Fear Itself

See P. XX

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

"To the Lab!" "To the Library!"

One of the pleasures in creating a game that sets out to do things a little differently is that the sense of discovery continues after the game hits the shelves. It is transformed by its contact with a large pool of actual gamers and their creative responses to it. You also get to see the process in action as the game is handled by other designers working on their own spin-offs, scenarios, and supplements for it. Although there are some late adopters who want everything set in stone before they venture their toes into new waters, my hope is that most enjoy being part of a work in progress. Once your game hits the stands, it belong to everyone who plays it, and it is highly likely that somebody will come up with a better way of solving its problems than you did in the first place. For this month’s column I thought it might be instructive to struggle along with me as I think my way through a GUMSHOE problem that has recently become apparent through gamer comment.

Of the GUMSHOE scenarios we’ve released to date, I agree with the observation that interpersonal abilities have been somewhat privileged over their academic and technical counterparts. Now I get to ask myself: to what extent is this an actual, rather than theoretical problem? If it is a real issue, how do we fix it?

The reason for this imbalance is pretty clear: an interpersonal scene, by its very nature, offers greater opportunities for drama and suspense than does one in which a character consults his own knowledge, or performs a lab test. Most obviously, you’re interacting with another character, played by the GM, who probably has an agenda in conflict with your own. You want information. The witness or suspect has some reason not to cooperate until you find a way to open him up, by selecting an appropriate interpersonal ability. The scene then breaks down into more component parts. You typically get more information than is provided by any one academic or technical clue. The trick is sorting out the falsehoods from the lies and pertinent facts from the irrelevancies. You can see this by glancing at the physical layout of a scenario: lots of bullet points appear beneath the typical interpersonal ability use, whereas the others tend to be one or two lines apiece.

One of the built-in advantages of a highly structured class-based character generation system is that scenario writers know which abilities are spread between which archetypes. They can build a fantasy adventure knowing that the cleric will shine in scene one, and the wizard gets a shot at glory in scene two, and then the big strong guy gets to move a huge rock in scene three. GUMSHOE, erring on the side of player freedom, makes it harder to predict how the investigative abilities will be divvied up within any given team of PCs. A skew toward interpersonal abilities is mostly academic if everybody takes a few abilities from each of the three groups. It’s a genuine playability problem if one PC is chosen to be the "face guy", and therefore either hogs the spotlight or faces more pressure than everyone else, depending on how you want to look at it. This thought offers a front-end solution: we could build future games to obligate players to take a mix of the three investigative ability types. However, for reasons outlined below, I’d sooner not go there.

A possible challenge facing us as we go forward will be to find ways to extend and complicate academic and technical ability use. To rebalance scenarios back toward the other investigative ability types, it might be that we’ll need to make them structurally similar to interpersonal scenes. One solution would be a greater reliance on multiple points of information from a single ability, leading to bullet-pointed lists resembling those given for interpersonal scenes. The ability use unlocks not just the relevant data, but a number of questions to follow-up on and a blind alley or two.

This might be a solution opening up more issues than it closes. Although players sometimes feel that their characters know more than they do when it comes to interrogation, the gulf between player and character widens even further when it comes to electron microscopy, the quirks of the Quade diagram, or the intricacies of the Pnakotic manuscript. Also, if a witness misleads you or tells you something irrelevant, you have the chance to winnow signal from noise with follow-up grilling. A mess of conflicting results from the other ability types offers no such sorting process.

Another solution might be found in chained ability uses, extending scenes by making the characters jump through more hoops to connect the dots. A simple use of Occult tells you where you have to break in to get the real copy of a manuscript, which entails a) mollifying a security guard, b) securing a plan of the library and c) deactivating the magic wards around the rare book collection. In keeping with the central principle of the game, these actions would all have to be available as no-spend clues. Where general abilities are used, failures leads to negative consequences but still allow acquisition of the needed clues.

Like most game design issues, this is a matter of trade-offs, not of a single perfect answer. Interpersonal scenes come with drawbacks you don’t get with the other types. Players sometimes feel pressured to get it right in interview scenes, but can rest easy that neither their microscopes nor their fiche readers are going to smart talk them or attempt to conceal evidence. It may be that the very simplicity of scenes involving academic and technical abilities is their greatest strength, one that would be diluted by making them more like interpersonal scenes. This would be especially true for certain players, who might prefer the clear and easy answers of the textbook and spectrometer to the frustrations human witnesses bring.

The easiest solution is simply to place a quota on the number of core clues that any one scenario can present through interpersonal scenes. Once the scenario writer has used up his allotment of this easy, sure-fire technique, he is obligated to fill in the remaining connections with less glamorous but equally vital academic and technical clues.

My guess is that we’ll discover that, as in so many other instances, we find the simplest solution is also the best.

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