Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Zero Dark 29, 28, 27...

Been trying to think of why Robin Laws' GUMSHOE system works pretty well for Night's Black Agents (spies v vampires) despite the fact that all Laws' "players want this players want that, drama drama, ice cream Pavlov Hamlet" rhetoric about why it works doesn't actually make sense or line up with what I've ever seen at the table.

And what kind of game is this? In a nutshell: in Night's Black Agents you can spend a point of your Preparation stat to have a flash bang grenade on you, even if you didn't before and had no idea you were headed into a firefight. It's that kind of game.
I bought these sunglasses retroactively once I realized we were in Afghanistan
In essence, you use the point-buy character-creation system to make a PC and then kinda keep using the system throughout the entire game--inventing contacts, equipment, cover stories, etc as you need them. Somehow it works even for non-hippies, why? Short answer: it makes sense for a spy game.

Long answer:

It's Fast-moving In A Gamey Way And In An International Spy Story We Need That

GUMSHOE's spend-to-do-it system makes moving from scene to disparate scene (essential to the international espionage genre) mechanically interesting.

Like, consider this situation:

GM describes a target. PCs outline a plan and step one of their plan involves secretly flying to Istanbul.

In GUMSHOE, I go "Go ahead and spend a point to get a plane, but remember spending that point now means you won't have it later and you can't use 'Well Connected To People Who Have Planes' points later in the session..." which is an interesting choice to have to make.

If I ran it Call of Cthulhu/BRP style then I have two choices:

"Ok you automatically get a plane because it makes sense you'd be able to get one" (which is an ok GMing call, but not especially interesting mechanically and you just do it and move on and forget about it, maybe secretly deciding "Ok, now you owe Manuela a favor before she helps you again".)


"Roll to see if you can even get a plane" (which if they succeed, yay good, if they don't, well, they have to do something else but that having to choose some other plan is kinda arbitrary and they will find another plan but it won't necessarily be any more interesting and so the consequences of failure didn't make the game better.)

Now the Call of Cthulhu plane example above could be made interesting if there was a ticking time bomb situation ("Use your Credit Rating score to get a plane and if you don't you only have one day left and figure something else out") and that points up a genre difference:

In D&D or Call of Cthulhu, the thing that makes their probabilistic systems work so well is the assumption the PCs are under some kind of pressure. Often time pressure, but it could also be something like dwindling resources or just fear of getting killed if you don't kill the monster first. So what do you do? You think of a plan that puts the odds on your side, then roll. It's tense, it's exciting, it requires thought.

The spy genre does not work like that though. Quite often at the beginning of the mission the spy is under no obvious pressure. Failure isn't interesting here--can't stay at the fancy hotel? Oh well, stay at the cheap one. Pointless, pressureless leisure--at least in the beginning--is part of the genre. This leisure gives the protagonists time to build the world around them (see 3 below).

In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Zero Dark Thirty the main character's not under any external pressure, really. It's just work. The worst that could happen if a resource is denied is if the GM rigged up a situation where if a plan doesn't work (failed probabilistic roll), the bad guys notice and change up.

Using GUMSHOE's nondiegetic-thinking-style spendy mechanic, you, in effect buy ease and choice at the beginning of the session and pay for it with desperation at the end of the game. Which is different from the all-desperation-all-the-time mechanics you want in an exploration-and-wonder-oriented genre.

Exploring... Vs Playing With... 

For my players specifically:

In a made-up setting: getting to see what's hidden in it is fun. More fun than helping to write the fiction called "the setting" which they like mysterious and not-in-their-control. They want the slow revelation.

In the real world setting: getting to fuck with the real world is fun. Because they already know the setting--they live in it and hear about it every day. So the revelation that there's a really hot country called Australia that has giant jumping pocketbeasts is not something they need held back for dramatic effect. So a mechanic that suddenly  makes an ASS (or whatever the Australians call their secret service) member your friend isn't a blow to an essential wonder and isolation you need to enjoy the game, it's a fun reminder that in this version of the familiar world the strange is always hidden behind the familiar.

Revelation vs Showdown

Ok most horror, sci fi, and fantasy stories ("adventure" stories broadly) are built on the idea of the revelation. Westerns, spy movies and kung fu movies ("action" stories broadly) are built on the showdown.

The revelation is the new awesome thing you get to see that vastly exceeds expectations. The space ship, the creature, the magic, the crazy city built from bells and beehives, etc.

The showdown is characters you already know about from the beginning finally confronting each other. John Malkovich is bad and smart and weird, Clint Eastwood is good and tough and clever, who'll win? Watch In The Line of Fire and find out...

Many stories incorporate both* but they pull in opposite directions, broadly speaking.

The revelation requires the players do not know about things before they show up. The less is known, the more of a revelation it is.

The showdown requires the players know all about things before they show up. The more is known, the more of a showdown it is.

D&D and Call of Cthulhu are naturally set up for The Revelation (exploration) and any Showdown requires the GM to do all the work building the threat. GUMSHOE is naturally set up for The Showdown and any Revelation requires the GM to do all the work, carefully hiding the fullness of the threat from the players.

Games relying mostly on Showdowns want the world to feel connected and, ultimately, knowable--everything is about you and your big fight coming up. Games relying on Revelation want the world to feel abstract and unknowable--everything beyond you is a mystery in the great beyond.

In the revelation story, the players are small and the world is large. In the showdown story, the players are large and the threat is large and the world is a backdrop.

In NBA's espionage version of the showdown, this backdrop is really just a kind of weapon the PCs have a certain amount of points to spend to design--like magic item creation or building an invention in a superhero game.

I get the feeling this is also related to Hard SF vs Sci Fantasy. When I hear SF is "about ideas" that usually implies "about the revelations" whereas when you hear its "just an adventure story with laser guns" that implies "about the showdown".


One more thing: just as having a Showdown-worthy NPC that matters is a perennial problem for D&D GMs that the game leaves them pretty much on their own about, my guess is making the vampire conspiracy really seem like a Revelation full of wonder is going to be a perennial problem for NBA GMs. I mean, in a game where you can use a stat to, in the middle of a fight, have totally already remembered to bring holy water, you got your work cut out for you.

Also--if you click that link at the top there are a few things I did to make the game more problem-solvey and a little less button-pushy


 *Noir and crime stories are often all about both: building to a confrontation with a known figure and revealing a hidden underworld at the same time. To see a story where the final showdown kinda lacks guts on account of it having been somewhat too obscured under an overall aesthetic of revelation, see the original-- and mostly excellent--original Sin City miniseries. When Roark is revealed we know who he is but we still don't know anything about why Marv confronting him will be interesting. To see the typical noir solution--having the villain there all along but only revealing they are the villain at the last minute--see The Maltese Falcon. To see one variation on it--having the villain front and center but only revealing the weird extent of their villainy at the end--see Chinatown.


  1. Good work. This is very insightful.

  2. I would say that "spy stories" (or perhaps "political thriller" is a better term) also quite often fit into the "having both a reveal and a showdown" category. Or maybe its just that if it doesn't have a reveal I tend to think of it as an "action story about spies".

    Either way, two good examples would be Tinker, Tailor...(we know a good deal about the bad guy and know there's going to be a confrontation, but it isn't until the confrontation that we know *who* the bad guy is) and Boys from Brazil (we know who the bad guy is from the start, but not *exactly* what he's up to).

    Of course there's also Syriana, which has a showdown and an...anti-reveal?

    1. both are important in many stories--GUMSHOE is built around the showdown

    2. Yea...I somehow mixed up the GUMSHOE/D&D dichotomy-thing you were getting at as a spy story/action story dichotomy thing...don't quite know how I did that.

  3. Nice example of magic and technology being the same thing. Instead of magic points to buy (freecasting) spells to do things, you use preparation points to buy gadgets to do things. It's RuneQuest with a re-spray!

    And, in common with magic point systems, the endgame is tense because of all the points you spent showing off to the barmaid at the start in order to get her knickers off, and that you now actually need to save your life.

    Sounds fun.

  4. Disappointingly, it's the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, although ASIS thought of as "as is" has some potential.

    As for the showdown vs the revelation, sometimes the showdown seems to turn on tiny details (Eastwood was wearing his vest! And his earpiece!) that have been placed in play like Chekov's gun. I'm not sure if this is a distraction, a quibble or a problem for me. Guess I'll have to play to find out.

    1. it seems like none of those things to me, but it sounds exactly like something that would be really easy to do in GUMSHOE and harder (and therefore maybe more fun) to do in D&D>

    2. Thinking it through, it's more that in earlier scene Eastwood has made it clear that he's a maverick who doesn't follow the rules, wear protective equipment etc. and THEN pays the point at the showdown to reveal that this time he did equip himself by the book. So yeah, I was just dozy and this kind of thing would be easy to do.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. ASIS. The Australian Security Intelligence Service. Who I'm pretty sure never do anything impressive except maybe spy on the Chinese a little.

  6. On the surface it sounds like this would work well with another 'real world' setting, Superheroes.

    "Thank goodness you have that cannister of sealent in your utility belt Batman. Otherwise the toxin would have leaked out and killed hundreds."

    "Your right Superman, old chum, but I didn't actually have it until just now what I needed it and spent a point. Must like your Flash Vision."

    "Ah yes! When you realized my Heat Vision would like cause a chain reaction with the toxic gas, I spent a point and remembered I have Flash Vision like my young friends in the Legion of Superheroes."

    This is how stunts would be pulled off for most heroes but especially for those like Bats and Supers who in the Silver Age seemed to have a new gadget or power each issue.

    1. DC Heroes (and, i suspect, several other games) had the concept of the " Omni-gadget" which was essentially that. Batman had them, f'rinstance.

      It has a certain limit on how powerful it is, like any stat, and once you say what it is then that's what it is

  7. Interesting stuff on genre but this stood out for me as a DM: "In a made-up setting: getting to see what's hidden in it is fun. More fun than helping to write the fiction called "the setting" which they like mysterious and not-in-their-control."

    I've been trying to tap players as creators (what god do you serve?) or let the dice build the world organically to get away from the grindiness/single author aspects of worldbuilding, but I may have shirked a bit too much and should have more mysteries pre-made for them to uncover.

  8. I like this a lot actually and find it more useful than most game philosophy post things. I realize now that I've been trying to obtain both scenarios at different times in my modernfantasymagicsuperherosbutnotreally villains and vigilantes game i've been running for the past two years. Since it's largely set in the modern world the players have a basis for what the setting is like, but there's magic around every corner so you still get exploration and revelation. As far as showdown goes, they'll often get into fights with people way more powerful than them, run away, and confront them later or the villain will confront them.

  9. You are right in that the Gumshoe mechanic has an interesting tension in your example of spending it now on plane ticket or spending it later on X. But my advice is to make it part of the emulation of the setting and not a mechanic.

    In a spy game the character is likely part of an organization that has the resource to get him a last minute plane ticket with no hassle. What you call a GM call is actually emulation of how it works for that situation.

    Where the tension would come, and it is part of the spy genre, is that any organization has a finite budget. So if the player keeps using the plane/hotel/etc to go to leads that don't pan out, he has to deal with his boss. Through adroit roleplaying convince his boss that he isn't just wasting time.

    Now does the player need to know the amount of his budget? And tick of $1,000 for every last minute flight? Of course not other than being aware that he can't just keep doing this forever. That what his boss is there to worry about.

    To me what you are describing for pacing is part of what is lumped under campaign management. The type of mechanic GUMSHOE uses just gets in the way of what should as a natural result of the roleplaying between players and the referee.

    And needless to say I am very leery of "making up shit" with points aspect of the Gumshoe system. The only time I think it warranted is when the player actions take the game into something the referee is not prepared forn. The referee then should extrapolate from his premises the details the players would encounter or deal with. This obviously means making up shit. I have no problem asking the player OUT OF GAME about stuff that they know about more than me. I take that information and use it make the call.

    Even under those circumstances you don't need a rules mechanic, you just need a referee that isn't a dick and committed to judging fairly what the players are trying to do. I will say that charts and tables are great aid for this, I think Top Secret had a couple of random tables that were really useful in generating on the spot details.

    1. 1. None of these GUMSHOE rules are _necessary_ for a good spy game. They just work as opposed to seem totally fucking stupid like GUMSHOE rules seem in other games I've seen.

      2."Through adroit roleplaying convince his boss that he isn't just wasting time."
      The "preparation" stat and things like it are really nothing more than abstracting this process of negotiation so it isn't part of the session. Like we all ask ourselves, abstractly, how much do we want to fight with the boss this week and how much credit do we have with him/her? This can be part of the game (as you describe) or abstracted like hit points (GUMSHOE style)

    2. Simple example:
      in The Wire ( a claustrophobic show), if you want a new toy the scene where you wrangle it out of the boss is mandatory

      in Bond (a larger canvas) the scene may or may not be there.

      It's just a matter of how you want to deal with it.

    3. In reply to 1, I didn't say it was necessary, my point was that it not needed and it would just get in the way of how it would naturally go otherwise. The player and referee would spend too much time thinking about how to shoehorn their actions into the mechanic rather than just go with the roleplaying.

      It sounds simple, spend a point, make something up. But where do the points derive from mechanically? How do they refresh? Etc, etc. My recommendation is just roleplay it. And if it something that the referee didn't prepare then just be honest and make the shit up.

      I would further recommend referees to be just be open to player out of game suggestions. I have no problem with a player saying to me. "Rob. I think there really ought to be a smuggler here in this area." And more times than not, I will say "your are right." and go from there. From experience, a referee has to make a conscious effort to make his group comfortable enough to do this. You can't just expect it to happen.

      As for 2, in general you are right about picking the level of abstraction you and your group want to deal with. However in the specific instance of the spy genre I think it would be a major mistake to ignore this aspect. Recently I watch three different spy thrillers and the protagonist dealing with his boss was important point in at least one scene.

      However what important isn't whether what I said about the genre 100% accurate. It about how the conventions of the genre and level of details are managed. With a Gumshoe style mechanic the player could just conveniently abstract away stuff they are not interested in whether it make sense or not given the type of game. Granted you can just veto the player use of his point. But lets face it a veto makes the referee look like a dick.

      Relying on roleplaying rather mechanics means a referee can enforce the convention without having to veto the players actions. The referee can choose to say "You get a message from your boss. ""Come in, we need to talk"". The player can choose to ignore this and face the consequences, which could be interesting. Or just go in and then the roleplaying ensues.

      It is still flexible enough in that if the referee see that the player is really not interested for some kind of personal reason then the referee can just gloss it over.

    4. As for the Wire vs Bond, I agree. But I don't see how a mechanic for the use of the players is relevant. To me whether an adventure is like Bond or the Wire depends on the referee. And if at the campaign level , then it something should hashed out before the campaign starts.

    5. I think a lot of Laws' designs are based around finding a clever mechanic which more or less enforces a particular device or theme that he wants to put into a setting.

      Generally, beyond that one "trick" he tends to publish very loose rulesets so whether you like the game tends to come down to how offensive you find being forced down that one particular track. If that's the road you were heading anyway, then why not?

    6. I feel that mechanics that don't emulate anything in the setting gets in the way. A stack of points to "Make up it shit" in my books doesn't emulate anything.

      If you are going to make stuff up, just do it and don't worry about points or anything.

    7. I like it in this case with this group because the people I have who want to play NBA are all people who are part-GM anyway. They're people who like a titrated schedule of making-stuff-up AND it makes the flight to Istanbul (or whatever) happen faster so you cover more ground.

      They _like_ that they have a certain prescribed ability to control the setting but not the total responsibility for it that they'd get if they were GMing and they like having it be an extradiegetic mechanic and they like playing with the points.

      "With a Gumshoe style mechanic the player could just conveniently abstract away stuff they are not interested in whether it make sense or not given the type of game. Granted you can just veto the player use of his point. But lets face it a veto makes the referee look like a dick."

      See, my players don't do things that break the genre and I probably wouldn't override them if they did because we're all on the same page, gamewise. We like the same stuff.

      So: like a lotta shared-GMing stuff, it works a lot better if you can assume everybody's on the same page. In this game it's easier than when we tried other hippie games

  10. I've been reading Game of Thrones recently, and it seems like these ideas would work well for that kind of game.

    You're a noble, so at any time you can just go "I get five hundred men to come with me," or "I order every peasant in my lands to search for the mcguffin". Play is very much a showdown with other, evil nobles.

  11. Robin have said he uses new games to try to induce new ideas on how to game into the gaming ecosystem.

    He is quite smart, and have done some quite amazing stuff. At the same time I feel like Nagora say, most of his games are quite "soft" and undefined outside that new thing he like to toss into the ring. It makes him less a game designer than a game meme designer. If that makes sense.

    I do think Zak have done some clear sighted analysis in this post, as usual, which makes so much sense.

    I'd love to hear Robin comment on this! Anyone have his ear? Please direct him here!