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Bent Pages


by Tim Denee
Oct 30,2002



Bent Pages is a series of columns on some of the indie innovators of the role-playing industry. Rather than a review, each column will be a documentary-style look at one of those games.

InSpectres, by Jared A. Sorensen

InSpectres, the creation of one Jared A. Sorensen, is a game of paranormal investigation in the "real world". Part reality-TV, part ghost-busting, part dot-com boom-bust madness, InSpectres is all fun. Anyone who is at all familiar with Jared Sorensen can testify that he one crazy genius of role-playing design; he is always pushing envelopes, boundaries, and buttons. Right now he has four games on sale and about two dozen on his site for free. InSpectres was his first full commerical role-playing game, and as such it is something special.

InSpectres, in its first (free) incarnation, was created some time around late 2000. Sorensen had been writing games and making them available on the web since '97, but in his own words,

"I don't believe that time is a great indicator of skill when it comes to playing or designing RPGs. I've seen games done by newbies that were brilliant. And I've read games by guys with "20 years experience" that would serve better use lining a bird cage"

The primary inspiration for InSpectres, as Sorensen has said in many places, is "the dislike of a certain well-known, popular horror RPG that isn't Vampire and is 'based' on the work of HP Lovecraft".

"The big problem I have with many RPGs is this: that the GM sets up the mystery, the clues and its solution - and then PCs are there to wander around, discover things and eventually figure out what the GM wants them to figure out. I hate that. Because it usually turns into a very linear, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game (but there's an illusion of freedom that's fed to the players). And because if I don't figure out something, I either lose the game or the GM feeds me a clue or leads me by the nose to the solution.

I also wanted to do stuff with the Monster of the Week problem - where the GM introduces Monster X and the players go, "Okay, we know about this kind of monster now" so the GM has to introduce a new monster next week. I wanted a game where the characters research the monster, the players make an assumption and the GM uses the game system to determine whether the players' assumptions are "right" or not. That just seemed interesting."

The system, in brief, revolves around rolling a number of dice equal to the relevant attribute (academics, athletics, technology, or contact) and taking the highest die. If that die is 4 or over, the player gets control of describing the outcome (with varying degrees of control/success), and likewise if that die is 3 or under, the GM gets control of describing the outcome (with varying degrees of control/failure). The thing to note here is that the player gets a 50% chance of describing the outcome. 50% chance of having control. That is a big thing. Prior to InSpectres, the default setup for investigation stories was for the GM to set up a plot and for the players to, well, investigate it. With InSpectres, 50% of the plot is created by the players. It's all on the fly, it's all wild. It surprises the GM and the players, and one basic set up will yield an infinite number of results. It's also very funny, perhaps both because of the ironic premise and the collobrative nature of the story. Jared Sorensen:

"I don't equate serious with "not fun" and I don't equate "comedic" with "not serious" - I mean, it's a really serious game. It's about normal folks with normal problems. They have a weird job but it's not's hard, dangerous, scary work. The comedy and irony comes from the nature of the work as it relates to us, the players. To us, ghost-busting is cool. To someone who does it to pay the rent.hmmm.maybe not so much.

But that's funny."

Obviously, this put a lot of power in the players' hands. Where's the game balance? Where's the restrictions and controls? Clinton R. Nixon (of anvilwerks, creator of Paladin and Donjon, to name a couple) had this to say:

"These days, I think of InSpectres a bit differently. I think it was one of the first successful games to ask the question, "What are rules really for?" [...] InSpectres' rules aren't meant to provide any safeguards for the group. Most games are full of these - guards to make sure characters don't kick ass, guards to make sure characters can't run over the GM's story, guards to prevent them from doing anything not explicitly defined for them. InSpectres took all that off and said, "Do what you want - we'll tell you who gets to decide what happens."

By doing that, it emphasizes what I see as the core ethos of [...] games whose rules focus around narration instead of outcome: "If your group has gathered to play a game where stories like X are supposed to happen, why would one of the members purposely screw it up?" This question's always bothered me. You see it a lot: players making a character that can do X so well that they screw up the story, or players arguing physics in the game world or whatever. I've never quite understood why that happens, and thought that without it, rules would be free to enable characters' actions, not disable them.

InSpectres leaves that baggage behind. Using the rules, you could end an adventure at any time - roll a 6 and say, "I clobber the supernaturals' ass right here and right now and collect my fee and go home." But why would you? InSpectres was the first game I played that trusted the players enough to come right out and say, "Here's some rules that let you do whatever you want. Don't muck it up."

That, I think, is one of the biggest advances not only in game design, but in confronting the social problems of gamers."

That basic concept of shared player-GM control is perhaps the core innovation of InSpectres, but there's more than can be said. Specfically, the concept of "Confessionals", a small but clever part of the game that's a real punch in the guts (in a good way). Sorensen:

"I think the game idea started to gel after I saw a special on TV about a forensic cleaning service (essentially a contract cleaning service that specialized in crime scenes). I thought: "What a weird way to make a living." And then I started thinking about cop shows and medical shows - to us, that kind of life is exciting, but to the person doing it, it's just their job (I mean, aside from personal reasons to do it, that's what the put on their tax return every April 15th - surgeon or police detective or firefighter or whatever). I think that kind of "reality" crept into the game in a big way with the idea of the confessional."

A "confessional" is when, in the game, one of the characters speaks to the players. It's a Reality-TVesque twist on gaming and on traditional concepts of player/character divisions. From the InSpectres "Start-up edition":

"During any scene, you have the option of 'stepping into the Confessional' and breaking up the action with your character's thoughts and feelings. It's the only time your character can 'speak' to the players (and not their characters) and it gives you free rein to introduce new story elements or plot complications. You can foreshadow events and then play them out during the game or 'jump ahead' in time and describe something that has yet to happen in the game (but happened in the character's past)."

This is deceptively simple, but huge fun in play. Clinton R. Nixon:

"The first time I played InSpectres was at GenCon with Jared running it. The thing I remember most about that experience was the Confessionals. I played an ex-pro football player with a bum knee who wasn't all that bright. As we started to confront the supernatural (in this case, a possessed cat), another player used a Confessional. He said, "I should have known not to give [Clinton's character] the quantum lactator - he's so clumsy with equipment. Luckily, it turned out for the best." Immediately, I had a "clumsy with equipment" descriptor that I had to find out how to use for a bonus. This concept, while now kind of mundane for me, kicked my ass at the time."

These two things, spontaneous plots and confessionals, are by no means all there is to InSpectres, but they are certainly what grabbed people like Scott Knipe (who created two InSpectres mini-supplements in two weeks) and Clinton R. Nixon by the short-and-curlies. Jared took a rather whacked-out concept for a game and made it hugely playable and hugely fun, in a new and challenging way. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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