a column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
The release date for Cthulhu Confidential, flagship product of the GUMSHOE One-2-One game, creeps up on us daily. For International Pelgrane Day, I ran its intro scenario for gamer and science TV presenter Marty Jopson, which you can check out here.
This mystery features one of our three starting characters, hardboiled L.A. detective Dex Raymond. “The Fathomless Sleep” delves into the case of a young heiress whose memory has been stolen, sending Dex on a collision course with cultists, gangsters, and maybe even a screenwriter or two. The video spoils the scenario from top to toe, so leave it unwatched if you want someone to run it for you at some point.
With or without a look at the actual play video, a basic tour of the differences between One-2-One and good old regular GUMSHOE would seem to be in order.
To start with the obvious, this version of the game facilitates play between one GM and one player. Though it works quite well on an online platform like Skype or Roll20/Google Hangouts, it’s also perfectly suited for in-person play.
One-2-One play unfolds in a much more intense and focused way than multiplayer. Here you get no breaks to kibitz, drift off topic, or confer with fellow players.
This results in an experience that feels much more than a mystery novel than the delightful chaos of a collaborative group game.
However, being onstage throughout can be daunting. The book’s play advice prepares the GM to help the player deal with the format’s pressure and demand for concentration.
The GM also contributes more than in multiplayer. Without the inter-player banter, planning and problem-solving, you have less time to do the mental vamping required to improv your way around surprises while delivering a coherent mystery.
This dynamic calls for tightly written scenarios you can rely on to deliver the goods.
It also allows us to take advantage of an angle normally denied to adventure writers—they’re tuned to specific characters. In Cthulhu Confidential, these are whip-smart journalist Viv Sinclair and indefatigable scientist Langston Wright, along with the aforementioned Dex Raymond. Viv, written by Ruth Tillman, gets the scoop in mythos-haunted NYC, while Chris Spivey’s Langston moves the timeline a bit forward to overcome the added twists of solving Lovecraftian mysteries as a black man in wartime Washington DC.
Early in each intro adventure, the player gets the chance to customize the character, building on what the authors provide to create a distinct, personalized take—just as Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe differs from Dick Powell’s, Robert Mitchum’s, or Elliott Gould’s.
You start this process by picking one of four possible starting Problems, represented by cards. Your Dex could be broke, lonely, tempted by various vices, or subject to a fatal curiosity. In the course of play, you might get the chance to dispose of that Problem card—perhaps at a steep price, perhaps as a reward. However you’ll also likely pick up other Problem cards which, if not neutralized during the story, lead you to a dire fate during the case’s denouement.
This mechanism becomes necessary because with a single character, the possibility of death has to be handled differently than in multiplayer. It’s derailing enough in standard play when a key PC bites the dust. At least other characters remain to carry on the story while the affected player lurches for the blank character sheet. Here you can still die or wind up forever mentally incapacitated, but that happens only at the end of the scenario. That run-in with a knife-wielding numbers runner might leave you with a Problem card called Stabbed, whose text specifies that you die during the story’s coda if you still have it in hand. Stopping to take actions that justify the discard of a Problem card has its own cost, but it’s better than pushing up daisies.
This mechanism replaces the Health and Stability points from standard GUMSHOE. Neither physical injuries nor traumas measure themselves as a declining point total.
Life with only Problems would be a little too tough even for gumshoes willing to go up against Deep Ones and Mi-Go. Hence, Edge cards, which either convey an ongoing benefit, or can be cashed in for a one-time advantage. Some of them let you dispose of Problem cards, which you might be especially grateful for if they bear the Continuity tag, meaning they would otherwise keep dogging you in future cases.
Edge and Problem cards arrive in your hand via Challenges, One-2-One’s equivalent of the test. Instead of general ability pools, you have either one or two dice in the abilities like Fighting and Shadowing that accomplish tasks other than information gathering. Challenges typically have three possible results, giving you either an Advance, Hold, or Setback. Advances not only move you further into the story but also often grant some other benefit—generally an Edge card. Setbacks worsen whatever trouble you’re in, often in the form of a Problem card. In most cases you can gain an extra die by taking on an additional Problem card. So to get over that fence you might take on, say, the “Pulled Muscle” Problem card, which levels a penalty in upcoming situations.
Ability pools in standard GUMSHOE help divide spotlight time between players. In One-2-One, the spotlight’s all on you, so that mechanism isn’t needed.
Still, you might want to gain an additional, non-informational benefit from investigative abilities every now and then, so your character starts with three Pushes. You can use these as you would standard GUMSHOE spends. Whenever you gain an Advance on a Challenge with one of your permitted dice unrolled, you gain an additional Push.
It makes no sense for a noir detective to have mastered every field of inquiry. But that doesn’t stop you from gathering clues outside your specialties. In those cases you seek out one of your Sources, reliably helpful and friendly NPC contacts who perform lab tests, serve up obscure historical facts, or hip you to the ancient traditions of the occult.
Once you get used to these changes, they fade into the background, keeping the focus on the complex web of clues you must untangle before the cosmic indifference of the Mythos and the human corruption of noir combine to destroy you, your clients, and the city whose mean streets you both love and hate.