The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘three clue rule’

Technoir and the Three Clue Rule

December 26th, 2011

Technoir - Jeremy KellerI talked a bit about Technoir‘s resolution mechanics over here and I’ll probably have more to say about them once I’ve had a chance to experience the game as a player. In the meantime, however, I’ve run the game three times for three different groups in the last two weeks. That’s a lot of gaming, and it’s being driven by my excitement in engaging with the other half of Technoir‘s system: Plot mapping.

(It is also, coincidentally, reminding me why I love open tables. I now have three groups each featuring a dangling story that I need to schedule follow-up sessions for. I’m loving the game. I am not enjoying the schedule wrangling.)

Scenario prep in Technoir takes the form of transmissions (three of which are included in the rulebook, with additional transmissions being made available on the game’s website). Each transmission consists of six connections, six events, six factions, six locations, six objects, and six threats.

Connections are major NPCs. During character creation, each player will select three of these connections as personal contacts (friends, comrades, love interests, professional associates, etc.). Events, locations, and objects are pretty much exactly what they sound like. Factions are powerful groups with ideologies to push and goals to pursue. Threats are NPCs or groups of NPCs who can be used by factions or connections to come after the PCs.

Each transmission comes with a 6×6 master grid, allowing you to randomly generate one of these nodes by rolling 2d6. And you start your plot map by generating three of these nodes and connecting them to each other.

For example, taking the Kilimanjaro Ring transmission from the rulebook, I randomly generate:

(1) Tanzanian Reclamation (Faction): One of the more well-known anti-Beanstalk, anti-European terrorist groups.

(2) Temptation (Connection): A dancer and escort at Shadows Under Camelot.

(3) Union Protest (Event): An inflamed uprising of summit workers armed with construction equipment.

And draw them on the center of a blank sheet like this:

Technoir - Plot Map

Looking at this for a minute or so, I figure out what the connection between these three elements are: Temptation is sleeping with the vice chairman of the newly-formed Union of Summit Workers who are laboring on the orbital beanstalk sprouting from Mt. Kilimanjaro.  He’s married and the Tanzanian Reclamation is using the relationship to blackmail him. He gives them access to the site of the union protest and Tanzanian Reclamation uses that access to bomb the protest. Their goal is to further destabilize the relationship between the government and the laborers working on the beanstalk.

This leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions, but that’s more than okay. I will, however, jot down a couple quick notes:

Is Temptation working with Tanzanian Reclamation willingly or unwillingly?

Next step is to gain access to the actual build site and bomb that.

This is referred to as the mission seed and it gives you the core of your first scenario.

Over the course of play there are a number of simple mechanisms which will add additional nodes to your plot map. As you do so, the new nodes will “tell” you more and more about what’s going on. (For example, let’s say that I later generate the Construction Zone Identcard. Given the seed I’ve put together, it doesn’t take much effort to connect that card to the Tanzanian Reclamation and conclude that it’s the card they’ll use to access the construction zone for their next bombing. The more interesting question is where, exactly, that card came from. And the plot map will probably get around to telling me that, too.)

…AND THE THREE CLUE RULE

Once play begins, the core method of adding new nodes to the plot map is pretty simple: “A protagonist can lean on her connections for information. She may be attempting to find some opportunity she can take advantage of or get further details of a plot she’s started to learn about. When this happens, have her player roll a die and consult that connection’s table. Add the resulting node to your plot map and draw a line from it to another node already on your map. Once you have done this, take on the persona of the connection as he clues the protagonist in to the existence of this new node and how it relates to the node you linked it to.”

This mechanic, obviously, models the noir genre trope of a detective hitting up his contacts until something in the case shakes loose.

And, ultimately, all of this works in play because of the Three Clue Rule.

What made it striking for me, I think, is the numerical similarity: Three clues. Three nodes in the mission seed. Three connections per PC.

I’m not saying that Jeremy Keller was actually familiar with the Three Clue Rule or deliberately trying to emulate it when he designed Technoir. But the Three Clue Rule arose from actual play experience, and it works because of the same fundamental principles of redundancy which are being applied here.

Take a moment to really look at how the plot map functions: Think of each node in the initial mission seed as a conclusion that the PCs need to reach. (For example, in our sample mission seed, they need to figure out that Temptation is involved.) Unlike traditional scenario design, however, the GM doesn’t need to worry about seeding his first scene with three clues for the PCs to pursue. Instead, each of the PCs comes prepackaged with three clues (there’s the rule) that they can follow up on in the form of their connections.

Even if you only have one PC, the clues manage themselves: They hit up one of their connections (exhausting a clue), but the connection points them in the direction of a node which is now connected to the mission seed.  That connection is functionally identical to a clue itself, which means that you’ve restocked the PC’s clue supply. And as soon as they hit a node connected to two or more nodes (like those in the mission seed), they’ll have a surplus of clues.

In actual practice, you’ll have multiple PCs and a huge “clue buffer” of connections to fall back on as the plot map grows in complexity and additional mysteries are added to compound the original enigma. So even if the GM doesn’t liberally strew around additional clues (although why wouldn’t they?), engage in permissive clue-finding (which the game encourages), or include proactive clues (which is exactly what threats are designed for), the game will still default into a success state.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

I’ve been using node-based scenario design for years now (with “node” in this context having a slightly different meaning). In practice, node-based scenario design is a flexible framework for leveraging the basic principles of the Three Clue Rule into a simple-to-prep structure which nevertheless results in complex, non-linear play.

On a personal level, what I find deeply intriguing about Technoir‘s plot mapping is that it is a radically different structure for achieving the same thing. And because it’s a different structure, of course, it has unique strengths and weaknesses — allowing you to accomplish things that node-based scenario design doesn’t (and vice versa).

(For example, as I mentioned, the Technoir system is very effective at allowing players to proactively hit up their contacts like noir detectives. Accomplishing that using node-based scenario design would either require a lot of redundant prep for each contact or a narrow constriction of player choice.)

And unlike the adjective-based resolution mechanics, it should be noted that it is absolutely trivial to take the plot mapping mechanics in Technoir and apply them to another system. Even if you have no interest in the game’s setting or its innovative resolution mechanics, I’d still recommend picking up a copy of the rulebook just to get access to the full system for plot mapping (which I’m only describing in general terms here).

The interesting question now is simple: What other structures can we use to leverage the redundant principles of the Three Clue Rule? Of particular interest would be those structures which maintain simple, straight-forward prep which can still result in complex emergent play.

Go to Part 1

Keep on the ShadowfellSPOILER WARNING!

The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. And if you’re in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn’t be reading it.

REVELATION 4: CULT OF ORCUS

Once the PCs become aware of the cult’s potential involvement in the area (either through identifying a holy symbol; an Orcus idol; or learning of the keep’s true history), they may want to find out more about Orcus and his cult.

CLUE 1: ARCANA/RELIGION CHECK. See the Monster Manual, pg. 206, for Orcus Lore.

CLUE 2: STREETWISE CHECK/VALTHRUN. See “On the Streets of Winterhaven”.

CLUE 3: DOUVEN STAHL. Douven Stahl can tell them everything on pgs. 206 and 210 of the Monster Manual regarding Orcus and his cults. See, also, “Dragon Burial Site”.

REVELATION 5: KALAREL’S RITUAL

The PCs don’t need to know about Kalarel’s ritual before stumbling into area 19 of the keep, but they’re likely to be interested in learning what the cult is planning.

CLUE 1: KALAREL’S RITUAL LETTER. The note Kalarel writes to Ninaran can be recovered after the “Dead Walk” interlude. It mentions the keep (see below).

CLUE 2: DOUVEN STAHL. Douven Stahl can make several informed guesses regarding the ritual (see “Dragon Burial Site”).

CLUE 3: SIR KEEGAN. Sir Keegan, in area 8 of the keep, can tell them of the Fane of Orcus which lay beneath the keep (see “Kalarel’s Ritual”). He knows that the cultists have gathered there.

KALAREL’S RITUAL LETTER

I received your report on the runebearers. Next time you see them, but an end to their meddling. Mix the blood of ten people with the elixir my messenger brings. Then trace the following pattern on the ground of the graveyard and pour the liquid into the lines:

Kalarel - Necromantic Symbol

With the thinning of the veil here at the keep, this circle will create a sympathetic connection to the Shadowfell.

My work here is very near completion. It will not be long now. If you come to the keep, the pass phrase for the second level is “from the ground, some magic was found”.

Kalarel

USING THE REVELATION LIST

Basically, there are three steps to my use of the revelation list for an adventure:

First, I determine the chokepoints of the adventure and list the necessary revelations.

Second, for each revelation I make a list of at least three clues and then incorporate these clues into the design of the adventure.

Third, while actually running the adventure, I keep the revelation-and-clue list handy as a quick-reference tool. I treat it as a literal checklist: If the PCs find a clue, I check it off. If the PCs have missed a clue (by failing to search a room, for example), I’ll circle it. If the PCs have definitely reached a particular conclusion (not just considered it as a possibility, but definitively concluded that “this is what’s happening”), I’ll cross the entire revelation off my list.

Using this approach allows me to spot potential trouble spots as they’re developing: If, for example, the PCs have discovered all the clues I’ve designed for a particular revelation but, for whatever reason, still haven’t draw the proper conclusion then I know I need to introduce new clues. Similarly, if they’ve been missing a lot of clues for a particular revelation, I can start anticipating the need for new clues.

My original Three Clue Rule essay had a lengthier discussion of how to deal with these types of issues as they emerge, but here’s an example: If the PCs have missed or ignored all of the clues suggesting that they should really check out the Keep of the Shadowfell and see what’s going on there, I might decide to trigger Ninaran’s assault on Lord Padraig’s manor house with the intention that either Ninaran or one of the other cultists will willingly surrender when the encounter turns against them and spill their guts regarding Kalarel’s plans.

Similarly, if the PCs haven’t found the kobold lair yet, I might trigger one of the kobold encounters — either the “Slyblade Hunter” or “Farmer’s Jeopardy” encounters can be used without the PCs taking any action themselves — and use it as a way of introducing a new clue. (Or, if nothing else, give the players something to do while I try to figure out another way of getting them back on track.)

The good news is that, when you use the Three Clue Rule, you generally won’t run into these problems in the first place, so you’ll be able to spend more time playing the game and less time trying to fix the game.

July 2nd, 2008 REMIXING KEEP ON THE SHADOWFELL

PART 14: THREE CLUE RULE – SECOND REVELATIONS

Go to Part 1

SPOILER WARNING!

The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. And if you’re in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn’t be reading it.

REVELATION 4: CULT OF ORCUS

Once the PCs become aware of the cult’s potential involvement in the area (either through identifying a holy symbol; an Orcus idol; or learning of the keep’s true history), they may want to find out more about Orcus and his cult.

CLUE 1: ARCANA/RELIGION CHECK. See the Monster Manual, pg. 206, for Orcus Lore.

CLUE 2: STREETWISE CHECK/VALTHRUN. See “On the Streets of Winterhaven”.

CLUE 3: DOUVEN STAHL. Douven Stahl can tell them everything on pgs. 206 and 210 of the Monster Manual regarding Orcus and his cults. See, also, “Dragon Burial Site”.

REVELATION 5: KALAREL’S RITUAL

The PCs don’t need to know about Kalarel’s ritual before stumbling into area 19 of the keep, but they’re likely to be interested in learning what the cult is planning.

CLUE 1: KALAREL’S RITUAL LETTER. The note Kalarel writes to Ninaran can be recovered after the “Dead Walk” interlude. It mentions the keep (see below).

CLUE 2: DOUVEN STAHL. Douven Stahl can make several informed guesses regarding the ritual (see “Dragon Burial Site”).

CLUE 3: SIR KEEGAN. Sir Keegan, in area 8 of the keep, can tell them of the Fane of Orcus which lay beneath the keep (see “Kalarel’s Ritual”). He knows that the cultists have gathered there.

KALAREL’S RITUAL LETTER

I received your report on the runebearers. Next time you see them, but an end to their meddling. Mix the blood of ten people with the elixir my messenger brings. Then trace the following pattern on the ground of the graveyard and pour the liquid into the lines:

With the thinning of the veil here at the keep, this circle will create a sympathetic connection to the Shadowfell.

My work here is very near completion. It will not be long now. If you come to the keep, the pass phrase for the second level is “from the ground, some magic was found”.

– Kalarel

USING THE REVELATION LIST

Basically, there are three steps to my use of the revelation list for an adventure:

First, I determine the chokepoints of the adventure and list the necessary revelations.

Second, for each revelation I make a list of at least three clues and then incorporate these clues into the design of the adventure.

Third, while actually running the adventure, I keep the revelation-and-clue list handy as a quick-reference tool. I treat it as a literal checklist: If the PCs find a clue, I check it off. If the PCs have missed a clue (by failing to search a room, for example), I’ll circle it. If the PCs have definitely reached a particular conclusion (not just considered it as a possibility, but definitively concluded that “this is what’s happening”), I’ll cross the entire revelation off my list.

Using this approach allows me to spot potential trouble spots as they’re developing: If, for example, the PCs have discovered all the clues I’ve designed for a particular revelation but, for whatever reason, still haven’t draw the proper conclusion then I know I need to introduce new clues. Similarly, if they’ve been missing a lot of clues for a particular revelation, I can start anticipating the need for new clues.

My original Three Clue Rule essay had a lengthier discussion of how to deal with these types of issues as they emerge, but here’s an example: If the PCs have missed or ignored all of the clues suggesting that they should really check out the Keep of the Shadowfell and see what’s going on there, I might decide to trigger Ninaran’s assault on Lord Padraig’s manor house with the intention that either Ninaran or one of the other cultists will willingly surrender when the encounter turns against them and spill their guts regarding Kalarel’s plans.

Similarly, if the PCs haven’t found the kobold lair yet, I might trigger one of the kobold encounters — either the “Slyblade Hunter” or “Farmer’s Jeopardy” encounters can be used without the PCs taking any action themselves — and use it as a way of introducing a new clue. (Or, if nothing else, give the players something to do while I try to figure out another way of getting them back on track.)

The good news is that, when you use the Three Clue Rule, you generally won’t run into these problems in the first place, so you’ll be able to spend more time playing the game and less time trying to fix the game.

Comments (67)

| Link

Go to Part 1

Keep on the ShadowfellSPOILER WARNING!

The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. And if you’re in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn’t be reading it.

REVELATION 1: THE KOBOLD LAIR

Keep on the Shadowfell begins with a kobold ambush. The entire village of Winterhaven is suffering under the effects of the kobold attacks. And Lord Padraig is offering bounties on both dead kobolds and the location of the kobold lair. So how will the PCs actually find the kobold lair?

CLUE 1: TRACKING. The PCs can track the kobolds back to their lair, starting at the location of any of their attacks or the barricades on the road between Winterhaven and the Keep of the Shadowfell.

Following the trail is a 6/3 skill challenge. The PCs must first succeed at a Perception check (DC 15) to locate the tracks (this counts as a success on the skill challenge), and can then use Nature and Perception checks as primary skills to complete the skill challenge.

CLUE 2: NINARAN. A successful Streetwise check in Winterhaven will put them in touch with Ninaran (see “On the Streets of Winterhaven” and “Winterhaven NPCs”).

CLUE 3: INTERROGATION. Any captured kobold can be forced to reveal the location of the kobold lair with an Intimidate check vs. Will defense. The kobold receives a +10 bonus because it’s hostile and a +2 bonus because giving up the location of the lair is essentially a betrayal of the entire clan.

Other PCs can use the Aid Another action with either Interrogation or Diplomacy (good cop/bad cop).

REVELATION 2: DRAGON BURIAL SITE

The PCs need to become aware of the dragon burial site and motivated to check it out.

CLUE 1: DRUIDIC SPIRIT. The druidic spirit in area 6 of the kobold lair is aware of the dragon burial site and of its importance to Kalarel’s ritual (see “Kobold Lair”).

CLUE 2: VALTHRUN. If asked about the Cult of Orcus, Valthrun will have some information but will also refer the PCs to Douven Stahl — “the true expert on the cult”. Valthrun knows that Stahl was researching the burial site and can tell the PCs where it is. (See “On the Streets of Winterhaven” and “Winterhaven NPCs”.)

CLUE 3: KALAREL’S LETTER TO BALGRON. We’ll put a letter in area 4 of the keep, written by Kalarel with instructions for Balgron.

Balgron—

One of the villagers has stumbled onto the dig site south of the village. I’ve ordered Datok and his men to reinforce Agrid. You should send some of your goblins to the surface and keep an eye on the ruins. It is important that our work not be disturbed.

Kalarel

REVELATION 3: THE KEEP

Pretty much anyone in Winterhaven can tell the PCs where the Keep is, and many people can give them even more information about it (see the relevant Streetwise check in “On the Streets of Winterhaven”). However, the following clues will make the players aware of its importance:

CLUE 1: DOUVEN STAHL. When the PCs speak with Douven Stahl at the dragon burial site, he’ll be able to tell them about the Keep. (See “Dragon Burial Site”.)

CLUE 2: KALAREL’S RITUAL LETTER. The note Kalarel writes to Ninaran can be recovered after the “Dead Walk” interlude. It mentions the keep.

CLUE 3: SIR CALIBAN. Perrien’s father, the banished knight Sir Caliban, journeyed to the keep and was killed there. (Bairwin Wildarson can tell them this.)

Continued…

Go to Part 1

Keep on the ShadowfellSPOILER WARNING!

The following thoughts contain minor spoilers for Keep on the Shadowfell. If you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read it. And if you’re in my gaming group then you definitely shouldn’t be reading it.

THE THREE CLUE RULE

At the beginning of May I wrote a lengthy essay on the subject of scenario design and the Three Clue Rule:

For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.

Basically, the idea is that every chokepoint in your adventure design (the points where the PCs must do X or be unable to proceed) are all potential points of failure: If the PCs fail to do X at any one of those points, the adventure will grind to a frustrated halt.

There are two ways to deal with such chokepoints: Either you can railroad your PCs through them (a “solution” that I find drastically unappealing) or you can design alternative paths through the adventure. And in my experience, designing three alternatives results in a sufficiently robust design so that the players will never find themselves clueless.

Probably the most common problem with published adventures are their chokepoints — they’re usually riddled with them, creating countless pitfalls for the DM to overcome. So the first thing I typically do when looking at a published adventure is to track the flow of the adventure: How do the PCs get from one point in the adventure to the next? Once I’ve identified the chokepoints, I’ll start designing alternative paths until I’ve satisfied the Three Clue Rule.

The flow of Keep on the Shadowfell was particularly baffling for me. For example, as the name of the adventure might suggest, the PCs are supposed to eventually go to the Keep. But there are only three ways that will happen:

(1) You can use the adventure hook which basically tells the PCs “you’re coming to Winterhaven in order to investigate the Keep”. But, if you do that, it’s very likely that the PCs might decide to ignore the kobold threat and go directly to the Keep… which is designed for higher level play and will prove rather deadly for 1st level characters.

(2) The PCs can succeed at a Religion check to identify a holy symbol of Orcus, conclude there’s a cult active in the area above and beyond the kobold tribe, and then… rewrite the adventure so that the PCs can learn that the Keep was once a site of Orcus worship without first asking a specific character about the Keep separate from the Orcus worship.

(3) The players read the title of the module and conclude that they should find out about this Keep.

Similarly, there’s encounter A4: Dragon Burial Site. As far as I can tell, the only way the PCs will ever go to the dragon burial site is if you use the “Missing Mentor” adventure hook. If you don’t use that specific hook, the PCs will never have any reason to look for Douven Stahl — which is the only reason they would ever go looking for the dragon burial site. (Which isn’t much of a loss, admittedly, since in the original adventure there is no useful information to be gained at the site.)

So these problems needed to be fixed. In addition, I had a desire to remove the CRPG-like quest-givers in Winterhaven, which meant that I would need a more robust Three Clue Rule design for the kobold sections of the adventure, too.

REVELATIONS

Although this is one of the last remix essays I’m writing for Keep on the Shadowfell, it’s actually describing the first steps I took in revising the module. And the very first step I took was to identify and list the revelations the players would need in order to move through the adventure.

First, there are three location-based revelations. The adventure basically takes place in three locations: The kobold lair; the dragon burial site; and the Keep on the Shadowfell. The PCs need to (a) identify these as places they should go; and (b) go there.

Second, there are two revelations which allow the PCs to figure out what’s going on: They need to know what the cult of Orcus is and they also need to discover the existence and purpose of Kalarel’s ritual. These revelations are less important because the adventure can continue even if the PCs aren’t entirely sure what’s going on — in other words, these aren’t actual chokepoints — but my players get a big kick out of discovering hidden lore. And, also, knowing these facts will help raise the stakes of the adventure.

Starting tomorrow I’ll break down how I applied the Three Clue Rule to each of these revelations.

Continued…

Three Clue Rule

May 8th, 2008

COLLECTED EDITION OF AN ESSAY BY JUSTIN ALEXANDER

Mystery scenarios for roleplaying games have earned a reputation for turning into unmitigated disasters: The PCs will end up veering wildly off-course or failing to find a particular clue and the entire scenario will grind to a screeching halt or go careening off the nearest cliff. The players will become unsure of what they should be doing. The GM will feel as if they’ve done something wrong. And the whole evening will probably end in either boredom or frustration or both.

Here’s a typical example: When the PCs approach a murder scene they don’t search outside the house, so they never find the wolf tracks which transform into the tracks of a human. They fail the Search check to find the hidden love letters, so they never realize that both women were being courted by the same man. They find the broken crate reading DANNER’S MEATS, but rather than going back to check on the local butcher they spoke to earlier they decide to go stake out the nearest meat processing plant instead.

As a result of problems like these, many people reach an erroneous conclusion: Mystery scenarios in RPGs are a bad idea. In a typical murder mystery, for example, the protagonist is a brilliant detective. The players are probably not brilliant detectives. Therefore, mysteries are impossible.

Or, as someone else once put it to me: “The players are not Sherlock Holmes.”

Three Clue Rule - Sherlock Holmes

(more…)

Archives

Twitter

Recent Posts


Recent Comments