Arkham City, NY

I’m sharing this actual play experience from 2013 as part of an ongoing discussion of the Gumshoe RPG system and whether it can support real play. I agree that the game text of Trail of Cthulhu, for example, which uses the Gumshoe system, is full of non-play advice to the GM about writing a plot and shepherding the players through it. And to a certain extent, the Gumshoe system (originally created to solve certain problems with Call of Cthulhu) is designed to support that sort of linear, pre-planned presentation.

But I ran this game of Trail of Cthulhu with a group of very good role-players, and I think we achieved real play, i.e. open-ended, player-driven, bouncy play. Gumshoe may not have been the ideal system for that play, but we made it work.

This was a homebrew scenario. We decided that “Arkham City” was a borough of New York City. Mid-1930s. The players came up with characters with desires and problems. They really leaned into Lovecraftian mythos. One character had a fraught relationship with his father, and had a fascination with a certain artist’s paintings of the ocean that even he couldn’t explain. One character was running an art gallery that used to belong to her missing father… and she kept receiving strange packages from overseas. The latest one was her own passport, stamped with places she’s never been. The third character, my notes aren’t as clear on him… he had just run into an old army buddy who went MIA when they were serving together a few years before, in Togoland. This buddy now had a strange tattoo on his neck, which he wouldn’t explain, but he urged the PC to attend a meeting (ritual?) in Central Park that night…

I was just coming off of running a Sorcerer game, so I was approaching this the same way. I built situations out of the kickers. I prepared bangs before each session. I threw bangs and let players and the dice decide what happened. I pushed hard on failed rolls.

But this WAS a mystery game. The PCs started out with no idea what was really going on.

Clues. Trail of Cthulhu advises the GM to plan a string of scenes, and to hand out clues that will lead the players from scene to scene as planned. Here’s how I got around the linear DNA of the game to get to real play. First I built the Situation: the people and places implied by the PCs’ kickers; and the desires, schemes, loves-hates-and-fears that fill it with the potential to explode.

Now, I divide clues into two different categories: “clues” and “leads”. Leads are important to play, they point the players to the locations and people that are involved in the Situation. “Clues” are background information, secrets, evidence,… lore and flavour. During the first scene, I give the players 2 or 3 leads, which basically tells them who and where else they can investigate. I drop another lead or two into each subsequent scene until the players have discovered all the people and places that are relevant to the Situation (or R-map). At this point, we’re still early in the scenario. The PCs know just enough to get themselves into trouble, but are nowhere near any sort of climactic resolution.

Now it’s a regular intrigue (or “fish tank”). The PCs do things, investigate, pursue their interests, uncover schemes, try to help people or stop people, the NPCs react, violence happens, secret societies and old horrors are revealed, etc.. It’s play.

As for the Gumshoe rules, at the time I thought they were fine. In retrospect, they were probably inadequate in one important respect. Background: characters have two sorts of abilities: “Investigative” and “Standard” (if memory serves). Every ability has a certain number of points assigned to it. Investigative abilities, you can just tag them to get leads (not clues). Oh, you have Art History? You know that this painting was purchased by The Brookhaven Trust 3 years ago, and hasn’t been seen since (lead: The Brookhaven Trust is involved). Or, you can spend from Investigative abilities to get clues. It looks like someone has carefully removed a layer of paint over the ocean background, to reveal a figure in the waves. It’s bipedal, but green. Standard abilities are for everything besides investigating, and cover things like shooting, fisticuffs, athletics, driving, breaking and entering, etc.. If you have any points in an ability, you can roll to do that thing, and you have the option of spending points to increase your chance of success.

The Investigative abilities worked as advertised, and the Standard abilities worked as a simple pass/fail resolution system for anything else the PCs wanted to do. Since I wasn’t trying to bring about any sort of specific outcome, I could lean into both successes and failed results of rolls.
But in retrospect, the Standard abilities didn’t produce as many surprises as they should have. Early in the game, the players could “buy” a success by spending from their ability scores whenever they felt that a task would be extra difficult or the consequences of failure would be dire. Later in the game, as the ability pools ran down to zero, the players played more cautiously.

But that’s about the only negative effect that the Gumshoe mechanics (as separate from the game text) had on play, I think. But this WAS over 10 years ago.

In Session-5 (thank goodness for thorough notes), a Xothian (one of Cthulhu’s kin) rose up out of New York Harbour and chased the PCs (in a convertible) Northwards through New York, knocking over buildings as it went. Once the PCs managed to get out of sight of the titanic immortal, it turned left, sought out the home of one of the wizard NPCs, crushed it with one stomp (killing him), and then walked back into the bay. Good times.

Ah, my notes run out after Session-7. Which means Session-8 was probably the climax, and I had no further need to take notes. I can’t remember much about how it ended, except that one character may have embraced his Deep One heritage and walked into the sea.


9 responses to “Arkham City, NY”

  1. I found easier to say than to write: But can I use it

    The empty pen + no paper = fake-ass rules which aren’t actually procedures at any level and cannot work

    The stick, the rock, and the boombox = unusable contextual rules which include re-purposable elements “deep inside” them

    • Using these analogies it seems to me that the great majority of RPGs are stick, rock and boomboxes. I say that simply because I can point to dozens and dozens and games that basically do this:

      1) Have very serviceable (even inspiring) character creation rules.
      2) Have very serviceable resolution procedures.
      3) Have very serviceable (even inspiring) setting content.

      But then bottom out in a “GM Section” that are at best about setting up a rather linear (or fixed branching) obstacle course the players are expected to fight and puzzle their way through to the final boss encounter. Basically switching from role-playing game design to challenge-based video-game level design.

      And then that doesn’t even touch on something like Shadows of Esteren which is ONLY those three points above and then simply nods at GMs as if to imply, “You know what to do.”

    • That might be tangential to my point. First, I think that the great majority of RPG texts fail out on at least two of those things, not that they have all three and stumble only regarding GMing. The stick and rock on their own are still not very good and certainly cannot be thought of as “design.” But given that, I agree about the switch in focus as you describe it.

      Second, as I see it, having all your listed points (for which I think “resolution” should be expanded) and nothing else, is not a failing. We’ve talked before about how a text cannnot instruct (usable procedure to an informed reader), explain, and teach (to a naive reader) at the same time. If it is all instruction and includes little or no explanation or teaching, for example, that’s a lot better than a mess of pottage for all these functions, which is useless.

    • Oh, we agree! I was all ready to fight about whether we (my gaming group) actually PLAYED or not. But you’re not challenging me on that.

      I see your point, Ron. I didn’t really use the game system that we were nominally playing. We used the resolution procedure out of it (d6 + spend vs. target, pass/fail) (i.e. the stick and the rock), which to be honest is about 1% of “the system”. We could have played that exact same game just as well with any other pass/fail resolution procedure.

      The rest of the system that we were ACTUALLY using — situation, kickers, bangs, the distribution of authorities, listening, reincorporation, playing playfully — came from ourselves.

      When I’m looking at a new RPG resolution procedure, I often ask myself: how is this better than just tossing a coin every time? There’d better be an answer.

      A related anecdote: I recently bought the RPG “The Troubleshooters”, based on my deep childhood enjoyment of the Tintin comics. It was an impulse buy: I heard of it and I had to have it. I was already pretty sure I would be using it for inspiration only, and would have to modify or replace the system. Once I had it in my hands and started flipping pages, I was certain: the system is BRP.

  2. Hi John! Thanks for this post, it helps confirm some of my own thoughts.

    I had a somewhat similar experience with Trail of Cthulhu. I also threw out the book’s GMing advice; in my case, I prepped a marine archaeology adventure and sketched out a few significant locations (including the exploratory ship), and some NPCs and their factions (Deep Ones, cultists, various governmental agencies). I started with the PCs going aboard ship, and a mystery with one of the crew going missing. The players investigated, made rolls, the various NPCs would respond in pursuit of their goals, the players would respond in turn as they discovered more information, and repeat.

    The part of the game that worked well for us was actually character creation. We got fairly detailed, interesting characters that were fun to play. The pillars of sanity made for good roleplaying fodder. One of my players even published a story using her character (based on what happened to her character after the conclusion of the campaign) in a magazine.

    As far as the resolution mechanics, the investigation skills were the weakest part. The way the game worked IIRC was you got the minimal information necessary for free, but you could pay a resource point from an investigation skill to get extra helpful stuff. There was little to no bounce involved at all, and there was nothing particularly fun about this procedure.

    I’d like to compare that to Cthulhu Dark’s investigative rolls – in that game, you roll a die, and the better you roll, the more information you get (the minimum on a 1, lots of useable detail on a 5) – unless you roll a 6, in which case you get the good info but you also have to make a sanity check. I liked this, because there’s some meaningful bounce: you might even actually lose your mind if you keep poking around. If I were going to play the game again, I’d use something like this mechanic.

    The rolls for general skills I hacked – instead of choosing how many resource points to spend on a roll, and then adding those points to that roll, I had the players roll an extra die for each point they spent and take the best result. This gave the rolls a lot more tension, because you were never guaranteed a successful roll. This worked fine, but whether it’s particularly suited for this type of game I don’t know.

    • Thanks Dreamofpeace, interesting. I didn’t think about getting bounce in investigative resolutions. I considered them merely transactional, like searching for loot and finding it. Yes, it would be interesting to adopt Cthulhu Dark’s mechanic. I like your hack for spends on general-skill checks.

    • A large part – maybe the central – motivation for the design of Trail of Cthulhu is (IMO) the “problem” in Call of Cthulhu with investigation rolls, the famous “spot hidden” check and so on. Namely, the GM having prepared a (or running a pre-made) linear scenario where players must go from clue to clue in a set order to arrive at the set climax in due course. In that context, the GM would call for a Spot Hidden check in order for the PCs to discover the clue necessary to proceed to the next scene. Suppose everyone fails their check, which happened often enough. What then? The game grinds to a halt and the GM flubs around, trying to somehow get things “back on track”.

      The way many people dealt with this was to reinterpret Spot Hidden rolls as “you always get the clue, but if you roll badly, something bad happens when you get it – fall into a trap, a guard discovers you, whatever.” The author of Trail of Cthulhu instead came up with this entire system, including its investigation rolls, so the problem would not arise.

      Of course, another way to solve the problem is to get at the fundamental cause, which is to not have a linear railroad in the first place 🙂 It’s fascinating that the railroading model is so deeply embedded for many people they can’t see that it’s either unnecessary or actively problematic to their gaming. I was certainly among them at one point, so I can’t call myself immune.

    • You’re quite right, Dreamofpeace, regarding the design goal of Trail of Cthulhu/Gumshoe.

      I hope I was clear how I was avoiding linear scenario design. In the first scene, the PCs found several leads, offering them several different people and places to investigate next. And after just a handful of scenes, they knew about all of the people and places that were relevant to the situation. From there, the game was wide-open, and it was always driven by player choices.

      But as Ron pointed out, we weren’t really playing Gumshoe at that point. 🙂

    • Oh for sure, it was very clear you were not railroading.

      As for Gumshoe, I am open to having my mind changed, but imho it doesn’t appear to provide the optimum tools for running a game with a strong investigative focus.

      I am curious about the Night’s Black Agents version, and whether the mechanics there make a difference.

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