Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu was the first investigative roleplaying game and arguably the first to really expect and deliver a recognizable plot for every adventure. By the time I launched The Unspeakable Oath magazine and started Pagan Publishing in 1990, Chaosium’s published adventures were increasingly plot-driven. They were typically composed as a linear series of canned scenes which the players were expected to progress through in order. The transition from one scene to the next was frequently triggered by some kind of investigative skill check such as Spot Hidden or Library Use. You played through the scene, you hopefully acquired the clue through the skill check, and the clue led you to the next scene.
The more I played and ran Call of Cthulhu and the more I wrote and edited adventures at Pagan, the clearer it became that this linear series of scenes had a lot of problems. While they initially appeared to make the Keeper’s job easier, since you could run the adventure scene by scene, they frequently broke down whenever an investigative skill check failed. This then made the Keeper’s job substantially harder as they were required to improvise new scenes or discoveries on the fly and stitch the investigative thread back together.
Introducing Narrative Sandboxes
Pagan staffer John Crowe was instrumental in recognizing this issue and pushing for a better approach. His landmark campaign Walker in the Wastes was our first big attempt at what I’ve come to think of as a narrative sandbox where the adventure consists primarily of character agendas and location descriptions. Because when you know what the NPCs want, and you know the relevant locations, the actual scenes of the story can emerge organically from the actions of the players. If the players took an unexpected action, good or bad, the story could continue because the Keeper understood the agendas and timetables of the NPCs.
Our approach to narrative sandboxes was focused on giving the Keeper more information and giving the players more freedom. And it worked, but it was in its own way very demanding. We expected players to actually solve mysteries through investigation, interviewing NPCs, and making intuitive leaps. Our own playtest sessions were quite lengthy and much of the time was spent in discussing the investigation and coming up with theories for what was happening. It was an intense intellectual exercise interspersed with violent action when we’d succeed in disrupting the villains’ plan. We had far fewer investigative die rolls but required the players to be much more thoughtful and thorough in their exploration of the mystery. We relied on clear character agendas for the NPCs to drive the action at the table.
Gumshoe and What to Emulate
Game designer Robin Laws took a different approach in 2007’s Gumshoe. He kept Chaosium’s more plot-driven style but ensured that all crucial clues could be discovered without die rolls. As long as the players are in the right place and are generally asking the right questions, they will get the right clues. Instead, Robin puts the emphasis on interpreting the clues so that the players get the fun of solving the mystery without the random pass/fail that skill checks enforce.
Robin’s approach is based on his long-time interest in translating the audience’s experience of genre entertainment into RPGs. I would argue that before Robin, RPGs took the basic D&D model and wedged in genre elements such as spaceships or detectives or whatever. But with his 1995 Feng Shui RPG Robin bent the entire game design and adventures around replicating the experience of watching a Hong Kong action movie. When he did Gumshoe years later, he wanted to give players the fun of solving a mystery within the framework of a tidy, dramatic narrative with ready-to-run scenes that looked and played just like scenes from mystery movies or novels.
Our two approaches to investigative scenarios are fundamentally different, even though both set out to solve the same basic problem. At Pagan we wanted to simulate the experience of conducting an investigation. Robin, I believe, wanted to translate the experience of watching or reading investigation-themed entertainment.
I think both approaches are great. I believe it’s fair to say that our approach is more cognitively challenging for the gamemaster and for the players, while Robin’s approach is likely more reliably satisfying as a group storytelling experience. Neither is better or worse and it comes down to what a group of players and the GM want to do with their time.
Designing Delta Green: The Labyrinth
So how does this get expressed in my new book Delta Green: The Labyrinth? It’s definitely not a collection of adventures, but I have tried to bring this narrative sandbox approach to how I design the organizations profiled in this book. Primarily this manifests as a three-stage progression for each org.
The bulk of each org’s text sets out their history, agenda, resources, and important individuals. But once the org starts to interact with Delta Green, it begins to change. Whether an ally or an enemy, no org stays static. Each one begins to corrode in some ways and strengthen in others, either becoming more focused on its mission or being diverted towards a new agenda. I wanted to ensure these orgs were not targets in a shooting gallery, maintaining a looping state until disrupted, but that they would instead react, change, and even instigate new events in the campaign.
Once an org gets into your campaign, it has a life of its own. As you continue running adventures, the org is doing its own thing and reaching back into the campaign. The Agents will find themselves getting phone calls from an org they met two adventures ago, dangling some new opportunity or challenge before them. They may suddenly find themselves attacked mid-adventure by a third party completely unconnected to current events all because of agendas set in motion earlier. And the more they connect with these orgs, the more the rewards for doing so are balanced by new and increasing risks of exposure, moral failure, madness, and death.
My overall approach for this book is still very much rooted in Pagan’s style. I want to challenge players to investigate mysteries and make intuitive leaps. I want to keep the emphasis on character agendas rather than on plot. But to take a page from Gumshoe and from Chaosium’s now-classic adventures, I want to provide clear dramatic beats for each org that will drive new scenes and surprises.
It’s been great to come back to designing mysteries for players to investigate after so many years away. And I can’t wait for this book to reach Handlers worldwide so they can lead their players through dramatic journeys rife with strong characters, dynamic agendas, and spectacular action.