See P. XX: Payoff Interludes for GUMSHOE

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A recent observation I’m adding to my Things I Always Say file is that when players worry about a scenario being railroaded or linear, what they really mean is not that it lacked choices or branch points, but that they didn’t get to Do Their Thing.

Many players happily come to the table to solve whatever problem the scenario lays before them. In GUMSHOE, that’s the cracking of a central mystery. Mysteries offer a clear goal and, when acceptably constructed, a number of paths toward it.

A few players go along with the mission while really hoping to engage in a particular sub-activity or key moment. They may not be able to articulate it, but for them it’s what makes the difference between an okay session and a truly memorable one.

A player’s Thing might perfectly fit a game’s off-the-rack elements: engaging in comabt, overcoming physical hazards, sneaking around, acting scared in a weird situation. In that case a typical scenario probably has you covered, without you or the player having to think about it or force any moments that wouldn’t already occur.

For some players the Thing is more specialized: asserting authority, going undercover, speaking pedantically, outsmarting a social superior, brooding over a traumatic backstory, or low-stakes chatting with walk-on GMCs.

Each evokes an emotion the player is looking to experience. Often they’re looking to feel powerful. Or, conversely, to get into amusing scrapes they then have to get out of.

You may already be pinpointing what each of your players would try to make happen given the opportunity to do Their Things. If nothing comes to mind, think back to their highlight moments in your time running games for them. For new players, their choices of what characters to play, the abilities they invest the most build points in, or how they choose to play pregens, likely points the way.

When you see a player chafing at the confines of an investigative storyline, look for spots where you can drop in a scene where their Thing comes to the fore.

GUMSHOE scenario structure already shows you how to break up scenes of pure investigation with moments of danger and terror that come at the characters. It calls these Antagonist Reactions. Start by checking the list of Antagonist Reactions to see if any happen to line up with the player’s Thing. Adjust as necessary to turn them into the desired payoff moments.

The player’s Thing may have nothing to do with the main action of this scenario, or any mystery for that matter. You can fold in these signature moments just as you would Antagonist Reactions. Let’s call them Payoff Interludes.

Give the player who enjoys rambling conversations a loquacious rideshare driver to chat with. For the player who delights in intimidation scenes, add a bully who will come on strong, then crumble under pressure. Supply the player who lives for pedantry an obnoxious witness who confidently makes annoying, correctable errors.

These can certainly fit the main mystery if you can see a way to do that. Most GMCs in published scenarios already fit broad types, which in turn match up with common player predilections. You might only need to nudge the plot a bit to make sure that the right player interacts with the perfect GMC for the desired moment.

That said, players focused on getting to do their things don’t care so much about plot coherence. If they had a blast enacting a signature scene, they will probably leave the game thinking it was integral to the plot, even when it wasn’t. Even when they recognize it as gratuitous, they’ll still be happy to have had the signature moment.

The players may find a way to connect Payoff Interludes to the main storyline when you don’t. If they conclude that the talkative rideshare driver had to have been picking up the suspects, take a second to see if that a) still fits the other facts you’ve established and b) can still lead to a satisfying conclusion. Whether it matches the one in the book, or the one you were improvising toward, doesn’t matter as long as you can pull it off and show the players a good time. Players tend not to pick at plot holes when the story delivered what they wanted. Nor do they generally expect the narratives you improvise together to hang together perfectly.

A particularly enjoyable Payoff Interlude might become part of the mythology of an ongoing campaign. The loquacious driver can pop up again, now a familiar buddy who provides the same hit of welcome recognition as any other recurring character. You could graduate him to a witness in the case this time around, and maybe the next time the victim the group must rescue. He might come to them looking for help finding his disappeared pal.

As this continues, he might become as popular with the entire group as he is with the player you designed him for.

Just remember to tip him and rate him five stars for making the players feel that they got what they were looking for.

that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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