Secret Writings of the Ash Ock

Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem

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moving from investigation to action
I've been watching a fair amount of Criminal Minds lately, so naturally I start thinking about how I'd run it in an RPG. I was able to articulate my thoughts tonight, so I thought I'd spell it out here. It is peripherally related to my ideas for how I'd run the Mission Impossible game. Spirit of the Century would still be my system of choice for this.

Roughly, here's how I map out a typical Criminal Minds episode. I'm not sure these exactly map to commercial breaks and such.

Teaser: We see a crime committed (on C.M., this most often is a murder)

Act 1: The team arrives and interfaces with the local law enforcement. They use their superior skills to collect better evidence and/or realize something about the crime that the locals do not know.

Act 2: Usually there's an escalation here -- the unsub commits another crime. However, the team continue their investigation, culiminating in delivering a profile to the police. xprofile explains the unsub's behavior and most often ends up being true, but incomplete.

Act 3: In pursuit of the unsub. The end of this act is usually the point at which they discover what's wrong or incomplete about their profile. At the end of this phase, they either know who is committing the crimes, who the next victim is, or where the next crime will take place.

Act 4: They catch or kill the criminal, possibly preventing the unsub from committing another crime.

Closing: The case is closed out, dangling plot or character threads are resolved.

Episodes often have a character arc that paralells the plot arc. A specific character is more involved in the episode (e.g. a team member is kidnapped, a team member has a prior connection to the victim, a team member has a prior connection to the unsub).

I think for this to work as an RPG concept, the key thing to focus on is delivering the profile. While the players will work with clues delivered by the GM, they also have some lattitude to add their own spin on the scenario. In SOTC terms, this is probably best done by using skill checks to declare or discover aspects of the unsub.

My thought for structuring this as a game is to have 'delivering the profile' be a key step in every scenario. The players should be focused on that for the 1st half of any story. When they deliver the profile, the story changes to be more about pursuit of the bad guy. In game terms, I would reward players for roleplaying and delivering the profile. For SOTC, I'd give the players fewer fate points at the start of play, and refresh their pools when they deliver the profile. Other fate point rewards could happen at other major act breaks.

Bringing the discussion around to the mission impossible game: The basic structure I've been considering for this game is:

1. At the start of play, I give the players the "Good Morning Mr. Phelps" speech. In it, they usually get the name of 1-3 key NPCs that they are expected to interact with. Usually, this will include the primary antagonist. After presenting this material, the players should know what they are supposed to do.

2. The dossiers that the players receive along with the briefing will be kept deliberately vague. In SOTC terms, my feeling is that the players start every adventure knowing at least one aspect on each major NPC of note.

3. The players then build their plan to take the bad guy down. I like the idea of letting each player declare one additional aspect (on an NPC, or the situation), as part of the process of fleshing out their plan.

4. The story commences. There should be at least 3 major obstacles the players need to get past, representing typical story act breaks. Obstacles are usually things they couldn't have predicted (extra guards, one of their team getting hurt, etc.).

The commonality is that the players are given a fair amount of control to define key NPCs for each story. They don't have complete control over the NPCs, but a key point of both shows is that the heroes understand their adversaries and exploit their knowledge to achieve their a successful result.

A rule I'd consider would be to only allow the characters to tag a single aspect of their own, but they can tag as many aspects of their opponent as they know. This gets around one problem I frequently saw in our SOTC games, which is that players rarely needed to venture out past their own aspects during play. My rough draft of the MI rules reduces each PC from 10 aspects to 5, for the same reason. For an ensemble game, 5 seems more than enough.

One last bit....

While I like the Criminal Minds structure, I've also been watching early seasons of Supernatural. Supernatural has some of the same investigation->action structure. They have to figure out exactly what they are dealing with, then use that knowledge to defeat the enemy monster. One additional trope in that show is that their first attempt to take down a monster is almost always a failure -- the players are missing some critical piece of information about the enemy. I can see at least two ways to simulate that:

1. Some of the monster aspects are 'secret', and can only be investigated or discovered after the second act. Usually one of these aspects should be considered a 'primary' aspect of the creature, which must be tagged to actually 'kill' the monster.

2. When the players first confront the creature, the GM secretly decides that one of the aspects the players declared on the monster is actually incorrect. "The monster is not actually a ghost, it is a tulpa, so the traditional ghost-killing methods don't work" "The ghost is actually not a ghost of the father -- the daughter is actually the ghost". After the end of the conflict, the players know which aspect they have incorrect. This also provides a nice structure to the 2nd half of the scenario, as the players have a key hint about what they have to correct to win.

Anyway, all three structures described here are built around the players working to declare or discover aspects of the main villain/NPC, with a final showdown. The players should not be able to brute force the villain -- they need to understand the villain to beat them/prevent them from committing another crime.

The original thought in my head was for a Criminal Minds/Supernatural mashup. The professional FBI team who has studied occult creatures and can identify them from the evidence at hand.

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(Deleted comment)
Exactly. Bureau 13 and most of the old Tri-Tac games had a certain silliness to them (not the least of which was the game mechanics). The Criminal Minds/Supernatural mashup would be sober, serious. Criminal Minds is a TV show that doesn't have much of a sense of humor to it. If you were playing to those tropes, the team would be very professional in demeanor.

I didn't mention it in my original post, but as we discussed last night, the basic structure also works for The Dresden Files. Usually there's a point about 2/3 of the way through each book where things transition from investigation ("what the hell is going on?") to action ("I'm all out of bubblegum"). There are action sequences during the investigation sequence, but there's a difference in tone.

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