A Really Crazy Idea

The story goes that when Seth Rogen approached Judd Apatow, Saturday Night Live producer and then also producing Seth in Freaks and Geeks and told him he and his writing partner wanted to write comedy movies and had some ideas to pitch to him, Apatow told him not to give him a script or a pitch but to first prove they had idea depth – he told them to go away and write up pitches (full pitches, at least 500 words) for 101 OTHER movies. If they could do that, he’d know their pitch would be solid.  (They did, and then they proved they could write by scripting Pineapple Express, which wasn’t their idea, and having thus proven themselves in both realms, were allowed to write Superbad, and the rest is history.)

About five years ago I decided to challenge myself along the same lines: 101 ideas for TV shows. Back then I gave myself three months to do it, and 500 words each, and set up a Yahoo Groups group for it, but then I got hit by the Life Truck and the idea lay in ruins after about ten.

Today, I found my original scribbled list of ideas and I decided I needed a new challenge, but shorter, and more insane. 101 movie ideas in 24 hours. Now, to make it easier, these won’t be full pitches. Rather, they’ll be elevator pitches. One sentence only. No more than fifty words. Sum it up, succinctly – because if I can’t, it’s no good for TV anyway. They’ve got to be obviously watchable and workable and pop off the page. I don’t, however, guarantee they will be particularly original. It is TV after all.

I can’t think of anywhere else to do it, so I’ll do all 100 of them here, in the comments. The time is now 10:17 pm. My time starts now.

The Genius

The greatest genius of the Buffy RPG was taking something gamers always do – in that case, make pop culture references and undercut dramatic moments – and make them both in-setting appropriate and wired into the system.

 

The greatest genius of Smallville is taking something gamers always do – in this case, constantly get into pissing contests with each other over the smallest things and fail to move the plot forward as a result – and make it both in-setting appropriate and wired into the system.

 

I may have to make a game about drinking Mountain Dew…

In Which I Break Focus After One Day, and talk about Ashen Stars

So yesterday I was talking about how easy it is to go off on a tangent and lose your focus, and then last night I was talking to someone about my Gumshoe whining and he said “you gotta read Ashen Stars” and I’m like “dude, I know it” and he’s like “here it is” and bam, I’m off focus, reading away on something I can easily read in five years from now.

To be fair, I was right based on my first impressions – it is hella awesome. It’s not just one of the coolest sci-fi settings ever published, containing five of the most well-crafted alien species you’ll ever see and a fantastically strong premise (“what if the Federation lost a huge war and so had to hire Han Solo and Mal Reynolds to police deep space in the aftermath”) it also has some great depth of detail and infrastructure to that, all the things that aren’t really setting but aren’t really system (or core system) but make a game unique and strong, like a fantastically detailed exploration of the intricacies of the justice system and a simple but detailed guide to making planets and some awesome cyberware and a huge list of ship stats and what might be (haven’t plummed it in detail yet) the best ship-to-ship combat system ever written…

…and on top of all that, it has Laws’ usual sense for the dramatic and narratively-styled. Like Leverage and Smallville (and to a lesser extent, Buffy), it puts genre tropes front and centre (although I wish it hadn’t called itself space opera, it sounds cheesy and you can play this plenty dark and grounded).  Planets are designed for the story around them, first and foremost. Adventures are built around premises and twists, because twists are what makes the half-hour ad-break interesting. But it keeps the core basis of simulational mechanics, which helps keep players grounded in the fictional world. It’s a nice balance, and the kind of thing that neither the old school hard-core sim games nor most bleeding edge indie games ever really got.

And speaking OF, it has what is at once the oldest rule of GMing (depending on your style) and also one of the most revolutionary rules ever written down. In the section on setting difficulty levels, it doesn’t have a useless table explaining that 2 is “Trivial” and 4 is “average” and 8 is “impossible”. It doesn’t go to great lengths to determine how hard your average lock is to pick in the setting. No, it explains the core of pretty much all mechanics I’ve ever used:

If succeeding would be boring or kill the story, make the target number impossible or nearly so.

If failing would be boring or kill the story, make the target number very low or just let it happen.

If both success and failure would be interesting, set it at 4 (average).

At first glance, that might seem obvious to you, but to any hard-core world-simulationist, it is insane. To the hard-core anti-“railroading” anti-die-fudging types on RPGNet, it is mind-breaking heresy. To Ron Edwards and co, it is the GM setting an agenda of “his” story and taking agency away from the players, and violating a sacred trust of everyone having input . It’s the kind of rule that is like the exploding of Alderaan – I could hear the screams echoing across the internet the moment I read it. Like the initiative rules in Fvlminata.

And I thought that was interesting. It was nice to see it written down so simply. For those of us who GM to present stories as much as react to them, it’s an instinctive tool, but as I said, I don’t think it’s ever been written down quite so explicitly and clearly and simply. It is effectively permitting dice fudging, as a written rule. Which is super sexy awesome.

So, Ashen Stars: worth checking out even if you don’t like Gumshoe. Hell, it would be almost trivial to turn the system into a roll-under one (actually, Blue Planet’s Synergy would be a good fit) and still use 95% of the book. Unless of course, you think this is railroading insanity. Then you should go play Smallville, which, alas, is much, much harder to fudge because you have much less control over probabilities.

And now…I must stop reading about the awesome armadillo people and put it aside….do it…DROP THE BOOK STEVE! THIS IS THE WRITING POLICE!

*shots are fired. Fade to black. To be continued…*

On Writing/Design: Keeping Your Focus

As writers, we tend to be interested in everything. As freelancers, it is in your best interest to be interested in everything. You are, after all, always looking for work, and the good freelancer is the one who can turn his skills to whatever comes along. There’s an urgent sense to be whatever the latest client needs us to be. This is actually inefficient, however – it’s better to master one thing, then sell it to lots of different markets, then trying to master ten things for one market.

But it has other dangers, and one big one is it can knock you off your focus. And that can be fatal.

I’ll give you some examples. My friend recently passed me a writer’s magaz ne. I was like, yes, I’ll read that, they take submissions of poetry and short stories might be a way to make some money, yep yep yep…but the thing is, I currently have some strategies for making money AND some ones ready to explore. I don’t actually need anything new. I’m not writing short stories right now, or poems. So what I’ve actually added is something more to research, study and learn (the magazine, its requirements, its style, etc) that I don’t need. And if I waste time or energy (or worry) on that, it knocks me off my focus on other tasks, which were actually about getting stuff out and making money. I joined another race instead of running the one I was in.

This happens a lot, in various ways. I’m on an industry list, and it’s always tempting whenever they’re talking about something, to follow it and learn about it. To monitor every new trend with my finger on the pulse because I want to be conversant on everything – even though I don’t even want to work on half of them. Study each new game as it comes out. Read a break down on e-publishing and self-publishing even though right now I’m working in a different arena.

Don’t get me wrong, keeping an open mind and inbox is a good idea. When a friend tells me he has an in into a new fiction imprint, I remember it, jot it down somewhere, and file it away, because one day I might need it. But that’s where it stops. If you keep it in your mind, it becomes another race to run, another thing in your inbox, another thing to drag you off target and stop you from finishing something.

The same goes for new ideas – they never stop coming, and that’s awesome, and you should never throw anything away. Jot it down, yes – and then put it aside. You can work on it one day, or maybe not. Ideas, ultimately, aren’t worth that much – and they’re worth nothing if they pull you off focus. Sure, it’d be great to make a game about Napoleonics but if you keep that in the back of your mind while you’re browsing the library or the internet, you suddenly have twice as many links to look at – those and the ones about your current project on Killer Robots. It’s great to be interested in everything, and it’s great to feed the great crowds of piranha in your mind on the endless bounty of the river of knowledge that pours off the information superhighway –  but at the same time, you’ve doubled your internet search load – and halved your writing time on both games.

Laser-like focus does not come naturally for the artistic and the intellectually curious – and I’m not advocating losing that curiosity. Being curious is fine. Just beware starting another project – which is exactly what researching and brainstorming IS. Starting is fun, but it is too often the enemy of finishing. And being available for everything stops you from doing anything.

So next time you have a great idea, jot it down, then put it aside and forget about it. Your current project will be better for it.

Talking Gumshoe, Part Three

Like I said, Laws inspires discussion. There’s another bit on that “problems with Gumshoe” page that needs a lot of unpacking:

Won’t the players just rattle off all of the abilities on their character sheets every time they enter a scene?

No more so than in a game where you have to roll against your abilities to get information. Players who imagine this happen are assuming a much greater difference between the traditional style and the GUMSHOE approach than actually exists. In each case, players always have to describe a logical course of action that might lead to their getting information, directly or indirectly suggesting the ability they use to get it. In the traditional model, there’s a roll; the GM supplies the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped—but it’s the only step skipped.

Traditional style:

Player: I scan the area for unusual energy signatures.

GM: Roll Energy Signatures.

Player: I succeed.

GM: You detect a harmonic anomaly on the quantum level—a sure sign that Xzar technology has been used here, and recently.

GUMSHOE style:

Player: I scan the area for unusual energy signatures.

GM: [Checks worksheet to see if the player’s character has Energy Signatures, which she does.] You detect a harmonic anomaly on the quantum level—a sure sign that Xzar technology has been used here, and recently.

In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out “Anthropology! Archaeology! Botany! Cybe Culture! Evidence Collection!” They don’t do this because it would be weird, boring, and stupid—and because in neither case does it fill all the requirements necessary to get information from a scene.

The only difference is the lack of a die roll. It has a big effect on play, but that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly taking the express train straight to Crazytown.

 

The thing that needs to be said here is that this isn’t what we assumed would happen in the game – it is exactly what we EXPERIENCED happening in the game. For a couple of reasons. Firstly because in Call of Cthulhu, it’s rare that all your skills can work at once. Whereas in Esoterrorists, you’re most often standing in a crime scene or evidence scene, using your eyeballs and inherent knowledge. So you ARE rattling things off. This is doubly true in a social situation where you are using your eyeballs on a suspect. Bam bam bam, until we get a hit. And of course, the nature of the game, as written, is playing Find the Box, so players quickly learn to seek the box as quickly as possible.

Second, because we’re used to – and enjoy – rolling dice. For us, it’s part of the roleplaying experience, and if you take it away, it feels weird. You can imagine if you took dice rolling out of Monopoly, and just moved one space at a time, it would feel weirdly sped up, as turns would suddenly be a lot shorter – and a lot less exciting, as there would be no thrill of chance in the movement phase.(Not to mention the kinesthetic appeal and inherent excitement in rolling dice – rolling dice is fun FOR ITS OWN SAKE for many people, and so many games forget that.)

Thirdly, because the die roll is a strong connector with the physical action. Again, this is habit, from playing lots of rpgs, but we have learnt from them that doing things and rolling dice are the same thing. So what slows us down and makes us go “Hmm, my character examines the object in a thoughtful way” is the sense of squib which arises from physically picking up a die and throwing it, and the random sense of outcome also provides squib to not knowing if the scene will reveal something to our character. Without that, we had no reason to posit our characters doing something because physically, our players weren’t doing anything.

Fourthly and perhaps most importantly, nobody wants to fail a die roll. It’s not fun. Even if it creates no consequences, rolling low IS NOT FUN. Again, too many game designs forget that one of the fundamental concepts of rpgs is rolling a dice and feeling personal achievement (however misplaced) when you roll a 20, and feeling personal failure when you roll a one. It’s silly but it is undeniably true. We know this. Studies have shown that people who play poker machines believe they have a skill, and get the same sense of accomplishment when they win as they do when winning a game of skill or completing a task. Anyway, the point is, low rolls create downbeats, even if they have no consequences, and nobody wants to roll down their skill list in a row because they risk those downbeats.  Take away the risk of failure, as Gumshoe does, and you can rattle off every skill on your sheet – and so you do.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle that we tend to, in gaming, have too many downbeats to accurately model a lot of fiction or to have fun investigating things. I just don’t think that automatic success solves either problem. The point of investigative rolls has never been about whether they get a clue or not, but when and how they get the clue. Clues have never been treasure in a chest, but orcs in a dungeon, waiting to be stabbed, and the stabbing is the fun part.

Also, there are much better ways to remove the problem of failure being boring or out of genre. For example, look at Leverage, where character stats are insanely high, so failure almost never happens, and when it does only causes complications, not failure (and complications can happen even if you succeed, so you get to feel awesome AND have interesting failures). Or look at Smallville, where nobody can actually fail at anything, randomly. Success and failure operate outside the dice roll, but the dice roll is still important and emulative. Smallville doesn’t quite work for mysteries (unless both the detective and the criminal are PCs) but it’s another interesting approach to success (or really failure – it happens a lot in Smallville, but not because of the dice, but because success would destroy the angst – in many ways, soap operas are the opposite of mysteries, because they thrive on nobody finding out anything). Both games also have no sense of damage, with failure ALWAYS meaning complications, which removes much of the issue of downbeats anyway – you can’t stop the story if failure is never dull. It’s not unlike Paranoia and Warhammer where you look forward to failing because it was more hilarious that way.

(Hacking Cortex Plus for a mystery game is an awesome idea, though. I will think on it.)

So there’s Gumshoe: it’s central idea of exploring whether investigation rolls should ever fail was a good one, but it was based on a problem huge swathes of gamers have never encountered, and its solutions to the question were interesting but ended up being a) not really offering anything new at heart (just more clues faster) and b) unappealing, inelegant and lacking in squib, while the rest of the system felt bolted on and incomplete.

But like I said, it’s interesting and I’m glad it exists. After all, I just spend a few hours writing 3000 words about it.

 

Talking Gumshoe, Part Two

Gumshoe has many elements which make it up. Some of which are appropriate for investigative games, and some which are just hanging around to help out. I’ll talk about the latter first.

I don’t like the system for what they call “Physical” skills, ie non-Investigation ones. This is basically personal preference. I dislike any game which requires the players to choose how much they care about a task (or how important they think it is to the plot) and spend points on it. I just don’t like those kind of decisions. I think they slow down play. I just assume everyone is always trying they’re hardest, and if they fail, it’s because of outside circumstances. I also don’t think its well implemented, because you can spend a bunch of points and still fail. It just doesn’t seem fun to use, either.

I also hate systems which have different systems for different parts of the game. I can stand a bit more complexity in combat, but not a complete system shift. For one, I’m just too lazy to learn different systems. For another, it feels like there’s two different games at once. That feels like lazy, inelegant design.

It also leads to an important question as to the nature of the two systems. Clearly (and we’ll get into this later) Laws believes that gathering information should never fail, but physical tasks should sometimes fail. Now there are some interesting philosophical things behind that, but it seems kind of arbitrary. Either failure is interesting or it isn’t. Pick one, you know?

You could point to genre and say that in, say, Law and Order, sometimes Detective Munch will fail to grab a perp before he slips away. On the other hand, this is pretty rare. As Laws himself says, most police procedural shows are “love affairs with competence”. They almost always succeed at such tests, or not even feature them. What’s more, in the same shows, Munch will sometimes walk into shot and explain that his most recent avenue of exploration has failed to produce anything useful. In other words, a failed investigation roll.

Or is it?

In Laws’ philosophy, I think what this would represent is a pre-planned adventure (which is fine) where it had been decided that there were No Clues in Box A. Granted, I sometimes do this. Meanwhile, Laws’ idea of Gumshoe is to plug the problem where there are, according to the adventure or GM, some very important clues in Box B, but every time the PCs look in Box B, they fail their roll.

Long ago, I figured out how to resolve this, which is to put the clue in whichever Box the players succeed on their roll in. Gumshoe solves the problem in reverse, by making success automatic, and just waits for players to look in the right box. Or look in any vaguely appropriate box (as discussed on this page in the bits about railroading and going off-script). Even allowing for vaguely appropriate boxes though, this does make writing adventures more work, because you have to come up with a list of boxes and a list of clues. Instead of say, Smallville, where adventure design involves coming up with a list of Reveals and putting them wherever they fit. It also has exactly the same amount of downbeats (to use Laws’ term), because it implies players can look in wrong boxes.

Or that they just scan through the boxes and get all the clues, all the time (we’ll come back to that). This is what makes people think that adventures become “easier”. Again, the solution to this backwards: since you’re getting all the clues, all the time, you can give people shittons of information, allowing for mysteries to be much more complex, include many more red herrings and be more fun to solve. In my experience, players don’t really like this. Don’t get me wrong, ratiocination is fun on television and in books, and I enjoy a little bit of it, engaging my own little grey cells as a way of connecting (through Squib) to the PC. But too much ends up being dull or hard work. And too much information just becomes annoying.

Players like to feel awesome, and generally, without having to work for it. This is why Call of Cthulhu has the Idea roll, so you can solve things by rolling  a die. This is also why I don’t like systems like Feng Shui and Wushu, which reward people with descriptive skill – to my mind, the system should provide descriptive awesome FOR YOU. That’s it’s job, not yours. And everyone should get the same awesome reward, regardless of their personal skills. That’s the philosophy behind There Is No Spoon, for example.

Gumshoe’s “spend” system forces players to decide when they want to be awesome, and for GMs to come up with multi-layered clues for when this happens. This is not unlike systems where levels of success matter – which is something I rarely use either (too lazy!). But it’s a particular headache here because now you have to plan clues and mega-clues, as well as boxes. And yet the mega-clues can’t be too big because if one box gives away everything, the players who have specified their character towards other boxes will feel cheated.

This is of course the danger of any system with increased detail. Having a long list of investigation skills is a GREAT way to get into the niches of genre and explore minute differences in style and enhance a sense of genre. But it can be harder to balance screen time as a result. If Bob is good at punching and Jim at talking, I can design pretty broadly. If Bob is intimidating and Jim is glib…I have to design two talking scenes with equally important goals, AND provide reasons why Bob can’t just intimidate his way through both of these. Now that doesn’t apply to the knowledge skills so much, but we definitely had a problem with the social skills in Gumshoe too. There were so many of them they actually kind of detracted from the game – I prefer to put my gamist, can-the-players-solve-this elements into actual roleplaying and discussion (backed up by dice rolls, of course) but having a Bullshit Detector kind of killed that for us, turning what were normally subtle live-action interactions into single dice rolls and that killed a huge part of our fun.

Oh this is getting all confused. Time for Part Three, then.

Talking Gumshoe, Part One

Okay. Disclaimer time: of course this is sour grapes. I’d love to be part of the cool kids club and the now seemingly unending tide of Gumshoe products. I’d love to be taking Gumshoe and using it for my own settings as effortlessly as others seem to be able to.  Of course I’d love to work with Robin Laws, whom I admire not just for his work but for the way his work always opens up discussion (case in point) and clarity into design. Heck, at one point I even submitted something for Esoterrorists, but that’s another story. And yes, it frustrates the hell out of me that these games use Gumshoe because their design is so intriguing otherwise. Not just because of their awesome understanding of narrative convention but also because the settings being published are very well written. Check out the races in Ashen Stars – some of the best races ever designed for an RPG.

The point is, don’t bother to accuse me of sour grapes. Of course it is. The second point is, I’m not here to tear down awesome designers and quality games. Or your experiences with them.

Point the third: I have actually played Gumshoe. I’m not imagining things based on my assumptions, we actually had problems executing it. I’ll come to those later. I’ll do theoretical issues first.

Point the fourth: All this said, I think people have good reason to baulk at Gumshoe’s basic philosophy. Obviously, for the sake of ad copy, it makes good sense to – as Mad Men put it – create an itch, then supply your product as the balm. As a result, Gumshoe sells itself as the solution to the problem of all your investigative games which, until now, you have been doing, if not wrong, then inefficiently. If you’re someone – like say the inestimable Chris Slee – who has spent the best part of twenty years running incredible, unrivaled investigative games to perfection, you have the right to get your dander up at this implied slight.

Of course, just finding something better or even different doesn’t have to be an insult (unless you’re on the internet, of course), but in a hilariously crowded marketplace, nobody should be surprised when people react with skepticism when you make such grand claims.

Okay, moving on. We have much to cover.