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Last time I wrote about how I prep investigation games. I’ll talk a bit more about that here, but I also want to move on to talk about what I do during sessions.
My aim in running an investigative game is twofold:
Those two aims seem kind of contradictory, but in a way they support each other. You cannot feel smart if the game hands you everything on a plate. You cannot feel challenged if the game is simplistic or handled entirely through dice rolls.
As discussed in a previous article, you can break investigation down into various components:
I want as much as possible of the above to feel like they were investigated by the players themselves, using their own brainpower, without running up against the perennial problems of analysis paralysis and the thing that seems obvious to the GM not being at all obvious to the players. I’m not going to pretend those problems aren’t real – and more on how I tackle them below. But for now, let’s talk about how I handle the components above.
My initial lead is always given away for free. That’s a given: the game will be no fun if you can’t get started.
From that point on, I follow a simple set of rules:
You can probably see for yourself how the above could easily lead to an investigation stalling. If the players don’t look in the right place, or roll badly, or can’t figure out the next lead, then everything grinds to a halt. There are three principal ways that I solve this:
The aim here isn’t to make it impossible to fail the investigation. That wouldn’t be challenging, and it wouldn’t make the players feel smart. The aim, instead, is to make sure that they never get completely stuck – even if they’re failing, they’re moving forwards. So there’s always enough clues to find something out, and there’s always enough obvious leads that you have somewhere to look next.
Equally, my aim is to create a potential dividend from being smart, from being lucky, and from being quick. Players who get lucky on the dice find more clues; players who think their way around those clues and ask good questions discover patterns and start to reach conclusions; and those clues and conclusions can enable them to get ahead of my timeline. Those who move at the minimum pace enabled by following the obvious links, probably find themselves fighting for their lives at the finalé, having left a trail of murders in their wake. Those who leverage luck and judgement may be able to save some lives and catch the perpetrator unawares.
What this means is: being open to the players failing – so that another person is killed (or whatever consequences I established in my timeline happen); but also being open to them wildly succeeding, so that my villains fail and their plans are completely foiled. The critical mass of clues and obvious leads means that I’m hopefully leaning towards success over the medium-term, with occasional frustrating blocks that make that success more satisfying when it comes.
I cannot overemphasise how important it is for failure to come with consequences. If they get stuck, then those consequences mean that the game doesn’t get stuck; instead of their next lead being a witness they want to investigate or a place they want to investigate, the next lead comes in a body bag. And of course, this also means that when they succeed, they’ll know that it was earned, because they know what happens when they fail.
Very occasionally this means the players fail utterly. The villains complete their plan entirely, and escape. That’s great. It means there’s now a future recurring villain, who the players really want to take down, because they feel responsible for not catching them the first time. As long as things didn’t grind to a halt during the session, so there were always fresh leads to follow and tense pacing created by my timeline events, then failure is ok.
One last thing: do not let things drift towards out of character discussion of clues. To a degree all theorising is out of character, since you don’t actually have the skills, knowledge and brainpower of your characters. But try to keep people talking as their characters, because that will help to reinforce the sense that any frustration they may be feeling is fictional, it’s part of the story. They’re not sat on your couch feeling worn down by the investigation, they’re stood in a dark alley looking at a corpse and wondering when the next one will show up.
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A really juicy mystery, with the cool feeling of piecing together clues and coming to the correct conclusion, is one of my favourite things in roleplaying. It’s also something that I feel isn’t well delivered by existing RPG systems. Here I’m going to talk about my approach to building a mystery and enabling real investigation.
This isn’t the first time I’ve explored this terrain. Back in 2013 I talked about how mysteries are like stones falling into a pool, creating ripples. And I went on to talk about how investigation isn’t just about clue detection, but about deduction and reaching conclusions. But I stopped short of talking about how to construct a satisfying mystery, which is what I want to do now.
Just for the moment, let’s assume I have an ok system that will cover the business of discovering clues, and an ok premise that make sure the players want to investigate this mystery. I may come back to these later, but let’s imagine they’re solved problems for the purposes of this article. Let’s also assume I’m running something that has a substantial investigative focus, so there’s more than just one simple mystery to solve.
I then create my mystery in a number of fairly discrete steps:
For instance, let’s look at the cult example:
Once I’ve planned all this out, I’ll review what I’ve got to make sure there’s enough there to give the players a fighting chance of cracking the mystery, but not so much that they’ll solve it in five seconds flat. I can add or remove witnesses and clues until I think I have got that right. Of course, my future events ensure that, no matter what happens, the players will have something to do. If time passes and they haven’t made progress, the next event happens.
I’ll then break the information down into a number of components I can use:
Once I’ve got all that in place, the game more-or-less runs itself. The players move from location to location as prompted by clues and/or a future event becoming a present event. Perhaps they discover clues which help them to get ahead of the timeline, perhaps the timeline runs ahead of them and they’re forced to confront a scary situation unprepared.
I’ll talk in a future article about how I use this prep in practice.
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A long time ago, in a blog post, Vincent Baker wrote about mechanics which are driven by the game fiction, and mechanics which aren’t. He used some fancy diagrams to make the point, but I think it’s not much more complicated than that. His point (or at least a point that he made) was that if your mechanics aren’t, on some level, driven by the fiction, then you end up ignoring the fiction.
Why is this? I think it’s reasonably straightforward. If the game’s mechanics can manage quite well without the fiction, the fiction becomes an inconvenience. You can’t have your hit roll until you’ve described your attack. You can’t have your damage roll until you’ve described some gore. The description makes no difference to anything, and you may well not be that interested in detailed descriptions of combat. You want to skip to the stuff that actually matters, the hit roll and the damage roll. And so, with the best will in the world, it becomes tempting to skip over, you know, the actual roleplaying. And as your descriptions become more perfunctory, they seem ever more unnecessary, the colour drains from your combat (or investigation, or whatever mechanic it might be) in favour of lifeless dice rolling.
(Incidentally, I’m not talking about mechanics that model the fiction. Nice probability curves and mechanics broken down in a way that maps onto the fictional “reality” are not relevant here. I’m not against them. But what I’m talking about is mechanics that engage because of circumstances somebody narrated, and which are sensitive to the detail of that narration.)
Once I’d seen the phenomenon Baker describes, I could not unsee it. Everywhere I looked were designs which violated the “fiction first” principle, where a conscious effort is required to keep describing, at least when the game’s mechanics are engaged. And, conversely, many an hour of dull die-rolling seemed explicable, even inevitable, given the rules of the games I had been playing.
To bring this back to the title, many roleplayers would prefer that the rules just “get out of the way”. And I think Baker’s analysis is highly relevant to understanding why. When your mechanics suck the colour out of your roleplaying in this way, every time you find yourself in a mechanics-free scene, everything will seem that much more vibrant. You have no choice but to describe, because the mechanics aren’t there to pick things up; and the fiction no longer seems a burden, because it isn’t getting in the way of your resolution system. In the absence of those mechanics, that resolution system will probably be GM fiat or collective agreement, probably based on what is plausible in the fiction, making description key.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying the entirety of mechanics-averse play is down to a lack of “fiction first” in the rules. A significant amount of it is down to clunky, cumbersome mechanics, cognitive load and tedious book-keeping, for example. But it is certainly a part of it. When the fictional situation drives the mechanics, when fictional logic is put at the centre of the rules, this problem falls away. And so, whenever I design a mechanic, I always look at it through this prism, watchful for anything that might tear the players away from the fiction.
I’ve been playing a lot of games recently which are focused on intense, dramatic relationships. The poster child for these is Hillfolk, but there’s a whole bunch of others along similar lines (several in playtesting). What I’ve observed is, there’s a crucial balance to be struck between intense, emotional, conversational scenes, and the procedural scenes which provide the energy for them. Hillfolk, it seems to me, undervalues the latter, with the result that its dramatic scenes[*] gradually wind down and end up meandering rather than roaring along. Other games overdo it in the other direction.
Why is this? Conversations have to be about something. Hillfolk sets up dramatic tension by asking everyone to begin with something they want from each other character, and a reason why they can’t have it. But over time those tense relationships from become flaccid, either because the starting issue is resolved or because it becomes apparent that it isn’t going to be resolved. Sooner or later there’s nothing left to talk about.
To stop this happening you need to provide an external stimulus to tighten up those relationships and reintroduce tension. There are various things that can do this, such as:
– Discovery of information that had previously been secret (or at least, known by a more limited group)
– A decision taken that was previously untaken.
– Somebody does something, i.e. the execution of a decision.
– An external event happens which forces one of the above to happen, or creates pressure for it to happen.
Notice that the first two can naturally happen in the course of a dramatic scene, indeed a dramatic scene can focus on these things. The third could be either; I can take action with the primary aim of getting an emotional reaction from someone, or I can do it to achieve some external goal. The last won’t naturally happen in any dramatic scene, though it might well be part of the setup for one.
Once again, eventually tense, dramatic relationships will wind down as all the secrets come to be revealed, all the important decisions are made and all the resulting actions have been taken. The only way this energy can be restored is if something happens that requires new decisions to be taken, that generates new secrets, that demands new action. Most importantly, something must happen that changes the way people feel about each other, or pushes them in directions which will cause them to feel differently about each other.
These external pressures are vital for keeping the drama going, which is why it’s frustrating that Hillfolk downplays their importance. But at the same time, if there’s too much external pressure then there’s no space for the emotional and social reaction to be played out. Dramatic scenes are a sort of emotional and social processing of what has happened in procedural scenes, but that can only happen if there’s a gap in the action in which that processing can happen.
So all this is a long-winded way of saying, in a game about relationships it’s important to include some sort of external stimulus to keep things from winding down, but equally the action has to be paced to enable those relationships to be explored. You need to strike the right balance between the dramatic and the procedural. Get that balance wrong in either direction and you’ll get less drama.
[*] I’m using Hillfolk’s terminology here. A dramatic scene is one where someone is seeking an emotional response from someone else; a procedural scene is one where someone is trying to achieve something more practical, even if the means to this end is a social interaction.
I read Smiorgan’s discussion of so-called trindie games (and the “trindie triangle”) on Department V recently. I disagreed with a lot of it – in particular I see the essence of the three gaming spheres, and in particular the indie sphere, very differently from Smiorgan. But I’m not planning to critique his ideas, rather I want to set out some of my own.
Disclaimer: these are my thoughts about what makes a game trad, freeform or (in a much broader, vaguer way) indie, and therefore what could be a trindie game. Obviously, this is to a certain extent semantics – but I think it does identify a space that isn’t fully explored yet, which may therefore be of interest.
A trad game will involve a GM who mostly makes the rules calls and who controls most of the game world and the characters in it; player characters who are the exclusive domain of the other players; mechanical procedures that relate to the actions of characters in the game and aimed at determining success or failure; and game time based on when something interesting is happening to one of the player characters, and skipping over the rest.
A freeform game will be played in real time. It will focus on a defined situation, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for rules calls i.e. characters who aren’t likely to start fighting each other in-session, or using lots of powers, or whatever. It will have a rules system for adjudicating when people do enter conflict, which will usually be designed to minimise the need for a referee, but there will usually be some people who can serve that function if needed. Often times there is a downtime system for managing what people do between sessions, which is much more ref-moderated.
An indie game could look quite similar to either of these (AW is quite like a trad game in many respects; WTDiG is like a freeform game) or be completely unlike either of them (Fiasco, Microscope, forex). So what makes an Indie game (apart from the obvious question of whether it’s independently published)? I think the answer is, no one thing, but there’s a whole set of tools and techniques which you see in indie-style games that you don’t see very often in trad or freeform games.
Diverse options for division of GM duties. Such as:
– Fiasco, has no GM (this seems to be the exemplar indie game by Smiorgan’s metrics, and I suspect the one he was thinking of when he wrote his article). Everyone is responsible for working out how the scene should go. The final outcome of the scene is decided by selection from a limited pool of available positive and negative outcomes.
– Microscope, has no GM. For most of the game creative responsibilities are clearly delineated so that just one person has authority to decide at any given time, so it’s sort of like having a rotating GM. Except! In scenes, the players roleplay in a fairly unstructured way to answer a question posed by the person whose turn it is.
– Apocalypse World, has a GM. But the GM doesn’t have the power to dictate when the game’s mechanics are brought into play. And, the GM is encouraged to ask questions, often quite sweeping questions, about the game world and situation, so that they no longer have full control over those.
– Dream Askew, has Situations which have owners, who effectively take on some aspects of the GM’s role, in particular creating pressure on the player characters. Other aspects are handled through questions asked to others, like in Apocalypse World.
– When the Dark is Gone, hands over creative decision making to the players in its entirety. The GM-role is just a facilitator who asks questions.
Messing with the player character role, so that people may have more than one character. Such as:
– Durance, where everyone has two characters; one from the criminal side and one from the authority side.
– Lovecraftesque (and, I understand, Downfall), where everyone takes turns playing the main character.
– Rise and Fall, where you play an archetype, and may play several different exemplars of that archetype, one per scene, maybe coming back and playing the same one(s) more than once or maybe not.
Using mechanics to structure the story and drive its overall shape. Such as:
– Fiasco sets hard limits on the number of scenes and on how many of them can have a positive or negative outcome. After half the scenes are used up, there’s a tilt; once they’re all used up, there’s an aftermath.
– Dog Eat Dog gives out tokens, and at the end of each scene the characters make judgements about the scene, which trigger a token exchange. The token exchanges drive the events of the game and ultimately determine when it ends and with what final outcome.
– My Life With Master is another game with a mechanical trigger for the endgame, based on the accumulation of points resulting from the outcomes of individual scenes.
– Witch: the Road to Lindisfarne frames the whole game around a journey, and has a required number of scenes and a theme at each location, with a fixed ending.
Now, I’d like to touch on the so-called “trindie” games such as Fate and Cortex Plus. What these particular games seem to do that is considered by some to be indie-ish is to allow players to create stuff outside their character – scene aspects in Fate, and mechanically similar assets in Cortex Plus. In effect, the player narrates a little chunk of what would, in a purely trad game, be narrated by the GM. But this is very limited! Players can only do this within fairly narrow limits, and the primary effect of doing so (and I suspect in many cases the primary motive for doing so) is to attain a temporary mechanical advantage in a conflict. In other words, aspects and their ilk are like temporary traits that a character can use, that just happen to sometimes concern a bit of the world outside their character. They’re not so much about creative control as broadening the range of ways your character can be awesome. That doesn’t seem particularly “trindie” to me – it seems like a trad game with a tiny bit of narrative control grafted on.
So what would a truly trindie game look like? Well, I don’t see how you could keep the tr in trindie without keeping a pretty unified GM role and players who each play one character (maybe two). But there is a game which keeps all of that, while altering the trad formula in a number of ways: Apocalypse World. AW gives you background and plot that is mostly generated by the players through question-answering (but driven forward by the GM); mechanics that are triggered by fixed circumstances and with relatively fixed outcome options, reducing the role of GM judgement and constraining GM fiat; it encourages the GM to put things beyond their direct control using tools like countdown clocks. It even lets you play more than one player character, while remaining essentially a player rather than a GM.
I don’t think AW has driven as far into this space as you can possibly go. But it suggests some thoughts about what aspects of a trad game you could retain while introducing elements of indie play. I would suggest the core of a trad game is a GM whose role is to represent adversity and drive forward external threats; and players whose roles are to fully inhabit the roles of a much smaller cast of characters. Within that model, you can divvy up a lot of creative power, you can introduce mechanics which put the structure of the story at least somewhat beyond GM control, and you can give the players something other than just a single unchanging character to play. I can’t think of another game that has done this to the extent that AW has, but I’ll be very happy to hear of one. Suggestions?
Lately I have been mostly reading A Song of Ice and Fire RPG. It’s a pretty trad game as these things go, but what makes it stand out is the machinery provided to enable you to play politics. And one particular aspect of the game that’s interesting is the Intrigue system.
In essence, it’s a social combat system. I want you to do something and there’s mechanics to enable me to get you to do it, that go beyond “just roll persuade”. Indeed, there’s a plethora of techniques and actions you can take in aid of intrigue, defence scores and hit point-equivalents, and a ten-step system of exchanges (the social equivalent of combat rounds) to make it all work.
This is something I’m pretty interested in: I’ve often wondered what a really well-designed set of detailed social mechanics (as opposed to “just roll” or “just roleplay it”) would look like, and never really found anything that fits the bill. Too often these systems tend to generate piles and piles of dice rolling, but no feeling of “I am taking part in social combat right now”. Worse, they tend to place the emphasis on “combat” rather than “social”, so I have loads of options for moves but little sense of how it relates to the roleplaying I’m doing. Any system where you feel like you could pretty much dispense with the roleplaying altogether isn’t doing the job in my view.
Sadly, SIFRP doesn’t make the cut either. While it provides some nice mechanics for reflecting how character are disposed to each other, and requires that the actions you choose match what you have roleplayed, it otherwise feels very much like a jumped-up combat system. Most of the action revolves around wearing away your opponent’s Composure (the social equivalent of hit points); and during this process, what type of technique you select from the admittedly fairly extensive menu is irrelevant – it just determines what dice you’ll be rolling. Only at the end, when your opponent is out of Composure, does it matter which technique you’re using or what it is you’re trying to achieve. In the mean-time you’re roleplaying away but like stunting in Exalted it all feels a bit superfluous.
Moreover, like most combat systems, the rules don’t draw any connections between what the characters are doing. They’re just slugging away at each other – it’s more like a race than an interaction, and whoever crosses the Composure finish line first wins. So for instance, there is no scope for me to take your attempted seduction and work it into my intrigue – a sort of social judo, if you like – the fact you’re trying to seduce me is more-or-less irrelevant to what I’m doing.
I’ll probably give the game a go to check that the experience of play bears out my initial impressions, but I fear this is another fail. I suspect some of the above will be ameliorated by the use of bonuses and penalties for “appropriate roleplaying” and “circumstance”, but when a system is relying on the players to fix the system with more-or-less arbitrary modifiers, you wonder why they don’t just skip the system and “just roleplay it”.
What I’d really like from a social “combat” system is something that focuses on the roleplaying and on the characters. My social approach to your character depends on who they are, what they believe (or what I think they believe), and must react to their approach in turn. Just like a physical combat system requires me to think about tactical placement – flanking and charges and so on – with reference to what all the other combatants are doing, social “combat” should require me to think in the same way. But not literally in the same way: the mistake so many systems seem to make is to think they should try to find an analogue between physical and social combat, when the real aim should be to make the social interaction rules as richly detailed as the combat rules, not the same as them.
Obviously if you want a job doing properly, you have to do it yourself.
This weekend just gone was Admiral Frax’s birthday roleplaying party. Amongst many other great games, I ran Leverage, which uses the Cortex Plus system. Believe it or not, this was the first time I’d run or played in a game that uses Drama Points as a currency for making minor changes to the in-game situation (as opposed to allowing rerolls or other purely mechanical effects).
The idea of this mechanic is to allow players to have greater narrative control by enabling them to create minor dramatic elements (an object, an emotion, or some such). So you could declare that your character had a gun in his pocket, or found an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Or more significant stuff, like declaring that an NPC henchman is considering defecting. In the case of Leverage, they also enable the GM to introduce complications to existing situations – like having a character who is sneaking past one security guard suddenly notice there’s another one just coming around the corner. Drama Points can only be spent when particular game-mechanical triggers occur, so there are limits to when you can use them.
I was quite excited when I first read about the Drama Point mechanic described above, but after thinking about it and playing the game, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they encourage the players and GM to play creatively within the established situation. They allow unexpected things to happen which are beyond the power of any one person to control, and that has the potential to make the game more interesting to everyone. But. They seem like a bolt on when combined with a system with traditional player and GM roles.
For the players, they seem of very limited utility. Take the examples I gave above.
– The character who finds the gun in his pocket could easily have avoided paying a Drama Point by saying before they set out “I’m taking my gun with me”. So the Drama Point is either a penalty for bad planning (annoying) or a means to insert a gun into a situation where it couldn’t possibly come into play, such as when the players have been captured, thoroughly searched and locked in a cell (disbelief-creating). Otherwise they’re just a means to react to unexpected situations as though they weren’t unexpected.
– The character who finds an unlocked bicycle by the roadside. Same thing, essentially. The character has simply short-cutted an unexpected situation (in this case, presumably, a lack of transportation). But they could presumably have used their in character skills to get hold of transportation, which I suspect would be more interesting than the rather unsatisfying bicycle ex machina.
– Declaring a henchman is considering defecting. This looks a bit more interesting at first glance – monkeying with minor NPCs in a GM-like way. But realistically, in most cases the character could probably persuade such a character to switch sides through a decent Persuade roll or similar. So in this case Drama Points are again short-cutting the need for your character to make some effort to come up with a cunning plan.
– In all three cases it seems to me the same effect could be got by the player saying to the GM “I brought my gun, ok?”; “I hunt through the bike racks to see if one isn’t locked” or “I’m going to try and work out if any of the henchmen are less than 100%”.
For the GM it’s even worse. In most games, the GM is pretty much free to insert new dramatic elements into a story if they choose. After all, if you’d written in your notes prior to the game that there were two security guards at the location rather than one, you wouldn’t need to spend a Drama Point to create a second one. And most GMs leave enough flexibility in their notes that adding an unplanned extra security guard really isn’t something you need a Drama Point to do. Of course, the presence of Drama Points does encourage the GM to throw in complications they hadn’t necessarily planned – but that may or may not be a good thing, depending on the situation. A good GM will judge these things rather than just following the mechanics.
Now I’m not against the idea of using mechanical systems to regulate the narrative power of players or GMs. But as the above examples hopefully show, Drama Points don’t actually do this – they just create a slight encouragement to and, in limited circumstances, increase in opportunities for, ad libbing. In the worst case they could actually restrain creativity, by blocking people from playing creatively when the supply of Drama Points dries up. I’m open to trying this mechanic a few more times, but on first inspection I’m somewhat underwhelmed.