representing unnecessary effort.
With both agnostics and loyalists, convincing them to give Trail a shot requires a sales job on your part. For both groups, point out the simplicity of GUMSHOE. They may be expecting the usual detailed, complicated system, with tons of new stuff to remember. Explain that learning GUMSHOE doesn’t require that level of commitment.
In the case of loyalists, show that you respect their affection for Call. Sell Trail without seeming to attack or critique the game they love. Describe ToC not as an improvement on, or replacement for, CoC, but a new approach that yields different results.
Finally, accept that your group’s most fervent loyalist will still be resistant even after you say all of this.
Maybe there are hypothetical frequent adopters out there who all buy the book, learn the rules independently and come to the session with rules learned and characters ready to go. We all know that this isn’t how it usually works. Take advantage of the customary first session in which you introduce the rules and guide the players through character generation to teach the rules in a way that emphasizes their simplicity and continuity with existing practice.
You may face your toughest challenge from players who are resistant for whatever reason and have already read the rules. Resistant readers sometimes make incorrect assumptions about what actually happens in a game of Trail. The most common of these is that in GUMSHOE you enter an environment, look at your character sheet, and robotically list all of your abilities, to which the Keeper responds by reading off clues in response to each relevant ability recited. This is best addressed with a quickie demo, which we’ll provide in the next installment of See P. XX.
It may also be worth your while to recap some of the rules that players, especially resistant or reluctant ones, tend to misread. By reminding them of the rules as written, you can head off common misunderstandings.
Some players trip themselves up on the concept of Investigative ability points, forgetting that you’re never penalized for not having points to spend. Point spends add fun but tangential clues, make your character seem especially impressive, or secure side benefits unrelated to the investigation. The text explains this, but some players assume that the existence of a resource to manage means that the points must be critical to success. Present describe investigative points as icing on the cake. Remind them that they can successfully complete cases without ever using them.
It also helps to explain to your players that GUMSHOE emulates genre sources and does not simulate reality. For example, general points buy your character time in the spotlight. Use the metaphor of an ensemble procedural show on TV. Each main cast character typically gets a moment to shine in each episode, in a way that reinforces his skill set. When choosing general abilities, players are deciding what sorts of successes will most often define their characters.
Although you can often describe a character who has run out of general points in an ability and fails as a result as being exhausted or distracted, the points aren’t really a measure of literal fatigue. Instead they operate as a literary device. Dramatic logic underlies the entire system.