The Case of the Dead Client: A Damon Sainte, P.I. Adventure

Cityscape Snapshot by Atomhawk

From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From 10 feet away she smelled like someone made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

— With apologies to Raymond Chandler

It was a very bad morning for Damon.  Sleeping on a half-broken couch in his office was old hat by now, as was the morning sound of a stone gargoyle landing outside the window at dawn, or a feline deity demanding breakfast.  Nothing that a bad cup of coffee or three wouldn’t fix, especially with some bourbon thrown in.  Memories of the previous night were fuzzy — something involving a beautiful woman, a fist fight, and alcohol.  Just like every night.  Through sheer force of will, the detective managed to keep one eyelid propped open as he rolled out of bed and onto his feet, fumbling for his coffee cup.

There was an angel sitting behind his battered desk.

She looked like a goddess, radiant and attractive beyond the understanding of mortal men – brunette hair worn off the shoulder, alabaster skin without a trace of imperfection, and blue eyes as wide and alluring as the sky on a summer day.  Full, red lips that were made by some deity for the very purpose of being kissed.  Looking up from the newspaper she was reading, she cocked her head to one side and gave Damon a smile full of hope and trust.  “Like a puppy hoping for a home,” he thought sourly.  His heart still skipped once.

Then he caught a whiff of the smell.  A smell he normally associated with back alleys, strays hit by a railrunner, and the city morgue on a warm day.

“Awake?” said the angel with a voice like honey and milk.  She tapped the newspaper.  “I was just reading the obituaries.  So strange to see my name there.”  She smiled again, all innocence and trust.  “Thank you for agreeing to find out who killed me.  It really means a lot.”

From the corner near the food bowl Ubaid piped up “And you complain about the things I drag home!”


Thus read the introduction we had received via a email: on Sunday we played a new episode of the adventures of Damon Sainte, P.I., an ensemble cast setting my husband wrote for the game Bloodshadows from West End Games.  The most recent episodes were posted here and here.  Our player characters this time were Damon Sainte himself (Steve P.), Cat the former pit fighter and current casino owner (Maureen), Chummie the newspaper boy with a not-so-imaginary friend (Adi), and Marycete the nurse, a worm collective animating a dead body (me).  Short descriptions of all character backgrounds are found here.


Damon
Damon Sainte

Damon questioned the dead dame, Dottie. She was sure she could not have died in her sleep has the obituary claimed. And she wanted Damon to investigate.

Her last memory was of having gone to sleep in her home in the wealthiest part of town, the Diamond Districts. She lived with her parents — and their twenty-five or thirty servants and employees of the art gallery. Dottie did not work or study but she painted and entertained many suitors. No pets, no enemies. But Alfram Gallery was known as the most prestigious in Galitia. Continue reading “The Case of the Dead Client: A Damon Sainte, P.I. Adventure”

Casefile: GUMSHOE

Warning right from the start: I recently promised to tackle a few reviews where I would be more critical than complimentary.  This is one.1

Background on the Suspect

The Esoterrorists coverI have talked before about using mysteries in role-playing games, and some of the challenges involved in when you want both the surprise of discovery and characters who feel competent.  The GUMSHOE system was created with this in mind, to avoid the problem of pixel-bitching which happens when players are floundering, looking for an obscure clue that will unlock the next part of the story.

Although it was intended straight from the beginning to be used in several different settings, GUMSHOE was not published as a standalone game; instead, its rules are explained in a customized form for each game they are used in. GUMSHOE first appeared in The Esoterrorists (2007), then in Fear Itself (2007), Trail of Cthulhu (2008), Mutant City Blues (2009), Ashen Stars (2011), and Night’s Black Agents (2012), all published by Pelgrane Press. I have played or run all of these except Fear Itself and Ashen Stars. The publisher recently released a system reference document (SRD) for the core system for game designers who might wish to use it in their products.

Trail of Cthulhu coverThe idea behind the system is simple, clever, and sound:

An investigative game is completely stalled if clues are missed altogether, and since in the genre fiction (novels, movies, etc.) we never see the heroes repeatedly poke around the same scene until they succeed in finding the elusive clue. What is interesting about such games and fiction is putting together the clues, not trying to see them.  Therefore, it makes no sense to ask players to roll pass-or-fail tests in order to locate the very clues that are indispensable to having a story. If you are a capable investigator with the relevant skill, you should just find the clue and move on to building a theory of the crime.

Mutant City Blues coverConsequently, GUMSHOE divides character skills in two groups: investigative abilities and general abilities. If you have even one point invested in an investigative ability and it is relevant to obtaining a particular core clue, no die roll is needed, the gamemaster will just tell you what you find.

For example: If you have the investigative ability “Data Retrieval” and you look at the victim’s computer, you will find the encrypted files that someone tried to erase because that’s a core clue; without it, the game would founder.

Night's Black Agents coverIf there is an opportunity to learn more but it’s not strictly essential to succeeding in the investigation, the GM will indicate that you can also spend a point of an appropriate investigative ability to get special benefits such as supplemental clues. These just provide interesting or useful information that may allow you to prepare better for future events in the story. However, when you run out of points on a particular ability you can’t spend from it anymore and you are limited to getting the core clues.

For example: If you have the investigative ability “Cryptography”, the GM may offer you a chance to spend one point of it in order to get an additional clue regarding the source of the obscure cipher being used in these files. However, you only have one point of Cryptography left to spend and you suspect that you will need it later, so you decline the offer. Without this supplemental clue you’ll still get to a solution but you may not be suspecting who else is involved in this mystery until later clues appear.

General abilities are the running, jumping, climbing trees kind of stuff we’re used to.  You can also spend them to add to your rolls, and they have different refresh rates.

The two types of abilities are rated on different scales, with investigative abilities usually rated 0-3 points and general abilities 0-10 or even more. This is where things start going wrong.

The Prosecution’s Evidence

Having two types of abilities with different ranges and different resolution systems might be a trifle untidy, but we’ve seen it before and it’s not necessarily that big a deal. Unfortunately, there is also an awful lot of disparity among each of the two categories.

By the author and publisher’s own admission, some investigative abilities are used much more often than others. But they all cost the same to purchase at character creation and with advancement, so some of them are just a bad bargain. This is partly compensated by the fact that the GM is encouraged to think in terms of the entire party’s skills, not character by character; it’s true that this means the party as a whole should be able to get through the story, but it also means some players will feel frustrated that their abilities are so cost-ineffective.

General abilities are even more haphazard: even among the category, ratings mark vastly different levels of competence (e.g., sometimes a 4 is pretty useful, sometimes it’s pathetic), resolution can use very different rules, and refresh rates can vary wildly.

Mechanically, although sub-systems vary, the rules are quite simple. However, they lack the narrative punch that other simple systems like Apocalypse World, PDQ or Fate—or Laws’ own Heroquest—lend to equally simple mechanics. In truth, it’s hard to get excited about the action when you’re using the general abilities.

The list of abilities of both types is too long and confusing.  Many of the ability descriptions turn out to mean something quite different from what one might guess from the name of the ability. To complicate matters, some general and investigative abilities have similar names and special rules allow some crossover between the two types of abilities.

Finally, it’s difficult to get a sense of whether a character is half-way decently designed until you’ve been playing for a while even when you are experienced with the system, because of the great variability in usefulness among both investigative and general abilities.

It feels like the primary problem is that at the very beginning, the question of what is an ability and how it should work was never convincingly answered, so now the basic structure goes unexamined and the adjustments from setting to setting are performed by tweaking the ability list. But is it even necessary to have two types of abilities? Couldn’t you simply have one type and give each a wide knowledge penumbra? Many systems make good use of this idea.

And why multiply the abilities when they overlap so much? I assume that the intent is to allow to customize different investigative specialists, but you could do that with much simpler and more universal means than a long list of abilities that always turns out to be missing some specialities anyway.

The Defense’s Arguments

The idea behind the system is a good one. There’s no doubt that Laws identified a crucial flaw of “traditional” role-playing games when it comes to investigative games such as murder mysteries, police procedurals, X Files-style spookiness, etc. His answer to the problem is a very valid one, as far as use of the investigative abilities go.

The system is simple. It may be inconsistent and kludged, but it’s not complicated. At its base, it’s just roll a d6 versus varying levels of difficulty and spend a few points if you want.

It would not be that hard to fix the glitches or to import the base concept into your favourite system. In fact, every time I play or read a GUMSHOE game, I’m itching to re-write its system. But it’s less work to simply borrow the core idea (i.e., “don’t make the players roll if failure means the story will stall.”)

Finally, it’s possible that all this time I’ve been doing something drastically wrong with this game; I just wrote about doing that with other games in the past. However, I feel I gave it a long fair try in several incarnations with different groups and the light bulb has not come on. Perhaps the system or explanations themselves can be improved.

The Verdict

What I am not saying: I’m not saying that it’s a bad system, an unworkable system, or that a good GM and players can’t have a great campaign with it. I’m also not saying that the author and publisher are not good at what they do (they are!), nor that you are wrong or stupid if you enjoy this family of games.

What I am saying: In its current form(s), I don’t think GUMSHOE can be called a good system. It’s a good idea, and it’s a workable system, but it needs an overhaul to live up to its promise. I hope this will happen because I would love to love GUMSHOE.

It is, however, something you can steal ideas from, something you can tinker with to make it better, and something that is worth paying attention to.

1 Disclosure: I’m a fan of Robin D. Laws’ work in designing role-playing games and in providing helpful advice to players and gamemasters.  I keep recommending his book of advice Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering (Steve Jackson Games), I loved his games Feng Shui (Atlas Games) and Skulduggery (Pelgrane Press), his Heroquest (Moon Design Publications) is one of my go-to systems, I play-tested Og: Unearther Edition (Firefly Games) and Mutant City Blues (Pelgrane Press), I loved his work on supplemental material for Over The Edge (Atlas Games) and Glorantha/Hero Wars/Heroquest (Issaries), and I recently talked about how I’d enjoyed running his new game Hillfolk (Pelgrane Press), though it will merit a whole review some day soon. I hope I’ve established my credentials as a gushing fan, so at least I won’t be accused of being a hater. Return.

Pyromaniacs and Paladins: A Damon Sainte, P.I. Adventure

A little over a week ago, we had friends over and played another episode of the adventures of Damon Sainte, P.I., an ensemble cast setting my husband wrote for the game Bloodshadows from West End Games.  I’m a bit late with this recap but I finally found my misplaced notebook.  The previous episode was posted here.  Our player characters this time were Damon Sainte himself (Paul), Cat the former pit fighter and current casino owner (Maureen again, like in last episode), Granite the gargoyle (Steve P.), and Ubaid the talking cat (me).  Character backgrounds are found here.


Granite
Granite

An hour or so after sundown in Galitia, three thugs with glowing, clearly magical submachine guns burst into the front door of the Cat’s Claw Casino.  Granite, on the lookout as usual, barely had time to yell a warning.  Cat rushed in from her office to intervene, and Granite flew down to help her.  The patrons ran in terror, the thugs peppered the casino with bullets, it was pandemonium.

Upstairs in Damon’s office, Ubaid dove under Damon’s couch then used his magic to reappear in the back alley behind the Cat’s Claw.  A fourth thug was there, lobbing an incendiary bomb towards the open back door, but Ubaid managed to confuse the thug and spoil his aim so the fire bomb splashed harmlessly onto a brick wall in the alley.

Damon, rushing out of his office, discovered that a first bomb had already set the upper floor on fire.  Continue reading “Pyromaniacs and Paladins: A Damon Sainte, P.I. Adventure”

The Case of the Cultist Cop

BloodshadowsSome years ago, my husband Edmund created an ensemble cast for the role-playing game Bloodshadows.  The premise of the game. which runs on West End Games’ Masterbook system (almost identical to their TORG and Shatterzone games) is a world that combines hard-boiled detective stories, pulp adventure and dark fantasy.

Tough detectives in weathered trenchcoats swap biting comments with vampires in evening gowns.  Humans walk down dark streets side by side with demonic breeds and long-dead ghouls. And death — or Undeath — waits around every corner.

The cast which Edmund created revolves around Damon Sainte, P.I. down on his luck, and ten of his friends and allies.  The goal was to have the regular cast of a book or television series and be able to run pick-up games with whatever players available, providing each player with ample choice of characters every episode.  In the past I have played Big Dan the burnt-out gun mage, Ubaid the talking cat ex-familiar (and possibly ex-god), etc.

Yesterday, Edmund ran a game for our friend Maureen and I; Maureen played Cat the former pit fighter who now owns the casino above which Damon has his office and sleeping quarters, and for the first time I played Damon Sainte himself.  We had a fun time; here is a summary of the episode.  Continue reading “The Case of the Cultist Cop”

Full Steam Ahead for 2008…

We had a pleasant holiday season. Technically, it’s not over until Sunday if you celebrate Twelfth Night / Epiphany. We used to in my family, but with just the two of us here, I think and I will pass on finding out who gets to be king. 🙂

On Monday, we got together with seven of our friends and played games. In the afternoon, Edmund ran a nifty game of Bloodshadows, a role-playing game that uses the Masterbook system. I played a cat… I’ve never been very fond of that particular setting, but Edmund had done a great job creating characters, and the game was a lot of fun. And I really, really love the Torg/Masterbook/Shatterzone system; yes, it has a bunch of little crunchy bits, but unlike most crunchy games, they feel like they are there to accomplish a purpose, not just because someone else had a similar bit in his game 30 years ago. They work, they provide value. Also, my cat character stood up to a God. ^_^

We had a gamer potluck dinner: Peter and Cindy brought a couple of large (and tasty!) Hogswatch pies they had made, and a bunch of vegetables, satsuma mandarins, cookies, crackers, and drinks the rest of us had brought. Then I ran Spirit of the Season in the Truth & Justice system. It was not as good as Edmund’s game because I was very tired by the time it ended at 11pm. Then most of us stayed on to play board games and toast the New Year in with bubbles (cider!)

Yesterday, we kind of vegetated: did a couple of loads of laundry, ordered Chinese food for dinner(!), and I finished a couple of things I’d let go for the last few weeks: the proposed front and back layouts for the Indie Tour 2008 t-shirt; and a draft poster for ConQuest NW’s role-playing section. I confess, after having had a very pleasant few days, I was feeling a lot more moody yesterday when thinking about a new year. Starting it with the blood bath in Kenya, and bad or lukewarm health news from several people I love, left me feeling sober.