Friday, February 26, 2010

GUMSHOE, from the other end of the table

I've been running a fair amount of GUMSHOE lately, but in two recent sessions at my weekly one-shot group, I finally got the opportunity to play the game. It was really neat to see the system from the other end of the table, and I think the experience has already improved my GMing of GUMSHOE.

My most important advice for GMs new to GUMSHOE is this:
  • Whenever possible, ask the players "Do you have any relevant skills?" or "Would you like to spend a point of something for a breakthrough?", instead of "Does anyone have a point of Anthropology?"
Phrasing it in the open-ended way engages the players better, coaxes them into problem-solving mode, and makes them more familiar with their characters.

Naming the skill, and phrasing it the "You need Skill X, does anyone have X?" way makes the game feel more stilted, and provides the appearance of railroading, even if there isn't any. It's a seemingly-minor presentation difference, but it has a fairly significant impact on the way it all comes off to the player.

Plus, by leaving it open for the players to pick the skill they think will work, it opens the door to the players coming up with something the GM hadn't even considered. If they have a cool idea for how to pump someone for information using First Aid, when the scenario called for Reassurance, everyone benefits from that improvisation.

In the case of the two-part scenario that John ran at Emerald City Game Feast recently, for the first session, he was using the "laundry list" approach, saying things like "Geology or Biology would be helpful here. Does anyone want to spend a point in them?" It was just okay, fun but not exceptional. In the second session, he was being more organic, less mechanical, and very flexible, and it really made the game come alive. I had great fun playing last night.

My best advice for people designing GUMSHOE modules is this:
  • Go back through your work, looking for every situation that might come up that where a Stability test or a Sense Trouble roll might come up. In each such situation, determine the difficulty of those rolls, and then put that information in a really obvious sidebar that is impossible for the GM to miss.
When you're in the middle of a scene, building tension or narrating action, it's really easy for the GM to completely forget those things (Stability tests, especially) and skip past them. As GM, you really don't want to break the scene to have to go look at a chart and make a judgment call. You need the information right at your finger tips, with a big box around it to make jump out of the page and get the GMs attention. The GUMSHOE rules are light on purpose to keep the narrative flowing. When you make the GM break open the rulebook to look up something obscure or hard-to-guesstimate, you undermine one of the strengths of the game.

The module he ran was The Black Drop, a Trail of Cthulhu adventure set in a remote location, with a multi-national cast of PCs. If you're interested in reading my feedback comments intended for the module's author, follow this link. It has a few spoilers, though, so is probably not a good read if you plan to play the module.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Skype / MeBeam Gaming

I've been doing a lot of Skype gaming lately - which is to say, I've been running an RPG campaign via the free online conference call features of Skype.

What I really like about it is that it's allowing me to game with friends in other cities and states. Given how bad I am at keeping up with normal phone calls, email, and letters, Skype is a godsend.

Originally, there were 5 players, plus GM, and due to social implosions, it has consistently been down to 2 PCs + GM. Prior to this campaign, I'd played in a few other Skype sessions, running up to about 8 players. Having tried several permutation, I can now clearly say that the ideal number of players for a skype game is 3. The further you push above that, the more the dynamic breaks down. "At an exponential rate" is probably accurate. Gaming with a large group always takes a bit of patience, as you don't get as much spotlight time as you might like -- but on Skype, this is seriously magnified.

The reason that Skype doesn't work well with larger groups, is that when one person is talking, there's no good way to butt in. If you interrupt them, neither of you can be heard or understood - it's one big audial mess. More often than not, they won't even hear you, and will keep on rambling. Since you can't see them, there's no subtle visual clues to let them know you want to butt in. This then drives people to use Skype's instant chat functions. The instant messaging seems simple and helpful at first, but quickly gets out of hand. Especially with a large group, which is almost guaranteed to end up with at least 3 or 4 chats happening simultaneously as people try "secretly" messaging one-another. Your attention gets divided, and sub-divided, and then sub-divided again. Everybody starts missing things, and it's impossible to get a good interactive scene of actual role-playing going.

A very frustrating experience, and at first I thought the only way around it was for the GM to micro-manage and be draconian. It was almost enough to make me quit Skype gaming, but luckily one of my players discovered something that would fix it.

For one-on-one calls, Skype has video, but the conference call function is audio-only. We quickly learned that you need video. Seeing the other players is how you know when someone else has something to add, and is bursting at the seams, but doesn't want to just rudely talk over you. It's how the GM knows if he's going overboard and boring the players at the peripheries of the scene. It's how you know you've lost someone's attention because their cat just vomited all over their desk, and that maybe you should pause the game for a moment while they clean up. Conveniently, there's a few easy video options out there. We've been using MeBeam. MeBeam is simple, and great for video. I've considered just switching over to it for the totality of the video-conferencing, because then we'd only have one program to worry about. The only thing stopping us is that sometimes mebeam audio ends up with excessive lag. Skype has less lag, but also crashes or disconnects more than MeBeam, so it's hard to say which is truly better. I'd say look into both (and maybe search the net for other options), and use whichever has the more consistent performance on your computers. But definitely use video of some sort, because the visual cues make it a much more nuanced and human experience.

Even with video, there's still some minor communication difficulties, as it is a little slower and more removed than actually gaming at the same table. I recommend using a very light rules system, and only gaming with people you trust. Now, honestly, I recommend that for in-person tabletop as well, so I may just have a personal bias. However, I've found that the technical hurdles of the various video conferencing programs make rules questions and arguments that much more annoying, so I try to use a system that minimizes them. Another option is to use a game system that has a solid online rules database. That way, since you're at a computer anyway, players can just bookmark the trickier bits and pop open a second browser window to look things up on the fly. Likewise, I'd choose a system with minimal die-rolling, so you don't have to worry about interfacing with some other die-rolling software, or rolling in front of the camera.

All this lead me to GUMSHOE for my online gaming. The system is transparent, almost invisible, during play, with rules questions almost never coming up. The few times that there is a rules question, they're generally about my Continuum-to-GUMSHOE conversion, not about the GUMSHOE core rules themselves. Die-rolling happens, but not with great frequency, and it's just a single d6 so repeated cheating would be easy to spot.

This post has gone on long enough, so I'll sign off for now, and return to the topic to talk about my specific campaign again at some future date.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Social Implosions

So, this place has been kinda quiet lately, and it's largely been because I've been unable to talk about my ongoing Continuum Campaign. Back in late December, there was a social implosion that cut the size of the play group in half. This is a gross over-simplification, but basically those 3 players are no longer on speaking terms with one-another. This put the status of the campaign in question for a while. I told the remaining two players that we would keep going while we waited for the fall-out to sort itself out.

It's nearly two months later, and none of the players have come back. Two of the three of them were playing characters who were siblings with intricately interwoven backstories, which makes them not interested in returning as the same characters. Who is on speaking terms with whom changes fairly frequently, as I understand it, so none of them are 100% comfortable coming back. It just wouldn't be fun for them to interact with each other. I find myself very wary about trying to encourage any of the players to return to the game, out of concern that I might be perceived as taking sides in the greater conflict between the people involved. It's pretty yucky.

The weird thing is, despite being down to just two players reliably, and the constant uncertainty of who else might show up week to week, the game has been really good. There's this unjustified awkwardness for the first ten minutes of every session as we all wonder who's going to show up this week. Unjustified, because despite people saying they plan to come back, no one has. Once that initial weirdness passes each week, the rest of the game is awesome. The plot has picked up speed, and I left with great cliffhangers the last two weeks. The sessions have been a great balance of action, humor, characterization, and exploration. I'd be happy to have 1 or more of those 3 missing players come back, but I'm also thrilled with the in-game dynamic as it stands. The two players/characters that we've got work really well together. It's a great campaign, but I almost feel guilty for enjoying it considering the social context of it all.