These are my pre-play and post-play thoughts on Cthulhu Confidential, a GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press. It’s by Robin Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman. Short version: if you want a sourcebook for noir Cthulhu Mythos play, it’s great, and it works way better than I expected for one-on-one roleplaying.
I picked up a bunch of Cthulhu Britannica material in a Bundle of Holding sale a while back. Glad I did, since Cubicle 7 has pulled the line after their license expired. As a sort of a warm up exercise for my efforts to write more, I started working through the original book to convert the adventures into Trail of Cthulhu.
It’s unclear how many I’ll get through, but I had an excellent time converting the first scenario, Bad Company. The work necessary to understand and adapt the scenario turned out to be a great way to internalize the material. Wish I had a good place to run it; alas, it doesn’t fit into my current campaign.
True fact: tens of thousands of Londoners happily attended professional wrestling shows during the 1930s. This resurgence in the “sport” was thanks to one Sir Edward Atholl Oakeley, whose autobiography I really gotta read. (In his later years, long after his wrestling career ended, he became the 7th Baronet of Shrewsbury. Wild life story.) He dubbed his wrestling style “All-In,” since it allowed for wrestlers from a variety of traditions. Sir Oakeley always maintained he was promoting real sporting matches, but given that US pro wrestling had already become mostly staged by 1930, it seems pretty likely that All-In wrestling matches were also fixed.
This phase of British professional wrestling history lasted under a decade. By 1940, the quality of the wrestling had degenerated as demand rose. It became more a spectacle, less a sport, and unacceptable in the eyes of civil society. By the time promoters were running mixed gender matches, judges were handing down decrees preventing public shows.
Let’s talk about gaming!
In 1857, a French photographer named René Dagron combined the hot new fad of microphotography and a 50 year old magnifying device called a Stanhope lens to come up with a simple inexpensive way of embedding tiny photographs into a wide range of gewgaws. Stanhope lenses are small enough to embed within rings, watch keys, pocket knives, charms, and so on. Dagron was also an entrepreneur: he ran a mail order business selling the things. Since they were cheap enough to market as souvenirs, they became fairly common fairly quickly.
The images are remarkably clear and detailed despite their tiny size. One could, hypothetically, put quite a bit of text in one of these. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Dagron refined his microphotography process to generate carrier pigeon messages. This usage didn’t require Stanhope lenses in reality. Who knows what might have happened in a slightly different time stream?
The fad was mostly over by World War I, but there are plenty of the things floating around during the 1930s era of Trail of Cthulhu. If you’re running a Night’s Black Agents game, you’ll be happy to know that Stanhopes still turn up all the time in the wild in 2018. Also fun: it’s not obvious when an object has a Stanhope embedded within it. The photographs are 1/10th of an inch in diameter and a mere quarter of an inch long; modern collectors often miss the presence of a Stanhope. This makes them awesome as unexpected surprises for an investigatory game.
Based on a few hours of Web surfing, I can’t find any evidence that anyone put a Stanhope into a book spine — but someone really should have. This is an easy Bookhounds of London hook. The book itself is something anodyne and unremarkable, but the spine contains images of a horrible crime. Who took them? Why were they preserved in this manner? What’s casting that terrifying shadow in the background?
For a conventional Trail of Cthulhu game, stick the same images in a more traditional Stanhope carrier. Want something more outré? Consider the pocket knife with a small glass aperture at one end. If you look into the glass aperture, what looks back out at you? The Stanhope brooch is the only path this creature has to reach the outer world, and it’s been trapped in there for decades. It will not be grateful to you.
Wait: this Stanhope shows a moving picture. Something strange. It’s the Dreamlands, or Carcosa if you’re into Hastur.
For Night’s Black Agents, a Stanhope would be a great way to introduce a picture of a prominent NPC. Who, of course, looks the same in the picture as he does now. Most photographic evidence of his earlier life was destroyed, but Stanhopes are easy to miss. Or you can go straight espionage, and have one contain microfilm as an information carrier. Also, since we’re talking vampires, I should note that there were plenty of Stanhopes built into crosses. One common cross had seven Stanhopes in it, each one depicting one of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Any vampire game ought to be able to do something useful with that.
Skill-wise, a Trail of Cthulhu character needs Art History or a Evidence Collection spend to notice one of these things. Craft could also work given the right specialty. Bookhounds could use Document Analysis. For Night’s Black Agents, a Notice spend can stand in for Evidence Collection. Art History remains preferable — give those PCs some payoff for all those years spent in museums.
There’s a book on these, which looks really interesting but I’m not sure about giving into temptation. It has pictures, though. Tempting.
Nights Black Agents campaigns are built using a diagram which represents the classic conspiratorial pyramid structure. It’s called a Conspyramid. The mastermind squats at the top, with minions at various levels beneath. PCs discover the fringes of the conspiracy, and work their way up as the campaign goes on.
The following diagram is a satire. Who would believe that Peter Thiel is secretly influencing 4chan, or that Steve Bannon controls Breitbart News?
Years apart, actual quotes. It’s interesting how two of my favorite designers approached the same problem.
Unlike a lot of games out there, InSpectres didn’t start as an idea for a cool setting or anything like that. What I wanted to do was try designing a game that “fixed” some problems I saw in similar games that dealt with investigation (no names, please). That problem is what I call the “murder mystery” plot. Basically, it goes like this: the players stumble across a mystery of some sort. The GM then provides clues (in the form of helpful or not-so-helpful NPCs, scraps of forensic information or first-hand knowledge of the event). If the players are smart, they’ll figure it out. If not, then the GM has to guide them along until they do figure it out. In effect, it becomes an exercise for the GM in which the players are guided down a pre-built track and react to stuff that pops up along the way (not unlike a funhouse ride). In the end, the game succeeds or fails on the merits of the GM running that game.
What this game does is to allow the GM to set up the events, but then have the players (through their characters) decide what is really going on. The GM then reacts to the players and what they see as intriguing or exciting elements of the story.
The other thing I wanted to do was to set up a play structure (the series of events that occurs in each game session). Using this play structure as a guide, the GM and players know what is expected of them at various stages of the game. The fun, of course, comes from doing stuff in each stage.
Investigative scenarios have been done wrong since the early days of roleplaying games. As a consequence, they’re hard to run and prone to grind to a halt. GUMSHOE is here to fix all that.
What’s wrong about the traditional way of doing investigative games? They’re based on a faulty premise. Story-based roleplaying, of which investigative games were an early if not the earliest example, evolved from dungeon-bashing campaigns. They treat clues the same way that dungeon games treat treasure. You have to search for the clue that takes you on to the next scene. If you roll well, you get the clue. If not, you don’t — and the story grinds to a halt.
In a fictional procedural, whether it’s a mystery novel or an episode of a cop show, the emphasis isn’t on finding the clues in the first place. When it really matters, you may get a paragraph telling you how difficult the search was, or a montage of a CSI team tossing an apartment. But the action really starts after the clues are gathered.
GUMSHOE, therefore, makes the finding of clues all but automatic, as long as you get to the right place in the story and have the right ability. That’s when the fun part begins, when the players try to put the components of the puzzle together.
Every investigative scenario begins with a crime or conspiracy committed by a group of antagonists. The bad guys do something bad. The player characters must figure out who did it and put a stop to their activities.
If you use the GUMSHOE rules for straight-up crime drama, the team investigates a crime, finds out who did it, and puts the culprits under arrest.
In the Esoterrorist setting, the team investigates an occult conspiracy, finds out who did it and why, and takes action to end the occult manifestations. They may detain or kill the Esoterrorists behind it. They may destroy any supernatural creatures or effects generated by the conspiracy. Or they might turn over the information gained in their investigation to a specialized Ordo Veritatis clean-up team, who ruthlessly and efficiently dispose of the guilty parties and their workings.
Your GM designs each scenario by creating an investigation trigger, a sinister conspiracy, and a trail of clues.
I’ve enjoyed both GUMSHOE and InSpectres. Both Jared and Robin identify the clumsiness of a GM leading players to clues by the nose. Jared doesn’t like the part that comes afterwards; Robin does.
This post has an expiration date, which is approximately three days from publication. Reading it after 9/28? You missed out.
The current Bundle of Holding is for a bunch of GUMSHOE games and it seemed worth going over what you get. It might appear that there’s a lot of duplication in the bundle, since all four of the full RPGs are based on the same ruleset. Not so!
Night’s Black Agents is the easy sell: technothrillers meet vampires. Spy action, bloodsuckers, Ronin and Alias and so on. You get the basic GUMSHOE rules tuned for action, which had not been a particular strength until this point. Also you get The Zalozhniy Quartet which is probably a solid 8-12 sessions of play, at a guess. Maybe more.
So why do you also want Mutant City Blues and the associated Hard Helix adventure? Not for the superpower rules. (Sorry.) They are a bit idiosyncratic and highly world specific. You do, however, really want the detailed description of running a GUMSHOE game as a police procedural: interrogation scenes, what a police station is like, all that good stuff. Mutant City Blues is the GUMSHOE game you’d use to run Criminal Minds or CSI.
Fear Itself is a sweet minimal GUMSHOE implementation that does a decent job on slasher films. All the other versions of GUMSHOE in this bundle deliver competent characters. Fear Itself delivers teenagers.
Finally, Ashen Stars is a cool extension of the investigative procedural engine to cover episodic SF. The included setting is solid, but you could also use this to run Star Trek (of course) or Firefly. Or anything where there’s a spaceship, or a set of portals leading to strange worlds, or some kind of time machine masquerading as a common street object, and the player characters travel around dealing with mysterious problems.
In other words, there’s plenty of overlap but there’s also plenty of unique content and you will absolutely learn something about the system from each of the four games. Since you also get a bunch of Robin Laws columns, this is a no-brainer. You also get the Ken Hite subscription but come on, that’s an evil trap. Half of that stuff is Trail of Cthulhu oriented which will make you want to buy that game too. (You should buy that game too.)
I’m still trying to fuse the brilliant combat engine from D&D 4e with the brilliant narrative engine from Gumshoe. You may not have known I was trying to do this. But I am.
Let’s skip over the skills question for now and pretend that we have a Gumshoe adventure all mapped out, with the multiple paths and the clues and the major and minor scenes. It’s a flowchart, basically. None of these scenes are directly combat-related, although it may require combat to reach a given scene. Here, have a PDF example. Contains spoilers for the Esoterrorists sample adventure, though!
Now: for each scene, we may (not must) attach either a prerequisite combat, a resulting combat, or both. A prerequisite combat is a fight you need to engage in, or possibly win, in order to get to the clue scene. The clue scene might be really brief; e.g., maybe the fight happens and one of the combatants has the clue on him. Or, say, you have to fight through the kobolds to get to the secret lair in which more information is available.
A resulting combat is when they come after you for finding a clue. Actions have consequences. I think it’s important to make the linkage super-clear for the best narrative effect.
The idea is that by strongly pairing investigative scenes and combat scenes, you reduce any chance that the players will feel like they’re playing two different concurrent games with the same set of characters. This is just a theory right now. I should probably test it sometime.
Another tangential note: you could maybe keep skill challenges as long as you went with the current WotC approach, which is that failed skill challenges result in problems rather than failures. This is attractive in that skill challenges seem to be cool, but I think it’s too much of a departure from the Gumshoe skill model. Or you could ditch the Gumshoe model altogether and make clue acquisition into skill challenges? I don’t know how to run skill challenges well enough to do this, however.
Jere ran some more Gumshoe for us over the last couple of weeks; it was once more a bunch of fun. The scenario was more Cthulhoid this time around, not so much from a villain perspective but definitely so in terms of locale and threat.
The PCs (a retired cop, a linguist, a spirit photographer, a stage manager, and an NSA analyst) were a motley crew attending a Shakespeare festival in New Hampshire. At a party a couple of days before Opening Night, the actress slated to play Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra killed her understudy under suspicious circumstances. By virtue of our collective failure to run away screaming, the local sheriff deputized us to solve the murder.
Over the next few days, we found out that two of the directors, the local patron family, a suspicious sculptor, and a 70s cult rock band were all involved in a plot to open the way and allow Horus to run rampant. The phrase “crack the shell of the world” was bandied about more casually than we found pleasing. Once we had a reasonably firm picture of what was intended, questions of history (how this group of cultists came together, who perverted and corrupted who, and whether or not the Lost Folio was real Shakespeare) went by the wayside and stopping the various Opening Night performances became paramount. Said performances being the components of the way-opening ritual.
I felt more or less completely outclassed by the cult at most points, which was fairly satisfying. See my opening comment regarding the Cthulhoid nature of the game. I like the sensation that the Outer Darkness is imminent with little hope of total success. In this case, the cult will be back in 17 or 33 years, and it’s not as if we made any real dent in the infrastructure of the town. We had a ton of freedom to determine the best way to stop the performances, and all we managed was to convince the actors to go home. No actual cultists were harmed.
Jere removed the combat system entirely; we just ranked our physical skills like investigative skills. I’m not sure if we got any clues via physical skills — Jere, did we? In theory we might have been able to; in practice we were a very non-violent lot.
As I noted after the game, there was far less feedback on which skills were producing which clues than we got in the first game, which left me feeling a little bit more at loose ends. I suspect that any given group is going to get to about where we were in terms of that feedback; it’s a trust relationship built up between GM and players. In this case it didn’t bug me per se, but I’d yellow flag it: much of the value of Gumshoe for me is getting rid of the “guess the clue” mechanism. This is a group issue, by the by: players are as much responsible for pushing their skills as GMs are.
I am pensive about my roleplay. It’s pretty easy for me to slip back into humor. In this case I was deliberately going for a slightly goofy approach, which in retrospect may have been wrong. I’m not sure. I pulled off my usual arc with such characters, which depicts them as mostly ineffectual with a core of resilience; said core manifested this time in Edward’s purchase of a gun “just in case.” This satisfies me but I worry that it hampers immersion for others.
I’m finding myself tempted to open up a Web site for Gumshoe in the tradition of my old Shadowfist and Feng Shui sites. I don’t know if there’d be enough interest, but I like the game a lot and I think there’s good scope for fan-created scenarios and rules, which I’ve always felt have something to do with the success of a game. Pelgrane has some pretty good forums. Hm.
I owe Simon Rogers some conversation about Mutant City Blues, but I haven’t had time to play it yet. On a readthrough, however, I’m quite impressed — all the usual Gumshoe goodness, plus a creative implementation of superpowers, plus excellent material on running a police-oriented investigative game. The section on roleplaying police interrogations ought to be stapled in front of any police procedural game ever. Which, come to think of it, includes Dark Heresy.
Maybe next weekend I can ad hoc something with the back of the book adventure. Anyhow.
I’ve also been playing the Penny Arcade game. (Fine. On the Rain-Slicked Precipice of Darkness.) For the record, point and click adventure games are remarkably suitable for the Gumshoe engine. It’s the same investigative model — clues are there when you look for them. Less room for improv and branches, of course, but that’s why I love tabletop.
The fights in OtRSPoD are pretty pre-ordained as well. You need a bit of reflexes, but you can always run and start over, and death is no big deal, and the combat system is not hard. In fact, the fights are almost just a mechanic to time-delay the delivery of the story. Hm.