Friday, December 21, 2012

A Fight Gone Wrong

A few weeks ago, in my Night's Black Agents game there was a fight scene that ended poorly for a character, and it shouldn't have. From my perspective, I saw that a PC made a poor tactical/mechanical decision, that nearly got them killed.  However, the message that at least some of my players walked away with was "wow, this system kinda sucks, and the PCs are really weak". I didn't realize till today, reading the comments to my last post, that any of the players felt this way. It's a pretty heavy disconnect, and I think I need to address it. I'd prefer to do this in person, but we won't be playing again till after the holidays.

How To Succeed At Gumshoe Combat

General advice on how to approach Gumshoe fight scenes.
  • Spend Points. Lots of them. Enough that you never actually have to roll, because even a "1" on the die will still be a success.
  • The goal is to end every fight with zero points left over in your three best General Ability pools. You will almost always have the ability to restore all your points in any three pools between any two fight scenes.
  • The consequences of "wasting" points by spending too many are very minor. The consequences of not spending enough are far more dire. I'll go into more detail on this at the end of the post, but trust me, it's always better to over-spend.

And now for the specifics of one particular scene, and how it went horribly awry...

The Scene

Night's Black Agents is a game about Spies and Vampires.

During the session, a PC got a phone-call from an adversarial NPC who wants to arrange a meeting at the PCs hotel room. The meeting is, of course, an ambush, and the players knew it.  None-the-less, this PC chose to handle this scene by themselves, with no other PCs involved.

The NPC shows up at their door, and the PC looks out the peephole. I give the player a Sense Trouble roll, which he makes, and I tell him that he can tell there's two thugs with the NPC, at the edge of view on either side of the door. The player dithers, tells the NPC to leave because he's not feeling well. The thugs smash the door open, and combat begins.

The PC's Stats

The PC on question is the team's sniper, and thus a bit of a "glass cannon".

His big advantage is 10 points of Shooting, and the Cherry that gives a 3-point refresh per scene. If shooting runs out, he does have 4 Hand-to-Hand points he could fall back on. 

He has the default Hit Threshold of 3, and has only 6 Health, which is tied for lowest in the party. Since he's a player character, he can operate from health 0 to -5 with just a -1 to his die rolls, which is a minor (but risky) advantage over the NPCs.

The Opposition

There's two Thugs plus the named NPC. The thugs have guns, the named NPC has just a wooden stake. The thugs are low-level Russian mafiya goons, and no stranger to violence. The named NPC is a corrupt Russian Orthodox Priest, with exorcism experience. He's got a touch of athletics and plenty of occult, but not a lot of combat skill. The Priest thinks the PC is a vampire, the goons think they're just getting paid to be muscle.

The Thugs are Hit Threshold 3, same as the PC. They have Health 3 each, to the PCs Health 6, but unlike the PC they go down when they hit 0 Health. They have a combat pool of 4 points.

The misguided Priest is very determined, but lacks the skill-set for this kind of work. Hit Threshold 2, and no combat pool to speak of. He does have as much Health as the PC (so twice that of his thugs), but is out of the fight the moment that is reduced to zero.

GM's Game Plan

The thugs will follow the "Opposition Spends" rules on page 52 of NBA. That means they will only use 1 point from their attack pools on the first round, and only escalate beyond that if 1 point per round is failing to get results.

I picture the fight as follows:

Round 1: PC has the higher pool, and goes first. He spends 2 (of 10) shooting, and drops one thug. Since they're at point-blank range, it's literally impossible for the gunshot to not take the thug out, as the thug has 3 health and the PC is doing 1d6+2 damage. The second thug returns fire, and probably hits the PC for 1d6+2 damage. The priest, having never been shot at before, freezes up for a second and does nothing.

Round 2: PC fires at the second thug. They spend either 2 or 3 points (depending on whether or not they are wounded), which would be enough for an automatic hit. Again, at point blank range any hit kills a thug. So, he's down to either 5 or 6 Shooting points left, before he invokes his Cherry and refreshes his Shooting pool back up to an 8 or 9.  At this point, the Priest will no doubt have seen his two bodyguards die bloodily, and will probably bail.

Round 3: The PC either shoots the Priest in the back, or chases after him and knocks him out with hand-to-hand, or decides to just flee the scene before hotel security responds to the sound of gunshots.  The PC is probably wounded at this point, but in no real danger unless something really unusual happens.

What Actually Happened

Round 1 goes as expected. The PC spends 2 shooting, and drops one of the thugs, but then takes a bullet from the second one.  The thug rolls maximum damage (8), leaving the PC at Wounded (-2 Health).

Round 2 is where things get weird. The players are worried because the PC is wounded, and still has 2 foes to fight. They've drawn some inaccurate conclusions about the Priest, and expect him to be attacking this turn as well.

One of the other players suggests the PC should make a called shot to ensure that whoever he shoots goes down. This wasn't really necessary if the PC shoots the thug at point-blank (since any hit will kill him), but it would matter if the PC decided to plug away at the named Priest instead. That would be a tactical error, but the player doesn't know that because they don't know the hit point total of the unwounded enemy.

This leads to conversation about how called shots work. It's kinda fiddly and there's a chart, but it basically works along the lines of "add N to difficulty, to add N-1 to damage if you hit." There were too many people talking at once, and little fiddly details getting mentioned and discarded.

I think in the process, the player of the PC in question got a bit confused. He announced that he was targeting the face of the thug, raising difficulty by 4 to get +3 damage. To hit he would need to roll a 3, increased to a 4 because the shooter was wounded, increased to an 8 because of the called shot.  He then announced, to my horror, that he was spending 2 points of Shooting, and rolled the die. His total was, as probability would suggest, less than an 8 on 1d6+2. He missed entirely.

Naturally, the thug returns fire. I spend zero points on the roll (he'd hit the previous round), but he still only needs to roll a "3" to hit, which he does. I proceed to roll maximum damage again, for the second gunshot in a row. The player is now at -10 health, and thus must make a difficulty 10 roll to remain conscious. Suffice it to say, that didn't happen.

Round 3: The PC is lying on the floor, bleeding out. The thug bails before the cops can arrive.  The Priest is left with a very messy situation on his hands, and is still there when the rest of the party shows up.

What I, As GM, Should Have Done Differently

Prior to the fight, I probably should have more strongly encouraged the party not to split up.  I wasn't too worried, because the PC should have been able to take the bad guys in a couple turns with only minor injuries. Still, if I had kept the group together, this would have been a cakewalk for them.

I should have made the NPCs breaking in the door take more than 1 turn. That I would definitely do differently if I ran this scene over again. If the player had a couple turns to think and act while the thugs kicked at the door, he might have come up with a clever plan, or just gone out a window to escape.

On the first round of the fight, perhaps I should have given the player an explicit reminder of the rules for taking cover, and the rules for invoking Tactical Fact Finding Benefits. Either would have made the fight look a lot less intimidating to the players. Ironically, a less-threatening fight probably would have resulted in the player being more inclined to spend points. It's a little counter-intuitive, but basically by presenting the fight as being a challenge, I inadvertently encouraged the player to horde their points for later rounds. This desire to stash points away in case things get worse later is a fairly common reaction when you haven't yet figured out how Gumshoe really works, and it almost always backfires.

I'm still not sure if I should or should not have told the player: "Don't bother with called shots, this guy will go down with one hit without it".  In this situation, that particular player character option didn't really help at all. Since a two-point spend without a called shot was sufficient to kill the thug, there was no point in using a fancy combat option that raised the difficulty. Some GMs would be inclined to help the player out here, and others tend to keep the bad guys HPs (etc) secret or leave strategy up to the players. I was on the fence, and could have gone either way.

At the very least, I should have taken better control of the table so we weren't all bombarding the player with different bits of rules detail. I think we overwhelmed him.

Certainly, if I'd processed that he was only spending 2 points before the die left his hand, I would have encouraged him to spend more.

Not my best moment as a GM, but not game-breakingly bad either.  I've fumbled worse before, and will likely do so again at some point.

Arguments In Favor Of Spending More Points

Not convinced that it's better to spend your points now then save them for later? Here's some rambling arguments to support my position:

Refreshing pools is easy, so there's no need to save points. Most NBA characters have some sort of Cherry that lets them refresh 3 points in their best skill, once per scene. Even without that, if you get an hour's peace and rest between fights or chases, you get a full refresh of any three General Ability pools. That's a standard rule in Gumshoe. If 24 hours go by without a fight or chase, you'll refresh all your General Abilities. If you accomplish a major success that wraps up an "Operation", you can expect for the whole party to refresh everything.  It should be very rare that you go more than one session without a refresh of some sort. You can routinely drain three entire Abilities per major fight or chase scene without suffering any long-term consequence.

The secret of Gumshoe is that it is actually a diceless system. Rolling the die should be the thing you do only when you're out of points. Anything worth doing is worth spending enough points on that you auto-succeed.

The point of Gumshoe is avoid the narrative collapse that can happen in normal systems when a bad die roll derails an investigation. The GM wants you to solve the mystery, so the rules ensure that you can't accidentally fail it because the dice suck. The same logic applies to combat rolls as well. The GM wants you to win the fight, and hates to see you fail just because of a bad die roll.  If you spend lots of points, the die roll won't matter.

Gumshoe is not d20, you're not going to have to make dozens of attack rolls per battle. Most foes will go down in one or two gunshots.  You don't need to hold back points in case the fight "goes long". You need to spend points early so that your victory happens quickly and decisively.

On a related note, if some NPC in NBA doesn't die after the second gunshot, that almost certainly means they are a wickedly-powerful supernatural entity and your guns won't save you. Time to flee. Come back later with holy water, lots of explosives, and the element of surprise.

If that sounds like gunfights in Gumshoe (especially NBA) are intentionally lop-sided, you're getting the picture.  It's intentional. Long drawn-out fights are bad, and generally a sign that the players should have fled several turns ago. If you can win, you'll do so very quickly.  By turn 3 of any battle, you should either be mopping up the stragglers of your obvious victory, or running for the exits because your life depends on it.

If the PC in our scene had spent 4 more points on his second roll, he would have killed the second gunman and thus won the whole fight. Instead, he saved himself 4 Shooting points but "paid" 8 health instead.  As this left him with 6 Shooting and -10 Health, it was not a good trade.

The consequences of "wasting" points by spending more Shooting (for example) than you needed to on early rolls is fairly minor: in some later turn you might have to take some action other than shooting. You might use hand-to-hand to keep fighting, or athletics to escape. You might take cover, and let some other PC do the shooting for a while. These are pretty minor consequences.

The consequences of not spending enough points on a Shooting roll is usually that you miss, and then you get shot later that round or the next when your foe survives to counter-attack.  That is a far worse consequence then wasting a point here or there. It does you no good to hold back 2 points of a skill "for later" if not using them right now gets you killed. You can't spend those extra 2 points after you die, so you might as well use them this turn instead.


Unknown said...

"Come back later with holy water, lots of explosives, and the element of surprise."

Or sometimes 20 bags of cement and some chips.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, I found it very valuable on the philosophy of Gumshoe generally and Night's Black Agents in particular. From a D&D player's point of view, the game is so different that it's difficult to get a handle on how it works.

You could have fudged the damage rolls I suppose, unless you were rolling out in the open.

It seems to me like it's always a good idea to have an 8 in athletics for PCs. The extra point in your hit threshold could save your butt.

With a called shot basically being "Add N difficulty, do N-1 extra" you can always spend N extra points to make up for the increased difficulty, so in effect N points spent = N-1 increased damage. So spend enough points to guarantee a hit, then spend up big to guarantee a kill.

Unknown said...

I think there might be a bit more nuance here than you suggest - in my Gumshoe games it's not completely unusual that an encounter like that might have been the front end of a much larger action scene - backup coming down the hall, gunshots getting unwanted attention, etc. I generally agree that as a player, you don't want to hold back, but then again, if there is *no* tension over whether to spend or not, and players should just auto-hit all the time, then I think you're not getting as much out of the system as you could. To spend or not should, in my opinion, be a choice. Players and GMs need to find their rhythm, but this is a world where players should be a little paranoid.

I think the real mistake here was not in managing pool spends, but in splitting the group. If you do something stupid like that, and somebody gets shot, that should serve as a reminder that if you expect trouble, and decide to handle it alone when you have back up available, that's the sort of thing that happens. In my experience there is very rarely a good reason for splitting up in Gumshoe games.

Markwalt said...

I got a bit lost in the rules during that combat.

I get the whole "spend all your points" thing now, but at the time, I was thinking I ought to be saving those for later. That play style is a little out of character for me, when I'm playing Savage Worlds, I usually spend the bennies as soon as I get them, so I don't know what the hell I was doing that night. For some reason, I decided to be conservative with the resources, and not pay enough attention to the rules. Maybe I was low on caffeine.

I'm ready for the next session, and I'm sure the mistakes I make then will be completely different.

For the record, I don't think GUMSHOE sucks. I do think it runs very differently than a lot of the games I'm usually in. I think for me, it's the kind of game that takes a few sessions for me to snap into it, and do it "right." This is definitely a system where the mechanics of the game, their usage, and the players' understanding of their usage is important.

In Risus or PDQ, for example, you can almost ignore the system, and still have a successful combat. There's not much to it. You explain what you're trying to do and roll some dice. If you roll high, you got it.

Also, in the light systems we tend to play, sometimes you just impress the GM with a particularly witty description, and you get what you want. We're all pretty good at that.

GUMSHOE requires the players to pay a bit more attention to the actual rules. On some level, I was aware of this, because I've played in two or three one-shots over the past few years and so I knew that the system was different. I also knew that I wasn't sure whether I liked it all that much. I'm still not. Not that that matters really.

I want to like GUMSHOE. I like the idea of GUMSHOE. It pops me out of the game a bit though. That may be because of how different it is for me. Maybe if I was more used to it, I wouldn't spend as much time thinking about the rules and would then spend more time thinking about the story.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this write-up and analysis. Great insights here that I will keep in mind in my own GUMSHOE and NBA games.

rbbergstrom said...

@Chris Farrell: You are correct, there is more nuance to the system than what I presented here. Sometimes, you actually do want to hold something back for later.

However, most new players to the game system tend to over-emphasize the frequency and severity of those situations, and hold back way too much and too often. I've GM'd Gumshoe for over a dozen players, and every single one of them has been too conservative with their points for their first several sessions at least.

Learning to spend their points frees PCs up to actually be the bad-ass ultra-competent professionals the system wants them to be.

NBA gives the GM the lovely tools of the Conspiramid and Vampyramid, to track the importance, difficulty, and fall-out of any given scene or Op. If the scene falls pretty low on those pyramids (as this scene did), then the PCs should be free to spend points willy-nilly. The time for "mixing it up" and making the players have to second-guess their point spends is later in the campaign, as you approach the tops of those structures. Down at the bottom is just mooks, and mooks are meant to be burned through in rapid succession (unless you're playing NBA in Dust Mode) so you can pry the clues out of their cold dead hands.

rbbergstrom said...

All that said, I will whole-heartedly agree that the real mistake was splitting up the party.

Kaiten93 said...

Of course, if youre alone vs 2 or more gun toting thugs at point blank range, you spend points like a rock star.. This is a critical life or death situation after all and the gumshoe system is kinda unrelenting at pb range.. My only beef with the gumshoe system is that its way to easy to make a spend for a 100% chance of success. Ok, the players are heroes i totally get it, but even the mooks ( like the russian gangsters in your example) can hit you with very little effort. In heroic fiction, how often do the heroes get shot? Usually when the ebb and flow of battle take a turn for the worst.. Here you can safely assume that everyone will score a hit automatically on the very first round of combat, and players will tend to get shot.. A LOT!

In this light, your reasoning is very sound. Preemptive strikes, and go for broke. But this strategy is fostered by the idiosyncracities of the system itself, and for most players this runs counter intuitive to their common sense ( from playing those other normal rpgs lol) gumshoe powered goons will hit you virtually every time, so battles boil down to initiative and numbers. Are pcs in majority with initiative? Well, they win. Are they outnumbered and preempted by the goons? They loose.

I dunno.. Just feels kinda fatalistic as opposed to fatal:)

But i still love the gumshoe franchise! Simple, story driven rules.. Easily modified. Easily improved. In my group, we gear the rolls towards 50/50 instead of 100%. We are old school gamers, and old habits die hard.

Anonymous said...

I don’t think that I really explained myself well, a common failing of mine. My problem with the system is that it pulls in two diametrically opposed directions at once.

The game was presented as a sort of “Borne Identity” or “Burn Notice” setting, settings with huge levels of personal competence. Rolfe also expressed frustration that we were being too cautious and not using the fact finding and preparedness to be more action oriented bad assess.

The game has mechanics that support that kind of play, Preparedness and Fact Finding. I spent game time on always insisting that I scout out the local area first but now I think that having a prepared escape route could just be retro fit by spending a point of urban survival.

On the other hand, the one time we didn’t move cautiously, figuring that the combat specialist could have his cool personal scene dealing with two mooks, things ended poorly.

The mechanics also encourage that kind of play.

At its base it is a resource management system and those systems inherently encourage cautious play. Chris Farrel notes the general GM attitude in resource management games.

“if there is *no* tension over whether to spend or not, and players should just auto-hit all the time, then I think you're not getting as much out of the system as you could. To spend or not should, in my opinion, be a choice.”

This encourages really knowing a situation before you go it as you then have a much better idea of how to allocate resources. Which in turn encourages spending hours investigating before doing anything.

Combat is also very dangerous. Indeed Chris apparently feels that the system and genre are so blatantly and obviously deadly that he literally calls us stupid for not approaching a fight with two mooks with extreme caution.

“I think the real mistake here was not in managing pool spends, but in splitting the group. If you do something stupid like that, and somebody gets shot, that should serve as a reminder that if you expect trouble, and decide to handle it alone when you have back up available, that's the sort of thing that happens.”

And Rolfe at least partially agrees

“All that said, I will whole-heartedly agree that the real mistake was splitting up the party.”

Now, if this were “The Borne Identity” the chance of meaningful damage fighting two mooks would be zero, repeated for emphasis, absolutely none. However, PCs are hit about 2/3 of the time and even the toughest character will drop with a few average damage hits. Thus PCs are pretty fragile.

So the resource management and combat systems encourage a cautious style of play were you don’t split the party and always bring all resources to bear on any problem.

Wild action sequences and cautious play are both very valid styles of games. In a realistic WWII game taking foolish risks will not end well. On the flip side, succeeding at crazy risks is pretty much the point of the pulp genre. Because both of these and the space in between are valid getting both the GM and players on the same page can be pretty difficult. I think that this is made more difficult by mechanics that pull in two diametrically opposed directions. You’re a group of highly competent bad assess but you really need to stay together because you might fight two low level mooks. Wait, what?

Simon Rogers said...

This is good advice, thanks. This was a straightforward failure of Tradecraft. The bad guys are generally just as good as you if not better at fighting overall; you are better at everything else. Investigative points spent as special benefits should give you a big advantage every time. Clever use of Preparedness and Military Science help, too.

Some examples of special benefits and techniques in a fight which might work if the enivironment is suitable:

Spend Intimidate to scare the crap out of one opponent by shouting in his face (if he's not combat hardened) while shooting another.
Use Architecture and a shotgun blast to collapse a ceiling on them
Shoot holes in the fire extinguishers (thank you Skyfall), start the sprinklers
Use Criminology to shout a code phrase which suggests you are a gang member
Use Occult Studies, Vampirology or Theology to say or do something which proves to the priest you are not a vampire (very quickly)
If you determine they don't intend to kill you out of hand, use Reassurance to pretend to surrender, then take thm by surprise.

My group did badly in the first two or three sessions because they (and I) didn't figure this out. If you aren't initiating the fight, the chances are you should be out of there as quickly as possible.

I knew they had got it when they just abandoned an ambush just because an unknown third party turned up.

In this instance, had I been the GM, and if the player had Miltary Science, I would have said (for zero points) that going toe-to-toe with these three bad guys was likely to end in trouble.

Straight-up fights do tend to boil down to iniative and numbers, but initiative isn't random - the PCs will almost certainly go first against mooks. GMs should spend the NPC points support the narrative, whether that's hitting automatically, or not spending any points at all. If you don't want your mooks to hit every time, then don't spend enough points to be certain.

Chris has a point though - some of the fun of the game is when the players are on their toes, can't refresh and have to use every investigative ability they can in special benefits to get the hell out of there.

The advanced combat rules mean you can take down multiple foes before they even have a chance to react - think Jason Bourne being interviewed by the customs police.

Simon Rogers said...

@Erik - One combat badass can take down three mooks, even unprepared. With 10 points in Shooting, probably a cherry and full spends, the opponents should have all been dead before they got a chance to respond. And the players don't have to plan (just enough for fun) but you can assume the PCs do - that's what Preparedness is for, and the more pulpy the game, the cheaper your Preparedness tests should be.

It's true that NBA is unforgiving if you do all three of the following: don't plan, go up against superior opponents and don't spend wisely (including TFFBs). I think this is a good thing.

PCs are as fragile as their Health cap permits. Health can be thought of a measure of the plausibility not being damaged when under attack; if you've got 12 Health, mooks can make about three "successful" attacks on you without without you suffering system-relevant injury. Even beyond that you can still act.

You set the rating caps according to the type of game you want to play. More points, more pulp.

If two mooks take you down, you are making unwise combat decisions. The fact that you as a player have to make the right decisions (you have to be skilled at the system) could be considered a fault, I suppose.

Player-facing combat (p, 64) is the tool for taking down large numbers of mooks without danger. This simulates Bourne going through a building taking out the guards without suffering damage.

Thriller combat options (see sheets p218-219) are also your friend.

Using Player Facing combat, the PC in the example could have surprised the three, taken down the two mooks with shooting spends of 2 and 3 and then be ready to take on the priest. He'd go first each time (higher rating) then could take the priest down with hand to hand on an easy spend.

Personally, for amusement I would have used a flash bang (giving more than one round of surprise), tear gas grenade, or autofire through the door.

If the thugs, for some reason, weren't defined as mooks, and the flash bang wasn't an option, I would have gone with extra attacks. So, 2 points to kill the first, 8 points for an extra attack and guaranteed hit against the second target, then go against the priest, taking one possible hit first.

rbbergstrom said...

@ Simon - Thanks for the tips and advice.

In particular, the "spend skill X to get benefit Y" examples are the sort of a thing that I think the main game's combat section could really use. Technically, the mechanism for that sort of thing is there in the TFFB section, but the examples in that section are way more complicated. They're like "Use Research to find the right train car, then a Mechanics roll to decouple it from the train, and then finally you get a bonus" which really specific _and_ requires prep on the part of both the player and the GM. "Use architecture to collapse the ceiling" is a lot easier to improvise at the table than any of the TFFB in the book.

A player reading the TFFB section once isn't necessarily going to realize this is the sort of game where they can just improv such shenanigans. The system is crunchy enough that you can easily forget such wild improvising is totally allowed.

For that matter, a lot of the fiddly situation-specific and equipment-specific rules in the game could probably be shortened or replaced by a short chapter on the narrative powers of a spend.

The game kind of has feet in two worlds. One world is akin to D&D 3.x or good old Cyberpunk, in that there's lots of specific rules for special powers and equipment, which makes you think that those written rules are the only way to use them and improvising isn't allowed. The other world is more of a FATE or PDQ style of play, where one quick spend of an ability grants you all sorts of narrative power. Those are two very different outlooks on gaming. One area where the main book could perhaps be improved is either integrating or at least calling out those two styles of play so that everyone at the table realizes the possibilities. Just a thought.

Simon Rogers said...

@r_b_bergstrom hardcoded, specific crunchy things, combined with resources which can be spent in a more improvisational fashion are core to how my group play Night's Black Agents. In fact, the latter has become central to all our GUMSHOE games, in particular our homebrewed GUMSHOE Fantasy.

As a rough guide, one point of plausible investigative spend gets you three of a general one. The Architecture example is more of a TTFB than a SB - you'd probably want a shooting test to get the benefit, and the benefit would be more dramatic than just a +3.

But, yes, the second edition could be much clearer about this.