Friday, 4 March 2016

Lasers and Detectives and Being-Like

So a few weeks ago, I visited some friends and mentioned to them the deeply intriguing game Lasers and Feelings, which I'd come across on a podcast.

I actually won't link to the podcast, because although the game seemed fun, I found the podcast cringe-inducingly California-amdram-storygamerish and had to stop listening fairly soon, and it seems mean to link someone with that kind of recommendation.

In fact, weirdly, I've now tried listening to three different Actual Plays of Lasers and Feelings and couldn't stick with any of them. I don't remember the issue with the second; the third group were so fixated on the "Sexy" keyword that it got tiresome to listen to within a few minutes. I'm sure it's just a personal taste thing, they sounded like they were having a great time. I think it's partly that for me, a lot of amusement comes from playing silly tropes with a straight face, whereas a game where everyone is Sexy and people run around referring to that in-character and the actual plot features the Captain announcing that due to a terrible space-plague he has become *dun-dun-dah* Un-Sexy! just too in-your face.

Anyway, I found the game enormous fun, as my alien doctor ran around trying to meet sexy humans and solve medical problems through sheer emotion. We had a fun pirate-themed plot and eventually crushed their plans to reverse time because, even though this would have vastly improved (and indeed, saved) the lives of thousands of people, it's always bad to change history in space opera because Morals You Guys.

The lightweight ruleset really appealed to me, and I started wondering what other genres might be amenable to this treatment. This led me to try and rough out a detective-themed game, which I'm going to call Monographs and Intuition.

The division is much like the one in Lasers and Feelings itself - Monographs represents academic knowledge, reasoning and induction based on evidence, whereas Intuition represents solving problems by understanding or manipulating emotions, as well as sheer inspiration. Recognising a tattoo, tracing origin of tobacco-ash or following the money would be Monographs; spotting a flash of guilt, encouraging someone to open up to you, or realising how social tensions might cause a spiral of murderous jealousy, would be Intuition. Let's assume that low is Intuition, and high is Monographs; you want to roll over Intuition, and under Monographs.

Then you'd just grab some archetypes. Something like this maybe?


Learned, Inscrutable, Two-Fisted, Mild-Mannered, Eccentric, Hard-Boiled


Police Officer, Private Eye, Dilettante, Bystander, Foreigner, Whippersnapper

So maybe Sherlock would be a Learned Dilettante with a 5 (Monographs). Miss Marple would be a Mild-Mannered Bystander on perhaps a 3. Poirot would be an Inscrutable Foreigner, on a 2-3. Sam Spade is a Hard-Boiled Private Eye on a 3-4. Why Didn't They Ask Evans? features two Whippersnappers, probably one Inscrutable and one Mild-Mannered from what I remember, with a 3 because honestly they're a bit rubbish at following clues but not that great at understanding people either.

But would it be a detective game?

One of the issues here is, how detectivish would this feel? As someone pointed out to me, this is basically the premise of The X-Files, but the playstyle might not be what's expected, particularly from players used to other investigative games like Call of Cthulhu. Those revolve around exploring scenarios that have been carefully designed by the GM with chains of evidence for the players to puzzle out using their characters' attributes; Lasers & Feelings is a very lightweight game with a ton of player agency and assumed most of the game is improvised.

As my much-lamented Los Diablos game was supposed to demonstrate, I don't think this is necessarily a problem. Investigative games traditionally rely on lots of pre-planning, but I don't particularly see why you can't have one that's mostly improvised around a core. The player agency is a completely different point, but again, I'm not sure it's a problem. What it's going to depend on is what the group considers to be "like a detective", and there are two axes here: the story and the game.

I don't think there will be any particular discrepancy between an improvised detective story and a pre-planned one. In fact, it's entirely possible that an improv game will end up more like a detective novel than one based on a prewritten clue chain. A series of weird rolls can lead to people missing or misinterpreting clues, or learning things the GM never expected; and of course they can simply go off on one and end up doing something utterly bizarre. In an improv game, the massive tangent can be incorporated into the plot; if the players think it's relevant, they can make it so. People working together to improvise a game that feels like a detective story around a loose plot should be at least as effective at doing so, as a group trying to create a detective story by confronting game-mechanical challenges that reveal or conceal parts of the plot.

The more important question is, what feels like "a detective game" to the players? And that's going to vary. I'm not sure whether it would actually need to be investigative or not.

A L&F-style game would basically involve improvising clues to fit around a rough plot. The players and DM would make up clues that seemed to make sense at the time. That sounds to me quite a lot like the Agatha Christie-esque style of stories, where most people are suspects most of the time and the crucial bit of evidence isn't always more convincing than the rest, hence Evil Voice.

That is mostly character-based mystery, though, which is a bit different from the likes of Sherlock Holmes or Sam Spade. It makes sense that you can sort of riff around in them, because that's basically what the authors do. But what if we want Sherlock? A lot of people do.

I like most of the original stories, but I must admit that like basically everything else involving Stephen Moffat, I have no time for the TV series.

I'm actually not sure whether Holmes stories are particularly investigative, though. At least, the experience of the reader is not one of carefully piecing together the puzzles and forming a logical understanding of the plot, which some other authors (like Agatha Christie) permit. In most of the stories, Holmes is constantly in possession of information that's kept from the reader, which means not only do we not know what conclusions he has drawn, but we are literally incapable of solving the mystery. So the audience isn't part of a slow process of logical investigation at all, they just encounter a series of baffling clues which Holmes eventually whips into a story by adding bits to form a coherent whole.

The question is, does is matter whether those connective bits that are added are a) devised by the GM and may or may not be found by the players; or b) stuff the players make up when they succeed at a roll? I think not.

Player mindsets

What we're running into here is the issue that people can have very different instincts and opinions about what it means to be Like X, whether that's Like A Detective Story or Like Sherlock Holmes, or even Like The Red-Headed League. I've talked about this before in terms of the Musketeers.

Player A says "this Sherlock Holmes game feels nothing like a Holmes story! I have to use my real world skills to put a bunch of in-character clues together, and I might get it wrong! To properly feel like Holmes I'd need a game where whatever deductions my character made were correct, then we'd get an outcome that really came close to being an improvised Holmesian narrative".

Player B says "this Sherlock Holmes game feels nothing like a Holmes story! I just have to roll my deduction skill, and then anything my character asserts becomes true in the game! To properly fell like Holmes, I'd need to be putting together real clues to a properly designed mystery, using real logic and deduction."

Broadly speaking, the schism here is whether you understand Like Sherlock Holmes to mean "this game guarantees that you will be able to do what Holmes does" or "this game challenges you to try to do what Holmes does".

Player A feels like Holmes by saying and doing things that look like what Holmes does and, like Holmes, having these be true parts of the story. Trying to second-guess the GM's attempt to build a mystery that is "exactly challenging enough" is basically a distraction from evoking that Holmesian atmosphere. It's sort of like being Sherlock Holmes in a play. You could say that the aesthetic trappings of Holmes are what provide that feeling.

Player B feels like Holmes by taking part in a mystery they know to have a solution, and patiently piecing together the clues. Being able to simply invent truths undermines that whole experience by trivialising it; there's little satisfaction in solving a mystery if you can simply declare victory, it's like playing a game with people you know are letting you win. The feeling of Being Holmes comes from doing in real life something that resembles what Holmes does in the stories, even though the reliance on player skill will naturally result in signficant differences from the inferences a genius detective can draw.

Both players want to feel like a great detective, but one player gets that from abstract mechanics that guarantee a great-detective-style outcome, and the other gets it from concrete systems that give them the chance to get closer to doing what great detectives do.

You can't please all of the people, etc.

On reflection, I suspect that the same thing probably applies to the other genres. I personally found Lasers and Feelings very satisfying, but other people might well find that they want to feel like they're really exploring strange new worlds, fending off Klingons and solving space-problems, and that being able to roll a 3+ on a die to succeed at stuff by handwavium doesn't feel like that. Those people might want a carefully-crafted pregen world to explore - and indeed I would probably also enjoy that, in fact that sounds exactly like something I'd enjoy.

I reckon that broadly speaking, you could probably apply the Lasers and Feelings template to just about any genre where the protagonists have the capacity to solve problems themselves, rather than being mostly passive. You just need to identify an axis that will provide a binary split you're mostly happy with. Regency Romance? Fours-in-Hand and Invitations. High Fantasy? Lores and Nobility, which balances knowledge of ancient times and subtle powers against selflessness and discipline. Swords-and-Sorcery? Well, eschewing the obvious, how about Thews and Deviltry, for an axis built on the balance between physical might and fearless cunning? Shounen manga about an exasperating teenager perpetually oblivious of the attentions of various (player character) women who protect him from supernatural peril? Study and Tsundere. Grimdark adventure in the Imperium of Man? That sounds like Zeal and Discipline for our Astartes game, Guile and Guts for our hive-gang adventures, Hubris and Acumen for our Rogue Traders, and perhaps Lockpicks and Cynicism for our cult-hunting Inquisitors.

Some of those might not work at all because I just made them all up. The point is, I suspect it's possible - providing the resulting playstyle is something that evokes the genre in an interesting way for you.

I should maybe also note what I carefully didn't do. I don't think any of the throwaway ideas above splits characters along a single axis, which is to say, two poles of the same idea. You want to be sure you're suggesting two different sets of problems the character is good at interacting with, which helps define the character while also avoiding restricting their approach to those problems.

I suppose a couple of those ideas sound a bit like that, but that's not my intention. Zeal and Discipline offers Zealous characters who solve problems by sheer enthusiasm (be those problems cowardly allies, overwhelming odds or the refusal of doors to open) as opposed to Disciplined characters who use analysis and practice. They can deal with many of the same problems, but their methods and the courses of action they actively pursue will differ.

Similarly, Guts and Guile is supposed to be about whether a character tends to take direct action and rely on resilience, or more indirect courses and rely on cunning.

But I mean, it's thirty seconds of work, you get what you pay for here.

The second thing is that you don't want stuff everyone does to be baked into the axes. It would be a relatively bad idea to have a Swords-and-Sorcery game divided into Battle and Sexytimes because, even though those are two cornerstones of the genre, they are completely different skillsets and can't really be applied to equivalent situations. All protagonists should be capable of both fighting enemies and seducing... okay, often also enemies. The point is, if you had a Battle character and a Sexytimes character then one would do all the fighting and one would do all the seducing, and it's really hard for either one to interact well with part of the core of the genre. In fact, there's a secondary problem, which is that having dice rolls for this stuff at all may be a bad idea. If you want people to fight and seduce in a really rules-light game, then assuming that everyone can do those things and the axes are about how they do them is probably better.

We ran into this a bit during Lasers and Feelings. I felt vaguely like I should be stealing an ID card to help infiltrate the pirate base, but there's no "stealing stuff" or "black ops" skill, so I assumed it would come off Lasers because it's practical, right? As was pointed out, there's no particular reason it couldn't come off Feelings if I used interpersonal skills to obtain a badge.


  1. That's a very stripped-back game, but it's an interesting idea, particularly the way you only ever succeed at more than a basic level by having bonus dice.

    (I've had similar problems with Viewscream which we've been talking about on the podcast recently - lovely ideas, but the live play videos I've seen end up being just a bunch of strangers squabbling.)

    Investigative/mystery games are my default mode of GMing, and I'm very much of the "make up a scenario in advance" school. I think the problems for me with "player's deductions are correct" are two-fold, neither of them insoluble, but definitely needing attention:

    ① Pacing. How do you limit deductions and keep the adventure going? (One could build a game based on this, like House: you gain points towards making a correct deduction by making incorrect deductions. GURPS Monster Hunters has a clue-point mechanic which could be bent to fit too.)

    ② Consistency. Players won't always have their deductions be consistent with what's already been said. How can you reconcile that.

    And yeah, I'm Player B in your examples. TV has to be comprehensible by pretty much everyone who's capable of turning on the set, so complicated stuff has to be extremely simplified. RPGs are a different story form (warning, I go on about this a lot) and don't need to do that.

    I'd recommend GURPS Mysteries for a lot of non-system-specific advice on running mystery plots in RPGs.

    I think the trick in transplanting L&F-style gaming to other genres may be that you need to be able to throw either approach at the same problem, and so the problem needs to be fairly broadly defined (as in your last example). Where player skill comes into it, as very often with "narrativist" systems, is in finding a way of bending the stuff your character is good at to match the problem at hand.

    1. Some good questions there, thanks.

      The stripped-backness makes it a game for a quite specific kind of experience, I think. In our case we just had two players, so we could do one Lasers and one Feelings. We went tropetastic on it, so we basically each did the scenes that our character would get in the TV show. Lasers hacked systems and shot people, I dramatically announced that people were dead (well, I was a rubbish doctor) and seduced a pirate who proceeded to knock me unconscious and escape on a stolen shuttle.

      Overall, I think it's excellent for a group who a) know each other well, b) are keen on jointly creating a story that looks a lot like Star Trek, and c) don't mind a certain amount of meta discussion about the direction of the story. If you want to play from a more in-character angle, or want any kind of granularity, or a more simulationist universe, you do need a different game.

      On reflection, I think it's actually less improvised than I suggested. The overall plot and a lot of the details were devised by our GM, so what we were doing was choosing approaches to the problems, and improvising the scenes that ensued from our rolls. I don't remember us narrating any changes to game reality, though it's certainly an option.

      I'm sufficiently intrigued by this game that I'm hoping to run a quick Call of Cthulhu session using a hack of the rules, to see what actually happens.

      On to your caveats.

      1. I think there are broadly three approaches to this. Clue points are a good suggestion for a fairly loosely-structured game. A second option is to basically run it like a trad game, getting players to explain their approaches to scenes and roll skills as normal, and perhaps even telling them what sort of discovery they make but allowing them to improv the specifics. So perhaps they learn the victim's address (a cheap hotel room), but it's up to the player how that happened, and any specifics that don't affect the mystery.

      The radical third option would only work for certain groups, but that would just work on trust and shared agreement on genre. In the same way that as a CoC player, I eagerly walk into dark basements to read blasphemous tomes, players would suggest scenes or discoveries that are only of limited help. It would probably work best with a very tropeish game where you're replicating a mystery type with a common structure. The immediate problem I see here would be negotiating how long people want to spend before getting to the denoument.

      2. That's a big one, yes. I think I'd bring that back to either the GM giving the players the bones of the clue and letting them flesh them out, or else running a highly improvised game and telling them, like Sherlock Holmes, to create an explanation that fits.

      This is making me think of Inspectres, actually, which really does embrace the improvisation aspect. Have you run into that?

      I think I can cheerfully be both players in different moods. I'm a committed poker-at-the-world, but I've always enjoyed pastiching.

      I'll have a look into GURPS Mysteries, it sounds very useful.

      On that last note: a possibly interesting note is that the ID card was a problem I created for myself. Our actual objective was "stop whatever bad thing is happening", we'd decided to do this by infiltrating the base disguised as pirates, and I suddenly thought perhaps I ought to be stealing an ID card to open the doors that could potentially be there. In the end, we decided they weren't because, well, pirates.

  2. Yes, the duo setup works very well for TV-style plots; Linda Holmes at NPR wrote last year about The Adventures Of Mr. Superabilities And Detective Ladyskeptic, and once that phrase has lodged itself in your head it's worrying just how many shows fit the pattern.

    The thing in roleplaying that pushes my buttons is running a simulation of another person in my head, seeing what the situation is and then working out how they'd react to it. This is why I am always a bit edgy about games that push me out of the actor viewpoint and into the writer/director/editor one; Character Bob isn't a person who gets to change the rules of the (game) universe, he's a person who lives inside it, and I don't want to switch in and out of his head more than I have to.

    Call of Cthulhu immediately suggests Scholarship and Shotguns as the split. Or possibly Dusty-old-tomes and Dynamite. I'd give that a try…

    No, I haven't played Inspectres. Wouldn't mind some time.

    1. That's an excellent link. I accidentally managed to grow up with minimal exposure to TV, so I'm extremely bad at TV stuff for a geek - I just never got the habit of watching much. Still, it skewers that one quite nicely.

      I've now roughed out a Cthulhu hack. I was originally thinking of something along the Libraries and Intuition line, setting up an intellectual/social split, and assuming everyone could do physical things. I ended up plumping for Shotguns and Libraries, which is pretty similar but a bit more archetypal. I'll post the hack when I get a chance.

      I've heard some reasonably entertaining Inspectres sessions, but not yet had a chance to try it out. My friends didn't seem that keen on the improvisation, and it goes so far as to have 4th wall breaking mechanics.