Saturday, October 8, 2011

Gum(shoe)-ing Up the Wheels of FATE

MASHING SYSTEMS
I’m about to critique a game I really love. Gumshoe’s one of my favorite concepts in recent years. I love the idea of a game engine which serves the purpose of its genre- in this case investigation. Like much of Laws' work, Gumshoe, draws out an idea which seems obvious in retrospect. But he brings it to the forefront, points at how play actually works at the table and offers mechanisms to make that ideas useful to the GM. That being said, and having run or played in about a dozen sessions in various forms (Spies, Victoriana, Mutant City Blues), my group hates non-investigation engine in the game. The system covering rolled challenges has been universally loathed by my players. I don’t hate it, but I also think it is the weakest part of the game for a number of reasons. I’ve talked about that before. But for the moment, I want to consider what I like and want to take away from Gumshoe:

1. A distinct set of investigative skills
2. Use of an investigative skill does not require a roll. Having any ‘rating’ in that field shows competency. Declaring said use gets you basic information.
3. Investigations have Core Clues, which lead the group from scene to scene. Other clues can be acquired that deepen the scene, allow the player to have the spotlight, or offer insight into the larger or the secondary puzzle(s).
4. Players can spend resources to gain additional non-Core clues using their investigation skills.
5. Drives related to investigations can be used to refresh the player’s resources.

There are a couple of other details wrapped up in this (like the use of interpersonal skills), but those elements are key.

So what I want to do is slot that into the core of another simple system- to have that handle the risky mechanisms and mechanics. Ideally the two halves should 'look' alike and have some exchanges, rather than feeling like a tacked on module. I’m inspired in this by two things. First, the concept suggested by the RPG Geek user skalchemist here which I talked about here. Second, I found out that Pelgrane will be doing an adaptation of the Gumshoe ideas to the Pathfinder system, called Lorefinder. Over the years, my go-to systems for adapting rules have been Basic-Role Play, GURPS and then Storyteller. Recently I’ve been reading and running various flavors of FATE. Those in our group who’ve had a chance to try this have generally enjoyed it.

THE INVESTIGATION SIDE
I’m going to talk about this in the most generic way- avoiding discussion of specific genre or application until the end.

Players pick from a list of investigation skills for the setting. Ideally, players would cover most of the bases- at least those most important as defined by the GM. These skills don’t have any ratings. Simply having a skill allows you to use it. Ideally, I’d have these in their own box on the character sheet. Players would also pick an "Investigation Drive"- that which propels them forward in the mystery. Example Drives would be: Sense of Justice, Youthful Enthusiasm, Desire for Vengeance, Can’t Let Anyone Get Away with It, Punching the Clock, Limitless Curiosity. These will function a little like aspects from FATE. Finally, players have a pool of Investigation FATE points. Perhaps we can call these something else, like simply Investigation or Mystery points. These will be distinct from the standard FATE pool. Players can track this on paper- or with a differently colored set of markers.

When players wish to use their investigation skills, they simply declare that, just as in Gumshoe. The GM provides them with the basic information or core clue based on that skill. Players may also choose to spend from their Investigation Pool to increase their use of a skill- offering them other clues or insights. The GM can also suggest that a player may wish to do this. In most respects, this functions like Gumshoe. You do lose distinctions between players in terms of the value of their skills- that some players have deeper knowledge of a certain area. But IMHO that’s not a big issue in Gumshoe. You gain two things from this method: you only have to track a single investigation resource, rather than individual pools for each skill and you establish a parallel with the other side of the FATE system.

Players will be able to refresh their investigation pool by invoking their Investigation Drives. Essentially, they can role-play to cut themselves off, put themselves in difficult situations or- rarely-cause themselves a problem on a tested action. In that way it works like a very narrow FATE aspects- as a means of adding to the FATE pool. The Drive doesn’t get invoked in other ways- i.e. as a beneficial aspect elsewhere. The GM and other players cannot invoke the Drive to cancel an investigation attempt. If a player wants to use their investigation skill, they get to. GMs can invoke a player’s Drive to add complications to a scene, for example. Let’s say that a player wants to use their "Shadowy Contacts" investigation skill. The GM could offer a FATE point to have something else happen- like making an enemy, starting a fight, getting chased- based on the player’s Drive. The investigation will always succeed- the GM’s offer doesn’t negate that, but instead adds a new element to the scene. As another example, a player with "Youthful Enthusiasm" as a Drive might irritate an older NPC, and gain a point to their pool.

Obviously this is just a sketch; you’d have to work out the numbers and refresh values.

THE ACTION SIDE
There are many favors of FATE, so what I’m going use is a fairly stripped down and numbers-oriented approach (modeled a little on Strands of FATE). Characters have four characteristics used for actions which involve risk or failure- fighting, seducing, crafting, running, etc. These cover the Standard Abilities in Gumshoe. The four characteristics are COMBAT, PHYSICAL, SOCIAL and MENTAL. These have a number on them, added to a roll when making a test.

Players also pick a set of aspects, let’s say five, to define their characters. These can be invoked by the player as per the usual rules: add +2 to the roll, reroll or change the situation. That use requires spending a Fate Point- again distinct from the investigation points. The other usual options and restrictions apply- allowing the GM and players to invoke aspects on the player in exchange for Fate Points. Compels can be offered, so long as those don’t attempt to negate the use of an Investigation Skill.

Most FATE systems offer Advantages. The most important advantage here would be a "Skill Advantage"- essentially a task or action type where the player always gains a +2 to the test. For example, Climbing, Knife Throwing, Sprinting, Strong Will could be take as Skill Advantages. The GM may wish to offer other advantages, depending on the genre and setting. Obviously, something like Mutant City Blues would require a larger advantage toolbox than something like Fear Itself. Advantages usually work to offer more heroic, fantastic or pulpy options which may not be appropriate for some genres.

Some Investigation skills can be used for non-Investigation purposes- most often with interpersonal skills. In this case, they function as a +2 bonus to the roll- just like a Skill Advantage. If players wish to invoke an aspect or tag when making a roll using an Investigation Skill, they must spend a Fate Point.

Characters have two sets of Stress tracks- one for physical effects like endurance, exhaustion or wounds and the other for mental effects like fear, sanity, attacks on reputation or self-image. Generally, most other basic FATE mechanics can apply.

OTHER THOUGHTS
I was a little worried about the ‘grittiness’ of the system- thinking that FATE felt more pulp-oriented, but I think I’m wrong about that. I think gritty comes more from the GM’s approach, rather than the system itself. I think players and GMs will have to be on the same page about the how and why of invoking aspects, though. FATE offers a great deal of narrative control- and the GM will have to decide how much that can shape the investigation. Investigation scenarios, IMHO, often require more work or GM control...or so I thought. The Armitage Files casts that in another light.

But here’s one idea that this mash-up does offer. In the Orwellian Noir setting skalchemist suggested, players will necessarily be working against the flow of the case. Core Clues should be inviolate- but players might be using their skills to add, eliminate or modify secondary clues- planting evidence, changing it up or making it disappear. That kind of action could be handled by spending FATE points to change the environment, in combination with the right skills. It would take some thinking to figure out how to handle that right.

So that's a rough set of notes on mashing those two together. Ideas? Comments?