See P. XX
A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
On a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, Ken and I talked about ways players can organize the information they gather over the course of a GUMSHOE investigation. And now I’m going to organize some of those thoughts into this column for yet easier access. It’s not recycling, it’s thematically germane!
Let’s assume a whiteboard (real or virtual), cork board (ditto) or shared document controlled by and viewed by the players.
Practically speaking, you almost certainly want to select one player to enter the notes onto your medium of choice. If everybody can add notations whenever they please, the board will soon descend into a chaotic dog’s breakfast of competing jottings.
When you’re taking notes for yourself alone, for example on a lecture, you know the sorts of the notes you need and can decide what to write down accordingly. Here, however, you’re working to help a group of people put their thoughts together and devise a plan for action. To that end I’d recommend dividing your board up into a few basic sections that become familiar from one scenario to the next.
The Big Question
Since you’re all trying to figure out a mystery through the eyes of fictional characters acting in an imagined environment, maintaining mutual focus can be challenging. It may seem simple, but to stay out of the weeds it helps to constantly remind yourself just what they heck you’re currently trying to determine.
One way to do this is to head your whiteboard with the overarching question you’re trying to answer. The process of agreeing on what that question clarifies much from the outset. Having it staring at you in big letters keeps you on the same path as the scenario develops.
The type of question varies not just from one genre to the next but in different scenarios for the same GUMSHOE game. Big questions for various scenarios might be:
Who killed Nadia?
What’s lurking at the bottom of the mine?
Who keeps sending hit men to try to murder us?
Where is Quandos Vorn?
Who assaulted that mutant vigilante?
In some games the question changes as you learn more.
You might identify the alien being at the bottom of the mine, but realize that the real question is: who put it there, in hopes of triggering a catastrophe?
Once you find out that the conspiracy trying to kill you is made up of vampires, the question becomes: how do we destroy their spy network before they get us?
By far groups get themselves into the greatest confusion in investigative games by trying to answer the big question before they have enough clues. Speculating as to what’s going on allows players to interact with each other, which is fun. When the group just hangs around in the hotel room or in the library spinning out theories, they’re safe from danger, from having to make tough choices, and from making embarrassing mistakes. But the game is all about exposing your characters to those very risks. Sustained chatting and planning can be thinly disguised turtling. Worse, unfounded speculations can enter the group consciousness as things you’ve actually established as facts.
Often groups unconsciously blank on leads they’re too chicken to follow up on. Any scenario worth its oats requires the PCs to talk to people they’d otherwise have every reason to avoid. Players typically exhaust every impersonal method of information gathering before they’ll talk to even the meekest witness.
Cure these syndromes by constantly reminding yourselves of the avenues of investigation you have yet to explore. Make a list of open leads, crossing off or erasing entries as you send your characters out to engage in those scenes. It might look something like this:
the farmers across the way
the professor who was nosing around last year
Eventually you’re going to have to talk to Mugsy. Even though his name is Mugsy, and that’s a giant red flag.
When you have no open leads on your list, two possibilities pertain:
One, you finally do have all the facts and can now set about assembling them into an answer to your big question.
Two, you’ve missed or forgotten a core clue from a scene you’ve already played out, and need to either remember what it was or go back and uncover that lead.
The other key areas on your whiteboard vary according to the nature of the scenario.
Most scenarios revolve around a cast of Game Master Characters. In that case, a list of key players helps you to piece together their relationships, and thus whatever backstory or horrible truth you’re trying to reconstruct.
When your objective explicitly has you dismantling an enemy organization, whether we’re talking esoterror cell or Night’s Black Agents vampire network, the classic enemy org chart format serves you well. It helps you figure out not only what’s going on but who to target when you start to hit back.
In a classic murder mystery, that area on your whiteboard becomes a table of possible suspects, with columns for motives, incriminating details, and exculpatory clues.
For a survival horror scenario, you might be trying to assemble the things you need to get out of a situation alive. There you’d want to make a want list of items you’re looking for, crossing them off as you gather them.
You might think that sandbox play doesn’t need a whiteboard. For example you might be playing Dreamhounds of Paris, where as members of the surrealist movement you explore the Dreamlands, altering them for your own consciousness-exploding purposes. You might have a Big Question to answer in the waking world, but also an area of places you want to poke at next and changes you want to wreak in the Dreamlands. A particularly organized team of surrealist sandboxers might jump between two sets of notes, one detailing Parisian activities and others a to-do list for Kadath and beyond.
Every List is a To-Do List
Although you’re often trying to work out what other characters did in the past, organize your whiteboard to always suggest actions, ideally implying a list of things you can do next.
Whether you’re answering your Big Question, choosing the next of your Open Leads, or engaging with the section of your board specific to the demands of the scenario at hand, everything on your whiteboard should spur the team to concrete action.