Sunday, 23 April 2017

Got You Where I Want You (GUMSHOE Night's Black Agents, all)

I've been reading Andy McDermott's Kingdom of Darkness, part of his epic spy vs ... actually, I'm not sure. Spy vs reality, maybe? Or action hero vs mundane life? Anyway, it's book 10 in an ongoing line featuring Yorkshireman ex-SAS crazy person Eddie Chase and his beautiful archaeologist wife Nina Wilde. They wander across the planet finding pretty much everything and exploding bad guys as they do it.

By everything, I mean everything. I just dropped into this series and apparently they've already found Excalibur, Atlantis, and Valhalla, among other things. Presumably these discoveries all got blown up shortly afterwards; everything else seems to have the life expectancy of a gnat's fart, so why should Valhalla be any different?

This isn't not quite book review corner, so I won't go into detail except to say this: Chase and Wilde face down theoretically immortal Nazis living in Argentina, who discovered just enough immortality juice back in 1942 to keep a dozen of them going, and are now looking for more juice. Apparently Alexander the Great's cook Andreas knew where it was, so it's off to find Alexander's tomb. And blow it up. Because reasons.

It's a fun read, absolutely not to be taken seriously, and I have to give credit to McDermott for having the imagination and effrontery to put all this in one book. Apart from anything else I think this may be the first time I've seen a Yorkshireman in the protagonist role since James Herriot, though I suspect if you presented Eddie Chase with a cow's backside he'd stick a grenade in it.

I see from his bio he's written for 2000AD. Why am I not surprised.

Anyone who can sneak Patrick McGoohan and Raiders of the Lost Ark references in the same novel is worthy of praise. There's some good action chase sequences too, even if the biggest chase liberally borrows from The Man With the Golden Gun - the novel, not the movie.

That, and McDermott isn't as predictable as other pulp spy writers; there's no telling who's going to live or die, with the exception of the two longstanding leads of course - and it's not clear from the start that even they have plot immunity, since Wilde is under sentence of death from one of their previous adventures.

So yes, I do recommend it to Night's Black Agents directors with the obvious caveat that this is as Pulp as pulp can possibly be, so if your instincts draw you more to the Le Carre side of the spectrum you'd better steer clear.

However there's a moment in the book that intrigued me and I thought it would be useful as an Ephemera piece.

In the narrative Nina and some colleagues are captured by the Nazis and dragged off to the Argentina compound, there to languish in durance vile until they reveal the location of the source of the Immortality Juice, which means solving an archaeological puzzle.

Capture is not something recommended by most GMs in any system. It tends to derail the game, and takes agency away from the players which emphatically is not what GUMSHOE is all about. The NBA main book makes this very clear:
Directors should get player buy-in at the beginning of the game; if capture isn't an option, then it simply isn't an option ... Here's our GUMSHOE promise: If you are captured, you will learn something you want to know ... And you will have a chance to escape.
I would add another item to that list:
As Director it is your job to make sure the characters have something to do if they are captured.
Players tend to think that if their character is captured then that character can't do anything. They rot in a jail cell. No scenes, no spotlight; there they sit, forever and ever and ever.

Here's the thing: the McDermott sequence is a perfect example of good capture because it allows for three things:
  1. The captives learn something about their captors, in this instance that they have the contents of cook Andreas' shrine and are on the lookout for the source of the Immortality Juice.
  2. The captives have a chance to escape, when Eddie Chase invades the compound.
  3. The captives have a puzzle to solve.
Granted it's not the most taxing puzzle in the world, but it's something to spend Investigative points on. It's an individual scene, which means characters can have the spotlight.

Players want agency, but agency isn't just about giving players the opportunity to roleplay. It's about giving those characters something to do. They're not just kicking their heels in a filler scene waiting for their chance to saw through the cell window's bars and break free.

In this particular instance not only do Nina and her companions have a puzzle but they also have an additional conundrum on top of that, because if they tell their captors what they know then their captors will probably kill them. So it's not just about spending that Investigative point to gain knowledge; it's also about bluffing or otherwise concealing what they know, just plausibly enough that their captors don't get bored and shoot them out of hand.

In short, it's Thrilling, which means as Director you could make a Thrilling sequence out of it.

Remember the Hitchcock film Torn Curtain, where there's a Thrilling sequence revolving around a Physics equation. The Thrilling mechanic's not just for car chases any more; you can make a Thrilling sequence out of almost anything, and that means you can invent one to fit into a capture scenario.

Any moment in which you can say 'this is a cat-and-mouse moment' has the potential to be Thrilling. Thrills depend on stakes, not action, and while you don't want to invent a Thrilling sequence every time one of the guards goes to the toilet there are times when a good Director makes Thrills happen.

There's one other important factor, which is:
As Director you should craft a capture scene as carefully as you would any other, but always remember a capture scene is Alternative, not Core.
What do I mean by this? Let's take a trip on the Orient Express, and find out.


In that venerable campaign there is an in-plot capture scene that cannot be avoided. The game literally cannot proceed without this scene, and there are other campaign elements in the capture scene which the players also may not appreciate.

I have yet to find a group of players that enjoy this scene. Even the players who accept railroading as a necessary plot element really have trouble with it. The scene boils down to the Keeper saying 'yeah, you're hosed. No, there's nothing you can do about it. Sucks to be you.'

The scenario in question even concludes with the line 'The investigators regain no Sanity for this scenario; after all, they have lost dismally.' Yeah, because the writer - and by extension, willing or otherwise, the Keeper - rigged the game, not because of any real failure on the players' part.

This is exactly the kind of agency-stripping plot device GUMSHOE was designed to avoid.

However with GUMSHOE I've noticed the reverse problem: that because Directors know capture scenes can be problematic, they don't detail those scenes. 'It's something you can do - if you're a complete and total weirdo - but we don't talk about it much.'

Capture has its uses. For one thing, it keeps characters alive in circumstances which might otherwise lead to a total party kill. Surrender means the characters live to fight another day. Okay, they have to find a way out of their jail cell, but that's a minor problem compared to crawling out of a bodybag.

For another, it's genre-appropriate. Even James Bond gets captured more than once, in the novels and the movies. Some of Bond's most iconic moments depend on capture scenes. 'Do you expect me to talk?' 'No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.' Ahh, the classics!

Third and last, it's a brilliant way to introduce clues that either the characters have failed to gather - and it happens, believe me - or that they need in future scenes. Sometimes players display a perverse genius for avoiding or forgetting clues, even Core ones. Sometimes they could use a little nudge to discover, say, a Bane, or the Conspiracy's next target. Let them glimpse the clue they need, or a handy map, while in captivity, and the problem solves itself.

This is something the Orient Express capture scene does well. It's dripping with atmosphere, the players get to learn dark secrets, and they have a problem to solve that isn't just about getting out of their jail cell. The difficulty is that, in GUMSHOE vernacular, it's a Core scene, so any good it might be doing is outweighed by the evil it did in stripping the players of agency in the first place.

So my advice is this: in any game of whatever type, recognize that capture is possible. Then design an Alternate scene around that possibility. Give it a little local color, perhaps think about how it could be made Thrilling, factor in some clues that you know the characters will appreciate. Try to come up with a few ways for the characters to plausibly escape. Then leave the scene alone until you need it.

This preserves player agency. The scene isn't Core, and the characters might go the entire game without realizing this Alternative exists, but like other Alternative scenes the capture moment allows the players to gather extra clues which they can use to their advantage.

And if they end up strapped to a table with a red-hot laser slowly snaking its way up to their unmentionables, so much the better.

That's it from me. Enjoy!

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