This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007, but could prove useful for the many subsequent GUMSHOE systems.
A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
On a fundamental structural level, RPG sessions are their own beast, and are unlike movies, TV, and books. However, these related storytelling forms are always worth looking at for inspiration. Many of their surface techniques remain unplundered by GMs. Most notably, the tricks they use to compress time and make proceedings less boring demand further study, if not slavish emulation.
For example, let’s look at the differences between a story of investigation as it plays out in a TV cop show as opposed to the way they usually unfold in an RPG.
In a cop show, each encounter or interrogation generally a few important points of information. Then the script quickly moves onto a new scene in which another character provides more information.
Often, though not always, the investigators must score a win by overcoming the informant’s reluctance to spill the crucial beans. The informants’ reasons for reluctance, and the means necessary to overcome them, will vary enough to disguise the formula and keep the proceedings entertaining.
You can’t break it down to a formula, but often the informant:
A) provides one clue
B) rules out one possibility
and concludes by
C) supplying a third nugget of information pointing the investigators to the next encounter.
RPG interrogations tend to unfold in actual time. In that, they’re like real police interviews: given the chance, the PCs will ask every question under the sun, looping around, repeating themselves, and amassing great reams of information from each informant, which they’ll then try to sift for the crucial point.
This poses a challenge to you as GM, because you want a sense of forward movement, to build excitement and stave off boredom and paralysis. Players become easily confused in investigative scenarios. Unlike real cops, they’re picturing their nonexistent people talking to your nonexistent people. As they go, they’re filling in the imaginative blanks, often mistakenly. The more editing and pre-sifting of information you can do for them, the happier they’ll be, and the more satisfying the episode’s pacing will seem.
By imitating a cop show trick, you can keep each interview quick and to the point. No one in a cop show has time to talk to the cops. (Maybe this is why most of the best cop shows are set in New York City, where no one has time for anyone.) The random group of eccentrics and semi-outlaws who compose the average adventuring group will earn even less time from the basic NPC civilian.
Here’s a form you can use for each interviewee in an investigative adventure:
- Reason for Reluctance:
- Overcoming Reluctance:
- Clue supplied:
- Possibility Ruled Out:
- Next contact:
Just like a cop show screenwriter, you’ll want to create as many different reasons for brushing off the PCs as possible, for variety’s sake. Informants crucial to your storyline will require reasons directly related to the motivations you’ve preset for them. For walk-on characters, you can choose reasons at random — or start with the reason and build the character from that starting point.
Examples can include:
Complicity: Informant peripherally involved in the crime.
Confusion: Informant is cooperative, but his perceptions are muddled.
Greed: Informant seeks payoff before talking, and drives a hard bargain.
Guilt: Informant has done something bad, but unrelated to the mystery, and fears that this is what the PCs are investigating.
Hostility: Informant has good reason to hate adventurers as a group.
Ideology: Informant belongs to a group or class politically opposed to the PCs or their patrons.
Loyalty: Informant wants to protect someone she (rightly or wrongly) assumes to be the target of their investigation.
Paranoia: Informant assumes PCs are his (real or imagined) enemies.
Preoccupation: Informant more concerned with his own pressing business or agenda than with helping the PCs.
Snobbery: Informant considers himself social better of PCs; recoils at the thought of associating with them.
The manner in which the PCs must overcome the informant’s reluctance arises from the nature of that reluctance.
Complicity: PCs must convince informant they know what he did and can arrange for worse treatment if he doesn’t talk.
Confusion: PCs must sort through informant’s scattered recollections for the important fact.
Greed: PCs must pay him off, or convince him he’ll be worse off if he doesn’t talk.
Guilt: Must assure informant that her particular misdeeds are not their concern.
Hostility: PCs must mollify the informant, or use leverage his grudge against him with intimidation tactics.
Ideology: Informant must be shown how cooperation benefits his faction.
Loyalty: Convince informant cooperation will lead to a better outcome for the person she’s protecting.
Paranoia: Either reassure or terrify the informant.
Preoccupation: Show how lack of cooperation will hurt the informant’s business or cause.
Snobbery: Show how cooperation will lead to the PCs’ speedy departure.
Alternate methods of persuasion should always be possible. Otherwise you risk falling into a variant of the classic plot bottleneck, in which there’s only one way to get a particular piece of information on which all forward development depends. PCs should be able to intimidate snobs or bribe paranoids. For variety’s sake, ensure that no single tactic works on all informants.
Structurally, any investigative adventure consists of a trail of clues leading like bread crumbs from one encounter to the next, so the nature of the clue is up to you.
The next contact positions the encounter within that structure, telling you which new scene the character will point the PCs toward. In a cop show, the leads find the clues in a particular order. If you can prepare several different orders in which the clues can be assembled, you face less chance that a dead end point will arise in mid-scenario. (Putting the encounters on index cards helps if you intend to shuffle them as you go.)
Finally, under the entry labeled cut-off, slot in the reason for the NPC to conclude the encounter after the PCs have squeezed it for all of its information and entertainment value. It’s easier to get NPCs out of scenes in a modern setting with busy schedules and ringing cellphones, but self-respecting supporting characters in any era or genre should be anxious to get on with their own lives as your sense of expediency dictates. Cut-offs may refer back to the character’s original reluctance to talk. A snob wants to shoo uncouth PCs out of his manor as quickly as possible. A paranoid wishes to escape an imagined threat. If the PCs haven’t slapped the cuffs on a complicit character, he will want to leave the jurisdiction as soon as possible.
Unrelated cut-offs work just as well, and provide an added sense of reality to your world. Mundane details like crying babies, overflowing sinks, cookpots in need of tending, escaping horses, or goods in need of protection from the rain all provide otherwise helpful NPCs excuses to bring their discussions with the heroes to an end.
I’d stick around and elaborate, but you have all the clues to piece it together. I have an owl to feed. Or something! Good luck with that investigation, now!