In the fourteenth episode of their above-named podcast, Ken and Robin talk Chicago film fest, DramaSystem vs. Skulduggery, gangland mapping and the burnings of the libraries of Alexandria.
By Robin D Laws
Any game design that starts with me reading an enormous stack of Jack Vance novels is one after my own heart. Before re-acquainting myself with his classic cycle of novels set in the far future Gaean Reach, I assumed that Pelgrane’s companion to The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game would use its rules—or rather, the streamlined and reconfigured version of them that now appears as Skulduggery.
Reading the books, including the Demon Princes and Alastor series, as well as Ports of Call/Lurulu and such standalones as Maske: Thaery and The Night Lamp, I realized that, despite the many similarities between Vance’s fantasy and SF settings, a different underlying structure was at work here, one that would require another core rules set—one that, fortunately, lay to hand in convenient GUMSHOE form.
In both the Dying Earth and Gaean Reach, characters speak to one another with an elevated wit, encounter horror and beauty in equal measure, and embody the eternal selfishness and cupidity of humankind. Though a mordant irony suffuses all of Vance’s works, the space opera titles concern themselves less with the constant one-upmanship and reversal found in the three mature works of the Dying Earth (Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.) The lead characters of these books are scoundrels, nearly as deserving of comeuppance as the antagonists they strive to outwit. Their schemes and plots take place under the rules of Swiftian satire. As readers, we are as amused to see their fortunes overturned as rewarded. The Skulduggery core resolution system, with its rolls and rerolls, emulates the dynamic of constant reversal found in these books.
The Gaean Reach books, on the other hand, extend to the reader a more traditional sense of heroism. Their self-reliant protagonists are sympathetic heroes whose success we root for. The villains earn our hatred, though varying degrees of vicious psychopathy and contemptible pettiness. The self-interested, caviling types of the Dying Earth appear, but as secondary characters placing minor obstacles in the heroes’ paths. Nearly without exception, they draw us into the action with a simple device. The villain wrongs the hero; the hero seeks vengeance. At a midpoint in the action the hero may suffer a single, mammoth setback, which we suffer alongside him. Showing his resolve, he perseveres, and, by following a trail of clues to the villain, whose identity and location are generally obscured to him, achieves the retribution for which he, and we, burn.
This is not a structure of constant reversal, of dueling scoundrels. It is a story centered around investigation, which may be interrupted by scenes of action and danger, sometimes to the great detriment of the protagonists. That is to say, it’s GUMSHOE.
All along Pelgrane-in-Chief Simon Rogers and I assumed that this project would entail some crossover between the company’s two house systems. But instead of GUMSHOE-flavored Skulduggery, the end result revealed itself as Skulduggery-flavored GUMSHOE.
It wouldn’t feel like a Vancian setting without the sometimes florid, sometimes terse, always barbed repartee at the heart of his work. So the first Skulduggery import had to be the tagline system, which rewards the player with tokens for adroitly deploying supplied lines of Vancian dialogue. This system encourages players, including those who otherwise wouldn’t try, to speak in this heightened lingo. Although the results are inevitably less polished than on Vance’s pages, the tagline process reliably succeeds in evoking that spirit—even in players who think they can’t do it, and without the boost wouldn’t let themselves try.
In Skulduggery, the tokens you earn for tagline use buy you ability refreshes. They do this in The Gaean Reach, too. But that can’t be their only function, because GUMSHOE characters don’t deplete their pools as quickly or constantly as their Skulduggery counterparts, especially during a scenario’s investigation-heavy stretches.
Adding a new currency, the token, to GUMSHOE allowed me to solve other design challenges. Gaean Reach guns instantly kill on a single shot. This runs counter to the roleplaying tradition of the extended fight sequence, in which life ebbs away in increments. No one wants their characters to die after a single unfavorable roll. Likewise, many plots end prematurely when heroes can kill their enemies with the same solitary die result.
As one would expect, Vance writes his way around the lethality of his setting’s weaponry. He constructs his situations so that his vengeance-seekers don’t immediately meet and shoot dead his main bad guys. Henchmen and alien creatures die by the drove, but the primary antagonists elude their fire…for a time.
The game emulates this narrative convention by requiring you to spend additional tagline tokens to gain story permission to shoot key antagonists. On the flipside, you can spend tokens to explain your way out of situations in which your enemies ought to be able to shoot you dead.
One way to keep a game currency scarce is to give the players lots of ways to spend it. As in the original Dying Earth RPG, tokens also function as experience points, which you can spend to gain new abilities or add to the ratings of those you already have.
This dovetails with another import from the Skulduggery incarnation of the Dying Earth rules: a lightning-quick character generation process, in which a set of randomly distributed cards defines the characters’ abilities and outward personae.
On-the-fly, players can then spend tokens to fill out crucial but missing abilities, especially the investigative ones. (A backstop process makes sure that someone has a needed ability even if no one has any tokens to spend.) Buying an ability shared by no one else costs less than adding someone else’s existing specialty to your character sheet. This wrinkle prevents spotlight hogs from generalizing their way to omni-competence.
Along with a simplified ability list, these changes make for the most streamlined, newbie-friendly iteration of GUMSHOE yet. I’ve configured this version like this because the game’s default premise activity—pursuit of a terrible enemy who has wronged each member of the party—assumes a finite series, which ends with his climactic defeat.
(As the word “default” implies, we also include options to continue past the nemesis’ destruction, or to adopt alternate frames.)
As a side-effect of this choice, those hankering for an instant-start GUMSHOE with a collapsed ability list now have a game tuned for convention runs—presumably ones in which the PCs avenge themselves not over the course of a series, but in four fast, fatal hours.
The Virtual Play podcast has been busy with Pelgrane products. First is a actual play report of Bill White’s Trail of Cthulhu scenario, Castle Bravo, you can listen here. The second is Skulduggery, Robin D Laws’ game of backstabbing and verbal fireworks. You can listen to the full report here.
Commenter Carl, over at my See P. XX intro to DramaSystem, asks about the role deceit plays in the game. Is there a mechanism to ensure that characters who are deceived act accordingly?
It depends on whether the interaction is procedural or dramatic. In the first instance, it occurs in pursuit of a pragmatic goal, free of emotional content, with a minor, GM-run character we don’t much care about. In this case you can con the character and he’ll act as if conned.
In general deceit occurs in DramaSystem because the core interactions mimic drama in fiction, which in turn is a condensed version of the way we behave toward one another in real life. One person seeks an emotional payoff from another, and in the process may choose to lie, dissemble, or hoodwink. If you’re playing a dramatic scene, you can make the choice to act as if the character is deceived, or not. Unlike Skulduggery / Dying Earth, the system does not force you to be fooled. This is because the character who acts on false information belongs more to the melodrama than the drama. Drama is about choices; deceit robs characters of true choices. Deceived characters work in drama when they are, perhaps subconsciously, choosing to be lied to. When Lear buys Regan and Goneril’s flattery and rejects Cordelia’s frankness, he is, on one level, fooled. But really he’s allowing himself to be gulled, because he’s petitioning them for ego gratification and wants to get it. In the DramaSystem version of this scene, Lear’s player decides to act as if fooled—he isn’t required to do it by a die roll.
If deception belongs to melodrama, its equivalent in drama is self-deception.
I am once again looking to augment the ranks of my Thursday night playtest group—hence this open call for one new recruit.
To join the group, you’ll need to be reliably free on Thursday nights and able to get to the Bloor-Bathurst area in downtown Toronto. We meet from 7 pm to 10 pm.
You will also need a saintly tolerance for my playtesting needs. I run games I’m either designing or need to familiarize myself in order to do freelance work for. In the early going a new game may crash and burn, mandating a return to the drawing board. Often I’ll have to suddenly abandon a successful series in midstream to go on to the next thing. We usually play RPGs but there’s always the chance you may be asked to test-drive a card or board game along the way.
At present we have just entered our second season of Hillfolk, the first game using the new DramaSystem engine. It works within the storygame tradition, focusing on narrative and character development, setting traditional butt-kicking and problem-solving by the wayside. This game will continue until at least spring. Next up will be Gaean Reach, a game of interstellar mystery and vengeance using the GUMSHOE system, with touches of Skulduggery thrown in for good measure.
Please put yourself forward only if you can realistically make a long-term commitment to showing up every Thursday night.
If you’re interested, get in touch by leaving a comment on this blog, or via private message on Facebook or G+, or DM on Twitter.
Wedded bliss is only a few relatives away…
The Wedding is the brand new setting for Skulduggery, the roleplaying game of verbal fireworks and sudden reversals!
You are guests at the wedding of Emma Blunt and Martin Sharpe, held at the moderately-swanky Elysian Country Club. Emma’s father, Gerald Blunt, owns a processed-cheese empire, Martin’s one of his star biochemists, and an unmistakably cheesy odor hangs over the festivities. When Emma calls the whole thing off in a fit of pique, it’s up to the player characters to ensure the couple are forced back onto the path of happiness.
With unforgettable (and unforgivable) player characters such as Jean-Philippe Cabot, heir to a French goat-cheese empire and ex of the bride, hell-bent on winning her back; Tom Sharpe, the regulation drunken uncle. He rambles. He drones. He drinks. He bores you to tears. And an eccentric, snobbish food critic eying a high-paid consultancy in the father-of-the-bride’s company. Amongst these figures you must find a way to bring the happy couple back together or destroy them completely, it’s up to you.
|Stock #: PELK04D||Author: Gareth Hanrahan|
|Artist:Hilary Wade & Jerome Huguenin||Pages: 16 pg PDF|
THE HEIST OF THE LIFETIME, BUT WHO GETS THE LOOT?
Pacific’s Six is the second of three new settings for the Skulduggery roleplaying game.
You are expert thieves, safecrackers, con men and computer hackers about to undertake the heist of the century. The Target: International Minerals, a rapacious mining and energy corporation. The Job: Break into the secure vault, hack the server and steal the TRUESTONE file, a priceless document detailing the resources, investments and dodgy-dealings of the corporation, perfect blackmail material for your mysterious Backer. The vault also contains millions in cash, gold and diamonds. It’s all yours… if you can get it out the building.
Pacific’s Six delivers a healthy dose of conniving, triple-bluffs and fast-paced reposts. Set in the glamourous world of hustlers and con-men, it contains shady NPCs, hilarious taglines and a full set of player cards, this setting is an essential addition to any collection.
|Stock #: PELK03D||Author: Gareth Hanrahan|
|Artist:Hilary Wade & Jerome Huguenin||Pages: 19 pg PDF|
SIX CARDINALS ENTER, ONLY ONE WILL LEAVE AS POPE!
Black Smoke is the brand new setting for Skulduggery, the roleplaying game of verbal fireworks and sudden reversals!
The previous pope, Celestine, has died under mysterious circumstances so it’s time for the cardinals to gather in the Sistine Chapel to elect a new leader. This is where the conniving, back-stabbing and underhandedness begins!
You want to be the new Pope and you will do anything to achieve your goal from spreading malicious rumours about your competitors to poisoning the wine and ordering arrests. The Holy Roman Emperor, a hairy, ambitious German, and his army are encamped outside the city, threatening an invasion he is not made a saint before his death.
All this makes for an exciting setting, ripe with opportunities for subterfuge and less-than-holy tactics! Complete with hilarious taglines and a full set of player cards, this setting will have you competing for the papacy again and again.
|Stock #: PELK02D||Author: Gareth Hanrahan|
|Artist:Hilary Wade & Jerome Huguenin||Pages: 15 pg PDF|
This past weekend I was in beautiful Regina, Saskatchewan for a wedding. While the bride entertained hosted a girls night out for female out-of-town guests, I was paired with a conveniently rounded-up game group for a BBQ and an RPG session. As if I planned it that way, Skulduggery serves perfectly for this sort of one-time pick-up game. Its lighthearted tone, simple rules, fast character creation and emphasis on one-shot play all came through once again.
For the third time, I ran “If Space Permits”, the comedic space opera scenario set in a decadent far future. I’m now seeing another selling point from a GM’s point of view: thanks to a loose, player-driven structure, the same scenario comes plays out very differently each time it’s run.
The scenario features a group of space traders attempting to corner the market on hallucinogenic jumpwine amid the chaotic bacchanal of an annual vine festival.
With the in-house group, a comedy of disasters ensued, with the final presentation to the Wine Council concluding in a hail of laser fire. When I ran it at Hammercon, crazy side action was the order of the day, and it was revealed that one of the crew members was being stalked by his killer clone. A high degree of player input reflected that group’s indie propensities. This last session was devoted to highly methodical scheming in pursuit of the collective goal.
Skulduggery scenarios throw a lot of balls into the air and encourage the GM to run with the ones the players choose to catch. If you design your own Skulduggery scenario, or use one from the book on groups unfamiliar with it, you’ll be able to run it a bunch of times and still be surprised by events as they unfold each time.