The Armitage Files is an improvised campaign structure. It uses a number of stock pieces, such as NPCs, organizations, and locations, that are strung together by individual GMs to fit player action. The adventures I create with it may or may not match any other GM’s version of the campaign. That means that reading these posts may or may not offer spoilers for other game groups.
**You Have Been Warned**
At the end of last session, I gave my players the first two document hand-outs for the campaign, and asked them to discuss them via e-mail and come up with a couple of potential avenues of investigation that I could develop for this session. I provided a few clues to answer some of their questions, also via e-mail.
Now, I had struggled over whether or not to do that. After all, one of the main focuses of the GUMSHOE system is finding clues. I worried that providing clues outside of the game was essentially stealing thunder from the game session, and might undermine actual play. In the end, I decided to go with it for a few reasons:
- Some questions were things that they would just know about things, through skills like Oral History or Streetwise, and it seemed silly to wait until the game session to give them that information.
- Some of the questions they were asking just closed of blind alleys for them, avenues of investigation that were both uninteresting* and unproductive.
- I wanted them to be fully invested in the adventure during the session, and I didn’t want them suddenly deciding to jump to some other avenue of investigation that I hadn’t considered and prepared. That means making sure they have enough information to be happy with the choice they made.
It seemed to work fairly well, and they picked two threads that they wanted to chase down in the session. I worked out what was going on with both of them, so that whichever one they felt like going after, I had an idea of what they would find.
Without giving away too much of what’s going on in the meta-structure of the campaign, I do want to say that determining what’s going on was a little trickier than I had expected. There’s a question of where in the narrative the characters come in that really needs careful consideration, and I had to rework one of the investigation spines I was building a couple of times to make it work the way I needed it to, given all the other information that I have about the big picture. That’s kind of vague, I know, but my players read this blog, and I don’t want to say too much about the overarching campaign secrets.
For games like this one and Fearful Symmetries, I’ve been using a fairly different method of creating adventures than I do with things like D&D. In D&D, there’s a lot of fairly careful balancing of combat encounters that goes into building an adventures, but the emphasis in both GUMSHOE and DFRPG is more narratively-centred, and the stats are far easier to improvise on the spot, so I find that it’s easier to shape the encounter to what I need on the fly. That means that the entire adventure structure can be looser, and more free-form and character-driven*.
What I do in these games is essentially build a relational mind map of the situation. I put the various elements that I know are part of the situation in circles on a blank piece of paper – the various NPCs, organizations, items, events that I want to have happen, etc. Then I connect them with lines and arrows labeled by the relationship between the various elements. So, I may have an arrow from one NPC to another marked Wants to kill and another arrow back labeled Wants to avoid. As I map out the relationships this way, I add more elements that are needed in other circles, mapping in their relationships as needed, until I have a solid idea of what the entire situation is, and what will happen without player character involvement. Then I look for places where I can let the characters see an edge of the situation to hook them in*.
In play, I look for ways to subtly (or not so subtly, in some cases) show a link from the element the characters get interested in to one or more other elements in the structure. As they explore this situational map, I keep thinking about responses, both from the elements the characters are interacting with, and from other elements that may be affected by the interaction, and trot those out as appropriate. These responses can be anything from cutting and running to sending some guys to explain why the characters don’t want to be poking around any more.
So far, it’s been working pretty well, and I’m enjoying both the reduced prep time* and the way I’m finding my way back to improvisational GMing.
So, when we got together for last night’s game, the characters decided to chase down a certain encyclopaedia salesman (named Philip or Philips) who may or may not have witnessed the sacrifice of a hobo by a charitable organization called The Helping Hands.
Aaron did some library legwork, finding first of all which encyclopaedia companies had salesmen in the area, and then sent them telegrams, asking for the contact information of the salesmen, and found one named Phil Hughes. The gang sent him a letter asking for him to call on Roxy, who posed as Twyla Petty, a pretty young ladder-climber who had inherited a pile from her father and was looking to better her mind in order to attract the right kind of husband. They seeded the hotel suite they rented with a number of Masonic items, because according to the documents, Phil has a real distrust and fear of the Freemasons, and they figured that this will be the first stage in setting him up for a follow-up meeting where they gain his trust and get him to help them*.
Well, it kinda worked. Phil was distrustful of the Freemasons, but he also revealed to Roxy that he was, in fact, a member of The Helping Hands, and very proud of the charitable work they do. After the appointment, they followed Phil back to the rooming house where he stays in Arkham, and then followed him around the rest of his four-day stay in town. Nothing suspicious.
So, they turned their attention to The Helping Hands, got a list of the local chapter officers, scoped out the chapter house both in Arkham and in Kingsport, and staked out the Arkham chapter house during a bi-weekly meeting. When that wrapped up with nothing suspicious, they decided to break into the building to see if they could find anything incriminating.
There was nothing out of the ordinary inside, until they found a hidden fire safe in the floor of the office. A low, raspy voice, coming out of the darkness, told them to leave it alone and get out. There followed a good several minutes of creepiness, with the group debating what to do in hushed whispers, shining their flashlight around in futile attempts to find the speaker, and a horrible moment for them when they heard little scuttling feet above them, and looked up to see a trap door into the attic.
And then something small and nasty dashed out of the darkness and sliced the back of Roxy’s stocking.
Dr. Solis, rather affronted and indignant at this sort of treatment, convinced the others that they definitely needed to open the safe now. Everyone had taken at least a couple of points of Stability loss by this time, and then the voice from the shadows said, “I know who you are.”
That was about the last straw. Roxy made a Locksmith spend to open the safe quickly, and they found inside a few bundles of cash, a deed to the building they were in and a farm outside of town, and a large hand-written ledger book with The Book of the Voice written on the title page. The thing in the darkness said, “You have sealed your doom.”
Roxy had had enough of this, and leaped across the room to turn on the electric lights, catching the thing by surprise. Aaron was looking in the wrong direction, but Roxy and Solis both saw this. Stability checks for them, and Roxy wound up Shaken. The thing vanished into a hole in a corner, and Aaron decided they had to burn the building down, so they did.
They retreated to Aaron’s shop to drink a great deal and examine the book. Here are the stats I came up with for it:
The Book of the Voice is a large ledger filled with the handwritten dictation of the Emissary, the revealed wisdom of the Voice. The Helping Hands keep it in a locked fire safe in the floor of the chapter house office. Most of it is a litany of promises from the Voice to the faithful, reinforcing their sense of entitlement and amorality. Sprinkled in among this are observations about the signs of the advent of the return of the Great Ones and what will follow.
Resource Tome: +1 Cthulhu Mythos, 1 dedicated pool point for questions about the end of the world, the outer gods, and witches.
Magic Potential: 1
Spells:Invocation of the Emissary (Contact Rat-Thing)
Aaron decided to take the next couple of days to pore over the book, while Roxy and Solis went to investigate the farm – the Armitage document claimed that the sacrifice of the hobo took place in a barn. When they got to the farm, Solis went to look at the buildings while Roxy waited in the car on the main road, across the mostly-barren fields.
Now that the party was split, I decided to unload on them. Roxy, waiting on the road, saw a plume of dust coming down the road toward her. It resolved itself into a truck full of large burly men, and she decided not to wait around to see what they wanted, taking off across the field toward the barn where Solis had gone. On foot, of course, with the axe-handle-wielding farmhands hot on her heels.
Solis, meanwhile, had found a patch of disturbed earth in the barn that was thick with maggots. Digging in a little, he found the flayed forearm of a man, just as he felt the double barrels of a shotgun press to the base of his skull.
And Aaron started hearing a horribly familiar voice calling his name in his rooms above his bookstore. And then the rat-thing attacked.
I tried to run the ensuing scenes the way you would see them in a movie, jumping from focus to focus, and that worked fairly well at first, but then Aaron killed the rat-thing with his first shot the second it exposed itself, and things focused on the farm for the rest of the climactic scene, with Solis and Roxy eventually shooting and killing most of their attackers, though there was a good bit with Solis and one of the thugs wrestling on the ground over the shotgun, trying to force the barrel towards each others’ face, until Roxy pistol-whipped the bad guy into submission.
At this point, I had no idea where the adventure would go, but Roxy decided to make a substantial Cop Talk spend to get word to the right people on the police force to investigate the farm and check for the bodies in the barn. The police came to arrest the Helping Hands officers, finding one missing, but taking the other two into custody. They hanged themselves in their cells over the next couple of days.
Aaron burned the body of the rat-thing, along with The Book of the Voice*, though not until he had learned enough from it to get the Cthulhu Mythos point and spend an experience point on getting a point of Magic.
And that’s where we left it. I’ve got one scenario spine still in my notebook, and have asked the players to decide between this session and the next if they want to pursue that one, or something else.
All in all, a good game, I thought.
*To me, at least. Back
*I like D&D. I run D&D. D&D is fun. But no matter how much you like apples, you’ll get bored of them if they’re all you ever eat. And yes, D&D can be as rich and story-centric as any roleplaying game, but the mechanical complexity of combat means that during prep, the GM spends a substantial portion of time building the right balance and mix of opponents for combat encounters. Back
*In The Armitage Files, the hook is built into the campaign, with the mysterious documents making strange references, so that part is easy. Back
*All of which is focused on building evocative, interesting story elements, rather than number crunching. Back
*For a bibliophile, he spends a lot of time burning books. Back