Author: Jared A. Sorensen
Reviewed by: Clinton R. Nixon, 2001-08-17
Jared Sorensen is a mad genius. While some might think that an inappropriate and biased remark with which to start a review of one of Mr. Sorensen's games, Inspectres, this author feels no review of Inspectres could be complete without recognizing Mr. Sorensen's prolific brillance. In the few short years his website, Memento-Mori Theatricks, has been online, Jared Sorensen's posted upwards of 20 role-playing games, all of them free, and most of them in the last twelve months. Short, sweet, and to the point, these games hit like a right cross on the chin - quick and powerful.
Inspectres is, in my opinion, one of the strongest of these games. Half Ghostbusters, and half startup.com, Inspectres has the characters as members of a franchise of Inspectres.com, a "paranormal investigation and elimination service based in California and dedicated to safeguarding the human race from extra-dimensional hazards and supernatural manifestations." The juxtaposition of the mundanity of running a startup company married to the extra-normal weirdness of hauntings, vampires, and possessed pets works well to throw both of them into stark relief, and luckily, Sorensen's mechanics support these twin sides to every Inspectres story.
Inspectres uses a more modern idea in RPGs: the creation of the party's resources before character creation. The players get together with the game master to design their franchise, the first step being deciding on the age and size of your franchise. Young companies have little money and resources, but the older the company, the more money characters have to bring in each session to keep it running. After deciding, the resources of the franchise, measured in dice, are put into four areas: the Gym Membership Card, Credit Card, Library Card, and Paid Time Off (PTO). These four areas are married to the four character statistics (Athletics, Technology, Academics, and Contacts), and represent the maximum number of dice a player can draw on in that category during a session.
After creating the franchise, characters are made quickly by allocating points in the four forementioned categories. This sketchy character creation fits the game in a few ways:
Inspectres uses a very structured play template to guide games towards its premise. All sessions of Inspectres should run with the same steps:
Our group used the job interview format, asking the potential employee all sorts of questions, from his educational background to how much he could carry. The interview cemented the group together and fleshed out personalities well, with the academically minded character immediately taking a lead role, the technically minded character fiddling with things and asking pointed questions, and my character, well, being a half-wit. (I was fortunate enough to play an ex-49ers half-back that blew out his knee early in his first football season. He could carry the quantum lactator, and wasn't really afraid to face down demons, but that was about it.) We all established tics and quirks during this interview, using the office environment to our advantage. While in retrospect it seems simple and not important, my character asking the prospective hire if he wanted half of my sandwich as I pulled it out of the refrigerator really brought him to life for me. I was the sort of guy who wasn't too bright, but would give you half of his sandwich.
Next in the list is the preliminary training/PTO allocation. This part is meant to be quick and easy, with each player choosing one of the "cards" the franchise has (explained in Team Creation above), and giving a sentence or two about how his character's spent the last week or two. To be honest, this order seemed a bit skewed, and I'd probably put this first just to get it out of the way. It's fun, and helps in characterization, but can be a bit jarring, jumping from the interview to the past, then back to the client interview. Jared actually ran our game, and put this first there.
The meat of the scenario comes up next, though, beginning with a client interview. Whether by phone, by mail, or in person, this lets the players and characters know what's up for the adventure. I found that the characterization of the client was just as interesting - and helpful - as the details of their problem. in Inspectres, you're not just dealing with the super-natural: you've got to figure out how to deal with hysterical house-wifes, frustrated business-men, know-it-all conspiracy theorists, or whoever the client of the week might be. (In addition, you've got to set your terms early on: pro bono exorcisms for Grandma doesn't keep the stock price up.)
The research/investigation phase and action phase are relatively self-explanatory. The characters find out what the problem is and deal with it. The system really shines here, though. For resolution, Sorensen's used a simple system where the player rolls a number of dice based on his ability in the area (1-5 dice), and any dice he might use from his card. Taking the highest number rolled, the degree of success is determined. In the rules on his website, Sorensen merely states the degrees of success (1-3 being failure, 4-6 being success on a d6), but in actual play, the degree of success determined the amount of Directorial power exercised by the player. I found this to work extremely well, and recommend it be used in Inspectres instead of the more vanilla written rules. With this system, a player rolling a 4 would succeed, with actual outcome and circumstances determined by the GM, while a player rolling a 6 would succeed, with the circumstances coming solely from his depiction of the scene.
The other thing I found lacking in the system was any real ability to work as a group. As the resolution system is light, and works better for scene-based resolution instead of more traditional round-based resolution, the ability for characters to work together is tantamount. (My personal recommendation is to crib from other games like Over the Edge. In a scene where everyone can work together [tackling a rampaging mastiff possessed by Samhain], let the players add their dice pools, subtracting one per person involved; in a scene where too many people actually hurt one's ability to perform [five people cramped around a bomb trying to defuse it], use the highest dice pool, and still subtract one die per person involved.)
Sorensen also includes an interesting mechanic for stress. Instead of the traditional sanity meters found in supernatural games like Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, the player has to roll whenever the supernatural might stress him out. The player rolls between one and three dice depending on how stressful the situation is, and takes the lowest result. Low results give the character Stress, taking a die from all of his actions until he takes PTO, while a 6 can give the player Cool - the ability to deal with Stress better.
After the action's done, the characters get paid, which is a nice sister idea to the normal idea of experience for adventures in most role-playing games. The characters need to make enough money (paid in dice) to keep their business afloat, and can use extra dice to build up their business. Sorensen does make a slight nod to normal experience by letting the characters roll (in 'Enhanced Training') to increase their statistics, but it's a minor part of the system, and overshadowed by the far superior method of investing income in your franchise.
So far, Inspectres sounds cool, and the system supports its ideas, but it's nothing that couldn't be done with The Window, or Fudge, or PERP, or some other lightweight generic rule set. Jared Sorensen outshines all these, though, and ties the system together with 'The Confessional,' an opportunity each player has once per game to break the fourth wall and talk about an upcoming scene. At the beginning of a scene, any player can give an in-character confessional about what is about to happen, sharing their thoughts and talking about the other characters, much like cut-scenes in reality television shows. (This technique reminds me most of Cops.)
During the confessional, you can assign a personality descriptor, positive or negative, to any other character by talking about them. This descriptor can later be used for a bonus die in any situation applying to it, but its real strength is the Directorial power the player has over the upcoming scene. In our game, my character was poised with the 'quantum lactator,' an anti-spook device we made up on the fly, ready to spray down the inside of some old lady's greenhouse which had - we thought - a demon in it. Another player jumped in with a confessional, saying, "I should have known he's not very good with machinery. I partially blame myself for not teaching him, but ... well, we never thought anything like that would happen." Not knowing what the scene would hold, the player set it up without GM intervention so that my character would use the lactator wrong, throwing a zany loop in our plans. (My character ended up soaking the whole place in a spectral milkshake.) This confessional technique is unique to Inspectres, and is its strength. The game would not be nearly the same without it.
Inspectres is a fine idea, matched with a damn fine system for running it. Much of the Directorial power that can be used in Inspectres is not alluded to in the rules, and that's a shame. I understand Jared Sorensen is working on a new version of it, and from the playtest we had, it can only get better. With a bit more explicit Directorial power, I'd have to say Inspectres could be one of my favorite games, and a real contender to bring online independent games to a bigger audience.