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46709 Posts in 5588 Topics by 13297 Members Latest Member: - Shane786 Most online today: 29 - most online ever: 429 (November 03, 2007, 04:35:43 AM)
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Author Topic: [Conspiracy-X, but widely applicable] Detective gaming and suspense  (Read 2260 times)
lachek
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« on: May 01, 2008, 11:31:42 AM »

I've been a player in a really great conspiracy-themed game for three sessions now. The first episode just wrapped up, and the Game Master is gearing up for the second. In the process, he's asking some really interesting and hard post-game questions which I'm hoping to get some reactions and thoughts on by posting here.

First off, the game. We were using Conspiracy-X rules (Unisystem). The only rules which came into effect were the basics (add attribute + skill + modifiers + d10, beat a 9, the higher the number the better you do) and some specific firearms combat rules (aiming + hit location + hit points).

The players were:
  • The Game Master, Justin
  • Mikael (me), playing Judge, a semi-racist testosterone-laden gun-nut idiot cop (who, over the course of the game, I grew really close to)
  • Pete, playing Andreas, a psychologist and professional gambler hired on as a police consultant
  • Vic, playing Madame Magda, a self-serving psychic and hacker doing occasional contracts for the police
  • Hans, playing Nancy, a police officer who tries really hard to do things by the book, hiding a budding pregnancy
  • Ryan, playing Michael, an inside informer for the police doubling as a car jacking gang member and severe dopehead

Of these players, Justin, Hans and I are pretty well read on weird hippie stuff and tend to push for it. Pete, Vic and Ryan tend to fall back into more traditional blow-by-blow methods of narration and resolution as we play unless reminded, but by and large enjoy the games we've played. I'm the young'un of the group - since I joined we've played Castles & Crusades (old-school, by the book, on purpose) and a post-apoc Dust Devils hack (totally not old-school) together.

The group of PCs constituted the Toronto Police Force's infamous Cold Case squad. Early on in the story, we were tasked with the impossible task to investigate the "Year of the Gun" killings of '05, a surge of firearms-related deaths with few common denominators. The story itself is largely unimportant to my questions, but might be brought up as examples throughout.

Prior to the first session, Justin set a few ground rules.

#1: (paraphrased) We will aim for suspense/horror.
#2: "In this Conspiracy-X game, the PC's ARE going to win - I state this upfront, and clearly. what is at stake, what is unknown is how it will happen, what the final stakes are going to be, and what the cost to each of your characters will be." (paraphrase) Suspense is not reliant on not knowing the outcome, but on how the known outcome will finally come about.
#3: "Character death.... When a character dies in a novel or a movie, it's a) to establish what's at stake, b) to escalate the conflict, or c) to make a final statement. It's never by accident or for no good reason, unlike in real life." (paraphrased) You get to choose your character's moment of death.
#4: "If you have something fun to say, say it, the success of this game will be dependent on social feedback, interaction and enthusiasm, don't let the pesky little detail that your character isn't in the scene stopping you from participating." (paraphrased) Players, engage!

To back up these ground rules, he initially altered the way conflicts were handled. Rather than stating intent for a task, then rolling to see if we succeeded, we went straight for extreme conflict resolution - you state what you want to happen in the fiction, I state what I want, and we roll to see who gets what they want.

An example:

Judge and Nancy is firing at a mad gunman at a rally. A "dirty" cop is also firing at the gunman. Judge and Nancy has just been the victim of a public slander campaign.
I say, "I want to kill him before the other cop does."
Justin responds, "Okay, do you want to kill him to protect the bystanders? Or to get the glory?"
Getting the hint, I say, "Bystanders? What bystanders? I take him out in the most obvious way possible."
Nancy says, "I also want to kill him quickly, but I'm doing it to protect the bystanders before they get caught in his fire."
Now we roll for it. I get a better Dex+Guns+d10 roll than the dirty cop does. I also get above 9.
Justin hands me narration. I go on about the gunman getting hit in the chest, flying backwards towards the revolving doors. Before he hits the ground, I've put another bullet right between his eyes. There's blood and screaming people everywhere. Judge feels vindicated.
Turns out Nancy got below 9. Justin narrates a stray bullet hitting - and killing - an Albanian cab driver completely uninvolved in the rally. In the commotion, nobody else sees where the bullet came from. But Nancy knows.

By straight Unisystem, we would all state intent, then initiative, then (in order) roll our to-hit rolls. If we missed, we might hit some bystander by GM fiat. We would go to effect and weapons tables to determine HP loss, then check to see if the guy is dead yet, and so on. The reason behind our actions would not matter to determine fictional outcomes, etc.

Suffice to say, I much preferred this approach. It was a little clumsy at times, since everything on our character sheet and the system itself was built to support task resolution, but by and large it worked very well to create the kind of play I enjoy.

Cont.
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lachek
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« Reply #1 on: May 01, 2008, 01:02:43 PM »

(Yeah I know, I just called Hans 'Nancy' above. I may make such mistakes again. Bear with me.)

During most of the second and half of the third session, Justin decided to play things out as flashback scenes. As the story went, we were all about to go into an Internal Affairs tribunal because of "what happened last Wednesday". While we're sitting in the board room waiting to go before the tribunal, we have to "fill in" Andreas on what happened the past few days, which led to this sorry state of affairs.

Justin passed each of us the outline of a scene frame, and asked us to inform Andreas - in character - what happened based on the outlines we had received. As we spoke, the focus would shift into the flashback scene, which was then played out as if it just happened. However, any player could raise their hand (indicating they were speaking in "board room time") and add details.

For example:

Hans is narrating a scene where Judge and Nancy went to visit George the coroner, who happens to be a self-important asshole. As Nancy is fighting her morning sickness, Judge is absently munching on a polish sausage he bought on the street outside and being a general jerk.
Ryan could raise his hand and add, as Michael, "Down at the pub they were laughing about how George found this stiff flippin' him off last week. Did you see that when you were down there?"
I say (in flashback time), "Out of the corner of her eye, Nancy sees Judge licking his fingers clear of the sausage juices, then laboriously twisting the stiff fingers of the cadaver on the table until the hand is positioned in an unmistakable pattern."

We used this ability to introduce details for important things too, of course. We could have used it more. An observation which ties into the overall point of this post (finally): One reason I didn't use it more is because I knew each of these scenes had a specific purpose, to introduce some critical piece of information which would propel our characters and the story onwards. Once or twice Justin had to stop us and say, "Um, no... let's not do that, that would be bad." He tried really hard to incorporate our input, but for natural reasons didn't want to contradict things which would occur in the future.

In out-of-game discussion, it became clear why Justin wanted to explore this flashback technique. In prepping for the game, he had discovered that he was essentially laying out a ... I don't want to call it "railroad" ... but a track, of set pieces (crucial information) which we the investigators would have to find in order to bust the conspiracy. He was concerned that if we played it chronologically, he would have to either throw pacing out the window and wait for us to discover all the clues and draw all the right conclusions, or tie us up and put us on that locomotive, aggressively feed us both clues and conclusions with every stop along the railroad.

Wisely, he chose to stick with his ground rule #2: Suspense is not reliant on not knowing the outcome. He gave us the outcome, and let us tell him how we got there. He introduced some surprises along the way, of course, and any friction we felt came as the planned surprises and our imagination crashed into each other. But all in all, it worked out very well with minimal issues.

Cont. (actual point coming up, yay!)
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lachek
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« Reply #2 on: May 01, 2008, 01:17:41 PM »

So during post-game conversation, Justin and I come to a conclusion. All the suspense I felt as a player had to do with things other than what Justin had planned, i.e. the plot and the clues. There was plenty of suspense to be had, but it was either:

a) On an "in-the-moment" level - will I get the bad guy before the crooked cop does? or
b) On a "consequence" level - what will this to to my character? what will he be willing to do? how will he change?

There was plenty of the above type of suspense to be had, for sure. I don't miss the suspense absent in knowing what would happen next, or from knowing the set pieces would eventually reveal themselves regardless of my degree of success.

But naturally, this is dissatisfying to a Game Master. All that hard work for (next to) nothing!

So to fix this, you would put the players on the clock. Create suspense in the players by making their characters' success and the players' deductive abilities the driving force in the story. If it's not strong enough, terrible things happen. The players might even "lose" against the conspiracy.

You know: old-school CoC module play.

But doing this negates the cinematic assumptions.

Are these two irreconcilable? Are pre-planned conspiracies pointless in the form of play we use? Is it impossible to generate typical detective story suspense in a cinematic type of game?

How do you do it?
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #3 on: May 02, 2008, 11:55:23 AM »

I've been working on a game that shoots for something similar, as far as the union of Cinematic and Investigative goes.  It's called Witch Trails, and it's sort of like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly meets "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow."

A big chunk of the cinematic-ness in it comes from the conflict resolution system, which is structured to emulate conflicts in spaghetti Westerns.  It also helps that the PCs, by definition, are here to investigate the strange goings-on; it's their job, it's not something they get roped into (contrast to CoC).  However, like CoC, they don't always win.  They've won 2 out of 3 times so far--but one of those wins wasn't much of a win, in that a lot of people got killed because of the way it was solved.  Unlike CoC, there are no perception checks; if there's something present that the PCs need to see, then they see it--the only thing that resolution is used for is conflicts of interest and actions that pose a risk to someone (swimming in a strong current, jumping a chasm on horseback, etc.)

I've posted an account of the second playtest here.  This was also the most successful of the tests, and the only one so far that I've GMed myself--which suggests that a big chunk of what was good about it was GM techniques.  What I did was prep a villain and his plot, then a touch of back-story for him, and then I prepped a few clues that they would be certain to discover--a major one of which was the girl who went crazy and ate her boyfriend.  I briefly prepped a few NPCs that I anticipated the PCs would interrogate (they only did so with one of them).  I knew that the PCs would arrive in town and start looking for signs of the strangeness that they're charged to investigate, so the first person they talked to told 'em about the girl.  I had no idea who the first person they would talk to would be; I just ran with it.  In fact, they interrogated a lot of people I hadn't anticipated, people I didn't even know existed until that point, so I ran with it.  Then they decided to do a magic ritual as part of their investigation, so I ran with it.  Basically, from moment to moment, I had no clue at all what they were going to do; but since it was limited by the basic PC concept, I could run with it.  I was certain that they would discover the villain's plot (because the villain's name kept coming up from everyone they talked to, plus I had him give them strange looks when they came into town), but I didn't know whether they would discover it in time to stop it.  I didn't even know if they would survive long enough to stop it.

-Marshall
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lachek
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« Reply #4 on: May 02, 2008, 12:39:56 PM »

Marshall, in that game, how did you handle pacing of vital information?

Did you have "trigger points" for the clues, like "the first person they meet will hand them X" followed by "some supernatural weirdness they do will provide Y" followed by "killing the first outlaw will yield Z"?

And then they had to "figure out" where the clues would lead?

In the playtest, there was a point where you steered the players back on the right path ("Okay, guys, I'm starting to feel bad about this..."). Does that not negate the idea behind investigative suspense, knowing that the GM will put you back on track if you're starting to falter? In our game, knowing that the clues would be discovered regardless of my performance as player or character turned them into colour, not vital information I needed to solve the case.

Did you write a timeline for the villain's "evil deed"? Is that how you became uncertain whether or not the PCs would be able to stop it?

If your prep says to drop the information in the PC's lap without a fight, how does that make the game "investigative"? What part does player performance play in the game?
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GregStolze
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« Reply #5 on: May 03, 2008, 04:53:18 AM »

Lemme see if I have this right.  The tension you're contemplating is between (1) player fun derived from interacting with structured plot -- but at the cost of the GM's fun because it's all predestined, vs. (2) GM fun from seeing what those crazyass players do next... at the cost of the whole thing maybe turning into a muddled mess where the players can't get it over the goal line and are left scratching their heads over myriad dropped clues and unsolved plotlines.

The solution I see comes from Stephen Sondheim.  (Yes, the musical theater genius.)  He did a musical called "Into the Woods" which is a big, glorious train wreck of fairy-tale tropes.  (The prince who's after Cinderella?  Brother of the prince who's after Rapunzel, and by Act Two he's mackin' on Snow White.  Or was it Sleeping Beauty?) 

Here's the deal with "Into the Woods."  The first act is a perfect of example of what I think of as "mechanical plot."  EVERY plot that gets raised is addressed, every good person is rewarded, every bad person is punished, every thread is tidily tied off.  This is your predestined plot, nu?

The second act is just the opposite.  Everything is mushy and personal and ambiguous and painful.  Instead of Act One's bilateral morality, you get an ethical grayout that prompts the Witch's contemptuous lines

You're all nice
You're not good, you're not bad you're just... nice.
I'm not good I'm not nice, I'm just right.


It ends with this great, mature uncertainty (that the characters recognize and acknowledge) contrasting heavily and deliberately with the first act's simplified patness.  Plus, in the version I saw, the Baker's Wife was AWWWWESOME.

How does this apply to gaming?  Well, the very flashback technique you discuss could be the key.  Let's picture a very structured investigation game broken into three acts (which could very well be three gaming sessions).

ACT ONE: Discovery.  This is railroaded, told in flashback, with the conclusion (the PCs Figure Out What's Going On) predetermined by the details of how they get there and what it costs them added in break-in narration.

ACT TWO: Comprehension.  This is the unscripted, off-the-rails judgment arising from the flashback.  The situation is still unresolved in some big way, but at least the outlines of events are understood.

ACT THREE: Conclusion.  Also unscripted, the PCs go and clean house.  If they succeed, yay rah.  If they fail, at least it's a failure where the players understand the full ramifications of the tragedy.

-G.
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #6 on: May 05, 2008, 09:07:45 AM »

Marshall, in that game, how did you handle pacing of vital information?

Did you have "trigger points" for the clues, like "the first person they meet will hand them X" followed by "some supernatural weirdness they do will provide Y" followed by "killing the first outlaw will yield Z"?

No, not really... I had every NPC mention the Fruit Fair, because that's where the evil plot was gonna go down.  And every NPC besides the boatman who ferried them to town mentioned the crazy girl, because she was an important clue (as the test victim for the strange fruit).  I also had several NPCs mention Gil Cutter, the villain, and had one elucidate on Gil's past with regard to losing his Pappy's land to the people who own the orchards (to set him up as the guy with the motive).  The neat thing about this is that all of this stuff was just "the talk of the town," so it didn't seem contrived to have everyone flappin' their jaws about it.  And when they talked to the girl's father, he mentioned Gil and said something about how Gil used to be sweet on the crazy girl. 

Basically, if the information was really vital (as in, "there's no adventure without it, just a bunch of flailing around") I tried to reveal it in as natural a way as possible.  There's no point in making them guess at the stuff that they HAVE to know just to get started.

Now, once they had that, they decided to perform a ritual using hair and a scrap of clothing taken from the crazy girl (which they had to fight for).  The ritual was to be performed in the girl's room, the very place she had eaten her boyfriend, so they had to put her parents to sleep by drugging their food; getting invited to dinner was easy, because they had already put themselves over to the father as investigators from the Pinkertons, looking into cases like this (they're supposed to have a cover story, and keep all of their magic secret so's they don't get hanged for witchcraft).  I had anticipated absolutely NONE of this, but it was easy to run with because it was within the scope of the game's setting and color; I just had them receive a vision, suitably vague, running backward in time that showed her eating a peach before going crazy, and also implicated Gil.

Quote
In the playtest, there was a point where you steered the players back on the right path ("Okay, guys, I'm starting to feel bad about this...").

I only felt bad about it because I wanted to integrate what they had come up with, but I couldn't find a way to :)  I could have let them burn down the whole orchard, and face the repercussions.  Maybe I should have.

Quote
Did you write a timeline for the villain's "evil deed"? Is that how you became uncertain whether or not the PCs would be able to stop it?
[/quote

Yes.  They had two days from their arrival until the Fruit Fair, and even then they barely did away with the villain's evil pie before anyone ate it.  Plus, there were other uncertainties; they might have been eaten by Gil's pet swamp gators, f'rinstance.  I had even prepared for the event of people actually eating the pie, and becoming horrible, bloodthirsty crazies that the players would have to stop somehow before they ate the whole town.  Or maybe the whole town would get eaten, and the PCs would have to retreat and telegraph for backup, and then a whole cadre of rangers comes in and blows the town to hell and damnation, and the PCs get a nice chewing-out from their CO.

Quote
If your prep says to drop the information in the PC's lap without a fight, how does that make the game "investigative"? What part does player performance play in the game?

Not all information is given without a fight; just the stuff that's basically vital.  Other stuff, particularly "how do we STOP this thing?" is held by the GM, perhaps with tiny hints here and there, until the players figure it out (although, in this case, fire was a pretty obvious solution; "How do you kill a tree?"  "Burn it!").  And if it makes sense for an NPC to not wanna give up what they know, there's a Conflict right there.  There was also a way to save the girl, but they never tried anything except asking the local preacher to perform an exorcism (which he had already tried, and failed, since she was possessed by a nature spirit, not a devil--that, and the preacher was an alcoholic and not particularly devout).
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lachek
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« Reply #7 on: May 06, 2008, 08:51:27 AM »

Marshall and Greg, just wanted to let you know, your feedback has spurred quite a lot of inspiration and creativity. Some techniques are currently being worked out based on your suggestions. I'll be sure to post our findings and actual play results when it happens.

In the meantime, if anyone has further input on this subject (and it's a pretty darned deep subject, from what I can tell) please chime in!
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Marshall Burns
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« Reply #8 on: May 06, 2008, 12:54:39 PM »

Awesome :)

At the risk of sounding like I'm full of shit, one of the players from the Witch Trails session called me up twice after the game to thank me and congratulate me for running it so well.  He said that it felt like a really good CoC game, which I find very cool because most of the techniques I was using aren't CoC techniques.

I'm thinking it's an issue of structure.  You can structure it all the way like CoC, and that will do the job, but it's a lot of work for the GM and it precludes a great deal of player power.  Or you can structure the outside of it, the framework, and have the players do what they want within that framework.  I'm gonna have to think about it more, but I think that there's something there.
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GregStolze
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« Reply #9 on: May 07, 2008, 03:31:11 AM »

The frame creates the picture.  Restrictions spur creativity.  It's just that way.

-G.
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