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[InSpectres] Pulp Ghosts in the Porn Valley

Started by Christopher Kubasik, November 11, 2006, 07:17:05 AM

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Christopher Kubasik

So, it's 9:20 on a Friday night and my left hip down to my left calf is throbbing with Sciatica. It's as if there's something biting through my skin and into my muscles, down to the bone. I can neither lie down comfortably to sleep, nor think clearly enough to write a script I'm in the middle of, nor clean the apartment (which, of the three, cleaning is probably what I need to do most of all.)

So I thought I'd type out an actual play. (Joshua asked me to do this a couple of weeks ago, and I was busy doing all the things I do before this insufferable pain started.)


Can I tell you I had a blast? Right up front? The GM said he'd perhaps never had so much fun running a game. I arrived to play in a foul mood, concerned about money and writing craft and exactly how one draws the line and declares one's life wasted, in no mood for comedy (in fact, really tense when I realized this was a funny game and god knows I wanted dark deeds and vicarious violent emotions and useless mayhem) and ended the session with a couple of hours of much needed therapeutic laughter that literally lifted me out of my darkness and set me down a different path emotionally than the one I walked on to get to the game.

This was more than a month ago now, so I might not hit all the details. But there are few key points I want to make about the rules and how they worked in play.

The players:

Mark Nau, who posts around here on occasion. He's a producer at Treyarch and currently in crunch mode getting the Spider-Man 3 game ready for the world to delight in. He gathered the game and GM'd. We played in a conference room at Treyarch. Which is the best kind of place in the world to game, cause right around the corner there was the kitchen, which was stocked with a soft drink machine, oodles of candy and all sorts of crap.

There's me... A writer guy. I met Mark years ago at a game convention. I ran a session of Sorcerer. Mark helped me land a short-lived gig at Treyarch on a project that ultimately died.

There was my friend Eric, another writer, up and coming. Very cool, media and geek savvy. I was the head writer on a internet show, he was introduced to me as someone who might write for us. He pitched me his idea for our unique format. He was the only writer who got it. I fell in love with him immediately. We are now social friends, a writing support group of sorts, and working as partners on a new Internet project.

And now I'm gonna fail, because I'm going to forget names of two guys I met that day.

Mark's Brother-in-Law (henceforth, MBL) who also works at Treyarch, but I can't remember if he's on Spidey.

And another friend and co-worker's of Mark. Who shall remain Nameless. (Unless Mark hops in an helps me out here.)


Mark had played a couple of these new fangled games. I had, too. I'd pitched several to Eric and he's been very excited to play, but no actual games had come of it yet. MBL and The Nameless (both very nice guys by the way... I simply can't remember their names....) had never bumped into anything like InSpectres before. They'd played a lot of games, but all of the "Here are your six (or eight) stats, and here are your skills" variety. Look at your character sheet to decide what you're going to do."

So, Mark lays out the rules.

We all kind of got the character stuff without problem. My attitude was, "It looks simple, I'll figure it out in play."

But then Mark mentioned "The Confessional Chair" (if that's what it's called in the rules; something like that, right? I can't remember).

(For those of you who haven't played, it's like those interviews they do on the Reality shows, straight to camera, what the person thought or felt or an incident they want to comment on, looking back at past events.)

He had set it up away from the table, in a nearby corner. At the moment everything shifted. At least for me. And I certainly got the feeling it shifted for others as well. It was like, "Okay, whatever we thought we were going to do today is out the window. There's no coasting on assumptions or behaviors right now. I'm going to be doing something, but I cannot anticipate what that something might be."

[I'll add something interesting here. The pain in my buttocks and leg is gone but for a single tingle somewhere near my hip bone. BUT -- the trick is, the moment I stand up, the pain will come shooting back and keep doubled over for three minutes as I hobble to whatever my destination is, grabbing the backs of chairs for support. Weird, huh. The thing about Sciatica I've learned from the Web is, you don't baby it. You must walk and exercise to get better. In fact, my long walks are when the pain goes away the most. It's being sedentary and then moving again that really slams the pain button. So I'll keep typing out of fear of feeling that pain again.]

So, I can't say there was excitement or anticipation or glee about this newfangled convention Mark had thrown out in front of us. It wasn't like, "Giant Robots! Cool!" In fact, I'd suspect there was a little fear. (There was from me, at least.) It was like, "You mean I have to leave the group and go sit alone and put myself purposefully on the spot to come up with something good? I mean, when you're in a the group at the table just bantering, a failed joke jus slides into the other joke that gets floated. But when you say, essentially, "Okay, I'm going to the chair now, everyone be quiet, look at me, and let me give you narrative details that will now be part of our game..." it's different.

Is anyone reading this thinking performance anxiety? Is anyone thinking "Step On Up" in a room full of writers and game designers? I am! I'll return to this later.

So, now we're sort of adrift, but excited about being adrift -- because no matter what it's clearly not going to be the same damned thing as wading through the Keeper's staged series of clues as we wait, FINALLY! for the real Plot McGuffin to be revealed so we can go after the Deep Ones or whatever....

I mean, this is strange. We're going to interrupt the flow of the in-game narrative, go to the chair, speak in character as if reviewing events from the story we're making as if looking back at those events.... Even discussing events that hadn't occurred yet.

Now, I've never read the rules myself, so I have to assume Mark laid it out correctly.  But this is powerful and cool. While I know this is a technique for several theatrical improv games, I'd never seen it used in an RPG before. Even before we started play, the implication was clear: we'd be able to affect the story, add details no one had anticipated, reverse direction on where we all thought we were going, and so on...

For example, all you need to do is take the chair and say, "Of course, it's when Phil touched the doorknob that we realized aliens had been behind the whole thing," and bam... There you go....

The Characters...

Honestly, I remember only quick gestures of the characters. (I suspect InSpectres may not need more than that!)

I played a conman who got in the InSpectres business after my last ponzi scheme failed.

Eric played this kind of paranoiac weapons-nut, very earnest and very obsessed with using fanciful weapons and stuff. He was also a loser who had been fired from his job managing a Kinko's after he battled and "exorcised" a demon from a color printer.

MBL played a stage magician obsessed with real magic.

The Unnamed created this professor obsessed with all sorts of weird theories about -- well, everything. Weird, Pulp style science was his thing.

Now, I've got to address this: the minute he went down this road on the character I got all heebie-jeebie. Like, "No, that's not what this game is about! We're doing ghost busters! No Pulp Science Hollow Earth Crap!"

But two things prevented me from saying anything. First, like I said, I had arrived in a bad mood. I feared that if I opened my mouth about someone doing something "the wrong way," it would come out all wrong. (Or rather, my angry pedantic desire to "fix" the "genre" would in fact come out exactly like the pedantic, anger fueled passive aggressive exercise it really was!)

And second, The Confessional. I mean, I'd just been told that everything would be up for grabs the minute anyone took that chair. If I couldn't trust The Unnamed now, I'd be going nuts later.

The game said, "Your fellow players now have the power to change things to what you don' want, with no guidance or input from the GM. In another game, you might all slavishly sublimate your creative impulses to the coherent vision of the GM. Here, you all keep adding details of that vision, sometimes, like in the case of the chair, without any negotiation at the table.. You can either get pissy about it, or enjoy it."

I decided to enjoy it.

"You guys did play, right?"

Okay. So we make the franchise. We decide to set it LA. Burt Reynolds wants to invest his name into something to get some press. We all have to wear these bowling shirts that have Burt's picture on them. We were called Burt's Busters or something. Very funny, but -- I'll confess -- I didn't like the idea of my guy wearing a bowling shirt. It didn't match the "concept". And, once gain, I realized, "This is the game. The details are going to come fast and furious. Get used to it. Add more details yourself, smart guy. Enjoy it.

So, within minutes, my con man became the team's Straight Man. I defacto became the businessman and the one who saw that every decision Burt was making was setting us up for failure, but my guy desperately had to make it work somehow, because he was out of options.

The game itself is a blur. Here's what I remember:

Our secretary is a hot babe who saw some ghosts on a movie she was shooting. (Or something.)

No! Wait!

Okay, she shot a movie. The set was haunted. Several people died. A ghost followed her home. It kept mucking with the light in her apartment's bathroom. (Or much like that.)

We go check it out. We're using a converted ambulance. Erik's character keeps wanting to play with the siren. My guy, as the token adult, keeps saying, "No."

All sort of shit happens at her apartment. A ghost is released from the bathroom's light bulb. A series of clues unfurl from Mark. Our Professor grabs them and declares that the light bulb contained the ghosts of "electro-men from the hollow earth."

Again, I'm thinking, "Whaaaaaa....." But I'm also thinking, "That's really wonderfully bizarre. I'm ready to go there." More clues. More Confessional. More story added by everyone.

We put together/make up that the house where the babe was shooting a remake of Titanic (in the Valley, in a house -- don't ask, it'll be clear soon enough) was once owned by Nazi sympathizer who stored a bunch of light bulb containing the ghosts of the electro-men the Nazis had captured. During the shoot one of the ghosts had gotten loose (or something)... And more ghosts were there. (Was there some kind of ticking clock or big threat? I cannot recall.)

We got to the house. Film equipment is all over...

Oh, Wait! The Game Part! I Forgot...!

So, a couple of things:

First, I'm not really being facetious at all about not remember the "plot" details. Like in any good comedy, the fun was less about moving from plot point to plot point, than setting up and executing comic bits. (It would take me a bit of work to rebuild how the guys got from starting their Company in Ghost Busters as a sequence of logical plot points, but I'll never forget Rick Moranis talking to the horse, or the line about dogs sleeping with cats.)

Second, and this I think is the beauty of the game, is the whole rigamarle about rolling for success.

Unlike most games, where you roll to see if you succeed at doing something, here you roll to see if you're getting closer to the plot. So, if I succeed at....

Wait, it's late and I have pain in my ass... I'll let Dan Davenport describe it from his review at

QuoteThe rules are the essence of elegant simplicity, with the focus not on the success of individual actions, but rather on control of the story. When characters attempt an action, the players roll dice from the appropriate Skill plus any bonus dice from Talents, Cards, and the Bank, taking only the highest roll. This roll is compared to a Skill Roll Chart that indicates the degree to which the GM or the player can control the action.
The significance here is that the player has the chance to determine not just how well his character performs, but what occurs overall. Getting back to that issue of workable mysteries in an RPG, for example, if a character makes a good Academics roll to find out what kind of creature is haunting Spooky Manor, the player decides what it is his character discovers.

This takes a bit of getting used to, since it allows the players to define the reality of the story. On the other hand, it also removes a huge amount of the preparation required for this already rules-lite game – there's no need for the GM to write out a detailed plot, because the players will help create it as the game goes along.

To expand, the GM set a number of successes required to "solve" the mystery/adventure/problem. So the whole engine rests on setting up moments that will allow you to succeed in making a roll that lets you knock off another required success until you've reached the end of the story.

It's all about making up the next fun bit that drives the story toward it's conclusion.

I fucking LOVED this!

It was strange at first, because we kept asking for roles to do little thing that had nothing to do with the story (old school training) before we understood there really was no point in making a roll unless you were setting up a moment to narrative the next "truth" that drives you to the story.

So, it wasn't about "finding the next clue" the GM wanted us to find. It was about the professor saying, "Wait a minute! These are the markings of the electro-men of the hollow earth!" Bam! Mark checks off another success, and now we're closer to ending the adventure.

Once we realized (or rather, decided through the use of our successes) that the Nazis had been secretly shipping ghosts in light bulbs across the Atlantic to a Nazi sympathizer back in WWII, Eric's character commented in hardboiled tone, "Like drug running mules crossing the border with heroine stuffed condoms up their asses." I mean, I don't think we'd never have gotten to that line if we'd been making countless rolls looking for Mark's clues. In that roll-for-the-clue-game, your job is to follow the GM's lead. In InSpectres, your job is to make stuff up.

The rules are brilliant in making the die rolling process economical and impactful... you role to advance the story, and can only advance the story in action, using a skill roll.

A Climax Worth of a Movie

I won't try to tell the whole tale. I'll just say that by the time we got to the house in the valley where the "remake" of Titanic was being shot, we found a lot of naked people in the middle of a porn shoot.

They scampered away as the ghosts of the elecro-men busted loosed. A PC accidentally hit a switch that started playing a "boom, chuck, boom" porn soundtrack while we were having the big battle with ElectroMen spirits from the Hallow Earth that had been captured in light bulbs by Nazi's back in WWII. I mean, wow. Tears from my eyes.

It was a ptiched battle, the PC's freaking out and taking damge...

We got our last franchise die, which solved the mystery, when we tossed condoms filled with water at them, shatterig them with (throwing stars? I can't recall) that doused the spirits of the electro-men with water and banishing them from the earth.

The end.

Mark explained that each victory that had advanced us in the story counted as a "franchise die" that we could spend on the company or our skills or whatever. I didn't really pay attention, because Mark added he'd be vanishing from the face of the earth until Spidey 3 was done.

And that's my Actual Play of Inspectres.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christopher Kubasik

oh, jeez, I forgot to add...

The Step On Up part... I found this very interesting. Really got the sense that although there was a desire to come up with good ideas and look good in the eyes of everyone there. It wasn't just coming up with wacky stuff -- it was coming up with [igood wacky stuff. For example, solving the problem with water filled condoms from the porn shoot. It's good, it makes sense, it added onto what was already there, it was imaginative, appropriate and colorful. Wacky, yes, but wacky that grew out of what was there. Good wacky. Worthy wacky.

And good and worthy in the eyes of the other players.

That was my take, at least.

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Paul T

That sounds like it was a lot of fun! InSpectres is definitely high up on my list of games to try.

As for the Step On Up part... I kinda got the impression that you were going to write more about that. How did your initial anxiety change as the game began and went on? You've described the starting conditions (you feeling stage fright, everyone realizing they were In For Something Different, etc) and how things turned out (fun, wacky game), but not how things developed, how they got from point A to point B. So, did you get over your stage fright and feel comfortable, eventually, or was the whole thing nerve-wracking, but in a way that made everyone "perform" at their best?

Did you see a difference in yourself as well as the other players from the beginning of the game to the end? Was it hesitation slowly turning into enthuiasm, or did everyone roll from the get-go? In particular, who took the first Confessional, and how did that go?

Thanks for the write-up, and I hope your leg isn't bothering you too much. Although an excuse to go for long walks sounds like something you could a lot of mileage out of.



Christopher Kubasik

Hi Paul,

Good questions. (I think I'll needed to be prodded on these matters since I'm not sure yet what would be of interest to people.)

(By the way, we met at the last L.A. con, I believe, late at night in the lobby, during the Roach debriefing. You took some time to discuss the Roach down in the lobby. I had the red beard.)

The stage fright for me burned off really fast. I sort of have done a lot of acting and pitching in my life, and so once I realized I wasn't going to be able to do a kind of RPG thing of sort of hanging out and talking, and actually putting myself on the spot to delivery, I flipped the switch... There was the typical axiety that comes from that, but it wasn't alien anymore to an RPG experience. For me it was bringig the performance expectation to the game on purpose. Does that make sense?

It was never nerve wracking at all... and once we had our first encounter with the spirit in the woman's bathroom I think we moved along pretty fast. That's when our Pulp Science Obsessive "found" the clue wherein he dictated that we where dealing with the remaining spirits of the electro-man. When Mark moved the Franchise Marker (we used little beads instead of dice) into the Finished Plot Points marker. We "got" the game at that point... Realized it was up to us fo MAKE the mystery of the story with as much outlandish fun as possible.

So, if I made it sound like we were sweating bullets the whole time, that was an error on my part. We shifted pretty quickly from "What's this going to be like?" to "Oh, we get to do this...!"

In terms of Step On Up there was the drive to come up with the funny bit or the next cool moment. But never in competition with each other. (It is, after all, a cooperative win...) But you could get the Franchise Marker to advance the story in a bland way or a particularly entertaining way.

Also, people tried to find funny bits that didn't especially drive the story (character traits, funny routines, call-backs) in a way I hadn't seen before. Usually I'd seen these behavious in the "Look at me! Look at me!" form. In this game, it was more, "This is for the group! This is for the group!! Do you like it?"

Again, I don't want to oversell this idea of tension -- it was very subtle. The "Do you like it?" part was so subtle it might not even be true! But this was my read on it from my own experience and mapping on other social situations -- especially situations with actors and writers. It wasn't sweaty or needy.... it was just... I don't know... "I want to be worthy of this group." And unlike being in a room with professional actors or in a room of writers working to score points, no one was hiding the "Do you like it?" part.

And I'd say the guy playing the Pulp Science guy didn't have much of that. He knew what he wanted to play, what entertained him, and he just kept going with it.

Let me try this:

In the book "Overachievement," the author studies athletes and surgeons and musicians and such. And he finds that stress actually makes you perform better. If you're relaxed going into an activity, you won't perform really well.

I'd say, for me at least, the introduction of the Confessinal Chair actually worked to relieve me -- because it gave me permission to care about the stuff we were going to make up. Instead of going to ground like in the typically CoC con game where you just wait around for the GM to offer up the part of the story that really matters, we were being told, "No, no, go for it!" We weren't doding performance anxiety, we walked right into it. And that was fun.


"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Jared A. Sorensen

I just felt the need to pop my head in here to show I am listening and say, "Yes, exactly."
jared a. sorensen /

Paul T


Thanks! And no, your account didn't come across that way (i.e. sweaty and shaky) at all. I was just asking to get you to expound a little more on that.

However, I'm quite positive we've never met (for starters, I've never been to a game convention in L.A.). Perhaps in the future!

All the best,


Christopher Kubasik

Well, I'm glad I've cleared that up. There's another Paul around here somewhere...!
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Christoph Boeckle

Hi Christopher!

Loved the AP report! FWIW, this just sold the game to me.

We used to play Call of Cthulhu in a similar way, even using the Pool at the end. With this game, I really want to try it again!

Some theory nitpicking: I had the exact same feeling of Step On Up with our CoC play (of which there is an AP if you're interested). Mike Holmes went to great lengths in a private discussion as to how this was just very overt social recognition mixed with a keen interest in a wacky story. Cristal pure Narrativism.
There was no "gamy" aspect (f.ex. good management of a series of ressources to create a powerful "combo") to master and to show off to the others, it was all purely directed in the interest of the story.
In your AP, I found none of those "gamy" parts, but definitely a lot of focus on a cool wacky story.

How does that sound to you?