Realizations about Inquest: people, secrets, and clocks.

As some people around here already know from conversations on the Adept Play Discord, I’ve hit a bit of a burnout phase regarding roleplaying, mostly self-inflicted. I’m sharing this bit as a warning to everyone to not forget to keep focus on your own enjoyment of play rather than helping other people with their enjoyment. It’s a quick road to not enjoy play at all.

My way of refocusing has been to focus on in-person role-play with selected people, almost exclusively using my own game in development Inquest, which has already received some discussion here at Adept Play following my consulting sessions with Ron.

I’m going to summarize a few realizations I’ve had about the game in the last few months, which have happened over five real-life sessions (all one-shots), one of which happened in Finland and the others in Northern Italy.

People matter

I’m really happy that my enjoyment of the game has highly depended on the people involved.

One of those sessions in particular was pretty much a disaster, despite the players saying “they had fun”, I had none. Lots of “mother may I” behavior regarding what one can do as a player, and lack of respect for the established resolution procedure and what we are resolving right now, with skipping ahead, not understanding we’re still doing resolution, lack of attention to conflicts one’s character isn’t involved in, and “alright, you do that but in the meantime I’m doing this!”.

Finally, at a climactic final confrontation I experienced an incredibly painful half-hour of post-roll negotiation regarding outcomes when we had already rolled for outcomes and just needed to narrate how we got there (Inquest rolls are very tightly I+IEE). As the players were trying to weasel their way into a “good ending”, essentially attempting to overturn the result of the roll, I just ended the game and said thanks and goodbye. This all seemed to be driven by some sort of anxiety due to the way this group is used to playing with a controlling and manipulative GM (I’ve met the guy, and he’s not that much different in social interaction–yikes). My conclusion: I’m not going to fix these people, I’m probably not making the game for them at all. That’s fine.

Shortly after I experienced one of the best Inquest experiences I’ve had recently, with absolutely no effort at all from me in guiding the other players into actually playing the game I was teaching them. Yeah, lots of variability in result, but I’m happy about it–this game ain’t playing itself.

Making stuff up during play

I’ve known this principle intuitively since I started playing Inquest, but it’s been important to crystallize it in a definite form so I can explain others how the game works, even if I’m covering for the GM role at the moment.

When me and Lorenzo made the first mystery, we had no idea what level of information was needed for the GM, so Lorenzo with a bit of overzealousness wrote up 50 A5 pages of details. I knew I wasn’t going to use all of it, and that most of the backstory would be made up during play, but I didn’t know yet what part I was going to use, especially as “fixed information that doesn’t change from the start”.

As I’ve played, I’ve discovered that the amount necessary before play is “essentially almost nothing” compared to that mega-infodump for the first mystery. The bare essentials are necessary–who did the deed, roughly how, and who else is involved, either in the act or through a relationship with a character. A bit more prep regarding character motivations helps be ready, but it’s something I expect will be slightly different for each GM.

An important example of this is the nature of clues. The Investigation rolls guarantees some kind of clue (the clearer the more 6 appear on the roll), but I’ve been making these clues up on the spot regardless of what I’ve written in the prep. Essentially, we roll very early, as soon as the intent to figure something out is established, and we narrate the how and what post-roll. I’ve made up people’s diaries on the spot, as well as notes forgot in a jacket pocket, footprints, pieces of cloth left over, slips of the tongue, et cetera. The clue is essentially a delivery method for information gained from a good roll, and is influenced by the approach chosen and traits invoked by the detective before rolling.

So, if most of the asymmetrical information is made up, isn’t this some form of covert story-guiding where I’m stringing the players along? I don’t think so, and it hasn’t felt as such:

  • Getting good clues isn’t mandatory for the game to progress. It’s mostly determined by the investigation roll results, which can go really good or really bad.
  • The variation in clues provides variation (a element of chaos) in the information detectives have to make decisions about the unfolding situation. Certain things that are happening, they’ll know why, other things they’ll have to guess or just won’t know.

Rule of secrets

The following is what I’ve nicknamed “the fundamental rule of secrets”. This is not too different from what we’ve covered in the “Situation and Story” course regarding asymmetrical information in situations, but I like it phrased like this, and it’s been helping me explain to the other players how the GM manages secrets (asymmetrical information).

All information that I’m thinking about as GM is either solid (clearly exists in the fiction for me, is actionable in some way for others, although indirectly) or liquid (exists only in potential in my head, may change at my whim). Liquids become solid, but not vice-versa.

I’ve understood that to play this game effectively as a GM one needs to give oneself a lot of leeway into keeping things liquid as late as possible. This gives me the ability to create the necessary coincidences for the good things in my prep to come into play, overtly or covertly–namely, the various NPCs’ motivations and agendas.

So, the rule of secrets is: Once something hidden influences the shared situation (and by consequence, becomes actionable for others) that thing becomes solid. If I hadn’t made it up by then, I do it immediately.

Taking out the NPC “tension clocks”.

One of the original mechanics of inquest was this idea of the shared resource I’ve called “tension” or “time” alternatively. Essentially, a common resource that can be risked for extra dice instead of the detective’s own Body (was Health) or Status (was Reputation). In the original design, this resource was linked to an AW-style “clock” with a bunch of possible NPC actions that might be taken, the more extreme the more further in the clock.

One of the things I’ve realized by playing actively is that whenever those resource rolls don’t end up building up Tension, I really feel like I have tied my own hands as a GM. Sometimes I think is the best time to bring forward an NPC’s agenda, and the roll doesn’t go my way, and I feel disappointed—I really wanted to see what detectives would do when that guy did his thing.

So I decided to un-link the two things. There are no more clocks. The shared resource is now called Cozy, starts at 6, and for each lost point, one is added to Tension. All NPCs roll +Tension bonus dice. Then, as a GM, I can choose when to make NPCs act. I can make them act early, with less bonus dice available, or later, with more bonus dice. I do it when it makes more sense to me to do so.

A couple of days ago I applied this rule in a session with teenage detectives set in a high school, and it went really well—possibly better than any other session so far. And I think a big reason is that I freed myself to play the Bang “you all get called into the principal’s office because the crooked gym teacher is trying to get you suspended” at exactly the right time. I had +3 Tension at the time, and those dice hurt when I used them.

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4 responses to “Realizations about Inquest: people, secrets, and clocks.”

  1. Thank you for many interesting threads – even outside the system you spun them in.

    I have recently hit a similar struggle you describe with respect to clocks, as I had implemented them in a game of Pathfinder rather thoughtlessly in hindsight.
    I was struggling with the same issue of not wanting to tie my hands so much in when NPCs would act.

    If you don’t mind, I might take your solution as I understand it from this brief presentation, namely clocks as agency amplifiers for the factions/events/NPCs they represent rather than timelines (of some variety) to be ticked off one by one.

  2. Players wrangling over an unearned ‘good’ ending sounds awful. I’m glad you’ve had great experiences with your baby since, as it’s easy to lose faith or try and fix what can’t be fixed (i.e. some players).

    I like your approach to Investigation rolls and especially your thoughts on liquid and solid information. It’s a useful way of thinking, especially regarding the solidification and the need to honor it.

  3. I’m currently preparing to run the Blade Runner RPG and seeing many parallels with what you’re writing about here and what I’m feeling out with this game. The prep and play advice for Blade Runner is light years better than Vaesen once you get past the hard sell on how cool the props are that come with their prepared scenarios. That stuff feels so forced in there. It’s like someone from the marketing department forced whoever wrote the GM section to include it.

    Solid & Fluid

    One of the things the game tells you to do is have about 4-6 main NPCs and about 10-15 locations around the city. The vibe is that the player characters are going to kind of information-crawl across the city uncovering what’s going on with those 4-6 main characters.

    The situation is pretty much as you say, solid notions about who did what, where, when, how and why. I didn’t want to create a boring clue-chain information-crawl across the city, so I gave it some serious thought and realized that for this setting specifically where a character lives, where they work, where they go for fun and optionally where they might go if they wanted to hide were worthwhile things to have some solid notions around.

    Similarly I also had some solid notions about points of contact and information transfer between NPCs. This has largely to do with the fact that the setting is a highly surveilled and commodified world. Notions about who might have access to information from where are pretty important.

    My main point is that a lot of what I’m choosing to make solid vs. left fluid is driven by the subject matter of the game. A corporate office isn’t just an office, it’s a place of rare and unusual privacy. A nightclub in one section of the city carries with it a different set of implicit situation elements than a nightclub in a different section of the city. Picking one over the other is likely to have an impact on how outcomes in those locations are going to be interpreted. In many ways, picking which nightclub a character hangs out at, feels like a critical extension of preparing that character for play.

    I wouldn’t necessarily focus on these kinds of details (locations and points of contact) if I was not dealing with a science fiction game about an overstimulated, surveilled and commodified society. I will be curious to see if, in play, I’ve over cooked it. Will these prep choices make things easier or start to feel like restrictions?

    Clocks

    Blade Runner has the concept of The Countdown. It’s a sequence of escalating events that happens over time if the PCs don’t interfere. I’m reminded of Vincent’s similar idea in Dogs in the Vineyard. In the game a day is divided into four Shifts and the game tells you, you should decide what Shift of any given day the next step in the countdown “goes off”.

    However, there’s a note about how their published adventures change what Shifts events occur in based on the number of players. Again, this seems to be based on the assumption that the players are working their way through information content. More players means a faster rate of information consumption, so events in the Countdown need to happen sooner to keep their published scenario on pace.

    Putting aside the limitations of published scenarios, that still signaled to me that The Countdown is functionally more fluid than the text would suggest. So, I have decided not to specify specific shifts. I do have some loose notions about what day though. I more or less arrived at the same conclusion you did; that this material is best left more fluid in terms of timing. I’m planning on bringing it in when it feels appropriate.

    Anyway, as I was reading your post I was very much vibing with it, as I coincidentally happened to be dealing with similar notions while preparing to run Blade Runner.

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