Robin D. Laws interview

Recently I started reading Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu again, since I am planning to run a game using the GUMSHOE system. While doing some research on the system, reading playtest reports and listening to actual play podcasts, some questions arose. Although I was very intruiged by the GUMSHOE system, there are a few things that concerned me, so I thought the best cause of action would be to contact the creator of the system to ask him a few question. And luckily enough, Robin D. Laws agreed to do an interview.

Please note: The intervierw was done by email and I added the photos afterwards. So the photos don’t convey Robin’s emotions while answering those questions. It’s just me fooling around with his profile pictures from his Lifejournal account. The photos are used with his permission.

Stargazer: Thanks again for answering a few questions for me and my readers. Some time ago I stumbled upon the GUMSHOE system in general and Esoterrorists in particular. The GUMSHOE system has been designed with investigative scenarios in mind. When did you first have the idea to create a roleplaying game especially for that kind of play?

Robin: Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press commissioned me to create a rules system that would rethink investigative roleplaying from the ground up. He’d been frustrated in the past by the dead ends that tend to crop up in investigative games and wanted a system that would remove these roadblocks. I started by examining the problem of the failed information-gathering roll that stops the plot, but we wound up with a mechanism that changes much more than just that one classic dilemma. From that simple change evolved a streamlined investigative engine allowing for a focus on clue interpretation over clue gathering. The result are games that more closely emulate mystery stories, from Lovecraftian probings into truths best left unlearned, to TV police procedurals.

Stargazer: And why was a special system for this genre necessary?

Investigative roleplaying has always been one of the major structural forms of roleplaying, but is comparatively under-served compared to the action-adventure gaming that forms the basis of almost all other RPGs, no matter what their exterior genre trappings might be. Inspectres did a great and innovative job in the cooperative storytelling arena, where the entire group collaborates to create the mystery as the game develops. But it seemed like there was still creative room left to explore the more traditional mystery game, where the GM has a predetermined solution and the players piece together the clues to work toward it.

The basic idea behind the game could have been conveyed in a number of ways. I could have written it as a magazine article, as a chunk of rules text for an existing rules set, or as a blog post. All of these choices, however, would ignore the process through which ideas enter the collective gamer consciousness and become part of the established corpus of techniques. To do that, you need a new rules set to garner sustained attention and spotlight your defining idea. That gets hundreds and thousands of gamers to grapple with the concept you’re working to convey, rather than the dozens or hundreds you’d get otherwise.

Once it’s injected into the bloodstream of gaming in this way, your strand of conceptual DNA can then become a permanent part of various GMs’ play styles, and travel from there into other games. A previous example of the same phenomenon would be the way that Feng Shui encouraged players to describe elements of the physical environment and incorporate them into their fight descriptions. In 2009 this sounds like an incredibly minor step toward the shared narrative control that now runs through so many indie designs. At the time it came as an exciting revelation to many GMs, and changed the way they played their other games, too.

So while on a design level, you could easily bolt on the basic concept of GUMSHOE to any existing traditional investigative game, the reception dynamics that determine which ideas get taken up and which ones vanish decreed that it should be presented as the core of its own specialized game system.

Similarly, it’s a simple fact of RPG marketing that you can sell more copies of a product that appears as a core game than you can as a supplement or modification to something else.

The gamer soul is torn when a new game appears. The uber-gamer wants to buy new games, yet does not want to buy new games. Who wants to spend more money on more stuff? None of us, yet at the same time all of us. This sales resistance is understandable, and fuels the online reception to new products as they appear. You have to expect a certain segment of the audience to ask if your game really needs to exist. RPGs are entertainment products; none of them need to exist. The ultimate proof in the pudding is not whether folks question a game’s existence, but whether enough of them buy it, dig it, and keep playing it. And fortunately we’ve reached a point where GUMSHOE has acquired a self-sustaining base of players who see why the game warrants its independent existence and are happy to keep on playing it.

Stargazer: At least for me the name GUMSHOE conjures up images of hardboiled ’40s detectives wearing trenchcoats and fedoras, but no game using this system is actually set into this genre. Was this intentional or are you considering writing a game inspired by the “hardboiled detective genre”?

Robin: We needed a snappy, one-word name that instantly conveys the core idea behind not just the first game, but the system, and GUMSHOE seemed instantly to be the right choice. It was the first name I came up with and we never considered another one.

The hardboiled detective is one of many sub-genres of straight-up mystery that could easily be done with GUMSHOE. A Sherlock Holmes game is another obvious choice. Because they’re medieval history buffs, lots of gamers enjoy Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books,. Thanks to Lindsey Davis, the Roman empire is also an appealing setting for mystery that in its own toga-clad way recalls the classic tropes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

The question then becomes whether we could sell enough copies to justify doing any of these settings. Traditionally gamers play historical RPGs only if you add a fantastical element to them, whether it’s magic or SF gear or Cthulhoid horrors. You see this logic at work in Mutant City Blues, which takes the modern police procedural and makes it interesting to our audience by grafting super-powers onto it. The smaller base of players who want a straight police procedural can then take the book, ignore the super stuff, and they’re set to go.

On those grounds, it may be that something like Gareth Hanrahan’s Trail Of Cthulhu supplement, Arkham Detective Tales, is as close as we can come to a straight-up hardboiled game.

Sherlock Holmes might be doable as a crossover out of the gaming scene because of the large Holmesian collectors’ market.

(The interview continues after this break…)

Stargazer: While reading reviews of Esoterrorists on the internet, I’ve noticed that a lot of people are skeptical that the GUMSHOE system is needed, because a good GM can always avoid that the game stalls when the players miss important clues. How would you counter these arguments?

Robin: Even a GM has never run into the failed roll issue or doesn’t see it as a problem will still find plenty to check out in GUMSHOE. It changes the flow and structure of investigative play in a way that many groups will find fresh and exciting. By giving the players lots of information, it speeds sessions and alters their focus. Play revolves not around the question of whether you find information, but what you do with it. This allows us to create more detailed scenarios that more closely replicate the feel of mystery shows and movies. Although you can convert scenarios from other systems to GUMSHOE and vice versa, adventures made for GUMSHOE have their own distinct feeling, and work differently in play. The game does much more than correct this particular glitch.

That said…

After having written GUMSHOE, I’m even more certain that its core idea is needed, because now people approach me at conventions to share horror stories of games that stalled on them for precisely the reason you mention. At Gen Con a player came up to the Pelgrane booth to share his experience in a game he was in just hours before. It was a fantasy game, and the GM had set up the entire adventure so that it started with a Perception roll. Everyone blew the check. The party was unable to take the necessary action to start the story. So the GM just sat there flummoxed, without a fallback plan. Suffering ensued for all.

I guess you could say that this was a bad GM, but I don’t see it that way. He was using the rules of his game as they are written. As the rules of almost all traditional RPGs with information-gathering skills are written. If being a good GM requires you to know by a process of osmosis to ignore what many, many rule books explicitly or implicitly tell you to do, it’s a miracle that we have any good GMs at all. My job as an RPG game designer is to increase the pool of skilled GMs, and to decrease the length of the learning curve you have to undergo to become one. If it is true that this technique has always been a part of our unwritten oral lore, it’s about time that it got written down and recognized.

But of course I’d argue that it hasn’t been part of our unwritten oral lore. What happens in the vast majority of these cases is not the GUMSHOE way. The GM doesn’t provides the information automatically. He allows the players to roll, because that’s what the rules suggest. The vast majority of GMs and players do what the rules tell them to. When the players then blow the roll, the GM frantically improvises for five to twenty minutes to come up with some other way to get them the information they need to move forward. Then, after wasting all that time, frustrating the players, and making them feel that their characters are incompetent, they finally get permission to advance the plot. Which they should have had all along.

What GUMSHOE really does in practice is eliminate those blocks of useless and annoying workaround. You can then fill that time with a more detailed and involved mystery, shifting investigative play from the question of whether you gather the information to what you do with it.

Stargazer: Or they argue that the same can happen in Esoterrorists when a General Skill roll fails.

Robin: In instances where a General Skill use is necessary to move forward in the story, the rules advise you to pick the most appropriate of the following techniques:

  • Require a spend from the character’s ability pool, rather than calling for a roll.
  • Frame the roll so that it determines how costly the success will be, rather than whether the character succeeds or fails.

Stargazer: What can be done if the players lack an important Investigative Skill?

Robin: Character generation works to ensure that every skill appears in every group of PCs.

Stargazer: Especially in a horror game I like when the rules take the back seat. From what I’ve seen so far the GUMSHOE rules succeed at achieving that in most cases, but especially when Investigational Skills are concerned I fear that players may be tempted to just list their skills instead of describing what their characters do. What can GMs and players do to avoid that?

Robin: This is a common misconception that we didn’t anticipate, and that frankly I’m still puzzled by. The process by which you describe what you’re doing in a scene and what skills you use is no different in GUMSHOE than in any other investigative game. You don’t go into a Call of Cthulhu scene and simply start barking out the names of your skills from your character sheet, and you don’t do it in GUMSHOE either. The only difference is that in GUMSHOE you skip the part where you roll. You go straight to the bit where the GM tells you what you’ve found. Players still have to describe what they’re doing to gather the information.

Traditional game:

GM: At the bottom of the creaking wooden steps, you nearly trip over a desiccated human corpse.

Player: How recently dead is it?

GM: You’re using your Medicine skill?

Player: Yeah.

GM: Okay, make a check.

Player [rolls]: I succeed.

GM: It’s been down here for decades, you reckon.

GUMSHOE version:

GM: At the bottom of the creaking wooden steps, you nearly trip over a desiccated human corpse.

Player: How recently dead is it?

GM: You have Medicine, right?

Player: Yeah.

GM: It’s been down here for decades, you reckon.

In neither case do you get this:

GM: You walk down the creaking wooden steps.

Player: Medicine! Bureaucracy! Oral History! Physics! Theology!

There’s nothing about GUMSHOE that in practice inspires players to do this ridiculous thing. Why don’t they? Because it’s ridiculous.

In some cases a clue will be immediately apparent to a GUMSHOE character who has a given skill, but that’s even more seamless here than in a traditional investigative game.

Traditional game:

GM: Opening the trap door, you see a gigantic crypt under the farmhouse basement. Who has Architecture?

Player: I do.

GM: Roll it.

Player [rolls]: I succeed.

GM: Curiously, the chamber shows all the stylistic elements of the crypt beneath a 10th century Romanesque cathedral.


GM: Opening the trap door, you see a gigantic crypt under the farmhouse basement. [looks on his cheat sheet to see who has Architecture] McWhorter, you see that it has all the stylistic elements of a crypt from a 10th century Romanesque cathedral.

Of course, the two traditional examples above could also go as follows:

GM: At the bottom of the creaking wooden steps, you nearly trip over a desiccated human corpse.

Player: How recently dead is it?

GM: You’re using your Medicine skill?

Player: Yeah.

GM: Okay, make a check.

Player [rolls]: I fail.

GM: [shrugs] It’s hard to tell.

Traditional game:

GM: Opening the trap door, you see a gigantic crypt under the farmhouse basement. Who has Architecture?

Player: I do.

GM: Roll it.

Player [rolls]: I fail.

GM: Never mind.

Are either of these outcomes interesting? Nope. Then why allow them?

Stargazer: As I understand it, scenarios for the GUMSHOE system require a lot of preparation by the GM. Especially GMs with a job, family and perhaps even kids usually prefer games that can be played with short prep times. What can be done to run a GUMSHOE game with minor prep time aside from relying on commercial scenarios?

Robin: One of the unavoidable, intrinsic facts about investigative scenarios (aside from those where the group improvises an answer, Inspectres-style) is that story plotting is hard, and mystery plotting is even harder. You have to work out what the adversaries originally did and how they did it, which establishes the mystery in the first place. (I call this the backplot.) Then you have to work out how the heroes uncover the mystery. So you have to plot in two directions, and it has to make sense, because the players are applying their sense of logic to it — in a more ruthlessly engaged way than the passive consumers of a novel or TV show.

Another challenge unique to gaming is the need for multiple routes to the solution of the mystery. The players must move the plot forward rather than being led through it.

Creating a backplot and multiple potential forward plots, and having them withstand logical scrutiny is just plain tough. That’s why adventures for investigative games sell well, when adventures for other games tend not to. To create your own fun adventure for an action-oriented game, you just have to work out some fight scenes and then find a way to string them together. Mysteries are way harder and always will be.

That said, an upcoming product does address this problem. It’s my upcoming Trail of Cthulhu sourcebook, The Armitage Files. It shows you how to improvise suitable mystery stories on the fly, using elements found in a series of mysterious handouts available to the players. You could equally well use these techniques with The Esoterrorists, using as source elements either sections of The Esoterror Fact Book, or a collection of disturbing real-life news clippings. We got really great playtest feedback from the groups who tried this. The questions they raised helped us enormously as we beefed up even further the advice on improvisation techniques as they relate to mystery plotting.

Stargazer: Kenneth Hite’s “Trail of Cthulhu” is another game using the rules you created. How much where you involved in the creation of that game? And can you tell us about the changes made to the system?

Robin: The core rules text in that book is largely by me, adapted from its appearance in The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself. I also acted as a consultant on that project, advising Ken as needed.

The most obvious adjustment to the game lies in the ability list, so we get classic Call Of Cthulhu abilities like Library Use and lose the more modern ones, to mesh with the game’s 1930s setting. Occupations are adapted from CoC. They package together a list of appropriate abilities with an archetypal identity, like dilettante or private investigator. Ken bent the Drives from Fear Itself, which ensure that the PCs behave like characters in the horror genre, to his squamous Lovecraftian ends.

The slickest new wrinkle, which I admit I had to be talked into at first, is the division of the characters’ mental health into Stability (which appears in the other games, too) and Sanity. The first measures your ability to function rationally in the world. The second shows your exposure to the shattering existential truths of the mythos. So you can be highly functional in a practical sense and still want to sacrifice helpless victims to the dread god Azazoth. This finally explains, in rules terms, your archetypal evil cultists, who are cunning and self-protective but at the same time dangerous psychopaths.

Stargazer: During my research for this interview I discovered that there’s actually a soundtrack for both “Trail of Cthulhu” and “Esoterrorists” by James Semple. When I run roleplaying games I usually use background music to set the mood. This is especially effective in horror games. Do you use music as a GM, too, and if so, what kind of music would you recommend for Esoterrorists?

Robin: I have a folder full of ominous music I use for modern horror games, which I play on random. Horror movie soundtracks, along with the occasional bit of atonal modernist classical music, go a long way to freaking players out on a subliminal level. Certain electronica tracks are also suitably unnerving.

My favorites are Ennio Morricone’s horror soundtracks from the sixties and seventies. Look for Gothic Dramas (Drammi Gotici); An Ennio Morricone – Dario Argento Trilogy; and the later Stendhal Syndrome.

Other soundtracks from the classic era of Italian horror by Goblin or Stelvio Cipriani also fit the bill.

The tomandandy soundtrack to The Mothman Prophecies soundtrack is also worth the trouble to track down.

Stargazer: Before coming to some other subjects, can you please tell us what your further plans regarding the GUMSHOE system are? Will there be more Esoterrorist supplements in the future?

Robin: Pelgrane Press honcho Simon Rogers is the one who makes the tough decisions as to the degrees of support each of the GUMSHOE lines can justify. Trail Of Cthulhu is the best selling line; the others require harder thinking. The Esoterrorists is continuing to pick up steam even now, and I think The Esoterror Fact Book did better than expected. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Simon commission the occasional scenario for it, perhaps as PDF-only products.

Stargazer: Can you give us some details on “Fear Itself” and “Mutant City Blues”? What’s the main difference between Esoterrorists and Fear Itself for example?

Robin: In The Esoterrorists, you’re a competent agent up against sinister occult forces and their sophisticated, conspiratorial human minions. It’s horror adventure following the same structure as Supernatural, Fringe, or The X-Files, with a dash of Tom Clancy or John Le Carre thrown in for good measure.

Fear Itself is more typical horror, where ordinary people face (and flee from) serial killers, abominations from the outer dark, and sundry supernatural threats. It’s what you’d use to evoke The Ring, The Grudge, Nightmare On Elm Street, or Jennifer’s Body.

Stargazer: How do the mutant powers in Mutant City Blues work?

Robin: For the superhero genre to mesh with procedural mystery, all of the superpowers have to be explicable and predictable. You can’t do a proper locked room mystery in the Marvel or DC universes, because there are too many wacky possibilities for what might have happened. There’s super-science, magic, mutant powers, and a ton of other power sources to account for. Every hero and villain’s power works differently.

So in MCB, you have a world where all the powers come from the same source—an unexplained mutation event that took place ten years earlier. One per cent of the world’s population now has a mutant power. The original event happened long enough ago that science, including forensic science, has nailed down the limitations of the various powers. Everyone capable of spitting acid or crawling walls does it in exactly the same way.

Also, all of the powers appear in a set order in the altered genome. A map of these powers called the Quade Diagram appears both as a world and a game artifact. In the world, the PCs, members of the Heightened Crime Investigative Unit of your chosen city, carry around a laminated card bearing a copy of the diagram. If powers are far apart on the diagram, they’re very unlikely to be possessed by the same character. So if your crime scene shows signs of mutant webbing and that a light blast was used, you know you’re dealing with at least two separate perpetrators, because those powers are too far apart on the diagram to appear in a single individual.

In the game, you use the Quade Diagram during character creation, as you choose your character’s mutant powers. You start at any point on the chart. Powers adjacent to one you already possess cost the fewest build points. Some connections between powers are more tenuous than others and cost more to bridge. It also costs you to skip a power. Sometimes as you connect powers you may pick up a defect, a latent propensity for a disorder that may become serious and possibly hamper your police career as you suffer stress on the job. For example, if you choose both Telekinesis and Force Field, you may develop a form of late-onset autism during play. This is MCB’s equivalent of the spiral into madness you get in horror games. Here it provides a basis for the sorts of personal storylines you see in TV cop dramas.

The powers are either treated as general or investigative abilities. You buy pools of points with them, and these limit what you can do with them and how often. The investigative abilities are always alternate or optional means to information. Unlike the standard investigative abilities, the scenario designer can’t assume that any given mutant information gathering power is available to every group, so no core clue can depend solely on one of them.

Stargazer: Aside from GUMSHOE you have created quite a few games and supplements during your career. Recently you co-authored the D&D 4th Edition Dungeon Masters Guide 2 and your “Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering” is pretty much required reading for any serious GM. Can you tell us a bit about your other works and what has been your favorite project so far?

2417937_9 Robin: I’ve been working as a full-time freelance writer since 1992, and in that time have written many hobby game products as well as six novels, various short stories, and even a few comic books. By dint of its gigantic market share, any project I do for Dungeons and Dragons snares a much wider audience than anything else. The Robin’s Laws book has had a surprisingly strong influence and following over the years, and I was pleased to be able to fold some of its insights into the roleplaying mothership while working on the 3rd edition Dungeon Masters Guide II. Some of these ideas were picked up by James Wyatt as he wrote the first 4E DMG, which gets us back to the point about injecting ideas into the bloodstream of gaming.

My contributions to the 4E DMG2 include more advanced techniques for GMs ready to experiment with with collaborative input into their ongoing storytelling. I’ve been bowled over by the positive reaction to them within the D&D community.

Asking a prolific creator to pick a favorite project is like asking a parent to point out his best kid. Sometimes the less-known items, like Rune, the video-game inspired game of competitive Viking mayhem, exert an influence on other designers. Others capture the gamer imagination, like Feng Shui, the game inspired by Hong Kong action movies.

Right now I’m very happy to see GUMSHOE taking off. I’m also extremely proud of the freshly released HeroQuest 2. It’s now a generic game and not solely devoted to Greg Stafford’s classic Glorantha setting. It sets out to help GMs tell stories using the same rhythms, devices and decision-making trees employed by authors and screenwriters, while at the same time remaining true to the linear, collective nature of the roleplaying form. The new version, from Moon Design, is what the game was always meant to be, improved not only by a greater focus on its core intentions, but also years of hindsight.

Stargazer: Back in the day, what was the first RPG you ever played and what made you enter the “industry”?

Robin: I first played D&D at the age of 13 or 14 after discovering the blue box version in a tourist trap gift shop while on family holiday. Within months we were on to Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, with me as the DM.

Even before that, I always saw myself as a writer. However, I never considered roleplaying as a market for my work until many years later. I wound up falling into it by happenstance, basically. While in university, I started up a play-by-mail game by leaving handbills up around campus. Through that I struck up a correspondence with Spike Y. Jones, who is now a freelance editor. He was a participant in an APA (amateur press association) called Alarums & Excursions, and inveigled me into contributing. For those unfamiliar with the APA concept, it was a mimeographed fanzine that had a sort of pre-Internet forum vibe to it. Contributors would append to their primary content comments on each other’s past entries, with a month’s time delay in between.

Through A&E, I wound up corresponding with Jonathan Tweet when he and Mark Rein*Hagen were setting up their first company, Lion Rampant. Eventually, at a time when Jonathan had set aside his professional gaming ambitions, I mailed him some world background material for his home campaign, which was inspired in part by an A&E article I’d written positing a William S. Burroughs RPG. This game, which he intentionally created to be unpublishable, was inevitably published, as Over the Edge. The material I’d casually mailed to him appeared in the book essentially verbatim. At about the same time, Steve Jackson contacted me out of the blue to see if I wanted to turn the bizarre tribal horror-fantasy game I was describing in A&E into a GURPS supplement. Conceived without regard to its commercial appeal, it became the legendarily strange GURPS Fantasy II: Adventures In the Madlands.

Because the game industry was and is small, other publishers heard that I might be worth working with. They sought me out and before I knew it, writing gaming material became my job, as it remains today.

Stargazer: I am sure a lot of people are very interested to read your answer on this question: When can we expect the next installment of your “See Page XX” column and are there plans to release more of your column articles in a similar format as the first 24 columns (which are available on RPGNow)?

Robin: I write See Page XX, but Simon is the scheduling guru. New issues tend to coincide with Pelgrane Press news and releases and have been more frequent of late. I’m happy to know that someone enjoyed the columns as PDF collections. It’s Simon’s call, but I’d be glad to see the PDF anthologies continue.

Thanks again to Robin D. Laws for taking his time to answer a few questions for me! And I also have to thank Simon Rogers for helping me organizing this interview! Thank you, guys!