Sunday, 2 April 2017

The Opposition (GUMSHOE all)

There's an interesting idea hidden in the back pages of Edom's Basic Field Manual: the Oppyramid. According to the manual the Oppyramid's a 'tiered menu of plot twists or enemy actions that the Director can throw in as needed. In this case, it models the action of the Opposition as it uses the stolen Dossier to bring down Edom.'

Regardless of which game you play, how often does it happen that the Opposition has goals, and actively pursues them?

More often than not the Opposition is static. It has a main location, and a presumed objective. Taking Masks of Nyarlathotep as an example, in the extreme there can be a huge network of Opposition cells and bases around the world, all working towards that objective. Yet when encountered those cells and bases never seem to have schemes on the go, or some vital task that they're performing for the organization. They exist to be destroyed and then provide clues which in turn let the characters go forward in the plot.

In many ways they resemble the Dungeons and Dragons games of yore. There is a Dungeon. You mighty heroes go down into the Dungeon, beat up the inhabitants, take their stuff - in this case, their clues - and, once finished, the heroes go on to the next Dungeon. Some Dungeons are harder than others, but the pattern is broadly the same for all.

What if you were to adapt the Oppyramid for other games, and give the enemy an active personality?

In order to attempt this let's go back to Bookhounds, and the setting previously discussed in which Stanley David Fentiman and his wealthy ally Sarah Montgomery are scheming towards different but related goals, as follows:

Here you have two antagonists with very different goals working together. One is motivated by grief and loss, the other by a lust for power and immortality. In each case the motives are human and understandable, but in order to achieve their goals both will have to steep themselves in Mythos knowledge.
Further for this to work there need to be stakes of some kind, a wager that the characters cannot afford to lose. In Dracula Dossier the continued existence of Edom is the stake. In Bookhounds the character's livelihood, and their store, is the stake, and therefore keeping track of its Credit Rating and thus its Windfalls and Reverses is going to be paramount.

In theory the continued existence of the world can be a stake, but that seems a little too metaphysical for a mystery game, and GUMSHOE is at its heart more mystery than horror. Which is not to say that there's no horror in Trail of Cthulhu, just that its attraction lies less in sloshing buckets of grue than it does the solving of puzzles that lead to the grue.

No, for this to work you need something tangible. Something the characters can perhaps afford to lose, but don't want to. In Dreamhounds of Paris this would be the spark of creative madness; again, something that the character can lose, but will fight to keep. For other games it might be heroic reputation, or more prosaically a chest full of shiny loot. Regardless of the setting, as Keeper you should be able to identify this thing; if you can't, you will need to rethink, as this indicates a significant campaign problem beyond the scope of this post.

Once you have that you need a group, organization or force that threatens the thing the characters don't want to lose. Exactly what this is shall depend greatly on the kind of game you're running, or the setting, and we're using Bookhounds as an example.

In Bookhounds there's the Ring, a loose group of booksellers and professional antique dealers determined to rig the auctions for their benefit. As a long-running set of antagonists the Ring's goals are directly in opposition to the player characters. If the Ring wants to rig all the auctions, the players' shop must suffer. Also, as it's a loose group of individuals rather than a disciplined organization the Oppyramid and its resources can vary considerably. One vendor might rely on the charm offensive, another on breaking bones, another on theft. That gives you all kinds of options to choose from.

But why have the Ring when you already have Fentiman and Montgomery? Because you're going to want to let the players have a few triumphs along the way, and if they keep beating Fentiman and Montgomery then they'll stop taking them seriously as antagonists. Better to save those two for those moments when a devastating, brutal takedown is called for.

So in this scenario the Ring acts as minor antagonists and appear mainly in the initial story arc. They help set the scene and give the players something to whet their appetites with before the main course. Later, when the Ring has been defeated, the characters can move on to meatier fare.

The Oppyramid is a layered series of responses from the opposition, starting low and ending high. So in the Edom files a Level One Response might be to break into or steal one of Edom's minor assets, and a Level Five is burn a key Edom site to the ground. Level Six assumes Edom has been utterly vanquished and that the players are all that is left, but for purposes of this example we don't need a Level Six. If it ever gets to that point in Bookhounds the characters are probably dead.

There are several different responses at each Layer, becoming fewer as the threat becomes more significant. So at Level One there might be half a dozen different responses, while at Five there are only one or two.

In this example we're using two sets of antagonists, one being the Ring and the other being Fentiman and Montgomery. Ideally we'd know a lot more about the powers and assets of both those sets of antagonists, but this is just an example so we're going to let that slide. However it should be remembered that knowing what the antagonists can bring to bear will help determine what they do at any given response level.

Since this is a layered example the Oppyramid will be as follows:

Level One (Ring): The Rumor Mill. Your enemies in the Ring spread malicious gossip about your Bookshop or a recent Windfall your shop enjoyed, telling everyone who'll listen that the shop sells forgeries. If this gets as far as the police, the shop will suffer a Reverse no matter what the outcome of the court case; mud sticks.

Level One (Ring): Friends in Need. An ally of the store - an NPC Occultist or Forger, say - is being persecuted by members of the Ring, who want the ally out of business or disgraced. The characters have to protect or lose their ally.

Level One (Ring): Petty Theft. One of the Ring pays a small-time Rough Lad to hang around the characters' shop and steal some of the merchandise. Nothing too valuable; the intent is to disrupt business rather than cause any real damage, though the Rough Lad may not be too cognizant of the finer details. The characters need to get this Rough Lad off the premises, preferably with diplomacy since force will only provoke the Rough Lad into gathering some of his friends for some real damage.

Level One (Ring): High Bidder. The Ring has suborned one of the auctioneers at an auction house the characters regularly attend, using this ally to ensure that the bids always go their way. The characters will need to deal with this auctioneer or suffer a penalty to their Auction pool every time they go to auctions here.

Level Two (Ring): The Seduction. One of the shop's most important regular clients is being wooed away by the Ring, with promises of special deals and hitherto unobtainable prizes. If this client is persuaded to change allegiance, the shop will suffer a Reverse.

Level Two (Ring): Awkward Squad. A member of the Ring with limited Mythos knowledge but unshakable self-confidence tries to use Magic against the characters, and it does not end well. An uncontrolled entity, Mythos or otherwise, is now causing chaos in the neighborhood, and it's up to the characters to do something about it. Thanks to the Ring's interference, it may be possible to redirect the entity against the Ring member who summoned it. This may be a Megapolisomantic event, if this kind of Magick is used in-game.

Level Two (Ring): High Stakes. The Ring sets out to persecute the characters at every Auction they attend. The characters suffer a 5 point loss from their Auction pool, so long as this is in effect. However this lockout can be broken if the characters persevere, and should they win even one auction the Ring pulls back and ends the lockout.

Level One (Montgomery): Discreet Enquiries. One of Montgomery's allies or assets starts making enquiries about the characters and their business. Can they be trusted? Are they as good as they say? Impressing this ally somehow will lead to a Windfall for the shop.

Level One (Fentiman): The Cad. A female ally of the characters, preferably one with Occult or Mythos knowledge, is brought nearly to ruin by Fentiman's romantic excesses. Now the bounder's run off with something of real value, and the ally wants it back. Failing here means the characters lose the ally.

Level Three (Ring): Payback. One of the Ring goes make-or-break, determined to ruin the characters or go bankrupt trying. This rogue Ring member will not stop until he or the characters are done for. The rest of the Ring, while sympathetic, will not risk career suicide over this feud. The rogue Ring member will attend every auction the characters attend, bidding against them at every opportunity. Three successive auction victories here dooms the Ring member.

Level Three (Ring): Poisoned Fruit. A Forger ally of the Ring creates a near perfect copy of a grimoire the characters either own, or desperately need. If the characters own it, then it's the most valuable grimoire in the shop. The Ring intends either to sell this fake to the characters, or to break in and replace the genuine article with this forgery. Once this is done, the Ring will use its contacts to 'prove' the characters deal in forged merchandise.

Level Two (Montgomery): Pass the Test. If the characters succeeded at the Level One Montgomery challenge then that ally comes to the characters to give them a valuable commission; success here means that Montgomery will trust them with more important things. If the characters failed then they become aware that the ally is making the same offer to a member of the Ring; if they move quickly, they can get the commission before the Ring member does.

Level Two (Fentiman): Deadly Current. Fentiman challenges an NPC Occultist or occult minded ally to a Megapolisomantic battle of wills over a bad review the ally gave to one of Fentiman's articles in an esoteric magazine. However Fentiman has real power on his side, and if the characters aren't proactive their ally may end up dead.

This could go on for some time, but there's no need to. Notice how the responses are layered; the Ring, as minor antagonists, get to Level Two responses before the major antagonists start their Level One. By the time the Ring's either breaking or broken by the characters, the major antagonists are warming up to a Level Two response, and so on.

Note that not all the Oppyramid entries are antagonistic. Montgomery in particular is relatively mild compared to the Ring. Not all antagonists need to resort to blood and thunder straight away; they should react according to their personality, power and goals, which opens up a wide range of responses. If, as with Montgomery, achieving goals means buying arcane grimoires, why would she open negotiations by attacking people? Far better to negotiate or bargain, to begin with. Later, when things get more intense, Montgomery can get brutal.

I hope this was useful! Next time something completely different.

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