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Winging It

The Perils of TV Detectives

by Ian Sokoliwski
Mar 22,2005


The Perils of TV Detectives

Welcome to the fifth instalment of the column 'Winging It', a column discussing the promises and pitfalls of a more improvisational approach to GM'ing.

In this instalment, I want to discuss how having what a GM might consider to be an interesting plot device or idea might not work if mishandled (or simply missed by the players).

Going back to my on-going Hunter:the Reckoning Campaign, I had wanted to play with an interesting idea I had, probably generated from watching too much 'CSI'. For the three or four of you unfamiliar with that particular TV program, it is essentially about watching members of the Las Vegas Crime Lab solving murders and other crimes primarily through investigation of evidence and deductive reasoning (as opposed to the more gut-level investigations of a lot of other TV cop shows). The basis of the show is about how evidence never lies (although it can mislead), and how investigators should not let personal bias or viewpoint colour their investigations.

I had been thinking about this in the context of the World of Darkness (the overall setting in which H:tR and much of the older White Wolf game systems take place in), and how there are people (Mages, or as they are generally referred to in H:tR, 'wizards' or 'warlocks') who can bend reality to their will. Certainly, in that context, it would be possible that the wizard or warlock in question wouldn't necessarily know that they were actually bending reality, but that reality re-formed to better fit their own decisions and suppositions.

To better explain this concept, I'll illustrate by continuing my examination of the H:tR Campaign from where we last left off. The PC's (Izzy and Daniella) were (with the aid of another Hunter, Joel) investigating a warehouse with a wizard and three zombies. The next day, they began to formulate a plan of attack, to try and gain more information about the supernatural beasties inside. Primarily, it was the intent of Izzy and Daniella to follow the wizard when he left the warehouse (as it had seemed obvious that he did not reside there), perhaps to learn more about his home life, to better discover who he really was.

However, as I had stated in an earlier column, I felt that I had made a mistake in introducing a wizard as an antagonist so early in the game, so I wanted to get around this by also introducing some of the more odd concepts in the WoD. Thus, when they returned the next day, they discovered a grey luxury car inside, with four men in grey suits arguing with the wizard and prowling around the warehouse themselves.

Being new to the supernatural, and having never encountered anything like these 'men in grey' before, I determined that Izzy and Daniella saw that they were indeed supernatural, but creating a wierd black aura around themselves, something completely different than they had encountered before. Essentially, I had decided they were robot operatives of the Technocracy, seeking to clamp down on the activities of another rogue 'reality deviant' (Without bogging the reader down with too many details, essentially the Technocracy is composed of technology-based mages who regect and wish to smother all other forms of magick in the WoD).

Feeling that they were in far over their heads (and after Daniella slipped and dropped her gun into a pile of cardboard boxes, attracting the attention of one of the 'men in grey'), the PC's decided to leave the warehouse and return to their vehicles. Joel (my NPC guide) would follow the luxury car when it left and Izzy and Daniella would follow the truck that the wizard owned.

A short while later, the car left, and Joel followed with his motorcycle. Then, the truck left, and Izzy and Daniella followed it to a landfill. There, they saw one of the men in grey exit the vehicle, and dispose of something in a large black bag, hiding it under several tons of metal. Leaving the landfill, they again followed (further behind, as they waited for a bit around the landfill site as not to arouse suspicion). This time they found the truck, abandoned with the keys still in the ignition, and the man in grey nowhere to be seen (but fresh tire tracks from another vehicle were discovered right beside the truck).

Unable to contact Joel via his cell phone, the pair returned to the warehouse. Nearby, they discovered Joels' motorcycle shot up with some smashed electronics and blood.

All this had been done simply to bring up the level of suspense and tension in the game. I saw how the players were really getting into the mystery of 'what was in the black bag', 'where did the man in grey go when he left the truck', and felt that ending a session with their only real NPC friend missing with cryptic evidence left behind would make them really want to come back for the next session. Now, introducing robot operatives of the NWO definitely ratchets up the power level of the antagonists (which, logically, would have been the opposite of what I had intended for this session initially); however, as they were there to specifically deal with the pre-existing antagonist, I didn't feel that it was too heavy-handed. It also really added to the suspense, and that is what these players seem to respond to the most, as opposed to a lot of combat and bloodshed.

I realize none of this has touched on my earlier comments about the WoD-interpretation of CSI. Don't worry, I am coming to that...

So, the next session began with the PC's searching the immediate area as to where Joel could have gone to (they were hoping that he simply hadn't been whisked off by the men in grey after shooting at him). They were able to find him hiding in a nearby dumpster (after he shot at the PC's; they weren't being particularily stealthy, and he got jumpy). With Daniella's aid (and her healing Edge), they were able to get Joel up and healthy (he had been shot at by the men in grey, but had only been hit by a bit of shrapnel from the bullet hole in his bike, and thus was able to get away), and they returned to the warehouse.

They found no zombies, no wizard, no vehicles, and no men in grey. They did discover a fair amount of blood and other viscera from the zombies, however. Poking around for a while, they were then discovered by the police.

So. Two armed people (recall that Daniella had lost her pistol earlier that evening) wandering around an abandoned warehouse that contained evidence of multiple homicides. Soon, the trio was under arrest and the warehouse was filled with police and crime scene investigators.

As I only wanted to directly deal with a wizard CSI agent, I only really had to introduce a single supernatural element to this session. However, just to get across the all-pervasiveness of their new, dangerous world, I also determined that one of the regular cops was a Ghoul (they could recognize that with their Second Sight) and another one had a similar (if drastically weakened) black aura to the Men in Grey (a low-level cyborg agent of Iteration X, another branch of the Technocracy). Not direct threats because of their supernatural nature; rather, this was to illustrate that anyone anywhere could belong to one of the supernatural groups the PC's want to investigate. However, they also saw that one of the crime lab techs was also a wizard.

Through the judicious and surprising use of their Edges, Izzy, Daniella, and Joel all manage to flee the scene, finally ending up at Franks house (sure, they ran away from this alien conspiracy theory-based Hunter much earlier, but they still needed a place to stay, and Joel figured it would be the safest place).

The trouble with having PC's on the run from the police in a small city like Winnipeg is the difficulty of staying on the run, especially when they really don't want to leave town (as the players seemed hesitant to do). I had to figure out some way, at this point, to have the PC's get the charges against them dropped while still getting to explore my wizard/CSI storyline. So, I fudged a bit.

Joel and Frank, over the week, got in touch with a member of the police force that they knew. It turned out that this individual was actually a Bystander (a person who failed to respond to The Call and become a Hunter; they generally are haunted by nightmares of what they saw and their own inaction against it, and have lost all possibility of gaining Second Sight or Edges; quite often, they can be useful allies to Hunters), and was attempting to 'lose' some of the hard evidence (such as the illegal firearms) against the trio. Thus, they decided the best course of action would be to turn themselves in; with no 'real' evidence against them, the police would have to let them go, and they could get their lives back (more or less, anyway).

So, Izzy, Daniella, and Joel all head to the Public Safety Building and turn themselves in. They get questioned separately, then together (where they find everything except certain blood evidence has vanished, and that the only reason they are still being held is because of the DNA analysis being performed by the CSI wizard they saw earlier).

In fact, the wizard shows up in the interrogation scene (along with the cyborg cop, who eyes the wizard with just as much suspicion as the PC's), where he demonstrates that the DNA of the PC's is on various implements that were determined to be murder weapons on the scene. He just needs to know where the bodies are.

This stuns the PC's, as there should be no evidence of their DNA at the warehouse. None of them had been bleeding at all (and he is citing blood evidence) while inside the warehouse, and yet he is 'scientifically proving' that they were there.

During the interview, the PC's (using the Discern Edge on the wizard) were able to determine that the wizard truly believed that what he was seeing was true; that is, he wasn't conciously making the evidence fit his theory, rather his unconcious mind was using his wizard abilities to reshape reality. I figured that he probably didn't even know that he was a wizard (as he was very very low lever); he more just thought he had a 'knack' for figuring out who did what very early on in an investigations, and somehow the evidence he found just seemed to fit his theories.

At this point, while the CSI wizard and some of the other police are arguing (they moved into the hallway, and here is where the lack of guns and other physical evidence is discovered by the PC's), Izzy uses her Cleave ability (using her handcuffs as a focus), and smashes the desk and the DNA equipment, including most of the samples. Furious, the wizard screams about how he can still make the match with the small amount of sample material left, and turns on his partially-broken portable analysis equipment, and runs the test. It again shows a match.

However, the cyborg cop points out (mostly to the normal human cops in the room) that the equipment is no longer plugged in and should no longer be functioning.

To recap for those who don't know, if a normal human being witnesses a reality-altering effect by a wizard, something that obviously shouldn't be happening, a Paradox effect occurs. This can sometimes be minor (the reality-altering effect misfires or partially dissapates), and sometimes can be major (a Paradox Spirit appears, and traps the offending wizard in a small pocket universe for a while). To give the PC's a chance to get away from the wizard, I determined that the particular Paradox effect here would be the analysis equipment blowing up.

In the confusion, the cyborg cop shoos the PC's (and Joel) out of the room, telling them that, since all the evidence against them has vanished or been destroyed, they are free to leave. Besides, he appears to want to have words with the wizard himself.

Now, ultimately, I felt that I mishandled this, rushing it too much to get to the core concept I wanted to explore. Perhaps if I had built up a bit more tension (having the wizard first interview them quickly at the warehouse initially, or even brought out the police search for the PC's more), or really added in some fun combat scenarios, the game might have been a bit more effective. Simply using exposition (during the Discern portion of the game), while it did tell the story, could have been managed better.

However, these players are really trying to avoid combat (especially against 'normal' people, and most especially against police officers), trying to reason their way through situations instead. So, while following their lead and going with this responsive, improvisational approach makes the game fairly low-combat (at least so far), it has generated a fair amount of tension, even if I wasn't fully able to explore some of the ramifications of this particular CSI wizard.

Nevertheless, this is an example of where perhaps if I had tried developing how to deal with the 'unconcious wizard' more, and had actually drawn up more notes and more of a linear plot structure, the ideas I was playing with might have seemed more self-evident, leading to the PC's to realize the truth on their own. It is hard to say, but this might be a good example of where to mix scripted and improvisational play together.

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What do you think?

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