Bill White's roleplaying game design blog, with emphasis on narrativist or story-heavy games.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Gumshoe: A Game Noir

Gumshoe is going to let players create a story that's like the film noir of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, or like the stories of Dashiell Hammett or James Ellroy. You've got hardbitten detectives walking down mean streets, where everybody wants something and everybody's got something to hide.

Right now, I see the game taking the following form:

(1) The players get together and specify a locale and a time period, like 1950s LA or Depression-era New York. It may or may not be necessary at this point to go down another level of specificity: okay, it's 1950s LA, but is the story centered around a movie studio or a precinct house? At some point, location cards get selected and laid out; the location in which a scene gets played out will have some effect on conflict resolution. The selected locale will have an effect on what location cards are "playable."

(2) Players come up with potential cases framed as situations or facts of the the case, writing them down on index cards. "My wife is missing," "There's a man who owes me money," "I want to get away from my violent pimp." Players then vote on which case the game will be about. I envision a kind of bidding, in which players distribute six points among three cases (i.e., 3, 2, and 1, or 2, 2, 2, or even 4, 1, 1), not including their own. The case with the most points is the one the game is about.

(3) Now roles need to be assigned to players. One will be the Client, who plays a large part in defining the initial situation of the game. Another will be the Gumshoe, who is most active really only at the end; the rest of the time, he's just going around enabling other characters to define themselves, and position themselves with respect to other characters. Other players take the roles of various antagonists and supporting characters in the story.

It's important that there be a chance for any other player to be the Client or the Gumshoe; the way to do this I think involves another round of bidding in which you allocate the points you got between Client, Gumshoe, and other roles. This gives the player who got more votes an advantage, which may require outlawing 2, 2, 2 as a distibution of votes, since one is motivated to do that by the strategic concern not to disadvantage yourself by giving someone more votes than you're likely to get.

(4) Once roles are assigned, the Client starts things rolling by framing a scene with the Gumshoe in which the basics of the case are outlined. Then other players can specify their characters, including their Secrets and their Desires (or maybe the client parcels those out based on another round of writing).

(5) Other players get to frame scenes wherein they encounter the Gumshoe. Statements are advanced, subjected to doubt and verification, or revealed to be lies by the mechanics of game resolution.

(6) The Gumshoe gets to frame a final scene in which the central conflict or mystery of the game is resolved.

That's what I've got so far. Stay tuned!

Ganakagok: A Fantasy Roleplaying Game

Ganakagok, my Iron Game Chef game (runner-up, I should say) from 2004 is finally published. That's a long time to be working on a project, but of course my dissertation took longer.

Two other games came out of that contest (last year) that I'm aware of, Ben Lehman's Polaris and Tim Kleinert's The Mountain Witch. I like to think that that puts Ganakagok in august company.

Of course, putting something up on Lulu isn't quite the same as fronting for an actual print run, but I'll be hauling copies to Dexcon this year and to other cons down the road.

This is the first thing I ever wrote about Ganakagok, once the Iron Game Chef muse spoke to me:

For a thousand years, the stars have shone down on Halakat, the Sea of Tears, burning brightly in a sky that was always dark. Now in the east the horizon has brightened to grey, and the stars have begun to fade. The shamans of the People speak of the rising of the Sun.

For a thousand years, the People have lived upon Ganakagok, the Island of Ice, in the midst of the Sea of Tears. This mountain of ice, floating in a cold sea, has been carved into soaring spires and dizzying stairs, immense caverns and intricate labyrinths. The legends of the People speak of the Ancient Ones who carved it so, to escape the falling of Night.

Dawn is coming to the Island of Ice. The stars are fading. The sea is growing warmer. The world is changing. Will the People survive the change?
So what's Ganakagok like to play? (There're actual play reports from last year's Dexcon here and here). In essence, it's like any other roleplaying game: you create a character who is then located in a particular in-game situation to which you react, making reference as you do to the game's rules for resolving character actions. The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Character creation begins with a draw of three cards from the Ganakagok deck, which is essentially a normal 52-card deck in which the normal suits have been replaced with Tears, Flames, Storms, and Stars and the face cards with Ancient, Man, Woman, and Child (so you draw the Ancient of Tears, not the Ace of Spades). Each card has additional motifs (so the Ancient of Tears is also called Anuk, meaning "Polar Bear" or "to overcome or master"). The suit and value of the card can also produce an oracular meaning (see the description of the deck in the preview in Lulu).

Each player reads his cards to come up with a "truth-vision" (what convinced him that Ganakagok was changing), a change-hope (what he hopes the change will bring), and a change-fear (what he fears likewise). Once the player has done that (and it sometimes takes a lot of coaching to enable a player to make the leap to "just reading the cards"), the character is, oh, 90% complete. There are still some in-game and mechanical choices to be made (the character's name and identity, his stats and "Gifts"), but once you've figured out your character's backstory, the rest is easy. And figuring it out is the first thing Ganakagok makes you do.

Based on what the players come up with in terms of characters, the GM fleshes out the situation, coming up with an "imagined cosmology" and mechanical rules to rules to support it (the Metaplot); these are largely cut-offs and thresholds for determining who gets to say what happens at the end of the game. The GM also frames the initial situation for the tribe and for each player individually each turn. Ganakagok cards play a heavy role here as well.

Each turn, the GM draws and reads a Ganakagok card to determine a character's basic situation. The character acts in response to that situation (the player describes his pursuit of a particular goal or course of action) until the GM decides that things have reached a crux: it's time to roll dice. Stakes are set by reference to a card, and the roll of the dice determines the initial trend of the action (good or bad) as well as who gets to narrate the immediate situation (player or adversary). At this point, people get to "react," going around the table in order invoking Gifts to shift dice up or down and thus change the outcome or narration rights or both. Once everyone is finished reacting, the consequences are narrated and the player assigns a kind of "fallout" by specifying how the Good and Bad Medicine of the action manifest.

Each player-turn takes a while, but because other players can participate through their reactions, engagement stays pretty high.

Over the course of the game, Good and Bad Medicine totals will build up for each character, for the People as a whole, and for Ganakagok (i.e., the world). At the end of the game (after a certain number of turns or a specified time interval, e.g.), if you have more Good Medicine than Bad, things go your way; otherwise, they don't. Of course, if things turn out bad for Ganakagok, having things go your way may just mean the best seat in the house at the Apocalypse, but that's part of the fun. The "final fates" of Ganakagok and the People get narrated based on the Metaplot rules the GM created, and players get to narrate their characters' final fates in line with what has already been narrated.

And that's pretty much the game.

About Me

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A communication Ph.D., I teach public speaking and media-related courses in the middle of PA. I do research on scholarly/scientific communication, and I write & play roleplaying games.