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. []

Back in the Chi War

I’m still behind on my blogging. I’ve got two posts1 that should be going up before this one, but you’re getting this one because there’s some time sensitivity to it: the Kickstarter for Feng Shui 2 is supposed to go live this week, so I wanted to get my impressions up before that.

TL; DR – Feng Shui 2 is an awful lot of fun, and you should back it as soon as the campaign starts.

Feng Shui is an awesome game by Robin D. Laws from 1996 that captures the style and feel of the early Hong Kong action movies and2 wuxia. I got a copy of the Atlas Games version of the game, but never got a chance to play it – the approach was different enough at the time that I didn’t quite get it, and didn’t have a group that I could force it on.

Earlier this year, I found out that Feng Shui 2 was in the works. Robin was doing a new edition of the game, and it was going to be published by Atlas, starting with a Kickstarter to get things going. At the time this was announced, there was a call for playtesters, but I really didn’t have time in my gaming schedule to commit to a serious playtest of a new system3, so I just sighed and resigned myself to waiting for the publication.

Then, Cam Banks started looking for GenCon GMs to run FS2 events. I checked to see if I could fit that into my schedule, and couldn’t. But Cam said that he’d give me the playtest package to use to run the game at Games on Demand, and I jumped at that chance4.

So, I got to run FS2 at Games on Demand, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to try it again with a group at home, where we could take more time and explore it a little more. Both sessions were a lot of fun, and everyone at both tables seemed to enjoy themselves a lot.

Now, the ruleset I’m using is a playtest document, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about specifics – they may still change before publications, but I’ve got some observations I want to share.

Characters

Back when I saw the first edition of Feng Shui, I was kind of taken aback by the idea of choosing an archetype, doing some pretty minimal customization, and playing that rather than building my own character from scratch. Since that time, other games like Apocalypse World and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Lady Blackbird using similar5 methods of character creation. I’ve lost my fear of such systems, and have grown to appreciate the way such approaches get you up and playing quickly.

FS2 sticks with the picking of an archetype, but you don’t customize mechanical things about your character6. Instead, you customize the backstory and motivations of your character, adding life to the numbers that way. There are over 30 different archetypes in the playtest document, so you’ve got lots of variety – pretty much every major character type from the source material is covered7, plus some interesting variations based on the game’s setting.

System

The system is pretty similar to the original game, but the mechanics have been vastly simplified. All the information you need to play your character is right there on the character sheet, and you don’t have to deal with large lists of skills and abilities.

This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of options for your character. Most of the options are covered by broad skills or abilities and a simple rule for default rolls when you don’t actually have a rating in whatever you’re trying to do8. What it means is that players can rapidly master their characters and resolution is quick and flavourful.

Combat9

There are three things about combat you should know:

  1. Stunts. When you do something in combat, whether attacking a foe or dodging a hail of automatic weapon fire or trying haul babies out of an exploding hospital, you are encouraged10 to phrase it as an action-movie-style stunt. So, you don’t just shoot the mook, you slide across the polished bar-top, scattering bottles, and fly off the end11 while firing two .45s into the chest of the foe, who staggers back into a giant mirror which smashes and rains glass down on the whole area. Now, the description of the stunt doesn’t have any mechanical effect, but it has a narrative one – it makes your characters as cool as their movie counterparts. It supports the theme and style of the game brilliantly.
  2. Shots. Initiative is handled by the same shots system as the original game12, which provides an interesting, fluid structure to the fights. There’s a bit of a risk though: if you roll low and others roll high on your initiative, you could have some folks taking multiple turns before you get to do anything. It’s not a huge problem, because each turn takes very little time to resolve. The longest part of the turn is trying to come up with the coolest stunt you can.
  3. Up  Checks. One of the coolest aspects of combat, in my opinion, is the way characters don’t have hit points the way they do in other games. As you accumulate damage, you become more impaired (i.e., you take a penalty to rolls) and, at a certain threshold you need to start making checks to see if you can stay on your feet. What that means in play is that, once you reach a certain level of injury, your character could drop at any point. Even if he or she doesn’t, you may have to make a check at the end of combat to see if you were wounded badly enough to die13. This uncertainty adds a level of risk to combat that I haven’t seen since Unknown Armies, where the GM tracks hit points, and just describes the injuries to the players.

Setting

The setting is an adjusted version of the original Chi War setting. You still have your genre-bending, time-hopping badasses fighting for possession of various feng shui sites so as to control the secret history of the world, but the four time junctures have switched up a bit. Now you get to play in the modern era, in 690 CE14, in 1850 CE15, and 2074 CE1617, as well as in the spooky, mystical Netherworld that links these time periods.

The assumption is that you will play members of the Dragons, a Chi War faction that mainly wants to prevent the various other factions from exerting their cross-time tyranny over the common citizen of the planet. They have – once again – been pretty much wiped out, and the PCs are new recruits dragged into the conflict.

If you don’t think that sounds cool, there’s no hope for you.

Play Experience

So, that’s the bones of it all, but anyone can get that from reading the rules. How does it play at the table?

Awesome. It’s fast, it’s flavourful, and it creates great cinematic moments.

Now, the basic structure of the game, like the source material, is somewhat formulaic – adventures are crafted around big, set-piece fights, and then connections are built to help get from one fight to another. That said, one of the things I tried in both playtests18 was taking more time with the between-fight stuff, letting the players roleplay more, interact with the world19, and generally try the system in non-combat contexts. The simple resolution system let things flow, the characters’ Melodramatic Hooks20 kept them pushing forward, and the style and theme of the game kept them all being over-the-top awesome.

Summary

Feng Shui 2 is one of the most fun systems I have ever run. The setting is crazy, the mechanics are both simple and flavourful, and it’s very fast to get a new group up and running. These are all things I look for in games these days, and they are here in spades. We all had a lot of fun playing, and I’ve added the game to the list of campaigns I will pitch to my players when one of my current campaigns wraps up.

The Kickstarter is slated to begin later this week, according to Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff21. There will probably be some more info once the campaign goes live, so look for that.

And back the project, Chi Warrior! The Dragons need all the help they can get!

  1. That I haven’t written yet. []
  2. To a lesser degree. []
  3. If I’m going to do an “official” playtest, I tend to take it pretty seriously, as evidenced by my posts on The Dresden Files RPG and, indeed, the existence of this blog. []
  4. Thanks again, Cam! []
  5. And, in some cases, more restrictive. []
  6. Not entirely true – swapping out some character abilities is offered as an advanced option. []
  7. Though, after rewatching A Better Tomorrow, I found myself wanting a Reformed Gangster archetype, so I could play Sung Tse-Ho. []
  8. Example? Sure! The player of the Old Master in our last playtest decided that he was blind, which was fine – it was just character colour, and didn’t limit him. Blind masters are common in wuxia movies. But then he decided that he wanted to use his heightened hearing to check the heartbeat of someone they were interviewing to see if he was lying. I thought that was a cool idea, but didn’t want it to become a defining schtick, so I just had him roll on the default skill level. Took about thirty seconds to figure out how to do that in game, and he got a cool character moment that wasn’t covered by the rules. Easy. []
  9. Yeah, it’s part of the system, but in a game like this, combat deserves a bit of special comment. []
  10. In the original system, in fact, you were penalized if you didn’t come up with a cool description. []
  11. In slow motion, of course. []
  12. Though there may be a few tweaks. It’s been a while since I looked at the original, so I can’t say for certain. []
  13. After a touching scene with your comrades, where you get to utter a few parting words. []
  14. During the reign of the woman emperor, Wu Zetian. []
  15. During a fairly dark period of European domination of China. []
  16. Where
    Spoiler
    the Jammers have turned the world into a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland by detonating a Chi Bomb that killed 97% of the population.
    []
  17. Why is that in a spoiler tag? That bit of backstory forms part of the plot of the intro adventure. []
  18. But emphasized in the most recent one. []
  19. In non-fighty ways. []
  20. That’s the game term for the aspect of the character’s backstory that drives him or her to do crazy, action-movie things – stuff like “I must avenge the murder of my father!” or “I will find a worthy heir for my family kung fu style!” []
  21. Which, incidentally, is a good podcast to listen to if you’re interested in finding out more about FS2. Hell, it’s just a good podcast to listen to, regardless. []

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. []

Hillfolk

So, you probably know about Kickstarter. And you probably know about the Hillfolk Kickstarter by Robin Laws. Well, as a backer, I received a .pdf copy of the current (post-playtest, pre-final) draft of the rules, and I took a little time to read the game this weekend. I liked what I read, and so want to tell you about it. You can think of it as me shilling for the Kickstarter if you like; I certainly want the game to reach all its stretch goals.

In Hillfolk1, you play members of a tribe of iron-age raiders. The game uses a new engine, called DramaSystem, that emphasizes character-driven play – the game is more about the interactions and relationships between the characters than about the characters facing external threats. It’s meant to emulate the TV-style serial drama, in the vein of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Copper, such. In a way, you could call it a soap opera engine, I guess, but only if you call shows like Rome or Deadwood soap operas2.

Play happens through a series of scenes, each framed by a player in turn (including the GM). Scenes are divided into two types: Dramatic and Procedural.

Procedural scenes are scenes wherein the characters are trying to gain a practical result – raid an enemy herd, cross a dangerous desert, find a new grazing land, dig iron ore out of a mine, whatever. These are scenes familiar to most gamers, and often you’ll have several characters co-operating against the GM to accomplish your goal. Mechanics for Procedural scenes revolve around spending different coloured tokens to gain draws from a deck of playing cards, trying to match a card drawn by the GM. It’s pretty straightforward in practice, though a little convoluted to explain, and there’s an appendix that adds an advanced mechanic to the process for those who want a more detailed, fine-grained system.

Dramatic scenes are scenes where one character is trying to gain some emotional reward from another character. This is where things depart most from other RPGs – there aren’t really any rules to determine whether or not you get what you want in the scene. You go in with your goal and, at the end, the GM will ask you if you got what you want3. There’s a token system in play here that incentivizes not getting what you want – if the person that you want to respect you dismisses you as beneath him, you get a token; if someone comes to you looking for approval, and you grudgingly grant it, you get a token. Tokens can be used to manipulate the narrative a bit, including forcing a concession from someone or jumping in on a scene when the person setting the scene doesn’t include you.

The emphasis of play is on Dramatic scenes, with a goal of deepening, enriching, and entangling the emotional needs of the characters. Characters are built to feed into this, with each character defined more by what he or she wants than what he or she can do. Relationships are important, and during character creation, each character is given a relationship with a couple other characters, including something that the character wants and why the other character won’t grant it. These motivations are all emotional needs – approval, love, respect, fear, acceptance, praise, deference, etc. Each player also chooses two dramatic poles for their character to be pulled between: leader or tyrant, warrior or peacemaker, faithful or traitor, anger or wisdom, etc. And, almost as an afterthought, you get to pick some skills that your character is good at, and some that they aren’t.

The goal of the game, as I’ve said before, is to create the kind of rich, dramatic story of people and relationships that you see in today’s serial TV dramas. Sessions are played as episodes, with each episode having a theme, and the story deepens and richens as the characters interact, each reaching for their emotional need, and either achieving it or not, building a history for the relationships and the tribe as a whole. Needs may change over the campaign as the characters grow and change, and the story grows and changes with them. After a number of episodes, it’s suggested that you call an end to a season, and start a new season after some in-game time has passed4, letting the series take another step forward in development.

Now, the game is called Hillfolk, and that’s the default setting, but the book is also going to include a number of Series Pitches – alternate settings for DramaSystem games. There are currently 10 other settings unlocked as stretch goals, and they’ll all be included. Each setting, including Hillfolk, includes a brief rundown of the basic assumptions of the setting, along with a number of questions that the players can answer5 about things that will customize the setting for the game. You can see a list of the unlocked Series Pitches on the Hillfolk Kickstarter site, as well as any new stretch goals that have been added.

Now, I’m excited about this game, but I fully recognize that it’s not going to be the right game for some6 people. The emphasis on dramatic scenes, the lack of a “real” combat system, the sharing of authorial responsibility and, perhaps most tellingly, having your character “lose” in confrontations with other characters – these are all things that can scare off gamers, moving them out of their comfort zones. For some gamers, the game just won’t work7, because it’s not giving them what they want out of gaming. Specifically, I think that gamers who enjoy more simulationist combat and those who are more interested in their character than in their character’s story8 will find this game lacking or frustrating. And those players who demand hard and fast rules to determine who wins in any confrontation may find the Dramatic scenes particularly frustrating.

But for those who are interested in the kinds of story that involve lots of interpersonal drama, who want to model the kinds of TV shows that are getting a lot of press – and a lot of viewers – today, who are interested in the kind of gaming that de-emphasizes combat for interaction, this is a Kickstarter you should get in on. Now.

Go wolves!

 

 

  1. And yes, I hear the theme from Lothar of the Hill People every time I read the title. []
  2. Really, soap operas – daytime dramas – differ very little from the evening dramas in their basics. It’s in the execution and production values that the real differences show. Fair enough; after all, soap operas produce at least five episodes for every episode of an evening drama. []
  3. Some similarities here to Fiasco and other story games. []
  4. Or hasn’t passed, if you end the season on a cliffhanger. []
  5. Usually in and through play. []
  6. Perhaps many, but I hope otherwise. []
  7. And the same can be said of any game. []
  8. This is an important distinction. In stories, bad things happen to the characters. Some players just want to sculpt their character to be able to triumph over all the hardship without the setbacks that you find in stories. Nothing wrong with that; it’s just a matter of taste and play style. []

Trail of Cthulhu

I got my copy of Trail of Cthulhu this week. It’s a new implementation of the Call of Cthulhu game, using Robin D. Laws’s GUMSHOE system, and it was written by Ken Hite.

I like it.

Now, I like the original game, too, a whole lot. But in many ways, I think I might prefer the new one. I don’t know yet. I’ll let you know after I play a session or two.

Let’s talk about why I like the new game, though.

  1. It’s written by Ken Hite. If you aren’t familiar with the name, then you really need to pick up Nightmares of Mine, Suppressed Transmission, and Suppressed Transmission 2. The man knows his weird stuff, and builds it into supremely gameable constructions. He’s been a hero of mine since I started reading his column in Pyramid Magazine, and he achieved godlike status with the coining of the word “speleo-herpetologist.” There’s a pretty short list of folks I’d trust with a new version of a Lovecraft game, and he’s on it. Near the top. At least twice.
  2. No more missed clues. The GUMSHOE system of Robin Laws removes the bane of investigation-based games: you can’t get stuck with no way forward because you missed the roll for the vital clue. In the game, if you’ve got the right ability, and you use it, you get whatever clue it might provide automatically. The game becomes less about finding the clues and more about interpreting them.
  3. The Great Old Ones. Ken’s take on them is great. First of all, he doesn’t give them stats, very reasonably treating them as plot devices. When one of the big boys – Cthulhu, Hastur, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep, etc. – show up, it either means that you’ve really got to hurry with the ritual to banish it, or you’ve already lost and should just embrace your new role as mindless servitor or dinner. Beyond that, he gives five or six different interpretations of each of them, some wildly contradictory, that characters may find in their research. Because these beings are essentially unknowable by humans, I think that works very well.
  4. The creatures. Lesser beings are nicely statted up, and include a great little section on what sorts of clues they may leave behind, which is immensely helpful for a GM. They are, all of them, nasty in the extreme. As it should be.
  5. The fun little sanity games. The book includes suggestions to get the other players working with the GM to make the player whose character has gone insane feel confused and disoriented, not just the character.
  6. Tons of good GM advice. Specifically for running this game with this system, but a lot of it is just good, solid advice for any horror or investigation game.
  7. Campaign frameworks. Three ready-to-use setups for ongoing play, talking about who the characters are and why they do what they do, and what they tend to run into. They include one fairly standard Lovecraftian framework, one proto-Delta Green framework, and one very interesting one involving shady rare book dealers in London.

The book also has an introductory scenario, but I haven’t decided how much I like it. On the one hand, it’s a great little mystery that shows Ken’s ability to mix real-world history with mythology and deep weirdness. On the other hand, it doesn’t deal very directly with any specific aspect of the Cthulhu mythos, though it does talk about what may be behind the whole mess. As an adventure, I like it a great deal, but I think I would have preferred a more standard Cthulhoid example.

All in all, I think this is a very interesting, well-done game, and I can’t wait to try it out. I’ll post the results after I have a chance to run it.

Right now, though, I have to get ready for the final Dresden Files playtest session tonight.