The thing about Gumshoe is that it has a basic conceit – never let stuff get in the way of the actual adventure. You always get clues; you don’t always know how to execute on those clues in the best way.
This is key. And while in many cases it’s obvious, in other cases it’s not. But over the last few weeks, I’ve read about and played in a few games where that rule was not followed. I’m sure that I’ve run games where I violated this concept myself.
So, some things that I’ve observed recently, and how I will plan to avoid this in the future.
The first lesson for me is “never obscure the fun.”
This doesn’t mean a railroad from one hack-and-slash or shoot-’em-up combat scenario to the other. But it does mean that if you have four to six of your friends sitting around tables or computers, that they shouldn’t stay sitting there long without having something juicy to do.
Note: if that ‘juicy’ thing is in-character roleplaying or even out-of-character shooting the breeze, that’s cool if it’s cool for everyone. But at some point, you will probably want to start the actual play of the game.
In a recent game I played in, it happened that the place where the mission/adventure was going to happen was hidden. All of our advanced TL10 sensors were fogged. Visibility (optical or otherwise) was down to 200 yards and the area that potentially housed the (relatively small) target location was 100 x 150 miles in size. 15,000 square miles. Mission parameters seemed to be that we were get into the location, where we expected to be outnumbered and outgunned, and steal some stuff. We didn’t need to secure the location, destroy anything, or even kill anything. Get in, get stuff, get out.
But . . . 15,000 square miles. We could see and observe about 1/75th of one square mile at any given time. Even if we could use antigrav belts to fly at 50 yards per second, that meant that it would take us about 4 seconds to observe each sub-segment, of which there were over a million, at ten hours per day of looking it would take four months to examine the area.
So we elected, not knowing any other way, to do something loud. That naturally exposed us to missile fire (TL10) and we’re woefully unequipped to dodge or even shoot them down (though my gunner skill from default was adequate to the task for one missile).
The whole job was to sneak into the base quietly and steal stuff. But we didn’t know where the mission site was, and once we woke up the bad guys, I’m fairly sure the mission was blown.
Frustrating. It took the emphasis off of the characters being cool, and took it into the realm of player-driven guesses as to how to find the adventure.
Having just read and reviewed Action 2, I think what was needed is to borrow a framework from that book, following Assess (get info), Analyze (make a plan), Act (do something), and Avoid (get out).
Failure to follow that sort of thing means that you have, to invert the title of one of Action 2’s chapters, headaches, not challenges.
Now, looking at our Action 2 recipe, how can “find the target” turn into something fun? Well, it’s a Mystery. So it’s quite akin to finding a murderer, but that means that there needs to be evidence, or at least a scenario.
I mean, “this is the location of the target zone, but you will be hard pressed to approach secretly!” is a fine kind of player-facing challenge. You know what kind of skills to bring to bear. Camouflage. Stealth. Acting and Fast-Talk. Yeah, we got this.
But if you want to make the finding of the target fun, it has to start with what the resources of the team are – you need to know what you can bring to bear on the “Assess” part of the mission, so you know what kind of information you can expect to get.
First rule, much like GUMSHOE, is to make sure that the list of what you absolutely know you can bring to bear should be clear. “All of your sensors will not function, and what visual data you can gather is very limited.” Quick study and a bit of math says that looking for the needle in a haystack will not be productive. Players should not be encouraged to try to brute force it, or perhaps they can be allowed to try but steered away.
The GM can help by having some of the options laid out for the players in case they struggle. In this particular example, I suppose there were more or less two options. We find the base, or we let the base tell us where it was – force it to give itself away.
Now, put that way, all sorts of things might suggest themselves. “We send drones to look for the base” was one thing we tried, but see above with respect to “obscured vision.” But “we sit in orbit before we land, all stealthed up, and see if we can send high-speed probes or some other foreign invader to cause a reaction, and then trace the reaction?” That seems legit, and it returns the adventure to something we can potentially know.
If missiles streak out of a central location, we can find that location. If it’s not the base, then we can determine by cable or by line of sight or by being informed what kind of transmitter can penetrate the fog what our next step will be in finding the main locale.
So: always provide breadcrumbs. Hints at how to start the Assess phase. That might be a list of contacts, sensors, or other information outlets that will bear fruit.
Of course, if the players come up with something ridiculously clever, do that. The list is a “get out of jail” or “succeed at a cost” set of options to keep four to six people from getting so frustrated that screaming LEEEROY JENKINS! and doing something that would logically lead to a TPK doesn’t look like a better option.
Once you have data, you can start making skill rolls (or use player-based knowledge; depends on the parameters of your game) to Analyze. That should suggest one or more plans. The players can pick one, nab a backup for what-if, and then Act.
Avoid might come on the approach (likely in this case) or for exfiltration.
But regardless, I find that Assess, Analyze, Act is a bit of the OODA loop for gaming. Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. If that can cycle quickly enough, then one could even go through many plans and it would still be fun.
Well, so long as everyone has something to do on a relatively frequent basis. The GM and the players are mutually responsible for ensuring that the plot includes the characters’ skills, and that the characters’ skills are kept at the forefront.
One thing that I learned over the last week or so? You need broadly competent characters to do Action Movies with a small group. With specialists, you can only approach certain tasks without help.
And help could potentially be available – that’s a good out-of-game thing to look at. Got a stealthy mission but no one has stealth? Might want to fix that, hire someone to do it, or figure out how to make the stealth requirement moot.
But if as a GM I know my group, I should probably have a list of the top 3-5 skills for each PC, some key advantages and disadvantages that will influence outcomes. Danger Sense, Combat Reflexes, and enhanced perception come to mind on the “good news” sense, and Overconfidence, Impulsive, and Compulsion (Plays oompah-loompah polka music on approach) would all qualify as problematic.
Ideally, the challenges should fully engage at least 1/5 of the party, and have 2/5 that can do complimentary skill rolls or other “backup” assistance. One character picks the lock, two provide needed perimeter security, while the driver and computer expert stand by? That’s fine. One guy picks the difficult lock and the other four stand around? Not so much . . . unles it’s a quick contest with a fairly inevitable conclusion and then done.
A rule won’t fit all situations. And improv can be both awesome and fun for all. But I learned a bunch about running adventures over the last week, and when that happens, it’s time to write it down.