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Author Topic: [InSpectres] First RPG in Years, (Just About) First RPG Ever (long)  (Read 5814 times)
Jon Hastings
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« on: August 21, 2005, 09:14:36 AM »

Hi, everyone.  I've lurked on the Forge for a while, but haven't posted because I haven't actually been playing RPGs for the last few years.  However, I convinced a couple of my friends to give RPGing a try, and the result was a pretty successful session of InSpectres.

I have years of experience as a GM, but this was my first time GMing a narrativist-focused game.  The two players, Nick and Kevin, had tried to play AD&D3e a while back (I'm not sure if they got much farther than character creation and a quickly aborted dungeon crawl), but, for all intents and purposes, this was their first complete RPG experience.  As a side note, the three of us have been playing boardgames (Settlers of Catan and other Eurogames) about once a month for the last few months, so this could be seen as my boardgaming group giving an RPG a try for the first time.

Nick's main priority when it came to choosing a game was that it "not be like D&D."  I showed him a list of some indie RPGs that seemed interesting and accessible, and he picked InSpectres.  From reading a bunch of Actual Play threads, I got the impression that InSpectres worked pretty well for people new to RPGs and GMs new to narrativism, so I was on board with this choice.  I think it was a good choice, because both players had a good time, both want to play again, and Nick declared it "the best game ever."

We got together to play, and I did a quick run down of the game's mechanics and special features.  I explained how successful rolls meant the players could decide what happens, warned about Stress Dice, and highlighted the "Confessionals" option.

Then we started character creation.  Kevin had already read the rules, and came to the table with a character in mind: Carson Cole, a gambler/con artist, who has a thing for "vampire chicks".  Kevin's idea was that Carson had come up with a lot of the start-up money by way of a confidence game, and that he wanted to get into the ghost busting business because he had been "screwed over" by some (unspecified as of yet) "weird" entity.  Nick created Cyrus MacPeherson, a marketing guy with an interest in the occult, who wanted to go into business on his own to impress women.

Mechanically, the players allocated their skill dice basically the same way: both characters were high in Academics and Contacts and low in Athletics and Technology.  Kevin chose the talent "Con Artist" for Cole and Nick chose the talent "Business Development" for Cyrus.

We moved on to Franchise Creation.  I had planned on giving them 7 Franchise Dice to start with, as that seems to be the standard, but because a third player who was tentatively scheduled to play didn't show, Kevin suggested I make up for the loss by giving them a few extra Franchise Dice to start with.  I said "Okay" and had them start with 10 Dice, which they placed to offset their characters' weaknesses in Athletics and Technology.  Looking back on it, though, I think I should've made them start with just 7 Franchise Dice, as those extra 3 Dice turned out to be more trouble than they were worth.

The story they came up with for their franchise didn't exactly gibe with the 10 Franchise Dice, but I thought it was pretty good--the idea being that they were operating on a shoestring budget out of their apartments and would rent officespace on an hourly basis whenever they wanted to impress clients.  (Although, thinking back on it, considering apartment rental prices here in NYC, this might made some kind of depressing sense).  They had a computer with spotty internet access and they bought Metrocards as a means of transportation.

Looking back on it now, I realize I skipped the "opening interview" section of the game and jumped right into introducing their first client.  I'm not sure what effect, if any, this omission had on the rest of the game.  For their first case, I had them get hired by a lawyer who was representing a subway conductor.  The conductor had witnessed some kind of supernatural presence taking a subway train out for a joy ride on the "L" Line.  He refused to go back to work under these "haunted" conditions.  The conductor was claiming workers' comp, but his bosses (the MTA) were balking, claiming that he was just making things up to get out of work.  His lawyer wanted the PCs to find evidence that the "L" Train did indeed have some kind of supernatural infestation.

Any worries I had about the players taking to the game disappeared almost instantly: they both dove right in, and within moments had made some Academics rolls and found out about a weird guy who ran a Geocities website devoted to "Strange Happenings on the L Train" (complete with "ghost light" photos) as well as news reports about a love triangle that had erupted into triple murder/suicide on the "L" Line back in 1957.  I was thoroughly entertained by the story they came up with, and they did an especially good job of providing neat details.  Lots of laughs, lots of fun.

I would say the game was about 90%+ successful from the players' p.o.v. and about 70% successful from my p.o.v.

Here are my concerns/questions:

First, from a game mechanics standpoint, we stalled out right near the end of the mission.  I had made this a 20 Franchise Dice mission, following the recommendation in the rules to make missions worth two times the Franchise Dice the players start with.  However, the players "solved" the mission when they had earned only 18 Franchise Dice--the characters had met with the love triangle ghosts and had convinced them that they'd be happier hanging out in a haunted house.  Seeing that they still had dice left to earn, I narrated that the ghosts had left the train, but for some reason, the train kept going.  I saw this as volleying the ball back to the players, but the effect was that the game ground to a halt.  By this point in the evening, Kevin was getting tired and wanted to just finish the game, but Nick wanted to make sure that the end of the story was as satisfying as the beginning.  Normally, Nick had been pretty good at coming up with new stuff quickly, but because the story had already come to a kind of conclusion, he didn't want to ruin it by coming up with something arbitrary just to earn those last two dice.

We spent about 10 minutes wrangling over what to do.  I tried to suggest a couple of opportunities for taking action (and making rolls), but I didn't want to force anything on Nick that might take away his satisfaction in making the story.  At the same time, Kevin wanted to stop playing, and he did want to force Nick to make a choice.  However, he didn't want to "unilaterally" end the story by having his character try to take an action.  Finally, Nick came up with something that he liked, rolled, earned the Franchise Dice, and solved the case "for real".

I hadn't meant to put the players in this kind of "pressure" situation and it was really the only time in the entire game that their invention capabilities faltered.

Looking back, I think I did two things wrong: I should have stuck with starting them with 7 Franchise Dice, so they would only have to earn 14 to finish the mission.  Also, I should have took a more aggressive role in limiting the scope of the players' successful skill rolls.  I had a pretty good handle on how to run the Athletics rolls and the Technology rolls, but I was a bit shakier when it came to the Academics and Contacts rolls.  For example, Nick used his first successful Academics roll--a 6, earning him 2 Franchise Dice--to uncover the weirdo with the "L" Train website AND the existence of the ill-fated love triangle.  However, I probably should have encouraged him to split that up into two rolls, so he could have the chance of earning more dice.  (Also, they kind of seem like separate research tasks).  I didn't find the InSpectres rules too helpful when it came to figuring out when the GM can say "STOP" after the players make a successful Academics or Contacts roll, especially if the players get on roll in describing what happens, as my players did.  Similarly, they used Contact rolls to "convince" NPCs in to doing stuff for them throughout the game, but the rules don't give too much sense of how to place a limit on what a player can get NPCs to say/do when they use a talent like "Con Artist".

And this leads to my uneasiness with the game as a GM.  As I wrote before, the players had a super time playing InSpectres.  As GM, though, I'm not as enthusiastic.  Now, I definitely enjoyed the game.  I was thoroughly entertained by the story the players came up with and I was pleased that they both enjoyed playing an RPG and that our first attempt went (mostly) smoothly.  However, I felt that, as GM, I was kind of a non-entity in terms of creating the story.

My actual effect on the game was in two areas: I acted as an antagonist through the use of the Stress mechanic and I acted as a kind of stage manager.  I think I did okay in both of these areas.  I had the players make about 6 stress rolls a piece: one character ended up with 3 Stress Dice (and he had also suffered from a couple temporary 1 die penalties) and the other ended up with 5 Stress Dice and 1 Cool Die (he had earned another Cool Die, but spent it towards the end).  Because of this Stress, they ended up spending 7 of their 10 Franchise Dice, mostly at the end of the mission.  As "Stage Manager", until the hiccup at the end, I think I managed to keep things on track in terms of the "Sequence of Play".  I tried to clarify the scene changes and I tried to remind the players of various plot threads that they had left dangling and forgotten about in the heat of coming up with new story stuff.

However, at no point did I really feel like a collaborator in the storytelling in any meaningful sense.  And the few times I tried, I was shot down by the players.  An example: to fit in with the idea that the franchise didn't have much in the way of technology, Kevin had his character con a couple of technology-rich amateur ghost hunters (from Connecticut) into helping them capture the train haunting on film.  I thought this was a pretty good idea, but when I tried to step in and play these characters, Kevin said "No, that's not what they do."  Because he had succeeded at his "con the ghost hunters" roll, it seemed to make sense that, by the rules, he could indeed describe what he conned them into and how they responded to the con.

Stuff like this happened throughout the game: I found whenever I tried to play an NPC, the players jumped in and stopped me before I could actually contribute to the story.

Now, this is kind of ironic, because this seems to be exactly the opposite of the problem that many GMs who are trying to introduce a traditional RPG group to narrative-style games have.  But, as GM, to have my contributions shot down, I actually felt the same as I did when I'd be playing in a "traditional" game, tried to have my character do something cool/important-to-me, and have the GM tell me "No, you can't do that" for no reason other than that it upset the story he was trying to tell.

I had a hard time in InSpectres in trying to find a way, by the rules, to really get ahold of the story so I could collaborate with the players, and not just watch.  I suppose I could have tried to hit them with MORE Stress Rolls, but it seems kind of cheap if I am just piling on the Stress so that I can momentarily take over a story element.  But maybe taking a Paranoia-like adversarial position is exactly what is called for.  I kind of hope there's another answer, though, because that isn't too interesting to me as a GM.

I think part of my problem with the game is that its mechanics really do nothing to define NPCs or give them any "in story" weight (aside from monsters having a stress rating).  Whenever I tried to play an NPC, the players would use their Characters' Contacts skills to convince the NPC into doing exactly what they wanted.  Again, this seems kosher, according to the rules, but it just didn't sit too well with me.  In practice, the players ended up bringing a bunch of NPCs into the game who, like the ghost hunters, were just there to give an "in story" reason for the characters having increased effectiveness.  And, when I tried to use this to tease out an interesting (to me at least) issue--namely the contrast between enthusiastic amateurs and greedy professionals--the players balked at dealing with the NPCs as anything but tools for their characters to use.

Anyway, to sum up: my players had a great time with their first RPG experience and I had a pretty good time with my first RPG in years (and my first narrative GM-ing ever).  The players definitely want to play again, and I do, too.  However, I would like some advice from people who have more experience with the game in terms of how I can more aggressively take part in the game and introduce NPCs that offer more resistance to the players.

Cheers,
Jon
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Bankuei
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« Reply #1 on: August 21, 2005, 09:43:19 AM »

Hi Jon,

Quote
However, I felt that, as GM, I was kind of a non-entity in terms of creating the story.

I've heard this said before with Inspectres.  One time Clinton said, "At this point, we don't even need a GM" during a game, simply because the conflict had been established and the players ran with it hard.  Aside from narrating bad rolls (which is a great place for the GM to input), the GM can also pour in Stress dice and situations that have Stress in them.  This is more than just monsters, this is completely wacky everyday stuff like getting stuck in traffic, having an ex-gf call and say she's pregnant, and spilling hot coffee on your lap while Godzilla is eating the Empire State Building...  The players can roll to shoot it down, but Stress still hits them either way, and really is the pressure cooker- the monsters are for show.

Chris
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Victor Gijsbers
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« Reply #2 on: August 21, 2005, 12:44:52 PM »

I think that after you've run a single session of Inspectres to get the hang on it, you can drop the GM-role from that point on. If you wish you can choose one person to handle the GM-side of initial mission creation (introducing the client, setting the number of franchise die), but there is no reason to keep this special role once the mission has begun.

"Each player calls for stress dice and performs other GM-like duties when necessary for the player on his left", should do the trick well enough, I think.

It's what I will try when I play InSpectres next time because, as you say, the GM's role is pretty boring in this game. I think it's even what the game text suggests.
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Nathan P.
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« Reply #3 on: August 21, 2005, 07:55:11 PM »

Now, I could be wrong about this being in the rules or not (as I don't have the book at hand), but when I play InSpectres, one of the GMs jobs is to call for Skill rolls. Thats where the GMs power over pacing comes in, along with hitting the players with Stress. It also kind of keeps the ball in the GMs court in terms of "controlling" NPCs, or at least it does in my games.

This is all, of course, if you wouldn't rather move to GMless InSpectres play, which I'm sure would be cool too (I haven't played that way). But, the way I read it, everything except for the narration of dice results is pretty much in no-mans land. Once you've rolled, and narrated the direct consequences of that roll, whatevers been introduced is out there for anyone else to run with, including the GM.

Another thing to think about is that, when you call for Skill rolls, you should establish the goal of the roll (the stakes). The roll indicates who narrates the stakes, and then it goes into free-for-all land. That is, if you call for a Contacts roll with the Conn. ghostbusters, and you and the player decide that the roll will determine whether they are convinced to help the PCs or not, then the narration concerns only those stakes. Once thats been settled, play moves on.

I hope some of that is helpful. I make no claim that thats in the rules, but its how I've been playing, and I haven't been feeling deprotagonized as a GM. *shrugs*
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Nathan P.
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Jon Hastings
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« Reply #4 on: August 22, 2005, 04:12:00 AM »

Thanks for all the advice.

Chris: I did call for Stress Rolls when it came to facing "everyday irritations", but--after reading a few more Actual Play threads--I realize I completely left out any Stress Rolls specifically dealing with the Corporate-Franchise "startup.com" aspect of the game.  In fact, the "startup.com" aspect of the game was really lacking overall. My players were so engaged with the ghost hunting stuff that, once they got on a roll, I didn't want to spoil their fun.  I'll be sure to bring the corporate stuff into play more forcefully next time.  (I might even, you know, follow the rules, and start with a "Starting Interview"). 

Nathan: That strikes me as being exactly right.  After looking through the rules again, I got the impression that the skill rolls the players made weren't narrow enough when it came to what they were trying to achieve.  For example, there were a few times where a player made an Academics roll, and then proceeded to infodump tons of stuff.  I think it would have worked better if I had enforced some more specificity, i.e.: "Make an Academics Skill roll to discover anything on the Web about weird stuff on the L-Train" instead of "Make an Academics roll and tell me everything and anything you want to about the mystery."  This is partly what led to the stalling-out towards the end: there hadn't been enough Skill Rolls (and thus chances to earn Franchise Dice) for all the good, mystery solving story information the players had narrated.

And I think making the Skill Rolls more narrow in scope will help to make the Con Artist character's "Con Artist" Skill a lot less like "Control NPCs Minds". 

Victor: I'm going to try another session or two as GM, if only to see if I can get it right.  Since both these players are new to RPGing, I don't want to make them take on any kind of extra responsibility, at least until I can model more effective GM performance.

Cheers,
Jon
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Eero Tuovinen
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« Reply #5 on: August 22, 2005, 07:17:11 AM »

7 die franchise? 10 die? That's huge for a start-up, man. I start with only three. The benefit is that the missions at the beginning are really short, so the players get to learn the flow of the mission/vacation without spending a whole session in it.

Your problem with pacing: you seem to have problems with players racing towards the solution. In this case you ended up with the problem already solved, but franchice dice still unearned. Solution: make players co-responsible for the pacing. For example, when the end of the story is coming near, reming the narrating player that he shouldn't tie everything neatly together, because they haven't yet earned the ending mechanically. Explain that the narration is ultimately just color, and the mission won't end, no matter what is narrated, until the mechanics are satisfied.

As for the specific situation: when my players solve a problem early, I hit them with the repercussions of their actions. They have to explain the events to the media, the police, angry meighbors and such, and it CANNOT end before they earn those last couple of dice. I've never yet seen players  handling a mission in a way that didn't cause this kind of repercussions, assuming that the GM is willing to use them. On the other hand, if the player's manage to time the plot to end just when the franchise dice are earned: write down all the misdemeanors and enemies the players made, and hit them during the next mission. Nothing is funnier than having a secondary character from last episode becoming a complication in the next one.

GM power: let players narrate whatever they're interested in narrating. If they like some NPC, let them decide what that character does. That won't break the game. Instead, control the game through arbitrary complications: you have the power to take anything that happens and require a stress roll for it. Causing stress slows down the game, so if you feel that the players are having a too easy time at it, throw in some stress. You can also require skill rolls, but that's not strictly necessary: the players should want and demand skill rolls, because they're mechanically beneficient.

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Jon Hastings
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« Reply #6 on: August 22, 2005, 07:48:00 AM »

7 die franchise? 10 die? That's huge for a start-up, man. I start with only three. The benefit is that the missions at the beginning are really short, so the players get to learn the flow of the mission/vacation without spending a whole session in it.

That makes sense, although the example in the rules shows the creation of a 7 Dice starting Franchise, so I thought that was considered the standard way to do things.


GM power: let players narrate whatever they're interested in narrating. If they like some NPC, let them decide what that character does. That won't break the game. Instead, control the game through arbitrary complications: you have the power to take anything that happens and require a stress roll for it.


I picked up on this before playing from reading Actual Play threads, and I did throw a bunch of arbitrary complications at the players in the form of Sress Rolls.  However, as I pointed out in my original post, I don't find that kind of arbitrary antagonistic power as interesting as having  creative input into the story.  So advice like "give them more Stress Rolls" makes me feel that this game just might not be for me.  But I definitely want to try again now that I have a better handle on the pacing issue and have a better sense of how the Skill Rolls should work.

Cheers,
Jon
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Jon Hastings
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« Reply #7 on: August 22, 2005, 08:05:30 AM »

Oh, and one more thing...


As for the specific situation: when my players solve a problem early, I hit them with the repercussions of their actions. They have to explain the events to the media, the police, angry meighbors and such, and it CANNOT end before they earn those last couple of dice. I've never yet seen players handling a mission in a way that didn't cause this kind of repercussions, assuming that the GM is willing to use them. On the other hand, if the player's manage to time the plot to end just when the franchise dice are earned: write down all the misdemeanors and enemies the players made, and hit them during the next mission. Nothing is funnier than having a secondary character from last episode becoming a complication in the next one.


I completely overlooked the idea of bringing the repercussions into play as part of the mission (i.e. to earn Franchise Dice).  This is a really helpful suggestion and I think it will help to solve a lot of my problems.  Thanks!

Cheers,
Jon
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