InSpectres Capsule Review by Steve Darlington on 12/02/03
Style: 2 (Needs Work)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
InSpectres is my favourite RPG, reborn anew and done better. And yet I still can’t hate it. Dammit.
Author: Jared A. Sorensen
Company/Publisher: Memento Mori Theatrix
Page count: 39
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Capsule Review by Steve Darlington on 12/02/03
Genre tags: Modern day Horror Comedy Vampire Gothic
If Ron Edwards is the enfant terrible of the roleplaying industry, what do we call Jared Sorensen? He’s younger and even more controversial. Perhaps he’s the foetus horribilis?
Whatever you call him, there’s no denying the man is an idea powerhouse. One of his complete works now available on his website is InSpectres, a ghost hunting game which blatantly and admittedly rips off the world of Ghostbusters without paying for the licence. Seeing how we already have (or perhaps had) a Ghostbusters RPG – and it is one of the greatest masterpieces the hobby has ever seen – InSpectres needs to do something pretty special to make it worthy of attention.
Thankfully, it does have a twist – it’s a collaborative storytelling RPG, with the players taking more control of the story, and assuming a more narrative role than in other games. As the design notes state, the goal here was to “fix” mystery scenarios, where the players have to figure out what is going on. In InSpectres, the GM only specifies the hook; the players decide what’s really going on. The adventure is “won” or completed instead by rolling enough successes while inventing the solution.
The other (and, for my money, far more interesting) twist to InSpectres is that the game uses this authorial approach to play around with the timing of the narrative. Thus, instead of being like a TV show or a film, a game of InSpectres runs like a documentary, with flash-forwards and backs, and scenes intercut by “confessionals” to camera, all of which can determine the plot. The design notes indicate the influence is “reality TV” but personally I wouldn’t advertise that. These days, reality TV means Survivor or Big Brother, not COPS.
Physically, the book/PDF (both versions exist) is a 39-page document, with no art at all bar the black and white logo on the cover. Which is a shame as there’s a lot of white space and a lot of padding to fill what there is written. But then it is only $10, and Jared always was a man of few words. Personally, I don’t always find those words well-chosen, particularly when his jokey tones seem more patronising than funny. Also, he isn’t the best explainer of rules in the world. However, since there aren’t many rules at all, this doesn’t impede very much. And other times, he is quite amusing.
After a brief introduction to the world (which amounts to “It’s Ghostbusters.”), we kick off with chargen. PCs are built with four Skills (really closer to attributes): Athletics, Academics, Technology and Contact (social stuff). Much better to split the two intelligence-based skills, so that Giles and Spengler at not one and the same, instead of rolling it into one like Ghostbusters did. Players have nine D6s to spread between them, with 1-4 in each. Characters also have a Talent – basically their field of expertise that gains them a bonus die whenever it comes into play.
Both Skills and Talents are deliberately very broad and very flexible. Talents indeed can apply to any Skill. If your talent is Mechanic, you can get a bonus die to whack people with a wrench, or look up anything that involves vehicles, and so on. Weird Agents – those who are supernatural, or have spooky powers – get no Talent, as they sort of already have one. In compensation, they have 10 dice to spend and can set their Skills to any value they like. They can also start with Cool dice, whereas normal characters can’t. More on them a bit later.
After creating a PC, the players then collectively design their Franchise, ala Ars Magica or Con X. The dice available to spread around here depend on the “level” of your campaign – five dice for a mom-and-pop operation dealing with goblins in the barn, thirty dice and you’re the Men In Black, only for spooks. These are spread around between four stats, the Library Card, the Gym Card, the Credit Card and the Bank. These work as dice pools to be raided during the game to supplement your skill rolls, namely Academics, Athletics and Technology, respectively for the first three. These disappear when used and can only be replaced by finishing the adventure. The Bank dice can be used to supplement any roll, but each Bank dice rolled may cause the Bank to be increased or decreased – or even wipe out the whole Bank out if you roll a 1.
This is possibly the best resource mechanic I’ve ever seen. Not only is it effortlessly simple, it’s very easy to visualise and relate to. Having cool toys depends on having money on your credit card. Finding a book in the library depends on how big your library is. And the scariness of borrowing from the bank is palpable – and taken straight from the source material. Great stuff.
The mechanics of the game all come down to a simple die roll for any conflict. Roll your Skill, add a die if the Talent counts, borrow dice if you need them, then bounce them across the table, then take the highest. Get above a four, and you get to decide what happens. Get a three or less, and the GM decides. Lower is worse for you, generally, and higher better. Totals of 5 or 6 get you the confusingly named franchise dice. Yes, at the end of the game they go back into your franchise, but they’re really “story dice”.
At the beginning of the game, the GM sets a difficulty level of the adventure, with about double the groups’ starting franchise dice being a good rule of thumb. When the players have rolled enough fives and sixes to get this many dice, the story is finished. Time to tie up the loose ends, arrest the butler and dismiss Cthulhu. Since players can see the dice they are accruing, they know when to develop the story, and when to nudge it towards a conclusion, as in the card game Once Upon A Time.
A few tweaks are added to the dice rolls, such as requiring a minimum number for trying something really outlandish, or for combining your efforts. Finally, we have the rules for fear, or Stress in this case. Facing some occupational hazards, players roll one to five dice (one = cut off in traffic, five = eaten by Cthulhu) and take the lowest. Above four, you’re mostly okay. Roll lower and you lose dice from an appropriate skill, until you get to rest up. When your skill hits zero, you can’t use it any more.
Roll a six on a Stress roll and you laugh things off so glibly you get a Cool point. Cool points can be spent like Franchise dice to augment dice rolls, restore lost dice, or can be kept to offset a Stress roll – for each Cool point, you can ignore that many Stress dice rolled. Again, exquisitely simple and bursting with similitude, the trademarks of Mr Sorensen’s work. It’s eerie how he keeps being able to do this.
Following the rules, we have a section statting out a few Weird Agents for you, and going through their special rules. Players will most likely want to design their own, but these examples are the perfect way to show how to do this. Examples are good.
The remainder of the game is devoted to “Play Structure”. Much like Paranoia (and, again, Ghostbusters), games of InSpectres are assumed to include a series of scenes and actions, most in structured secession, each with their own opportunity for fun and mayhem. The pattern for a job is Getting The Call, Research/Investigation, Suiting Up, Field Work, Cleaning Up and Vacation Time. The last two are basically transferring dice back to your franchise and your agents, but it’s nice that these rules are associated with an appropriate in-game event too. Including Suiting Up is clever, too, for at least two reasons: one, players love putting on the gear, because it’s often the best bit of the movie, and two, by involving rolls, it provides almost as much opportunity for fun as a trip to R&D does in Paranoia.
The game discusses each of these, explaining how to handle them and giving inspiration on the kind of things that might go right (or wrong). It’s not Paranoia, but it’s solid stuff. Also included is a clever way to use interviews to kick-start a session or campaign, be they with your investors, the media, or you interviewing a new applicant. It’s another opportunity to throw a spanner in the works and ideas into the inspiration soup. Of course, for this to work, you need players who are very extroverted, pro-active and keen to throw out ideas and project their characters unguided. But then this is true of the entire game; whereas other games often suggest giving people a moment to “get into the character”, then launch back into “react to the plot” mode. The interview makes sure the players don’t forget that although they’re about to get a Call, it’s not actually a plot hook to be reacted to, but just another idea to do with as they wish.
Confessionals also do the same, although they can occur at any part of the game, not just the start. They can be used to give an adjective to another player (but you may only give one, and only receive one); roleplay said adjective and you get a bonus Franchise dice. They can also work to set things up plot events for the future, or flashbacks when a plot rewrite is needed to save the character’s bacon (“lucky for me I just happened to have a hat pin that day!”). The rules and guidelines are fairly vague, with the main point simply being to use them for good (adding to the game), not evil (negating actions, hurting characters, destroying drama). Of course, such a powerful tool can’t really have rules, but the inclusion of the adjectives thing makes them just that much more solid, which will encourage more players to use them, and a bit more simple, so players won’t feel they’re breaking anything by doing it. I’ve been trying to get players to tell me what they’re doing in the previews of the film we’re about to run before the game for years; I think this might be the way to get them to overcome their reticence.
We close with a list of credits, other material, a long glossary and a great looking character sheet and franchise sheet, both of which evoke the feel perfectly and display all the necessary information well. They’re short, they’re punchy, they get the job done and they get the feel right. Just like InSpectres.
Indeed, InSpectres has very few flaws indeed. It does what it sets out to do, and doesn’t get anything wrong. Admittedly, there’s not a lot to get wrong, but the short rules are its strength, not a weakness. Despite all this, in the final analysis, it left me somewhat cold. Aside from the moments where a few tiny story ideas leak in, there’s nothing here that begs for stories to be told. This makes perfect sense, of course – it’s a game about creating stories almost entirely from whole-cloth, not riffing off pre-written ideas or filling out someone else’s world. However, just as writing fan fiction is a lot more exciting than writing your own stories, games really do benefit from settings. For many – and for me – they’re the fire that makes us want to play. The Ghostbusters RPG gives you truckloads of cool toys to play with and cool things to shoot them at, all of which make you want to play the game. InSpectres, because of its design principles, is much lower on the candy-store feel, and suffers for it.
Moreover, in Ghostbusters you got to be a Ghostbuster. Being an InSpectre strikes me as rather a disappointing second prize. On the other hand, InSpectres is in print, easily obtainable and less flawed than Ghostbusters, and is equally as important for GMs to read. It’s a powerhouse of brilliant mechanics and the documentary approach is a great new way to play that’s never been done before. Should the authorial approach bug you, just make the characters have to beat a 4 to succeed at an action and suddenly it’s a regular RPG once again. And a damn good one at that.
And hell, it’s not like Ghostbusters really needs much source material. I might be biased by my boyish sentimentality for my favourite game ever, but you certainly don’t have to be. Rent the videos, grab some D6s, download InSpectres and go bust some ghosts. You’ll be very glad you did.
Style 2 Substance 4