A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
While developing collaborators’ scenarios for Black Star Magic, I found myself puzzling out a design style question arising from a particular feature of QuickShock.
In previous iterations of GUMSHOE, and most other games with hit points or a hit point-like function, characters can theoretically leave play at any time. In all GUMSHOE games characters can die physically, ending their stories and requiring players to create replacements. In our various horror games, characters can also exit after cracking under intolerable mental strain.
The Yellow King Roleplaying Game follows that pattern: your character can shuffle off in both ways. Unlike games with traditional hit points (Health points in GUMSHOE) or Sanity / Stability points, YKRPG characters take their final curtains after receiving a predetermined number of Injury or Shock cards. After 3 or 4 cards, depending on how forgiving the GM has chosen to make her game, they’re outta there.
My scenarios provide ample opportunities to take Injury and Shock cards. In fact, one of the key requests made by playtesters was STOP MURDERING US SO HARD.
One or two of my more forgiving colleagues, on the other hand, just might have submitted scenarios including a less-than-fatal number of Injuries and/or Shocks.
This raised the question: is that poor form?
A scenario for standard GUMSHOE might make the prospect of death unlikely, by going light on scenes featuring fights or physical hazards. Likewise it might feature only a handful of Stability or Composure tests. But depending on how many points players have invested in key pools, you can’t say for certain that the scenario won’t dispatch a PC or two.
In QuickShock you can count the number of times the characters might take cards, and see that it doesn’t equal the Final Card threshold.
That’s before taking edge cases into account, though.
In an ongoing game, one or more characters may already have Continuity Shock or Injury cards carried over from previous play. This drops their effective thresholds for receiving new cards. If you have the Injury card Circulatory Damage, you start every scenario being able to receive one less Injury additional card than you did when you began play. A scenario that deals out a maximum of two Injuries could, if you get both of them, end you.
Also, the GM, responding to surprise player choices, may wind up improvising additional fights, hazards, and disturbing events. When these go wrong they hand out cards over and above those listed in the scenario. “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario” must always be read as “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario, if you only do what the scenario predicts you might do.” Those of us who have ever run a game know how big an if that is.
In yet another also, the GM never tells the players that a scenario includes few Shock or Injury cards. It’s not the actual likelihood of investigator demise that creates suspense in play, but the threat of it as perceived by the players, that delivers the emotional freight. When you get the last card listed in the scenario, you have no way of knowing that there aren’t a boatload more of them still potentially to come. Unless you read the scenario afterwards, you’ll never see that you were actually safe.
For those reasons, I decided that it should not be a requirement that every published scenario hand out enough cards to potentially kill off a character.
Also, with rare exceptions, Shock and Injury cards impose other penalties on the characters who receive them. That’s why they exist. Unlike a quantity of lost hit points, they create lingering effects that impact the story. They sit in front of the players, reminding them that something has gone wrong. Something that must be addressed. The anxious desire to get rid of these awful, nagging cards mimics the fear and unease of the characters. Even if you can only get one card of a given type in a scenario, when you get it, you generally really want to get rid of it. One card you remember getting, or struggling to discard, exerts a greater impact than some Health points you lost and then refreshed.
Even if that weren’t the case, a philosophical design question remains: is it somehow cheating, or poor form, to introduce the possibility of character demise when it can’t actually happen? A D&D or 13th Age game assumes you’ll be fighting up a storm over most evenings of play. But if a particular adventure has you intriguing your way through a trade dispute with little chance of taking an ax to the face, you likely consider that a refreshing change of pace. After a while you’re going to want to get back to the core activity of battling and looting, jotting down hit point losses as you go. But the adventure where the stakes aren’t the characters’ survival doesn’t register as a cheat.
For a scenario to engage the players, they have to care about something. They must want for X to happen and fear that it will not. The prospect of character death exists in games as a default set of stakes: do you live or die?
In the mystery scenario that GUMSHOE offers, you always have another measure of success, other than “am I still breathing at the end?” When you figure out what’s going on in time to prevent disaster, see justice done, or simply slake your curiosity, you’ve won.
As long as your choices lead to either good or bad consequences, those consequences don’t have to be Shock or Injury cards in order for players to walk away from the table remembering a gripping narrative.
The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.