Those Meddling Kids

Last summer, my heroes over at Evil Hat Productions released Bubblegumshoe. Unusually for Evil Hat, the game is based on Pelgrane Press‘s GUMSHOE system, rather than on Evil Hat‘s own Fate Core system1. It is2 a teen detective story game, drawing heavily on stuff like the Veronica Mars TV show, Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and Three Investigators book series, Scooby Doo cartoons, and so on. You play kids who are trying to solve mysteries.

I got a couple of my friends3 to agree to giving it a try4, so over the winter, we played through a limited campaign. It was a single mystery spread over three sessions, with an intro session devoted to setting the game up. We had a lot of fun with it.

The Book

The physical book is a digest-sized volume, about the same size as the Fate Core rulebook. It’s 272 pages, on sturdy, glossy paper, with a lot of black-and-white art throughout, a clean and open layout, and wonderful little elements of marginalia5. There are the requisite chapters on the system mechanics, building characters, and such. There are also a few chapters on getting the right feel for a teen mystery game, and a number of different settings – with rules tweaks for many of them – allowing you to set your game in different environments.

One of the nicest features of the book is that it contains five example mystery spines – essentially outline examples of how to put together your own mystery. One of these then gets an in-depth write-up, showing you how to take a simple spine and flesh it out into an entire scenario. I found that looking at the spine and the fleshed-out version was really helpful in figuring out what kinds of things I needed to think about in building my own story.

The GUMSHOE Bits

If you’re not familiar with GUMSHOE6, it’s a system designed for investigatory games. It’s built to address the problem that running investigations in other games often encountered – a bad roll could derail the entire game, as they players then don’t get a clue that they need to solve the mystery. With GUMSHOE, you have a set of investigatory abilities and, if you say you’re using the right one in a situation where there’s a clue to be found, you find that clue7. For other things you try and do that aren’t directly gaining clues – running, jumping, climbing trees8 – there’s a very simple d6 system.

One of the big things with every GUMSHOE game is that the list of abilities is tweaked to match the setting and reinforce the themes. Bubblegumshoe‘s abilities are focused on the kinds of things that make sense for teenage sleuths. Some particular tweaks to the system that I liked:

  • Grownup Face replaces Cop Talk from a lot of other GUMSHOE games. It serves the same function – gives the character credibility and access with authority figures – but instead of letting you be taken seriously by police, it lets you be taken seriously by adults. Important for teenage detectives.
  • The Cool ability functions effectively as both Health and Stability in normal GUMSHOE games. You run out of Cool, you’re out for a while. This, along with some changes to the Fighting ability, does a great deal to minimize a potentially problematic element: it means that you don’t necessarily have to have teenagers beating each other to death in your game. It also reinforces teen drama tropes, by making embarrassment and social power plays effectively life-or-death9.
  • For investigative abilities, the list is very focused on what a teenager might reasonably have access to. So, you get a Photography ability, and you get a Reasearch ability, but you don’t get a Forensic Pathology ability. And to make sure that you can still have access to some of the more esoteric investigative abilities, the game gives you Relationships.

Relationships

Okay. So, your fifteen-year-old yearbook editor may be really good sussing out whether someone’s kind of out-of-place with the clique they’re hanging with, but not so much with running a license plate to see who a car is registered to. That makes sense. But it does impose some limits on the types of clues you can reasonably expect your players to be able to collect.

Well, similar to the Sources idea I talked about in Cthulhu ConfidentialBubblegumshoe gives each character a number of Relationships – people that they know and that are important in their lives. And these Relationships can have abilities that the characters don’t otherwise have access to. So, your character doesn’t have any hope of using forensic accounting to unravel the community centre’s finances, but her aunt is a CPA who can take a look at the books and give you some insight.

In Bubblegumshoe, though the Relationships serve the same mechanical function as Sources in Cthulhu Confidential, their roleplaying dimension tends to be more important. You need to spend time and effort10 maintaining your relationships. You need to keep your mom happy and not get kicked out of school. You need to diss your high school nemesis and back up your BFF.

This keeps things closer to the kinds of source material stories the game tries to emulate – real life11 often intrudes upon and complicates your cool mystery-solving efforts.

Combat

I mentioned earlier that Bubblegumshoe uses the Cool stat as both Health and Stability12. This alone does a fair amount to help turn combat non-lethal, which is, I think, a necessary element, both in modeling the source material and in making it more comfortable for adults to play this game13.

Now, there are ways to hurt other characters physically in the game. The Fighting stat lets you, well, fight. Note that, in keeping with most of the source material, most fights are bare-knuckle affairs, schoolyard scuffles. Pulling any kind of weapon is a huge deal, and is usually14 used as an intimidation tactic. Getting hurt is serious – there are four levels of health: fine, scuffed, injured, and dead. Without a weapon, it’s hard to get to injured, and really hard to get to dead. With a weapon, it’s a lot easier, but it takes some Cool and other ability spends to ramp up to being able to seriously imperil the life of another.

So, physical combat is fairly quick and dirty, with serious in-world penalties for doing it – suspension, grounding, criminal charges, law suits, etc. Social combat, on the other hand, gets it’s own mechanical subsystem.

Throwdowns

Social combat is the focus of most confrontations in this game. Shaming, frightening, or otherwise dominating your opponent15 is the equivalent to a big combat set piece in other games. Getting the quaterback to back down from a confrontation, or tricking the cheating popular girl into incriminating herself, or making the villain so angry he or she takes a swing at you – all of that comes down to a Throwdown.

The Throwdown system is a little bit involved, factoring in allies on both sides, who’s taking the lead, who’s on their home turf, and who has things to support their side of the combat. Taking hits reduces Cool, and running out means you lose – you get laughed at, or lose your temper, or say something stupid, or everyone just turns on you. There are techniques and strategies you can employ, just like in physical combat in most games16. It can turn pretty intense, which is what you’re looking for.

Settings

One thing I love about Fate Core is that it has good, structured methods for building your setting and game milieu at the start of play. Bubblegumshoe has incorporated that piece into the game, letting you and your players build the location and environment for your campaign, fully integrating the themes, places, and characters you want to see in play. The book leads you step-by-step through the things you need for your game, plus it gives you a lot of background discussion to help you make the decisions during play, and to understand what is and isn’t going to work.

And if you don’t want to do that, there’s a fully fleshed-out town already built and written up in the book: Drewsbury17. In addition to Drewsbury, the book has eight other settings, not as fully statted, but with enough background – and some rules tweaks – to show you how to use them with the basic setting building method to get a good start for the game. These include some paranormal elements, some science fiction elements18, dystopian societies, super heroes, and scouting. It gives you the tools to play everything from a Smallville-style game19 to a Lumberjanes scout troop to a Scooby Doo gang, complete with animal sidekick.

One last thing I want to point out about settings: there is an actual mechanic for modeling the bad part of town. Locations where your character isn’t supposed to go – because of age, because of gender, because of clique or social class or neighbourhood or whatever – get thresholds. This is a number of Cool points you have to pay to take part in a scene in that location. So, if you want to go into the Teacher Lounge at school, or the biker bar across the tracks, you need to pay a point or two of Cool, reflecting that you are out of your element and at risk. I just think this is a great little mechanic for getting players to worry about going places that their characters would worry about going.

Lester Bay

As I mentioned way back at the start of this post, I got a couple of friends together to try the game out. We wound up creating a small town on an island in the Queen Charlotte Strait of BC20 in the early 90s. My players decided they wanted to play younger characters – 13 years old – and that they wanted some supernatural elements in play.

Character and setting creation took a session, then I put all our notes into a setting bible21, and mapped out the mystery. The plan was for a three-session game, so I made a mystery that I thought we could get through in that time, revolving around the vandalism of a mural at the local community centre. Scheduling meant we needed to take a bit of an extended break over the Christmas season, but we got the three sessions in and finished the adventure. Everyone had fun.

That said, I learned some lessons that I think are useful, so I’m sharing them.

First, if you’re using some supernatural elements in the game, you need to be careful that they don’t overshadow the main mystery. My initial plan was that the mystery itself was mundane, but the created disharmony between the town folk and the nearby First Nations village caused some supernatural events. And the characters latched on to those elements as the focus of the investigation, because of course they did. They were far more interesting than somebody breaking a window and writing a slur on a mural. So, bad planning on my part. Distracting.

Second, make sure you and your players have a solid shared understanding of what it means to play kids. This was especially important because of playing such young characters. Teenagers just don’t have the freedom and agency that adults do, and are heavily constrained by society and parents and peers. That limits the ways the characters can deal with some standard RPG obstacles so, as a GM, you have to make sure there are ways for the characters to get clues that are appropriate for their age. And, as players, you have to remember just how frustrating it can be to have your options limited by your age, and how you used to get around that. So, a discussion of these types of expectations before we started playing would have been helpful.

Finally, and this applies to all investigative games, it’s easy to get caught up in the roleplaying but, as a GM, your focus must be on getting information to the characters. They can’t proceed without the information and, especially when their options are limited by the age of the characters, you need to make sure they always have something to do, some thread to follow.

Just my thoughts.

Conclusion

Bubblegumshoe rocks. It’s well-written, really evokes the source material, and is a great deal of fun to play. If you like teenage detectives and investigatory RPGs, this is a must-have. It gives you the flexibility to play light games or dark games, modern or historical or futuristic games, and to add in pretty much any element from YA media that interests you. The system is robust and simple, though the paradigm of GUMSHOE can take some getting used to if you’re coming from more traditional RPGs.

So, yeah. Get it. All the cool kids are already playing it.

 

  1. Though, to be honest, I think the niche of teen-hero-Fate-game is kind of already filled by The Young Centurions. []
  2. As it says on the cover. []
  3. Thanks, Chris and Sandy! []
  4. Talking my friends into playing games, even trying new ones, is not much of a challenge. What is more challenging is trying to fit another game into everyone’s schedules. []
  5. Not as dense and focused as the DFRPG marginalia, but it’s a nice visual touch to the design. []
  6. Shame on you! No, no. Sorry. No shaming here. But I think you should check it out. []
  7. That’s not a great explanation. It makes it sound like a guessing game, where the player just lists all his or her abilities, and when the right one comes up, the GM gives them a plot coupon. I talk in more detail about how the system works in general in this post. []
  8. As Eddie Izzard says. []
  9. Which is the way I remember them feeling in the long-ago time when I was a teenager. []
  10. That is, scene time during play. []
  11. You know what I mean. []
  12. Which is to say, as both HP and Sanity points. []
  13. The idea of running a game where having a modern teenage player character decide that the optimal strategy is to kill a rival is a little too close to some of the more horrific real-life news stories I’ve seen. I do not think I would play that game. []
  14. And most effectively. []
  15. Preferably, but not necessarily, in public. []
  16. In Bubblegumshoe, there are more techniques and strategies available in Throwdowns than in physical combat. []
  17. Drewsbury is good, but I found it to be a very American place. That’s not a bad thing, but keep it in mind if you’re planning to use it. []
  18. Gotta give a shout out to Veronica Base, Mars for the effort to use the name without violating IP law. []
  19. Though for that, I recommend digging up the Smallville RPGBut still. []
  20. That’s British Columbia, a province of Canada, for my non-Canadian readers. []
  21. I’m not sharing the setting bible. I thought about it, but I wrote up some stuff about one of the coastal First Nations groups that is the result of very light research, and I’m not comfortable sharing something that I, as a white dude, wrote about another racial/cultural group that I did that little research on. []

Hush! Hush! Cthulhu Fhtagn!

I just got a message from Pelgrane Press to confirm my shipping address for my Cthulhu Confidential preorder, the premiere book in Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE One-2-One line. I figure that means I should probably tell some people about the game.

The premise behind the line is pretty simple – adapt Pelgrane’s GUMSHOE line to make it really sing if you’re playing with just one GM and one player. I’m not going to talk too much about GUMSHOE itself1, but I do want to talk about the new system2 and some of the choices made.

What’s In The Book?

The book itself is 315 pages, so it’s a big, meaty volume. It’s got the same look and design as the Trail of Cthulhu line, with the greenish overall colour and the wonderful and evocative Jérôme Huguenin cover art. The authors are Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman.

The actual game rules take up about 60 pages, and a lot of that is advice about how to run the game effectively – as is pointed out, running for one player is decidedly different that running for more than one. Even two players really lessens the intensity of focus that the GM and player require. Without a larger group for brainstorming and kibitzing, there’s no real downtime for the two folks sitting down to play this game. Both player and GM are always on.

After the rules come three sections, each focused on a different city, different PC, and different scenario. So, you’ve got Dex Raymond, the hardboiled L.A. detective; Vivian Sinclair, the determined N.Y.C. investigative reporter; and Langston Wright, the war veteran and scholar in Washington, D.C.

Wrapping up the book are the appendices, with reference material and hand-outs for playing and running GUMSHOE One-2-One.

Cards Everywhere

One of the conceits in the core GUMSHOE system is that you find the clues you need for the story to advance. That carries over into GUMSHOE One-2-One, as expected. What I hadn’t considered before reading this book is that, without the buffer of other players and characters, it gets much easier to stall the story3 through non-investigative things. Sure, if you search the garden, you find the strange footprints by the pond, but if you can’t climb over the wall into the garden, you can’t search the garden, right? In standard play, this is handled by the resilience of the group – if you can’t climb the wall, surely someone in the group has some points left in Athletics to get to the other side.

Same thing, but even more so, with combat. TPKs are a threat in any game, especially when combat is as deadly as it can be in GUMSHOE. But when there’s only one PC, it gets that much riskier – a single bad die roll, and everything is just done. Over.

On the other hand, if you just let the character succeed at everything, there’s no sense of risk and no sense of accomplishment in play. The chance of failure is what makes success mean something.

GUMSHOE One-2-One has completely redesigned the way General Abilities work to address this issue. While it still uses a d6 resolution, like GUMSHOE, it allows you to roll multiple dice4. There are two target numbers, representing two types of successful outcome: a Hold, which is  an okay or middling result, and an Advance, which is the best result. You need to roll higher to get an Advance than to get a Hold.

If you don’t roll at least high enough to get a Hold, you get a Setback5 – a problem that arises from whatever it was you just attempted.

And this is where the cards come in6. When you roll an Advantage, you often receive an Edge, which is a little bonus that you gain from being awesome. When you roll a Setback, you often receive a Problem, which is a little complication that you gain from not expressing you awesomeness through die rolls. Both these things are tracked using cards, telling you what type of Edge or Problem you now have, and how it affects the game. Sometimes, these things go away, like spending an Edge for the bonus it gives you or fixing the Problem narratively, but sometimes they stick around for a while.

Here’s the coolest thing about this system: most challenges have Edge and Problem cards specific to that challenge. There are some generic ones7, but mostly, the Edge or Problem you get is directly related to the challenge you just faced. And it’s a perfect way to keep the story advancing even if the challenge was too much for the character. Here’s an example:

Note that this is a combat challenge. If the character gets a Setback, he or she winds up not dead, but chained to an altar, which directs you to another scene. Also, if the character gains an extra problem (by rolling an extra die), he or she can wind up Clawed by Deep Ones, with that problem card.

So, as a case progresses, the player will have a shifting array of cards, tracking different Edges and Problems. Each chapter has a few pages of the collected cards for that scenario, ready for you to print out8 and cut up. That lets you get set-up and ready for the game pretty quickly.

The Sources

Another issue you have to deal with in converting GUMSHOE to a single player and single character system is the fact that it becomes problematic to make sure all the investigative abilities are covered. In normal GUMSHOE, each character can take a few, with a focus on a few specialties, to make sure you’ve got someone on the team with the ability find pretty much every clue. In the games I’ve run, it generally means that, at most, there are one or two investigative abilities that no one has put any points into.

With only a single character, you have the choice of either letting them have all the investigative abilities, so that each character is largely the same, mechanically speaking; of making sure that there are only clues for the investigative abilities that the character has; or giving the character access to investigative abilities that he or she doesn’t have through some other means.

Enter the sources.

Each character has a list of sources, with notes about what investigative abilities they provide, their personalities, and their relationship with the character. So, like a detective novel, part of play is the investigator going to talk to an interesting person who can help them with information or analysis. It turns finding a clue into an interactive roleplaying scene.

The Characters

The Cthulhu Confidential core book gives you three fully fleshed out characters to play, and the free download The Red Mist on the Pelgrane site gives you another one, along with a scenario for her. In addition, the appendices include the basic ability lists for ten more characters for other GUMSHOE genres, including Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Night’s Black Agents, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, The Gaean Reach, TimeWatch, and Bubblegumshoe.

There’s a short section on creating investigators so that players can play a non-pregen character, but it stresses that the pregens are specifically tuned for their scenarios9, so making big changes from the pregens may cause problems in play. Still, it’s got all the information you need to build a character from scratch.

The included characters are a more diverse lot than you see in most historical period gaming. You have Dex Raymond, who is a Sam Spade/Phillip Chandler type, the tough, white, male detective of the noir pulps. Then, you get Vivian Sinclair, who is a female investigative reporter. Third is Langston Wright, an African-American war veteran and scholar. In The Red Mist, you get Phyllis Oakley10, a female dealer in rare books.

Vivian and Langston also have information about how women and minorities were treated, both historically and in the pulps that inform this game. There is a discussion with each about scaling the types of treatments facing non-white, non-male11 characters, allowing the player and GM to set the level of horribleness of humanity that both are comfortable dealing with.

The Cities

Each of the three character chapters includes a write-up of the character’s home city. For Dex, that’s Los Angeles; for Viv, that’s New York; and for Langston, that’s Washington, D.C. These write-ups include the historical context – the 1930s for New York and LA, the 1940s for Washington. Also included are some maps, important locations, and important people.

And a fairly rich sprinkling of story hooks to build new scenarios.

More than a lot of game books, the cities in Cthulhu Confidential work almost like characters in and of themselves. I think this is a product of the tight focus on a single character for play in each of the cities, which lets the city write-up focus on a more coherent theme and presentation, rather than being written for wider appeal and purpose. Anyway, the result is a real feeling of immediacy for each of the cities.

The Scenarios

The Cthulhu Confidential core book comes with three scenarios, one for each of the three characters:

  • The Fathomless Sleep: How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.
  • Fatal Frequencies: In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?
  • Capitol Colour: Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?

In addition, there’s a free downloadable adventure, The Red Mist, available on the Pelgrane site.

Each of these scenarios is focused specifically on the character for whom it was written. Though they can probably be run for the other characters12, I would want to go through them in detail, and make a number of changes to the Edges, Problems, and challenges to make sure they all still make sense for a different character.

Because of the way the new challenge system works with the cards, and because of the fact that there’s no real downtime for the GM to think about stuff will the players are talking to each other, I think it would be very difficult to run Cthulhu Confidential as an improvised investigation, the way The Armitage Files worked13. I also think that prepping a scenario is probably a bigger job for the GM than in Trail of Cthulhu, because of the need to more carefully design each challenge, especially coming up with Setbacks that don’t derail the game.

That’s why I think it’s so valuable to get these four14 complete scenarios with the game. Not only do they give you ready-to-play scenarios, but they also serve as solid models to pattern your own scenarios after.

Conclusions

I haven’t had a chance to try actually playing15Cthulhu Confidential scenario, so I don’t really know how all this works in play.

That said, I really like the way the game is built. The main changes to the system address problems that I didn’t know were problems until I saw the solutions, so that gives me confidence in the thinking and playtesting behind the game.

The characters, cities, and scenarios are all meaty, and look like a lot of fun. The book is well-written and physically attractive.

I say it’s a winner. I just need a guinea pig to help me try it out.

  1. I’ve already talked about Trail of Cthulhu here, and chronicled my Armitage Files campaign here. []
  2. Yeah, it really is a new system, though heavily based on the original GUMSHOE stuff. []
  3. And thus the game. []
  4. Assuming you have multiple dice in the ability you’re using. []
  5. I am very pleased that it’s called a Setback and not a Failure. []
  6. You were wondering, weren’t you? []
  7. And a whole host of generic Edge and Problem cards in the appendices. []
  8. Or photocopy, if you’re working with just the physical book and not the pdf. []
  9. Or vice-versa, I guess. []
  10. Who can be renamed Phillip Oakley. []
  11. And non-straight. []
  12. Or for an original character. []
  13. Though there’s an interesting article about running The Armitage Files using Cthulhu Confidential here. Still, the article says it’s not easy. []
  14. Actually five: with my preorder of Cthulhu Confidential, I got a pre-layout version of The House Up In The Hills, another Dex Raymond scenario. []
  15. Or running. []

Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 2

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

About a week ago, we finally managed to schedule a session to finish our Ashen Stars play test1. I’d been trying to think how to flesh out the end of the adventure to fill in an entire session – we only had one or two scenes left – and threw together some combat encounters to use. As it turned out, I really didn’t need them.

The Lasers did some more speculating and discussing of the information they had so far, trying to figure out what was going on. They had a number of pieces of the overall puzzle – computer intrusion, rewriting of brains via the headsets, air clearing in a formerly polluted area, stuff like that. What they didn’t know was what was causing this – the Durugh, the Mohilar, someone2 else.

After going around in circles a few times, they remembered one of the basic tenets of GUMSHOE games – if you’re stuck, it means you need more information. They had one lead – a set of co-ordinates out in the ruined city that seemed to be at the centre of the strange occurrences. And so off they went.

I spent a little time this session describing things – coming up with descriptions of the surroundings, working a little harder to paint a picture of the world. I also worked harder at smoothing out the use of Investigative abilities in the game – trying to make them more transparent to the players. I had some pretty good success with the first part, but not so much with the second.

The problem with the Investigative abilities not being transparent was two-fold, I think. First, there was the simple fact that all of us – GM and players alike – were new to this game3.Now, that’s a problem that will arise with any new game, and it can correct itself after a few sessions. Familiarity and mastery will come.

The second issue was something that compounded the first one: the Investigative abilities in Ashen Stars are not intuitively named. Instead, they are named in keeping with the space opera setting. This is great as far as flavour goes, but it adds an extra level of learning between the players and mastery.

Anyway, our heroes made it to the site, and found that it was a museum devoted to Brian Hudd, native son of Ares-3, and hero of the Mohilar war. Something4 had restarted the computer that ran the museum, which immediately turned on the air scrubbers, resulting in the clear air around the building.

Investigating further, they found that the computer had achieved sentience, but had been damaged. All the records of the diplomatic, alliance-building Brian Hudd had be been lost, and only the records of Brian Hudd as a ruthless, cunning, and triumphant warrior remained. The building had also lost its holo facilities, so it was making do with reprogramming any sentients that happened by5 to refight Brian Hudd’s battles.

They found this out the hard way, when Returner-U directly interfaced with the museum computer, and was reprogrammed into Brian Hudd, fighting off the Mohilar6 and trying to reunite with his crew7. So, there was a desperate struggle with Returner-U, as Maxine managed to synthesize a viro deprogramming agent to cleanse Returner-U’s mind.

Once they had their Cybe compatriot back to his regular charming self8, the Lasers made their way down to the main computer room in the basement and tried to shut down the computer, only to find that it had a back-up version of itself recorded in the strange electrical activity in Ares-3’s atmosphere.

Now, this is all part of the scenario-as-written, to set up a very specific kind of climax to the adventure: one where the characters, in the best tradition of Captain Kirk, convince the AI that it is flawed and must destroy itself. But, I must admit, as I was giving the characters that last clue, I rebelled against it. It was a little too, well, not to put too fine a point on it, dumb9.

Okay, “dumb” is a little harsh. And there are alternative solutions offered in the scenario. Perhaps a less judgmental way of putting things was that the solution seemed to clash with the moderately gritty vision of the setting that our group shared.

Whatever the reason, as I said, I rebelled, especially once I started getting some of the clue out, and felt the resistance to it building in the group. So, I changed things slightly, and explained that, with the ability of the AI to exist in the atmosphere, there was no way to physically destroy it.

And then the group showed me again why I game with them. They convinced the AI to accept a download of the rest of Brian Hudd’s accomplishments, and persuaded it to keep working to clear the air of Ares-3. They even talked it into spreading itself through the ionosphere and reactivating other air scrubbers on the planet. And they convinced it to create a child AI that they could load into their ship’s computer.

“Now that’s a pilot episode,” was the response from the group.

We faded out on Aron telling the bartender on Ares-3 to be ready for the Combine to come calling. And that they didn’t need to rush into backing the Combine – they had the right to their independence.

The gang talked about how they’d consider playing more Ashen Stars10, but the more they talked about how they had enjoyed this session – specifically the last half of this session – the more I was convinced that this is not the game for this group. Why not? Because the bits they liked most were the bits where I had departed farthest from the game system.

They liked the setting, they liked the characters, they even liked parts of the scenario. But they didn’t like the idea of fiddling with the Investigative abilities, and then trying to figure out the mystery. The more we discussed things, the more certain I became that the game system is the thing they liked least about the whole play test.

This is not to say that Ashen Stars is a bad system – it’s not. I love it. I would need more practice to run it smoothly, and there are a few things about it that I find irritating, but the same is true of any system.

But not every system works for every game group. And this system does not work with these particular players. And so, I said that I would keep the game in my back-pocket, as it were, for possible future play11, but that I didn’t think we should keep going with it as a regular game.

Instead, I offered them a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game that Clint had suggested at one time: street-level superheroes in Gotham City. Everyone thought that was a splendid idea, so that’s what we’re doing. In discussing it, though, it became clear that there was not a common vision of such a game being shared among the group, so this coming Friday, we’re going to get together and use the Fate Core game creation rules to create our MHRPG setting12.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

  1. You can read about the first session here. []
  2. Or something. []
  3. I had run Trail of Cthulhu previously, and one of the players had played it, but we were all new to Ashen Stars. []
  4. They assumed the Ashen Star incident of a few days previous. []
  5. Using their headsets as the reprogramming vector. []
  6. That is, the other PCs. []
  7. That is, some random, reprogrammed Ares-3 inhabitants that I had statted up in case I needed a fight. []
  8. This is a bit of a joke. Returner-U has absolutely zero interpersonal skills. []
  9. Sorry, Robin. []
  10. Well, one player was not interested. He’s not a fan of investigative games. []
  11. Or conversion to a different space opera game system, maybe? []
  12. The Fate Core stuff is just so good for this. We can even create the aspects for everything, just call them distinctions to fit with the Cortex Plus rules. []

Ashen Stars: The Witness of My Worth, Part 1

***Spoiler Warning***

I’m running the introductory scenario, The Witness of My Worth from the Ashen Stars rulebook. While some things always get changed when the scenario meets the players, I am running it pretty much straight out of the box. There will be spoilers in this post.

***You Have Been Warned***

A little over two weeks ago1, instead of some sort of Valentine’s Day celebration, I had a group of friends over to play our first session of Ashen Stars, the space-opera GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press by Robin D. Laws2. We had done character creation by e-mail, which turned out to not be ideal, but we got through it, and I, at least, was excited to actually start playing.

Only one of my players3 had ever played a GUMSHOE game previously, so I spent the first bit of the session explaining the system. I think it’s a good thing I did; my explanation of how the Investigative abilities worked caused a couple of characters to rearrange some of their points. I also talked about the part that always messes up new GUMSHOE players: if you don’t know what you should do next, go get more information.

I also explained that I had the Ashen Stars soundtrack, All We Have Forgotten, loaded up on my computer, and that I would be using musical stings to end scenes when the characters had got all the information they could from a scene, as well as using the other tracks to provide thematic background music. Then I pretty much immediately forgot to do all that. Oh, I think I managed to pull in the proper track twice through the evening, and used a sting maybe once, but it turned out to be just one more thing for me to keep track of, and it got lost in the shuffle. With some practice, that might change.

I had also printed out Kevin Kulps 30-minute demo scenario, Stowaway, thinking that I might use it as a sort of trailer for the game, giving people a taste of how things worked before jumping into the actual investigation4. I discarded that idea, though, simply for reasons of time. We’d already spent over an hour with the introductory stuff5, and I really wanted to finish this scenario in one session6, so I decided not to use the short scenario, and jumped into the main scenario.

I had typed up a one-page hand-out for the players, outlining their mission from The Witness of My Worth, containing the main datapoints of their assignment, and I gave it to the bagger to read first. When she had read it and started passing it to the other players, I explained that this was a good time to start using some of their Investigative abilities to fill in background and detail on the contract – what their destination was like, what the legal complications might be, etc. They spent a little time doing that, getting a little more comfortable with the concepts behind GUMSHOE.

When they looked to have had enough of that, I jumped them into the Ares-3 system, and sprang the first little surprise on them: the ship immediately started plotting an automatic attack run on a nearby hauler. Returner-U managed to wrest control away from the computers before things went badly, and our Lasers were able to prevent an unprovoked attack by their ship on the unsuspecting hauler. They hailed the hauler, and found that they were heading to a settlement on the far side of the planet from the site of the EvBase.

Making their way down to the planet surface, the Lasers landed as near as they could get to the EvBase in the ruins of the capital city. They managed to bypass the fence of security pylons around the base, and even defuse the booby-trapped bomb on the door. Inside, they found the entire crew of the EvBase dead. They managed to reconstruct the sequence of death, determining that a group of the crew returned from outside and attacked those inside7.

Some of the records they unlocked from the main database led them to go and investigate  the settlement nearby. There, they found that the locals weren’t all that welcoming – though the Durugh arms merchants did offer a job to Arrud – and weren’t too forthcoming with information.

At this point, I found myself fretting about some of the false assumptions that the group was making, and the number of clues they weren’t picking up. You see, this was the first time I found myself running a published GUMSHOE adventure, being far more used to running the improvisational style of mystery found in The Armitage Files. Published adventures, I have found, lay out a much larger number – and a broader range – of clues, to make sure that the characters can always find the path forward. In improvised adventures, the GM can be more parsimonious with the clues created, because they are created at the intersection of the mystery’s background and the investigators’ actions.

What I’m saying, I guess, is that, even though the investigators didn’t uncover every clue in every scene, they still got all the core clues, and were able to move forward in the investigation, even if they were moving forward with false assumptions.

Still, at this point I realized that the Lasers didn’t have the clue to lead them on to the next stage of the investigation. And there didn’t seem to be much chance of them finding that required clue in the current scened. Fortunately, I turned the page, and saw that the answer was in the next scene.

So, I had a huge ground transport come lumbering down the avenue toward the bar, with a couple of people firing weapons out the windows. Our Lasers sprang into action, saving some bystanders and crippling the transport. Investigation of the driver and passenger showed that they had brain deformations similar to those found on some of the crew of the EvBase, along with burns along the points where their headsets touched flesh.

Data in the transport revealed a site where strange things were happening, the next bit of vital information to drive the investigation forward. They decided to head off there to see if they could get to the bottom of this strange thing that seemed to be reprogramming the brains of those who came into contact with it.

That was the point we decided to call it an evening, as it was getting late. I need to flesh out some of the end of the investigation to fill up an entire session, because there are only a couple of scenes left, and it could be wrapped up in a little more than an hour. That shouldn’t be too difficult, though.

I’m looking forward to the next session.

  1. I started writing this post the morning after the game. Honest, I did. But life kept intruding and keeping me from finishing it. I’ve changed that reference to when we played three four times now. []
  2. I think that’s a record for number of links in a single sentence on my blog. Yay! []
  3. Maybe two; I can’t remember if Fera had played in a Trail of Cthulhu one-shot. []
  4. I even worked out a way to tie it into the backstory for the characters that they had worked out. []
  5. Waiting for everyone to arrive, getting everyone fed and settled, going over the rules, talking about True Detective, talking about work, etc. []
  6. Spoiler: didn’t happen. []
  7. I really should have spent some more time prepping this section. The notes in the  adventure did not provide the sequence of death – specifically, who died when and where – and I was forced to reconstruct it on the fly logic-puzzle style. And there was some question about the timing of the bomb set on the door that I couldn’t immediately resolve, so I resorted to the old GM trick, “Yeah, that does seem odd, doesn’t it?” []

Ashen Stars: Recruitment

I seem to sort of wander backwards into running GUMSHOE games. What I mean by that is that I usually spend several weeks or months planning to run a campaign1, but with GUMSHOE games, I wind up running them after a casual conversation and a quick agreement, and then scramble to get the campaign ready to run. That happened when I ran the Armitage Files campaign, and it happened again with Ashen Stars.

In both cases, I had been talking the games up to various people, but not expecting to have a chance to run either any time soon. For Ashen Stars, I had offered to run a one-shot between earlier this month at a game night, but we opted for board games instead. Still, the group was interested enough in the pitch that I’ve agreed to run a mini-campaign, about four or five sessions, covering two to three cases, I’m guessing.

Because of timing and scheduling issues, I decided to do character generation via e-mail, basing my experience on the Trail of Cthulhu character creation process that I used for Armitage Files. I had been dreading running that character generation session, but it turned out to go quickly and easily and got everyone excited about the game, so I figured that this would go pretty easily, as well2.

It has not gone as smoothly as expected.

I’ve been trying to think about why that is. The first thing that came to mind is that this game, unlike ToC, deals with gear in some detail, and wading through the sections on cybernetic and viroware enhancements is a little daunting. But that led me to a number of other choice points in character creation that slowed things down and caused some confusion:

  • Roles. Unlike ToC, where you just pick a profession, AS uses the concept of roles to focus character concepts and ability selections. Roles are different than professions, in that it’s good to have all five roles covered to be an effective squad. Well, all ten, really, once you factor in both warpside3 and groundside4 roles. Actually, eleven roles, including the medic, which is both a warpside and groundside role. Sorting out who was going to take which role and what to do with the leftovers took some discussion.
  • Ship. You start with a ship, picked from a selection of eleven different classes, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Analyzing these and deciding between them was another choice-point that required discussion. And a vote.
  • Gear. As mentioned above, the shopping expedition took time. As part of getting gear and enhancements involves divvying up a pool of group money5 and then budgeting for upkeep for your own cyber or viro enhancements.
  • Personal arc. The personal arc is a beautiful idea for this kind of game, but it takes some time to put together. Especially because it’s a new idea for the gaming group. Fortunately, this is something that doesn’t need to happen right away, and it’s something that each player can do individually, with just a little input from me. The point is that it’s not something that requires group input and decisions.
  • The Bribe(TM). I gave the players six questions about their characters that they could answer or not. For each question they answered, I let them pick from a short list of stuff. Everyone got me their answers6 in quick order, but took their time picking out their rewards. Again, though, this is something that doesn’t require group discussion. Also, it’s completely my fault, and not part of the rules for the game. But it has introduced a delay.

Now, these points are not necessarily bad things. They do a lot to flesh out the characters and the setting, and the end result is going to be some very cool characters.

But.

They do not lend themselves well to creating characters by e-mail discussion. Maybe if I had thought to put up a forum to run character creation, it would have gone smoother and quicker, but I honestly doubt it.

Looking at things, I really should have done more to schedule a character creation session. There’s nothing like being face-to-face for group decision-making. And for explaining some of the more slippery concepts. And answering questions, voting, brainstorming…

There’s been some frustration from the players at what seems like far too much work to create a character. One of my players said to me last night, “I’m really looking forward to playing the game, but man, the character creation just blows.” I don’t think the character creation blows, but the way I managed it certainly does.

In addition to the frustration for the characters, I’ve found that I’ve had to do a lot more work on my end managing the whole process. Keeping everyone on the same phase of the process turned out to be important, as the stuff I sent out for those who were ahead of things turned out to be information overload for those who were on earlier phases. I had to build a spreadsheet and keep sending out updated versions to show people what abilities had been covered. And I think I’ve sent out about 15,000 words of explanation, lists, instructions, examples, and updates over the past three weeks.

Much of what I sent out was aimed at making things easier for the players: suggested gear and enhancement packages, short descriptions of the different ship classes, worked examples of personal arcs, new gear developed at player requests, etc. I don’t begrudge this at all, because it’ll help them have more fun. And besides, I did it to myself.

To help take some of the sting out of this process that has ballooned and morphed from quick-and-easy to long-and-tedious, I’m preparing extensive cheat-sheet packages for each character, with descriptions of their abilities and gear, and such. Hopefully, that will make the actual play move quickly and easily despite the new system, and soon character creation will be a distant memory.

The big lesson learned from all this? Not every game system has a character creation process suited to every type of situation. While I think that e-mail character creation would work fine for ToC or D&D, it does not work for Ashen Stars. And I wouldn’t even try it with Fate.

Despite all of the above points, we have all four characters at a playable state. We were going to have our first game last night, but real life intruded and we’ve had to delay it. But here’s the list of our doughty crew of Lasers:

  • Arón Santa-Ana: Human Stratco/Gunner/Chopper7
  • Furan Arrud: Durugh Hailer/Face/Mapper
  • Maxine Kemper: Human Medic/Wrench/Bagger
  • Returner-U: Cybe Pilot/Techo

Tough part is over folks. I promise. From here on out, it’s freelance police in space!

 

  1. Even a mini-campaign, like this one is going to be. []
  2. You see what’s coming, right? []
  3. Aboard the ship. []
  4. I don’t really need to explain this one, do I? []
  5. Some of which you probably want to save for an emergency fund to repair your ship or pay for maintenance if you wind up waiting a long time between contracts. []
  6. For all six questions, I might add. Everyone answered every question. []
  7. I don’t know if the Stratco/Gunner split is going to cause problems in play, but we’re going to try it out. If it’s a real problem, we’ll work something out. []

13th Age Playtest – Actual Play

This is the second half of my report on our playtest of 13th Age from Pelgrane Press. You can see the first half here. I concentrated on character creation in the previous post; this time, I’m going to talk about the actual play of the game.

Our GM, Michael, ran two different adventures for us: the first was a simple investigation into goblin raiders, and the second was a longer quest chasing after a stolen sword. Between the two adventures, we wound up playing three sessions, and it gave us a pretty good view of the entire game. It was a good time.

The goblin raider adventure was designed specifically to showcase combat and give us players a chance to learn the ins and outs of fighting in this new system. It consisted of a simple hook and short trek to get us to the goblins, then a lengthy fight to defeat them and their hobgoblin allies. Along the way, we had the opportunity to try using our backgrounds a few times, but the focus was really on the fight at the end.

Combat is interesting. We ran into some strange math anomalies in some of the stats and a couple of odd corner-cases that the rules didn’t quite cover1, but overall things ran smoothly. There are some intriguing new mechanics to speed combat, including using a d6 – called the Escalation Die – to encourage heroic action by giving the PCs an attack bonus for consecutive rounds of pushing the assault.

The system doesn’t use a battlemap or grid for movement and positioning and, while it didn’t make much difference in our initial combat, we found that in later combats2, our tactics were a little lacking after our long conditioning to the combat grid. That is, we didn’t take care to state that our fighter-types were protecting our squishy wizard3, which led to some good opportunities to test out the dying and recovery rules.

Those work pretty well, thankfully.

I want to stress that this is not a fault in the system; it’s just something you need to keep in mind when you play the game. It’s easy to make this mistake, if you’ve played a lot of D&D; the game feels enough like D&D that you can get tripped up by the little differences. You don’t get the visual cues from the minis to see what lines of assault are open, and who’s exposed to attack, so you need to think about that when you describe your action. There’s a discussion in the playtest document about using minis to show loose, relative positioning, and I think that might have helped alleviate this issue, but we didn’t try it out.

The first adventure went pretty well – we located the goblins’ hideout in a ghost town, managed to not be surprised by the hobgoblins, and even tried to negotiate with them4. When the fight broke out, we managed to tip things in our favour pretty early, though the fight was still pretty tough.

The second adventure was more involved, and featured more non-combat elements of play. It saw us trekking through the Empire to a magical site in order to see a magical sword get enchanted5, then chasing the thief of that sword to a ruined city and finally wresting the blade from him. We ran this adventure over one short evening and one longer evening, mostly because we kept breaking to discuss our impressions of the system and how it was working at any given time. I’m pretty certain we could have crammed the whole thing into a single longer session.

The system showed to pretty good effect overall. It handled us remembering information, making friends6, spotting dangers, navigating, negotiating, figuring stuff out, threatening, working magical rituals, running up and down7 a two-hundred foot tower, standing off a dragon, and fighting assassins, wolves, dragon-men, and the end boss8. There are mechanics in place to encourage pushing on in an adventure rather than falling back to rest and recover, and they work pretty well to keep things active and interesting. Combat can be very suddenly deadly9, but the rules for death saves allows for some heroic and cinematic recoveries, so that’s okay. We even tried the leveling up mechanics, and found them to be surprisingly quick and simple, even for multi-class characters.

There’s a lot of stuff in the game that’s left to GM adjudication. That’s not a complaint, because mostly10 the rules provide enough support with examples and simple general rules that it didn’t seem to slow our GM down much. It allowed more freedom for the players to try interesting stuff, while giving the GM the tools needed to handle it.

The main things I was looking for were a cinematic feel to the action in the game, and for combat not to dominate all the play time. The game delivered on both of these things, in spades, so I count it as a success. Now, there were still some rough edges to the system – including the aforementioned weird math anomalies in combat – but as this is the first round playtest, I fully expect those things to be worked out by the time the game is actually released.

All in all, I’m looking forward to the final version of the game.

  1. All of which has been dutifully reported to the good folks at Pelgrane Press. []
  2. That is, in the next adventure. []
  3. Also known as ME! []
  4. That didn’t work. Goblins are dicks. []
  5. Quick digression here: Apparently, the sword was the standard hook written up in the adventure, which is fine. What’s awesome is that, as my character’s One Unique Feature, I had him receive a sword from a mysterious stranger at his birth, so the GM used that as the sword in question. This is just one example of the ways that the interesting features from character creation that I talked about last time come back to inform and enrich the adventures during play. []
  6. One thing we didn’t wind up trying was using the Icon relationships we had established in character creation. They just didn’t really come up, as I recall. []
  7. And, in two cases, jumping off. []
  8. Not gonna tell you what that was. []
  9. As I found out. Twice. []
  10. It’s still just a playtest draft. []

13th Age Playtest – Character Creation

Over the past few weeks, my friend Michael has been running us through the first-round playtest for 13th Age, a new fantasy game from Pelgrane Press. Now that the playtest is over and we’ve submitted our feedback, the NDA allows me to talk1 about the experience. And you know me; I hate to have an unexpressed thought or opinion.

The game is billed as:

13th Age is a love letter to D&D: a rules-light, story-oriented RPG that honors old school values while advancing the OGL art. Players create unique heroes using flexible interpretations of familiar D20 character classes. New indie-style rules connect each character’s story to the Gamemaster’s customized version of the campaign setting.

I think it meets those goals admirably, and has some very nice little bits incorporated into the rules and the character creation that just shine. I’m really looking forward to the final version of the game.

This post is just going to be about the character creation portion. In a few days2, I’ll have another post about the rest of the rules, and the actual play experience.

Character creation looks pretty standard on the face of it, a sort-of mash-up of various versions of D&D to get your stats and pick your class and race. Once you get through picking the normal components of your character, however, you run into a couple of very indie-inspired elements that turn your numbers into something special: Backgrounds, Relationships, and One Unique Feature.

Backgrounds substitute for skills in this system, and are broad categories of experience that show where your character came from and what he or she can do. There isn’t a list of backgrounds to choose from – you are encouraged to create your own. This not only fleshes out your character history and abilities, it also fills in detail about the world. For example, in our little playtest group, our character backgrounds wound up adding the following elements to the setting:

  • A service of Imperial Couriers that rode gryphons to deliver high-priority goods and messages.
  • A rich noble who employed rangers to assist with the maintenance and record keeping in her menagerie.
  • A network of ex-slave gladiators spread throughout the Imperial military.
  • A loose association of arcane scholars called the Fellowship of the Lost Book, dedicated to ferreting out forgotten magical lore.

All these things gave the GM good, solid hooks to draw us into adventures, and provide information. It made the world feel more complete, and it made our characters feel more a part of it. It gave them a place in the grand scheme of things.

This is enhanced by the Relationships. The world of 13th Age has some very powerful – mythically powerful – beings in it called Icons. These Icons are sort of archetypes that different people may fill from time to time3 and represent the powers of the world. These are things like the Archmage, the Elf Queen, the Dwarf King, the Dragon Emperor, the High Druid, and so forth. Each character gets some points to define a few Relationships with these Icons – not necessarily with the Icon itself, but with the Icon’s organization. For example, having a weak, positive relationship with the Elf Queen doesn’t mean she knows you by sight, but means that you’re in good standing with the Court of Stars in general, and can hope to be well-received there should you need a favour. Again, this does a lot to tie you into the world, and give your character a sense of history and place.

While these two elements do a lot to tie your character into the world, One Unique Feature is there to make sure your character stands out. This is something that lets you create something, well, unique for your character. Examples included in the playtest document run the gamut from weird little abilities (a half-orc with a supernaturally compelling voice) to odd bits of character history (a monk who started life as a bear before being transformed into a human) and everything in between. There are no mechanics attached to what you come up with here, so giving your character the Unique Feature of being able to kill with a touch is pretty much off the table, but being able to use your Unique Feature for bonuses or to be able to attempt things that other people wouldn’t seems firmly within scope. But the real advantage of the Unique Feature is that it turns your character from The Wizard4 into the wizard who wields the sword Bitter Understanding.

Together, these three elements really bring the character to life, and make it so that, when you start play at 1st level, your character feels like a hero.

I glossed over race and class, above, to get to the bits of character creation I think are neatest, but you get a standard mix of races  – human, dwarf, half-orc, halfling, three flavours of elf, half-elf, and gnome, plus their version of dragonborn, tieflings, aasimar, and warforged – and classes – barbarian, bard, cleric, druid5, fighter, monk, paladin, ranger, rogue, sorcerer, and wizard, along with a system for multiclassing. Each race gets a neat little mechanical benefit, and each class gets an array of features and abilities to choose from.

One nice touch with the classes is that the playtest document has a short section that rates each class according to how difficult/complex it is to play, with barbarian at the low end of complexity and wizard at the high end. There is a note that multiclass characters are going to be more complex than any single class character, and that seemed borne out in our test.

Overall, I think the character creation section of 13th Age is wonderful. There are a few little quirks of math that made me raise my eyebrows, but finding those things is what a playtest is about, and I’ve passed my concerns on to the folks who can do something about it. The only other complaint I had was with the organization of the document, which made it necessary to do a lot of paging back and forth to create a character. This is, again, a product of the fact that this is a playtest – I know the final version of the game is going to be cleaned up and reorganized once it’s complete.

In short, in 13th Age, you wind up with a character that has depth, history, competence, and feels like a hero right out of the gate. That’s a big win for any fantasy game like this. We also managed to create four characters in under two hours, so that’s pretty good considering we’re all just learning the game.

In a few days, I’ll post about the actual play. Watch for it.

  1. Well, write in this case. []
  2. Hopefully. I’ve been pretty lax with my posts here, and am playing catch-up. []
  3. Well, some of them. Some, such as the Three, the Lich King, and the Great Gold Wyrm are more permanent. []
  4. Or even worse, The Other Wizard. []
  5. The druid is listed in the playtest doc, but the actual class was not ready to be distributed for playtest this round. []

Night’s Black Agents

Last week, Pelgrane Press made their new GUMSHOE game, Night’s Black Agents, available for preorder. The preorder included a bare-bones-layout version of the game and, being a ravening GUMSHOE fanboy1, of course I had to grab it and spend the weekend reading it.

The premise of Night’s Black Agents is that a small group of ex-official spies – the PCs – working in the modern European intelligence underground stumble across evidence that a conspiracy of vampires2 exists and is now aware of them. To avoid the vampires killing them, the newly clued-in spies must destroy the conspiracy.

That’s the bare-bones, unmodified version of the game. One of the things I like about NBA is that it is eminently customizable, and Ken provides four different modes of play that you can mix and match to get the flavour of spy story that you prefer:

  • Burn Mode focuses on the emotional and social cost of being a spy. Think the Bourne series, or Alias.
  • Dust Mode is the default setting, a gritty thriller-style game, like Three Days of the Condor or Sandbaggers.
  • Mirror Mode is pure Le Carré paranoia and betrayal, where trust is a commodity and identity is fluid.
  • Stakes Mode focuses on the higher purpose that motivates the heroes, highlighting their drive and dedication to get the job done, as seen in James Bond films and Tom Clancy novels.

As I said, you can mix and match these modes to get the right balance for the story you want to tell. You can also decide if the story you’re telling is a thriller, adding in special Thriller Combat and Thriller Chase rules to up the level of action.

The core of the game is the GUMSHOE engine, which has been tweaked to emphasize covert operations rather than pure investigation. The Investigative Abilities see the addition of Human Terrain, Tradecraft, and Vampirology, and the General Abilities get Network, Cover, and Surveillance3. You can also buy some specialty packages that give you a bundle of Investigative and General Abilities – these don’t give you a point discount, but are useful for seeing what kinds of skills an agent would have if they specialized that way.

One interesting tweak4 to character creation is the MOS – Military Occupational Specialty. It lets you pick one General Ability and, once per session, automatically succeed with that ability. It’s an interesting idea, and I think it could lead to some neat metagame resource management. There’s a nice little sidebar that talks about using the MOSs of the team as keystones when the agents are planning an op.

The other major tweak to the system is providing something special – a Cherry – for almost any General Ability with a rating of 8+. These are either something you can do for free (hotwire a car with a Drive of 8+), extra points in Investigative Abilities (1 free point of Diagnosis with Medic 8+), or a new way to spend points from that ability (get an extra die of damage from an explosion for 3 points from Explosive Devices). For the lo-fi Dust Mode, a lot of these Cherries are off the table, but there are a few marked as being appropriate for that style of game.

This iteration of GUMSHOE uses Sources of Stability, but it prescribes what they are. Each agent gets three, one each of Symbol (a representation of an important ideal, like a flag), Solace (a person the agent seeks out for human contact), and Safety (a person and place the agent would flee to without thinking). These three categories are chose to highlight the isolation of being a spy, and also to give the GM some nice, concrete targets when time comes to gut-punch the agent.

There are also twelve Drives to choose from, specifically chosen to fit into the spy genre. These are things like Patriotism, Restoration, Atonement, and Nowhere Else to Go. A sidebar provides some ideas for adding personal arcs, an idea first seen in Ashen Stars. The information here is far less detailed and structured than in AS, if only because NBA does not mirror an ongoing TV serial as tightly as AS.

The rest of the rules are pretty standard GUMSHOE stuff, with the exception of the Thriller rules and Heat. Thriller rules are options for combat and chases that add a more cinematic, over-the-top feel to the game – stuff like extra attacks, called shots, parkour chases across the rooftops, things like that. The book states right up front the fact that adding these in, while making for more extravagant action, will add a layer of complexity to the normally very fast GUMSHOE rules. None of them is overly complicated, but they are more involved than the extremely simple and light base GUMSHOE rules for such things.

Heat is a mechanic to determine how much official notice the actions of the group attract. It’s a number that climbs with every dead body, every police chase, and every heist, and drops only with time or evasion. Heat is rolled during a session to see if the authorities take notice and get involved to complicate everyone’s lives. So, quiet spies are safer spies.

The gear section of the book lays out not only a fun laundry list of spy toys, but also a vampire-hunter’s arsenal. So, beside the comms laser and flash-bangs, you’ll find garlic and wooden bullets5. There are also details on how the agents can get all the good toys, considering they’re likely on the run and on a budget.

Following the gear section is a chapter on special tactics that the agents can use to represent their training. Things like Tactical Fact Finding, which uses Investigative Abilities to gain an advantage in a tactical situation6, or Tag-Team Tactics, which is pretty much what it says on the tin – using one ability to provide a benefit to someone else using a different ability. This chapter also includes a brief primer on Tradecraft and Asset Handling7, and finishes with a short section on Adversary Mapping, to help the group make those neat picture-and-string organized crime diagrams you see in TV and movies.

Next comes vampires. This is where I really fell in love with this game.

Ken Hite, as anyone who has read Trail of Cthulhu or his Suppressed Transmission column knows, is a master of providing a range of options for any single idea, whether it’s an interpretation of a Great Old One or a possible reason the Dogon people know so much about the star Sirius. Here, he turns that skill to vampires, providing a pantry-full of ingredients to let you build the flavour of vampire you like best for your game. There’s a range of origins, powers, weaknesses, and motivations that you can blend together into pretty much whatever kind of vampire you want. To show how it all fits together, he provides four examples of very different vampires ready to be dropped into your game.

I cannot stress enough how much I like this chapter, and this entire approach. One of the problems with using vampires as the main bad guys is that everyone knows all about them, and thus there is no real surprise about what they can do and what they can’t. This is mitigated somewhat by the fact that there are dozens – if not hundreds – of different vampire versions out there in the world of fiction8, and they all have different strengths and weaknesses. What this chapter does is leverage that fact, drawing on fiction and folklore to provide enough options that the agents will need to do a lot of field testing to make sure they know how to go up against the vampires. It brings uncertainty and fear back into the vampire equation, where it belongs.

Oh, and it makes it clear that vampires are monsters. They are not misunderstood. They feed on and kill humans, whether because they’re evil or because they are alien and indifferent to human suffering. They’re the bad guys, not the dangerous romantic leads.

After the four statted-up versions of vampires, the book provides stat blocks for a few related creatures: the lamia, the bhuta, the dhampir, stuff like that. Handy if you want to throw a supernatural enemy at the agents, but don’t want to go full-on vamp on them just yet.

The last few sections of the book deal with building the conspiracy and campaign. There’s a discussion of what vampires need to survive, what their agenda is, and how to put together a diagram of the conspiracy.

This is my one criticism of the book. While there is a discussion at a high level of vampire motivations and requirements in a conspiracy, and and a discussion of what kinds of things fit in at each level of the conspiracy, and a finished conspiracy diagram9, I would have liked to have seen an example of building that diagram – going from the raw material and thoughts to a concrete finished pyramid. Just a little more guidance here would have been very helpful.

There’s also a good section on quickly roughing-in cities for the game, coming up with the bare minimum to fit the place into your ongoing campaign, as well as a few roughed-in examples and one more detailed city laid out.

The advice that follows, about building stories and the overall campaign, and determining the conspiracy’s reactions to the agents, is meaty and solid. There’s good advice on how to pace things, how to structure things, how to plan, and how to improvise madly when your plan goes off the rails. All in all, a very useful section of the book.

The book ends with an introductory adventure. I don’t want to say too much about it, so as not to spoil things, but it’s got some nice twists, with desperation and paranoia baked right in. It does a good job not only of introducing the vampire conspiracy, but also of showcasing the cold, dark, desperate world that is the espionage underground of modern Europe.

Final thoughts? Of course I love the book. Now, you might dismiss my opinion because I’m an ardent Pelgrane and GUMSHOE fan, but I don’t like the games because I’m a fan. I’m a fan because of the great games.

Specifically, I like this book for a few reasons. First, it provides an interesting combination of genres – you don’t see vampire/spy stuff anywhere else that I know of. There’s not even a whole lot of vampire hunter stuff out there. Second, it makes vampires scary again. They are monsters, and they are horrific and powerful. Third, the structure of the campaign fits the kinds of things I like to do in games. It provides a finite story, of a length determined during play, with a built-in climax that does not guarantee agent success. And fourth, it has enough tools and dials that I can customize the feel of the game to what my players want. Whether we go over-the-top James Bond style, or down-and-dirty George Smiley style, the game has the tools to support and reinforce the feel we decide on. Hell, there are even options for adding weird powers for the heroes, or removing the vampires entirely.

If you like scary vampires, if you like espionage games, if you’re looking for a dark, modern game of horror investigation, I heartily recommend you pick up this book, if not now, then in March when the hardcover is released10. You’ll like it.

  1. Not to mention a ravening Ken Hite fanboy. []
  2. That almost works as a collective noun, doesn’t it? A conspiracy of vampires. Not quite, but getting close. []
  3. There also seem to be more cross-over skills, i.e., General Abilities that you can use as Investigative Abilities. []
  4. Which is not available in Dust Mode. Or rather, it is recommended that it not be available in Dust Mode. []
  5. Not that there’s any guarantee that these will work on the vampires in YOUR game. []
  6. Yeah, that’s kind of convoluted. Best I could boil it down, though. The book makes the use pretty clear, but it is a lengthy explanation. It’s a cool tweak, though. []
  7. Though I found myself wanting more information here. Fortunately, Wikipedia came to my rescue! []
  8. I want to note for the record that sparkling does not appear as one of the vampire powers/weaknesses. Just sayin’. []
  9. Called the Conspyramid. []
  10. I just couldn’t wait that long. []

From the Armitage Files

Last Friday night I ran my first session of the Armitage Files campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. It was also my first time running ToC, or any GUMSHOE game, and I have to admit that I was a little anxious about it.

As I mentioned back here, the Armitage Files campaign is largely improvisational, and very much player-directed. I tend to do a fair bit of prep work before a game, building myself a nice, comfortable set of notes for play. Once I’ve got the notes, I don’t mind if I have to deviate from them, or if I decide in play that the something I came up with earlier doesn’t fit, but I like to have that depth of preparation to give me the raw material for improvisation.

Given that this was my first attempt at a ToC game, and that I was not as familiar with the system as I might have liked, I didn’t want to just jump into the main campaign. Instead, I fleshed out a complete, if short, adventure as a sort of intro. I figured that would give me some more experience building scenarios and running the game before I waded deeper into the campaign waters.

The main set-up of the campaign is that the characters are called in by Armitage and his friends to investigate a strange series of documents that have started showing up. So, I wanted the intro adventure to give the characters a reason to interact with at least a couple of the major recurring NPCs from the Armitage Inquiry campaign frame. Roxy’s backstory had her looking into a suppressed report concerning the Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica, and Aaron is a dealer in rare books, so I figured that this would give me a couple of threads to tie those characters into the plot. Dr. Solis, being a friend of the other two and a member of MU’s School of Medicine, could provide necessary introductions and open some professional doors, metaphorically speaking*.

To that end, I had an orderly from the sanitarium show up at Aaron’s shop, offering to sell him a strange manuscript. He claimed it was a journal written by someone attached to the university, and offered a page as a sample for Aaron to examine. They arranged to meet the next evening, but the fellow didn’t show.

Because, of course, he was dead.

I built the scenario around a standard MacGuffin setup, deciding that the book in question was a journal written for therapeutic reasons by Danforth, one of the survivors of the Dyer-Lake expedition to Antarctica in Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. It had been stolen by an orderly after hearing Danforth’s alienist talk about how valuable the contents were to his treatment and misunderstanding the reference. The orderly then offered it around to several dealers in odd books, leaving some of the loose pages with prospective buyers to examine.

I created the journal as a full resource tome by the guidelines in the ToC rulebook, reasoning that this would be a valuable item for the characters to use throughout the campaign, and a good way to introduce some Cthulhu Mythos knowledge to the characters. Here’s the write-up of the book:

Danforth’s Journal

Danforth’s experiences and readings have given him a mad insight into the proto-history of the earth. He has combined his memories of the Antarctic expedition with his reading of the Necronomicon and other forbidden texts, syncretizing a fairly accurate – if rambling and obtuse – understanding of the Mythos, which he has written into his journal.

The book is a small, bound journal of 300 pages, with green leather binding, filled with cramped, rushed script and odd diagrams. Several pages have been torn out and replaced at different places in the book, and other notes have been penciled in over top of the ink writing.

Resource Tome: +1 Cthulhu Mythos, 2 dedicated pool points for questions about Antarctica, proto-history, and the nature of time.

Magic Potential: 1

Spells: Constructing the Star-Stones of Mnar (Elder Sign), Dho-Hna Formula, Fabrication of a Compound for Examination of Non-Linear Time (Compound Liao)

Having created the book and the basic set-up, I mapped out who the interested parties would be, keeping one eye on the Scenario Spine Worksheet in the campaign book. Given that I wanted some conflict (at least potentially) in the adventure, I created a wealthy lumber magnate with an interest in the occult and a lack of morals who was also offered the journal, and a few others (including Cyrus Llanfer at the Orne Library) for the characters to investigate. I made the orderly’s death the result of a drunken, joking use of the Dho-Hna Formula, which happened to be incomplete because of the page that had been left with Aaron. The incomplete spell let the cold and layered time of the polar city overlay the viewer, reducing him (and his wife) into freeze-dried mummies in seconds.

Meanwhile, the lumber magnate had sent some men around to get the journal before anyone else could buy it. They were ready to buy, but were determined to get the book. Finding the orderly dead, they took the journal and snuck back out. They then burgled another bookshop (whose owner had tipped his hand to the lumber magnate by telling him he might have a very interesting book to sell him in a few days) where a page had been left, stealing enough other books that the owner figured that these books were the real target and that the page had just been snatched up because it was in with the receipts inside the safe.

And, of course, Dyer was desperate to get the book back before too many people found out about what happened on the expedition, and the alienist wanted it back for his research.

I actually fleshed out about eight full scenes, with all the clues that the characters might find and where they would lead. I created a hand-out of the journal page, and a list of names of people that the orderly had approached about the book for the characters to find on his corpse. I even worked in some names that occur later in the campaign, laying the foundation for those adventures down the road. And then I set the characters loose on the adventure.

Turns out it’s a whole lot easier to improvise in the system than I feared. I thought that my lack of familiarity with the different skills and how they work would be a real detriment, but it turned out to not really be the case. Here’s what I found:

  • Having a solid idea of what’s going on behind the scenes is vital, but once you’ve created the answer to the mystery and the way things fit, it’s very easy to see what clues may exist and what scenes are going to come up.
  • The skills all say what they do right on the tin, so it’s not hard to determine if there’s something in a scene that a skill might find when the player asks.
  • The focus of the game, the structure of the rules, and the nature of the mechanics all focus on one thing: getting the clues into the hands of the characters. This outlook is incredibly helpful to the GM running the game, because it causes one to always look for a way to give a clue to the players.
  • It takes a while for everyone to get into the swing of the way investigative abilities differ from general ones, and when you should make a spend or not, and stuff like that, but not a very long while. Things were flowing very smoothly and quickly by about half-way through the evening.
  • Going back to the first point above, improvising and changing scenes came very easily for a couple of reasons: one, I knew the shape of the whole thing, so it was easy to come up with appropriate reactions. Two, the mechanical lightness of the system really encourages roleplaying and talking as solutions.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the way the game went, and had a lot of fun. I’m feeling a lot more confident about the campaign.

And how did things go for our intrepid heroes? Pretty well. They managed to really upset Danforth and his alienist, talk their way around the thugs that the lumber magnate was going to have threaten them for the journal page, and completely missed what could have been an exciting climax as lumber magnate tried the (incomplete) Dho-Hna Formula himself, leaving behind another freezer mummy. But they made a good contact in Dyer*, recovered the journal after the death of the lumber magnate by the expedient of Aaron approaching the lawyers about helping to liquidate the magante’s library, and then burned the book.

Yep, you heard me. They burned the book. This marvelous resource tome I had created for them.

In character, it was a good choice, and I didn’t want to penalize them for it or try to talk them out of it. So, I’ve decided that this makes Dyer a staunch ally for them, one that will go to the mat for them if needed later in the campaign.

It was pretty late by the time we wrapped up, but I really wanted to get the first two Armitage documents into the players’ hands that evening, so they can start giving me ideas of what they’re going to investigate, and I can start building the spines I need to run that. So, I glossed over the intro material, gave them the print-outs, and sent them home. This morning, I sent out a more detailed background on what’s going on, along with a request that they start discussing what references in the documents pique their interest most. Once I have an idea of what they’re twigging on in the documents, I can create the structure I need to be able to run the adventures in the same sort of loose, player-driven fashion that I did in the intro scenario.

I’m looking forward to it.

 
 
 

*Because Roxy can handle opening the literal ones. Back

*That is, after they got over their initial theory that he was killing everyone who knew about the journal. Back

Armitage, What Have You Gotten Us Into?

Y0u may remember some previous posts I did about Trail of Ctuhulhu, from Pelgrane Press. If not, check out the links to see what I’m talking about.

Anyway, after my friend ran a playtest of the system, I decided I really wanted to try running it. While I was waffling over whether or not I would actually do so, Pelgrane Press published The Armitage Files. As is fitting for a Cthulhu product, it pushed me over the edge*. I ordered the print and pdf bundle from IPR, downloaded the files, and got to reading.

Normally, I do my best to avoid spoilers in published adventures. Here, I don’t really need to try; the product is less a complete campaign than a wonderful set of building blocks to put together your own campaign using some great props and a loose framework.

Here’s the basic set-up: mysterious documents, in Henry Armitage’s own handwriting, start appearing in unlikely places around Arkham. Armitage has no memory of writing them, nor of the events, people, places, etc. they describe. The other members of the Armitage Inquiry insiders have various theories, ranging from good ol’ Henry being nuts to the documents being letters from the future. With their general scholarly bent and understanding of researcher bias, they decide to bring in some outsiders to investigate these documents, and to find out what’s going on.

Enter the PCs.

The content in the books is of three different types: the documents themselves, a selection of raw materials for scenarios, and instructions on what to do with them.

  • The Documents. These are beautiful, and are designed by Sarah Wroot. They take the form of hand-written notes on lined paper, much of it stained with… stuff, and some clippings, photographs, etc. tacked on. Large pieces of the text are crossed out, stained over, or otherwise almost illegible, so each document comes with a transcription of the text – more for the GM than the players, I’m thinking. Information-wise, the documents each contain several references to people, places, organizations, items, and events, many of them only vaguely explained, and with links between the different references more hinted at than spelled out.
  • The Raw Materials. There’s a chapter each for people, organizations, places, and tomes and magic. Each one identifies most of the references in the documents – a few are deliberately left out to allow the GM to design something appropriate to his or her campaign – in a few different versions. For example, each NPC has three different settings: sinister, innocuous, and stalwart. The GM chooses which role the NPC is going to fill, and uses that version. In addition, each NPC has three extra names and quirks to allow the GM to use the same set of stats for multiple different anthropologists or whatever.
  • The Instructions. The basic instructions are simple: let the players direct the flow of the investigation by picking out the references that they care about in the documents, and then use the building blocks to put together a scenario for them on the fly. There are lots of examples and instructions as to how to do that, along with a few sample spines for some of the documents and a rough (empty) outline of scenario structure.

I have to say that I find the approach to be a little intimidating. I’ve played in exactly one session of Trail of Cthulhu, and haven’t run it at all. While I generally don’t have much trouble running improvised scenarios, it’s not my main comfort zone, and I prefer to have a bit of a structure to fall back on; really, I like to do my improvising ahead of time ;).

But that’s not my main worry. My main worry is that I don’t have a firm enough grasp of the GUMSHOE system to come up with appropriate clues for the range of investigative abilities on the fly. Not yet, anyway.

That said, I’m intrigued by the set-up. I like the idea of player-directed investigation and a freer kind of campaign and adventure construction than I’ve seen so far in GUMSHOE. And I’ve got three players who are eager to play. So, I’m gonna give it a try, but I’m doing a couple of things to help me along.

First off, I’m going to run an introductory scenario – just a short, one-evening thing – to give us all some more familiarity with the system, to build ties and relationships between the characters, and to establish their Mythos cred so that it makes sense for Armitage and his buddies to call them in.

Second, I’m going to write up a few different scenario versions for the first couple of documents, so that I’ve got more of a plan going, giving me the opportunity to concentrate on setting the mood and getting the system right before I start flying without a net.

Last night, before my two players decided we should add a third, I got together with them and talked about expectations for the game. Trail of Cthulhu has two main modes: Purist and Pulp. However, this is not really a binary state, nor even a bipolar continuum; there are a number of different factors that go into each of those words, and I wanted to make sure I had a shared understanding with my players about what we all expected from the game. So, I asked them the following questions:

How do you want this weighted between action and investigation/interaction? Do you want to expect a combat or two every session, or would you prefer that combat be more rare (and potentially deadly)? Would you like chase scenes, harrowing escapes, swinging over chasms on ropes? Or would you like to have research, interrogation, puzzling over mystical clues, and creeping through darkened corridors? Indiana Jones or Sherlock Holmes? Realistically, there’s going to be opportunities for all these things, but I’d like to know which you want more, so I can focus on that area, and use the others for adventure seasoning, as it were.

They came down weighted towards the investigation/interaction end of the scale, but wanting there to be some combat, chases, and other action scenes. About 80% Purist.

How deadly do you want things? Pulp or Purist? If you’re facing down a gang of cultists, do you want to be able to plow through them with only your fists and your moxie, or do you want to have to flee because their numbers will quickly overwhelm you despite the fact you have Tommy gun? Somewhere in the middle?

Here, they had a difference of opinion. One said, “I don’t like my characters to die, especially not from a random thug with a pistol.” The other said, “I want to be afraid when confronting a six-year-old with a stick.” In the end, they agreed that, while death of characters should be a risk, it shouldn’t be omnipresent. The don’t want to worry about being killed in a random mugging, but want to have to run away from the mob of cultists with knives. So, I’m calling it about 60% Purist.

How bleak do you want things? Lovecraft’s empty, meaningless cosmos, or Derleth’s opposing forces fighting for humanity?

This one was easy. They want the Lovecraftian bleakness, but they don’t want absolute hopelessness, or else what motivation does their character have? Call it 90% Purist.

Do you want things centred in New England, or do you want some travel? If so, how much? Globetrotting troubleshooters, or daytripping specialists?

Again, pretty easy. They want to remain based in Arkham, and have many of the investigations centred there, but also want the opportunity to travel to weird, exotic locations and risk death there. Again, call it around 80% Purist.

After we had settled that, I explained my views on a Cthulhu campaign. See, in my mind, this is a horror game. That means that bad things happen, and that the main characters, while not powerless, are overmatched. They need to have that in mind during play, that they are risking their characters whenever they interact with something that’s not totally mundane. While it’s fine in a one-shot to drop a horde of monsters on a party, in a campaign setting, the primary antagonists should be humans, and monsters should be rarely glimpsed, and absolutely terrifying when encountered. Facing a single Deep One should be enough to shatter the common mortal, both body and mind. That said, the PCs will not be common mortals. Their trials against the more mundane forces of the mythos will give them the tools they need to survive, if not necessarily triumph.

Also, I warned them that I may not stick strictly to the canon when it comes to the mythos elements. They all have some familiarity with the standard Lovecraftian monsters and tropes from reading the stories and playing Call of Cthulhu. I don’t want them relying on that during play, because it undermines the alienness and horror of the mythos. I’ve told them that most of the big tropes – the Necronomicon, Cthulhu himself, etc. – will still be reliable, but the Deep Ones and Flying Polyps may not behave the way they expect, or have the motivations and weaknesses they remember.

And they agreed to all of this.

So, within the next couple of weeks, we’re going to get together and do character creation. I’ll let you know how that goes.

*Yes, I know that’s a lame joke. No, I’m not going to apologize. Back