System Review: InSpectres, Conclusion

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A Clue!

There’s not a lot else to say about a system that takes up twenty or so pages in a small-format book. Four skills, a universal resolution mechanic, and a simple method for the GM to create difficulty: there aren’t a lot of moving parts to go wrong. Other systems have lots of fiddly bits that are easy to exploit, hard to master, and can blow immersion at inopportune moments. InSpectres is purpose-built: work as a group to create wacky monster mystery; have fun.

However, the core concept around which the game is built is easily transferable to pretty much any other system: you can’t really get stuck in an investigation because the players are inventing the clues and giving them meaning. Most mystery games have a justified reputation of being really easy to screw up unless the GM is excellent and the players are in sync with his or her style. It all comes down to how it’s nigh impossible to make scenarios without a breadcrumb trail of clues (that may look suspiciously like a railroad if done really wrong), and missing enough of them (or getting them and not understanding them) is sufficient to completely, well, derail the adventure. It’s such a problem that the Gumshoe system (used in Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulu) is designed around a method to ensure clues in mysteries can’t be missed by bad rolls.

InSpectres turns the problem on its head. While I have no actual data on the subject, my strong suspicion is that typical RPG mysteries are way more interesting to the GM than to the players. It’s very easy to go from “players feel clever for figuring this out” to “players are grudgingly collecting their plot coupons so they can get to the fight scene.” InSpectres invites full player investment through the simple expedient of giving them complete agency over the plot. There’s no worry that players are going to be bored by the clues they find, because they’re inventing them. Sure, they trend toward the wacky, but it’s wacky fun, and that’s something that can be much more hit or miss in traditional investigative games. With a more serious setting, crunchy system, and play contract, you might even get rid of the wacky while keeping the fun.

InSpectres is a purpose-built game engine around an intriguing core concept. It works really well in and of itself, but the really cool thing about it is that it’s basically a low-impact testing method for an idea that could be easily ported to virtually any other game with minimal difficulty. Why don’t we just let the players define the clues? After a couple of sessions of InSpectres, you’ll have fewer objections to the idea than you might think.

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System Review: InSpectres, Part 2

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In Play

The game system for InSpectres can be described almost completely in a few sentences, but it has some potentially unexpected ramifications in actual play, so I’ll hit the ones I encountered.

The Ridiculousness Bar

The first thing to keep in mind is that this is a game that gives players a high degree of narrative control in a lightly sketched, humorous setting. This means that you’ll very quickly deal with the situation of raising the ridiculousness bar. This is a problem* for a lot of high-player-control pickup games (I’ve had the same thing happen in Capes, for example). Effectively, when one player creates something strange, campy, or even farcical, that is now the new threshold for how things work in the game world. In the few sessions I’ve run, I’ve encountered (in rough order of least to most insane):

  • A rent-a-cop that did away with a mall janitor by planting shaped charges in the sewers timed for when he was passing by
  • Phase nets
  • Cat-possessing evil spirits infesting a predator preserve so they can make ghost babies by having cougar sex
  • Phase whales (which the phase nets were needed to catch)
  • One of the player characters being declared a cyborg invented by another player character’s dog

It’s a pickup game, so it doesn’t really matter, but if you have a threshold beyond which you’d feel a game was too silly to play, you might want to set expectations for the other players up front.

* You may, in fact, actually consider this a feature. Please game with people with the same tastes as you when playing InSpectres 😉 .

Stress

Something that took me a couple of sessions to notice is that stress is deceptively potent as a GM tool. If your players are anything like mine, they’re going to make sure they have their niches covered: with only four skills, it’s pretty easy to make sure at least one person has the full four dice for each skill. With 4d6 (keep highest) and success on 4-6, you’re going to fail rolls less than 7% of the time and you’re going to roll 6 over 50% of the time. The required franchise dice melt away when your players can consistently get 1-2 per roll.

Stress lets you limit that. You can roll it for literally anything stressful, and it can be liberally seasoned throughout the session. One-die attacks are especially useful, as they are rarely very bad, and even have the chance to award a Cool die that protects against future Stress, but they still make the players nervous. And, as the franchise dice start rolling in, you can bring out the more climactic levels of Stress to further lower success chances. If done correctly, Stress allows you to create a power law franchise-die-to-time distribution: the players get the first half of the dice required very quickly, but then have to work harder and harder until they’re inventing like mad to scrounge up that last die to end the adventure before they’re stressed-out wrecks.

Roll Pacing

Players are conditioned to roll in RPGs. They say they want their characters to do something, they pick up the dice, and they let fly. You have to break them of this habit.

Introductory InSpectres scenarios can feature a dozen or fewer franchise dice required to complete the session. You get 2 dice every time you roll a 6 and, as noted above, that’s roughly half the rolls with a 4 die skill. A standard player barrage of “I’ll talk to the client, you research the client’s house, and you start working on some anti-ghost technology” could get you over halfway done with the session in less time than this took to read.

Instead, rolls need to be fairly sparing and only called for as the GM requires for pacing. “Say ‘yes’ or roll the dice” finds another good home here: there’s no reason not to just narrate minor victories early in the case when there’s no compelling reason for conflict. Wait for the players to get spread out (when they can’t necessarily bring their specialist to bear on a particular problem) before rolls start happening frequently, and, as explained above, make sure you begin liberally using Stress to reduce die pools as the session heats up.

Even with a completely inexperienced group, InSpectres scenarios don’t take long, but proper roll pacing is the difference between a 15 minute game with limited twists and an hour one that your players will be crowing about to their friends outside the group tomorrow.

The Confessional

Of all the systems in the game, the confessional is the one that feels the least integrated. It’s a mechanic to turn Ghostbusters into Ghost Hunters: it creates the premise that everything the characters are doing is being filmed for reality TV. So, the first root problem with it is that players that are in a Ghostbusters mindset will probably forget to use it at all. And those who do use it, might wind up abusing it.

The system is intended to do two things:

  • Allow players to comment in-character on the other PCs and, thereby, assign them new traits to roleplay (they get bonuses if the do); e.g., “and we wouldn’t have gotten into any trouble if Jim wasn’t a Pyromaniac…”
  • Allow players to put in a short stinger that changes up the way the group was conceiving of the scene; e.g., “and if we’d known about the old Indian curse on the place, we wouldn’t have agreed to spend the night…”

It’s effectively a way for a player to snatch total narrative control of the scene without a die roll. It can create your coolest or your most insane moments in the game. The confessional gave one of my sessions, “but what we didn’t know was that the man that we’d been talking to died a year ago today…” and immediately kicked an aimless mall adventure into an interesting ghost story. It also gave us “And he’s a cyborg… programmed by my dog” which kicked the ridiculousness bar super high and baffled the player running the new terminator for a canine Skynet.

So I guess I’m saying that the Confessional may be worth dropping entirely if your players aren’t all on board, and is at least worth setting some play contract boundaries to keep it from being used to seize the game’s narrative.

Conclusion

System Review: InSpectres, Part 1

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Who You Gonna Call?

Let’s not beat around the bush: InSpectres is merely an expensive license away from being the modern Ghostbusters RPG. It’s a game where you play a misfit band of everymen who’ve joined a small startup, franchised out from a central organization, that charges locals to deal with their supernatural problems. It’s funny, intentionally referential, and is directly tuned to use weird technology to fight the occult. Sure, you could use it to represent pretty much any modern monster-hunting setting you’d like… but you’ll spend your whole time knowing what the real inspiration is.

The game is a small, 80-page, one-volume work by indie great Jared Sorensen. While it’s pretty obviously inspired by Ghostbusters, it uses that to look into the world of business franchises with a dash of reality TV. It accomplishes all of this in the tiny space by keeping the game system very simple and focused. So this review is probably going to be shorter than usual.

Core Mechanic

The basic idea behind the system of InSpectres is running an investigation game where the PCs can’t fail to put together the clues to solve the mystery… because they’re creating the clues and giving them meaning themselves and the GM is just working to weave them into something of a narrative and provide conflict.

Each PC has four broad skills rated 1-4 (and a flavor trait that can give a bonus to skills in the right circumstance). When the GM calls for a roll (generally to uncover a clue), the player rolls a number of d6s equal to the relevant skill and keeps the highest die. If the result is 4+, the player gets to describe what he or she found, and rolls of 5-6 also earn Franchise Dice. Each scenario has a budget of Franchise Dice: once the players earn that total, the session wraps up with a victory.

Once per scene, players may also invoke a “Confessional” (a reality TV-style foreshadowing or character sniping directly to the camera) that allows creating new information without a roll (and may add new traits to roleplay to another character’s sheet).

Finally, players have bonus dice assigned to various things like Library Card and Bank that they can deplete to add to various rolls. Franchise Dice earned are largely spent to build back up these reserves after a case.

The GM’s role is largely reactionary after setting up the initial scenario, basically just trying to distill whatever clues the players invent into more game and keep the pacing on track so victory follows logically on getting the last die. The GM doesn’t get access to dice or stats, but does wield two mighty powers: deciding when a roll is called for (and, thus, maintaining pace and spotlight by keeping players from just rolling for everything) and invoking Stress. Effectively, anything from a monster attacking the character to just being cut off in traffic can cause a Stress roll of a variable number of dice. The player keeps the lowest die and compares to a chart: lower rolls result in long-term penalties to dice pools. Effectively, Stress makes the game harder as time goes on, and requires Franchise Dice to buy off after the session (“taking a vacation”).

The mechanics are so simple they can be described in totality in less than 20 pages, but they create some intricate results in actual play…

Part 2