Monday, June 24, 2019

Gumshoe Deep Dive, Part 1--The Basics, and Problem of Investigative Failure

After having a blast running two different GUMSHOE games at Origins, I want to do a deep dive into these games and how they work.  First off, the basics.  The "GUMSHOE" system was developed by Robin Laws (he of Heroquest, which I discussed before), and the majority of the GUMSHOE games are published by Pelgrane Press.  GUMSHOE is not a tabletop RPG itself, but a chassis upon which you build a game around (in video game terms, it would be the "game engine").  And that chassis is designed around and optimized for games that have a focus on investigation.  During the course of a game session, the players are going to gather clues, and those clues are going to propel the story forward toward the resolution of whatever the mystery is for this session.

Investigative stories are certainly not the only sorts of stories that you can tell, either generally or in tabletop RPGs, but far more stories then you might think at first blush have an investigative structure at their heart.  The first implementations of GUMSHOE were in the horror space, such as Esoterrorists (X-Files-esque secret conspiracies versus the Outer Dark), Fear Itself (one-shot and short campaigns that model horror movies), and Trail of Cthulhu (a "GUMSHOE-ification" of Lovecraft and Call of Cthulhu).  But Laws's Ashen Stars works on the observation that a Star Trek or Firefly episode has an investigative structure, too, and so are well suited to GUMSHOE.  More recent games, especially Kenneth Hite's Night's Black Agents and the forthcoming Swords of the Serpentine by Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner (each of which are going to get their own posts), continue to stretch the bounds of the system while keeping the basic investigative model at their heart.

Because GUMSHOE is designed around investigative stories, it is built to address a fundamental problem with investigative stories in tabletop RPGs.  When tabletop RPGs approach investigative elements, they generally do so the same way they approach any other game play element.  A PC has some character ability that is relevant to the investigative action in question, and that ability produces a probability of success.  The PC rolls the dice, and either she succeeds or she fails.  So, to take an example from my D&D 5e game of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist the other night, the PCs were searching a mausoleum, and I wanted to see whether they were going to find a key that had been left by the bad guys on the floor.  Nick's PC, Dramorn de Azhaq, rolled a Perception Check and got over a 15.  As a result, he found the key.

As long as the PCs succeed on their checks, everything is fine.  The problem comes when PCs in investigative games start failing investigative checks.  If Dramorn blew his Perception Check, then he wouldn't have found the key.  But, in order for the story to progress, the PCs must find the key, because the key leads to the locksmith, which leads to the falling down windmill, which leads to the sewers where we ended the session.  So, if all three of my players botched their Perception Checks, now I as the GM have to find a way to get them to the locksmith or the windmill or the sewers by hook or by crook, on the fly.  And, unlike the sorts of unexpected, off-the-wall choices that PCs make that take the story in unexpected directions (which are good and fun), failed investigative checks tend to lead to dead ends, with the players looking at the GM and saying "now what?"  Failed investigative checks for story-critical clues are frustrating for the players and a problem for GMs.

There are a couple of solutions to this problem.  One solution offered by Justin Alexander (which can be found on his outstanding blog) is the "three clue rule."  The idea here is to design your story such that there are always multiple (in this case, three) ways to get from any one scene to another via three different clues that the PCs could find.  By doing so, you reduce significantly the chance that the PCs won't find any of the necessarily, and thus avoid the story dead-end.  In other words, the solution to the problem of PCs failing to find story-critical clues is not to have story-critical clues in the first place.

I've used the three clue rule in game sessions, and it works.  The problem with the three clue rule is that it requires an enormous amount of prep time on the part of the GM, because you have to build all of these redundant paths and structures ahead of time.  If you are a GM like me who is, shall we say, "prep averse," and likes to do things on the fly, the three clue rule is a tremendous burden, all for creating content that you are likely never to use anyway, or at least is not necessary to the story (after all, as seen in the session from the other night, sometimes the players find the first clue and don't need clues #2 and #3).  For me, the three clue rule is an example of winning the battle and losing the war--it fixes the problem with investigative stories, but it makes me not want to run investigative stories in the first place.

The second approach comes out of the family of "indie" RPGs (Burning Wheel, the Powered by the Apocalypse games, etc.), and that is the idea of "failing forward."  In general, those games avoid a succeed/fail resolution structure, in favor of some variation of "succeed or succeed, but with consequences" structure.  Applying this to an investigative game, a botched Perception Check would not mean "you don't find the key," but instead "you find the key, but you suffer some consequence as a result that you wouldn't have suffered if you had rolled better."  Because at the end of the day you find the key no matter what, you never run into the story dead-ends.

The problem here is that it is hard to consistently come up with meaningful consequences to investigative failure, especially if the PCs are going to be doing a lot of investigating in the course of a session.  "Failing forward" in the context of action sequences gives the GM a golf bag of ways to meaningful consequences; failing forward in a investigative sequence provides a far more limited tool box.  You can impose delays (i.e. if you fail, it takes longer to find the clue), but that may or may not be meaningful under the particular circumstances, and going to that well again and again can get boring.

GUMSHOE cuts through that problem by cutting out the dice roll altogether.  If you have the relevant investigative ability (more on that in a bit), you are in the place or circumstances where the clue can be found, and you tell the GM you are using the ability, then the GM gives you the clue, and the story moves forward.  Investigation is no longer tied to the whims of a roll of the dice.

When people hear GUMSHOE described like this, some folks react negatively, thinking that removing the possibility of failure removes meaningful game play or dramatic tension.  But there is game play here--it's just different from the normal game play you get in other games.  For one, GUMSHOE games do not have general purpose information gathering skills or abilities like "perception" or "investigation."  Instead, investigative abilities are far more granular, divided up by knowledge type or approach to information gathering.  The roster of investigative abilities varies from game to game, but you will see things like "reassurance," "bullshit detector," "forensics," "anthropology," and, my personal favorite from Swords of the Serpentine, "leechcraft."  Gameplay in GUMSHOE is about using the relevant ability in the right situation.  And because the abilities are so specific, it's easy to narrate what is going on in detail--using the "reassurance" ability has a distinct narrative hook that is easily distinguished from "bullshit detector."

Splitting up the investigative abilities does two other things.  First, it makes the investigative abilities one of the defining elements of the character, both conceptually and in terms of how the character interacts with the world.  Since the game is investigative, the bulk of game time is going to be spent interrogating the world, and the way in which a PC interrogates the world is through the suite of investigative abilities.  Each PC will have some, but not all, of the available investigative abilities, and so the character is defined by the ways and circumstances in which he or she will be interrogating the world.  My experience is that as players get more familiar with using their character's investigative abilities, they also get more into the head of the kind of person that character is--it's a kind of "learning by doing."

The second result of splitting things up like this is that it distributes spot-light time between the PCs.  A single investigative ability empowers a player who builds their character toward being good at investigating things.  By splitting up the abilities and distributing them among the PCs in the group, every player is going to have a chance to have their PC gain the clue that the party needs, and thus feel like they are contributing to the story.  This is enhanced by the "investigative spends" mechanic.  While simply having a particular investigative skill will net you the core clue in the appropriate circumstance, PCs have pools in the various investigative abilities that they can spend to net them additional information that is not story-critical, but will be useful in navigating the story and solving the mystery.  By making these spends both a finite resource, and one that is tied to the array of investigative abilities that define the character, each PC is only going to be able to grab the spotlight a handful of character appropriate circumstances.

Spotlight time and spotlight management is one of those things that tabletop RPGs rarely focus on, but it is an important issue in the internal dynamics of a tabletop RPG session.  Most groups will have players with a mix of experience levels (my experience is that it almost always takes folks new to RPGs a while to feel comfortable enough to consistently assert themselves during a game session), as well as a mix of personality types, levels of outgoing-ness, and general assertiveness.  As a result, the more experienced, more out-going players have a tendency to dominate play, and other players can be crowded out.  Rationing out the ability of players to use spends means that the more assertive players will only have a finite number of times to step in and "do something cool," while the less assertive players will have prompts that can be a launching-pad for cool character moments.

So, that's investigative abilities, which is really the heart of GUMSHOE.  The other type of character abilities in GUMSHOE are General Abilities.  GUMSHOE doesn't use D&D style attributes (i.e. Strength, Intelligence, etc.), but instead has a list of abilities that reflect the core non-investigative actions taken by characters in the particular GUMSHOE game.  So, Fear Itself has General Abilities such as Fleeing (which horror movie characters tend to do a lot), Shooting, Hiding, and Driving; the swords-and-sorcery inspired Swords of the Serpentine includes Bind Wounds, Sorcery, Sway (persuading or brow-beating foes into surrendering), and Warfare.  Each ability has a rating and a pool of points (like the Investigative abilities, though they are not on the same scale--characters will have much higher ratings in General Abilities than in Investigative Abilities).  Task resolution is 1d6+ the number of points spend from the relevant ability (if any), with the goal to get equal to or greater than a target number (default is 4, hard is 6, etc.)

The system is very fast and very intuitive for players to pick up.  It is fundamentally a resource management system, so in broad terms it is similar to something like Numenera and the other Cypher System games.  But the General Abilities are far more specific and targeted than the attribute-like abilities found in Numenera, and this has the effect of focusing players on a suite of actions that are appropriate to the genre.  Having a distinct "Fleeing" ability tends to focus players on the possibility of running away from monsters or other foes, which in turn means that characters will flee more often, making the game play more similar to the source material being emulated.

You are not going to get a hyper-detailed or granular combat experience in GUMSHOE games.  Even those GUMSHOE games that have a more active focus, like Swords of the Serpentine or Night's Black Agents, do not get deep into the weeds of tactical positioning in the way you would get in something like most editions of D&D (especially 3rd and 4th edition, but even 5th edition).  In other systems, I find this to be a drawback, but for GUMSHOE I think it works.  For the GUMSHOE games where combat is a sideline/usually a death sentence for the PCs, there's no reason to spend much time on complicated combat system.  And the more action-oriented games add elements that make it more interesting and dynamic in play than the other "rules-light" systems.

So, that's the outline of GUMSHOE and how it works.  I'm not going to go over each specific game, but I want to talk about a few of them that, in my mind, really show off what Gumshoe can do.  First off, the game that I think is the closest to a "pure" GUMSHOE experience--Fear Itself.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Origins 2019 After Action Report

So, another Origins game convention is in the books.  This year, I did three full days--Thursday, Friday, and Saturday--and I had overall a great time.  As I have said before, I think Origins is more or less the perfect size, being definitely big, but not overwhelmingly big as Gencon can be (though, I was surprised to see that four-day badges for Gencon are still available, which suggests that it may not be quite so big this year).

Here are my highlights and thoughts:

1.  How Not to Sponsor RPG Sessions at a Convention:  Last year, I ranted a bit about game companies who sponsor game sessions and then have the GMs not show up, and how bad a look that is for the publisher.  [As it turned out, Kobold Press (the folks who had the GM flake on me last year) turned over the running of sponsored games to a third party entity, Warduke Press, and while I didn't get a chance to play in one of those games, I talked to those folks and I am confident they were on the ball.]  This year, I ran sponsored games for two different companies--Pelgrane Press and another publisher that shall remain nameless (so as not to, as the kids say, put them on blast).  This is my fifth con (between Gencon and Origins) that I have run things for Pelgrane, and every single time it is a joy.  Running games for the other publisher was, um, less of a joy.

From my point of view, if you agree to GM games on behalf of a publisher (especially a medium or smaller publisher), part of your job is to make the game, and thus the publisher, look good.  I want to try to sell people on your games.  But the publisher needs to put the GM in the position to make that happen.  And the #1 way to make that happen is to provide high-quality, finished materials for the GM to run.  Instead, I got a half-finished draft of an adventure.  And when I say "unfinished," I mean it was unplayable strictly as written, because there were no stats for the antagonist in the last encounter.  And when I say "no stats," I don't mean there were no stats printed in the adventure, thus requiring the GM to hunt down the relevant stats from various published books (though, that, too); I mean the stats for that antagonist are not printed anywhere.  Either the GM has to come up with the stats on his or her own, or (as I did) you have to cut the last encounter.   

And, to be clear, I got the adventure with a cover email saying "[the product line manager] wants you to run this at Origins," so this was what they wanted put out there.  I suppose you might say "well, you got the adventure the 1st of May; this wouldn't have been as much of a problem if you looked at it earlier than the week before the con."  And, true, but (1) I was busy; and (2) at the end of the day I am a volunteer.  Don't make me do all of this free labor to get your materials in a position that I can use them.  And if your adventure is not ready for prime-time, don't send it to me to run in public.  Help me help you.

By contrast, Pelgrane has a set of publish-quality adventures, written by their top authors in a publish-ready format, strictly for use at conventions.  I also ran an adventure for a game that is in playtest that was at a far higher level polish and completeness than what I got from the other publisher.  This not only makes it much, much easier to run and a much, much more enjoyable experience, but it makes me want to run more things for Pelgrane so I can promote more of their games.  I split my GM time two and two, and I wish I had just run four games for Pelgrane.

Be like Pelgrane, publishers.  Do right by your GMs that volunteer to promote your stuff.

2.  Gumshoe:  Speaking of Pelgrane, I ran an adventure for Trail of Cthulhu and the playtest adventure for the forthcoming Swords of the Serpentine.  Both went well, especially the Swords of Serpentine adventure.  I'm going to do a series on the Gumshoe games, including Swords of the Serpentine, so more on this in a bit.

3.  Starfinder:  I played two Starfinder Society games, and had fun with both of them.  Whatever you want to say about organized play in general and Paizo's version of organized play specifically, they really do a good job of showing off the strengths of the game.  The setting of Starfinder is fun and light-hearted while still having stakes and tension--I've used this analogy before, but it has that Guardians of the Galaxy magic.  So, for example, the first scenario I played involved being on a game show run by undead, and the second one involved a massive invasion of an enemy force, and both of them felt like they belonged in the same world without contradiction.  And the Starfinder scenarios, while not usually breaking any sort of new ground from a design perspective, are consistently solid.  Plus, I have found that they do a good job of making sure the GMs are prepared to provide a good experience at the table.

Saturday night was "the special"--a forty or so table extravaganza where the results of your table affect the things going on with the other table.  There are a series of discrete encounters that the table gets to select from, and after a certain number of groups complete a particular encounter, it is closed for other tables and new encounters are unlocked.  It's chaotic, combat-heavy, and a bit disjointed, but fun--I wouldn't necessarily want to do this every week, but as a once-a-year thing, it's something different and enjoyable.  Also, shout-out to the Starfinder Society folks, including many from the local area--it looked like an enormous undertaking to put this on, and they did a great job.

4.  Pathfinder 2nd Edition:  I was hoping that the two hour demo game I played would be using the final, forthcoming 2nd Edition rules.  It wasn't--it was basically the last version of the playtest.  That was an odd choice, and if I had known that was the deal I probably wouldn't have done it, as I have already messed around with the playtest.

As far as the game itself, I worry that they are going to caught between worlds, and between audiences.  It certainly seems like they have smoothed and streamlined the game as compared to 1st Edition, making it appealing for someone like me who finds 1st Edition too slow, too complicated,  and with too many options to wade through.  But, I'm not sure it was streamlined and smoothed out enough for me to really want to dive in and/or use it as a replacement for 5e or 13th Age.  And, on the flip side, the complexity and options of 1st Edition that turn me off are the very things that have hooked a big chunk of the Pathfinder community, so the streamlining reduces the thing that draws them to the game.  That seems to be the conclusion in the main from the folks in the local Pathfinder Society around here--they have been pretty clear that they intend to run both 1st and 2nd Edition stuff come August when 2nd Edition launches.  So, whatever the merits of the game as a game, I think it may be a misstep as a consumer product and as a community building exercise.

5.  Overlight:  I try at conventions to find at least one game that I will never play otherwise, and this year it was Overlight from Renegade Game Studios, which I had not heard of until now but had a big presence and appears to be a large company.  Overlight was interesting, and a little bit hard to describe--I think the best short description is "surreal, non-Tolkien fantasy."  For example, I played a talking archaeopteryx--a bird-like flying dinosaur--that are expert scientists and logicians.  The system is tied to colors, which in turn are linked to emotional traits like compassion and wisdom.

I could be reading too much into this, but I got the sense that this game was on some level trying to be a metaphor for being LGBT--the PCs are "skyborn," who are noticeably different from other people at birth and inspire either adulation or fear among others.  So, basically, the X-Men, which is probably why I got the "this is really about being LGBT" vibe.  Plus, the rainbow color thing.  If so, great--the fact I am not sure if this is the designer intent show that the metaphor, if it is there, is applied deftly enough not to bludgeon the players in a way that will take away from game play.

I had fun with Overlight, and I would definitely play again if offered, but I wasn't completely captivated by it.  I flipped through the core book in the dealer's area, and it is a beautiful book with a unique art style, but it was $60, and so I passed.  But it is definitely something that folks should look into.