Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

[Blotter] a storytelling game about pulp crime fiction from the 30s and 40s

Started by Brendan Day, February 21, 2010, 09:08:00 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Brendan Day

I've been working on a game for a few months, and I'd love to get some feedback on it.  I ran the first playtest last weekend, and I'll write that up in the AP forum soon.  Before I do that, I'll post a brief summary here.


Blotter is a card-based storytelling game inspired by film noir and pulp crime fiction from the 30s and 40s.  The game is played in a single session lasting no more than a few hours, during which the players narrate the events leading up to a murder.  The identity of the killer and the victim aren't established until the end of the game, so the players do not investigate an existing crime so much as they create the story behind a crime scene.

Here is what Lee Horsley has to say about hard-boiled protagonists:

"We are often brought close to the mind of a protagonist whose position vis a vis other characters is not fixed; we see treacherous confusions of his role and the movement of the protagonist from one role to another. The victim might, for example, become the aggressor; the hunter might turn into the hunted or vice versa; the investigator might double as either the victim or the perpetrator. Whereas the traditional mystery story, with its stable triangle of detective, victim and murderer, is reasonably certain to have the detective as the protagonist, much of the crime fiction of this period deliberately violates this convention. Victim, criminal and investigator can all act as protagonists. An exploration of guilt is fundamental, and there can be no clear distinction between guilt and innocence."

Blotter is a game about this exploration of guilt.  It maintains its theme and setting by using a custom-made deck containing black and white illustrations of characters and locations.  Each card has one of six named characters on the front (Frank, Molly, Sidney, etc.), and one of ten named locations on the back (Nightclub, Automobile, Factory, etc.).  The cards also have text on the upper and lower borders describing relationships, actions, emotions, etc., with the same text occurring on both sides.  During the game, these cards are placed next to each other on the table, mapping out the narrative and the relationships between characters.

At the start of the game, every player selects one of the named characters as a suspect, but they do not advocate for this character in the traditional sense, nor do they have unique authority over that person's actions, motivations, or history.  Instead, the players use their narration to explain why their suspects want to kill each other.  During each round two players are selected to place cards on the board and incorporate them into the story, while the other players vote to determine which card is most essential to the story.  The winning card remains on the board and earns the player a point.  The losing card is withdrawn; the events associated with it still occurred, but because the card was removed from the board, it is more or less a "red herring".  The losing player draws a replacement card as consolation, while the winning player is left with one less card.

At the end of the game, the players use the points they earned to cast votes, determining the identity of the killer and the victim.  If a player votes for their own suspect as a killer, they must use their remaining votes to nominate other suspects as victims.  The suspects with the most votes are paired up as killer and victim, and their players narrate the actual crime.

Below is a summary of the cards used in play.

Event Cards

The event deck contains sixty cards.  In addition to the six named characters and ten named locations, there are thirty unique relationships written on the upper or lower borders of the cards, and these are distributed in such a way that every potential pairing of killer and victim shares four relationships.  This is an attempt to remove bias from the deck.  For example, in a six player game that uses all the cards, the character of Frank will have four relationships in common with each of the other five characters.

When an event card is played, it should be accompanied by 30 to 60 seconds of narration.  This can be simple exposition or a complete scene.  The narration doesn't have to involve a conflict, although that's the easiest way to earn points and create a motive for murder.

Challenge Cards

The game uses a smaller deck of challenge cards to determine which players compete in each round.  These cards list every potential pairing of characters, and at the start of each round a challenge card is drawn, determining which players narrate.  For example, in a four person game, the challenge deck has only six cards, and the group will go through it twice, so that each player contributes six scenes and there are story ends after twelve rounds.

Just as the event cards attempt to remove bias by evenly matching the suspects, the challenge decks removes bias by evenly matching the players.

Judgment Cards

In each round, the players who did not narrate vote to determine which narration wins, using normal playing cards which are referred to as judgment cards below, to avoid confusing them with event or challenge cards.  Each player has a hand of four judgment cards, and when it is their turn to vote they give one of these to each narrator.  The narrators add the ranks and the highest score wins a point.  The losing player removes their event card from the board and draws a replacement, as noted above.  In the event of a tie, both narrators win a point, and neither event card is removed from play.

After voting, the judges draw two judgment cards to replace those played.

End Game

At the end of the game, the players draw a new hand of judgment cards, drawing one for each point earned during play.  They use these to vote for the killer and victim, with a black suit representing a vote for the killer, while a red suit representing a vote for the victim.  A player may give only one card to each suspect, and it cannot be the same color as the card assigned to their own suspect.

Each player adds the cards received by color, and the suspect with the highest black score kills the suspect with the highest red score.  Tho two players with the highest scores narrate how the murder occurred, and then the remaining players narrate the aftermath, which determines whether the killer got away with murder or was caught.


The players are expected to act as both competitors and referees.  This is a problem in any game where players share equal control over all elements of the narrative.  After all, it's no fun narrating Frank's battle with alcoholism if I can simply announce that he has a rare allergy, which causes him to pass out any time he comes within 10 feet of an open bottle.  Without a gamemaster to act as an impartial judge, there is no tension.  I hope that this is less of an issue in Blotter, because if Frank is my character, I want to get him into trouble, not help him solve problems or achieve goals.  To "win" in a competitive sense, I need to convince other players to help me position Frank as a potential killer or victim.  To use a pulp metaphor, murder is a long slow dance, and in this game everyone is looking for a partner.


Blotter doesn't use a gamemaster, so when things start to go wrong, there is no one there with the unique authority to step in and fix problems.

The players have absolute narrative control when it is their turn to play an event card.  The judges can respond to inappropriate narration by voting the event card off the board and making it a red herring, but the event itself still occurred.  Should there be some other mechanism for dealing with inappropriate narration?  If the rest of the group objects to your narration, should you be required to change it?

The players have no unique authority over their suspects, so they have no power to make the character act consistently.  There's nothing to stop characters from doing crazy things that are subsequently tagged as "red herrings" and swept under the rug.  A player won't win any points that way, but is that enough of an incentive?

It isn't clear whether event cards are meant to represent complete scenes, or whether they can be chained together across more than one round to create an ongoing scene.

It's in the players' best interest to escalate the tension between the suspects, and players are likely to earn points by doing that, but the game does nothing else to force conflict.

The end game might not always provide a satisfying resolution to the story.  On the other hand, it does provide an element of surprise, because players might be required to pair up a killer and victim who weren't aligned with each other in play.  For example, Oscar might emerge as the strongest killer and Rita as the strongest victim, but Oscar might not have threatened Rita at any point during play.


Hi, this seems similar in some ways (competitive storytelling) to an idea I had for a gamist type of game for practicing GM techniques.

I think the potential problem you already noted of other players simply 'voting away' another players narative could be very upsetting.   Maybe this could help - one idea I was tossing around was other players throwing complications at the player whose turn it was, that they had to incorporate into their narrative.  But the narrative still stands.  There is a challenge there in that the player has to overcome adversity created by other players, which might add more tension to the game than 'nah, we vote red herring.  next!'

In my game they were meta-game complications because the stories each player was telling was actually a story about a group of people roleplaying.  But with your game they could be story complications of some sort.  example:  maybe by playing a combination of an event card and a character card that the narrating player then had to incorporate into her narrative. 


The idea of injecting your character into another players narrative could be used tactically.  But you have to use some form of currency (spend cards?) to do it.

Brendan Day

Thanks for the feedback.  It would be interesting to let players add constraints during narration, but I wouldn't want the judges to add constraints, given that this would bias their vote.  As I see it, a player could add one constraint during a challenge, by placing an event next to their opponent's card.  This card is removed at the end of the round, and the player doesn't draw a replacement, so if you play a constraint you'll have one less card to choose from when it's your turn to narrate.  Does that give players enough incentive for using constraints?

I'm less worried about the issue of "voting away" narration, because it's the card that is removed from play, not the story associated with it.  When players lose the judgment phase, the event still occurs, but players are less likely to remember it, because it isn't represented on the map.  Even if they do remember it, they have less of an incentive to use it, because they can't play a card next to it and win points for incorporating it into their narrative.

That said, I don't want to frame the judgment rules in completely negative terms.  The judges vote to advance the plot and build the story map, and if a player loses the vote, they still get to draw a new event card as consolation.  I don't want to focus so much on red herrings that this just feels like an opportunity to penalize someone.


This seems somewhat similar to "How to Host a Murder." I played this once when I was a kid...once. (what movie is that from? heh heh heh) The main difference is that in your game, you do the "24 hours earlier" spiel that leads to the crime wheras HtHaM is after the crime (or just before the crime and the subsequent deduction about who the killer is).

Anyway, I see a few issues with judging. First, the game is going to require at least 5 people to play since 4 people will probably produce ties in the judging (there will be the opportunity for ties in any even-player game). Second, there's the problem of favoritism rearing its ugly head.

I'm also interested in how many turns there are in any given game, if it's fixed or if it's dynamic. If the turns are fixed, you could consider them to be chapters in a book or scenes in a movie. Players could determine how many turns there would be beforehand or you could have hard and fast rules such as: each player has 10 turns in which to present their side of the story.

Now an exploration of guilt assumes that there is guilt to be explored in the first place. You mention that all the characters have a motive to murder one of the other characters, but the fact that you don't have any vested interest in the characters themselves makes this a difficult proposition. For instance, it isn't the player in control of his chosen character, it is, in actuality, everyone else who is controlling him. This being done by the judgment of the other players "Nah, your story is weak, I like the other better."

If we look at a Sherlock Holmes story, is it Watson or Moriarti that controls whether Holmes accomplishes his narrative role?

The premise behind your game is interesting, however, I think the lack of interest or advocacy on behalf of your character is what's missing.

Let me ask a few questions:
What makes players WANT to win? To get the chance to narrate his character killing or being killed by another?
Is this enough to keep players coming back to play again?
Why is it that you have removed advocacy for a character from the game? I believe it's more enjoyable if you have a vested interest in how the character interacts in the story.
In actuality, the removal of the story behind the card is also a part of the game. The players will know that whatever story that's associated with the losing card means nothing and therefore will promptly forget it.

If you've seen a "crime board" (where an investigator has pictures and clues pertaining to a crime connected via lines...I forget the name of the actual tool) I think this might be an interesting tool to use in your game where all the cards remain on the board, but lines are only drawn to the "winning" cards.

I think there was a TV show that I watched where you saw someone at a trial after a crime had been committed and then the crime was tracked back to determine whether it was an accident or not. At the end of the show, the actual event that lead to the trial was revealed. I forget the name of the show, but it was a good one (and canceled to boot...).


Over in the Actual Play forum, I found this thread which talks about compromises in games aka debates, determining the outcome through group participation.

It's a good read though a little ranty. This is actually what comes to mind when reading your general rules concerning this game.

Brendan Day

Quote from: Excalibur on March 03, 2010, 06:43:44 PM
Now an exploration of guilt assumes that there is guilt to be explored in the first place. You mention that all the characters have a motive to murder one of the other characters, but the fact that you don't have any vested interest in the characters themselves makes this a difficult proposition.

That's a good point.  If anything, the game is an exploration of motive, not guilt.  It's probably too early for me to say even that, since I've only observed one playtest.  All I know for certain is that game doesn't involve deduction or puzzle-solving.  I don't want the players to approach the story as a mystery, as though they were detectives trying to solve a crime.

Quote from: Excalibur on March 03, 2010, 06:43:44 PM
What makes players WANT to win? To get the chance to narrate his character killing or being killed by another?
Is this enough to keep players coming back to play again?
Why is it that you have removed advocacy for a character from the game? I believe it's more enjoyable if you have a vested interest in how the character interacts in the story.

I definitely want the players to have an interest in how the characters interact with the story.  They want their suspects to be standing in the spotlight when the curtain falls.  After the first playtest I considering making the game feel more competitive, but simply telling the players to compete won't necessarily make them want to win.  Until they engage with their suspects, they won't care where the spotlight falls.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so worried about character advocacy.  It's just a question of how I frame it.  If Molly is my suspect, I don't represent her interests in the story or take her side in the conflicts, but I'm still advocating for her as a presence in the story.  I want her to either kill someone or die trying.  I could make her a genuinely sympathetic figure who would never harm anyone, but then I REALLY want her to die, because that's my only way to win.  But how do I engage with this character, when I want her to come to such a bad end?  How do I advocate for her when I don't have unique authority over her actions?

Quote from: Excalibur on March 03, 2010, 06:43:44 PM
I'm also interested in how many turns there are in any given game, if it's fixed or if it's dynamic. If the turns are fixed, you could consider them to be chapters in a book or scenes in a movie. Players could determine how many turns there would be beforehand or you could have hard and fast rules such as: each player has 10 turns in which to present their side of the story.

The number of turns is indeed fixed, and the challenge cards determine which players narrate each turn.  If there are four players, the challenge deck will contain only six cards.  If the group runs through this deck twice, the game will last for 12 turns, and each player will have six opportunities to narrate.  Each player will be paired with every other player twice.


How about this for competitiveness.

Each player has a certain number of plot points that are spent on another player's story point (they cannot vote for their own story). You can make the vote blind or out in the open. I think if it's blind, then that would make things more interesting.

How to do this? Here's a shot. I'm going to use poker chips since everyone is pretty familiar with them.

Each player is given 12 poker chips.
Everyone has the same color of poker chips.
In the center of the table are a 2 hats or cups that are opaque (you cannot see inside), one for each person in the contest.
Each player presents his or her story element.
Then everybody closes their eyes.
Each person in turn (except the two contenders) opens his or her eyes and drops a chip into the hat of their choice. They then close their eyes again after tapping the next person on the shoulder.
Once one of the contenders is tapped on the shoulder, they announce: "voting is over"
Both contestants take their hats and count the chips inside.
These chips are placed back into the bank.
Once everyone has spent all of their chips, the story unfolds and the winners get their chance to kill or be killed.

This way, there is no "Jim voted for Mary every time!" because technically, nobody knows who voted for whom except for the voters.

You could also accomplish this with a blind ballot (again using poker chips).

Each player is a different color chip.
Everyone gets 12 chips of every body else's color. So if I'm green, you're blue, Jim is red, and Frank is black. I would get 6 blue, 6 red, and 6 black chips, you would get 6 green, 6 red, and 6 black chips (etc.).
Since nobody has their color chip, they cannot vote for themselves. I would also state that you cannot vote for your current opponent (the two contenders do not vote).
Everyone keeps their stacks out of view of everyone else.
When it's time to vote, a hat, cup, or bowl that is opaque is passed around. Each player palms the chip of the person they want to vote for and places it in the hat in such a way that the chip cannot be seen.
Once the hat reaches the contenders, the contents of the hat are turned over and the chips tallied.

Again, there's no "Frank voted for Mary every time!" because only the voter knows who he voted for.

As each turn concludes, the winning card is placed on the "crime board," the losing card is as well, but not in the main event timeline.

How can a player present their vested interest in the character?

Well, how about if each contender did have their own color and their "opponent's". They could choose to add more of their color over their opponent's, but they had to put in at least 1 of each. Since there are only 6 rounds they can add story elements, 12 chips should be enough to cover that, if they plan well.

Just some ideas that popped into mind.

Brendan Day

I'll need to consider bidding versus voting.  As far as secrecy is concerned, the vote is already hidden, because the judges play their cards face down.  The narrator receives a card from each judge and then shuffles them together, to the extent that it is possible to shuffle two cards!  If I receive an three and a jack, I don't know for certain which of the judges gave me each card.  I'll probably have my suspicions, but I won't know for sure.

Using this same example, if my opponent plays a ten and a four, it's possible that whoever gave me the three also gave my opponent the four.  The low score doesn't hurt quite as much.  What would hurt is to play my four against a pair of queens.  That means that at least one judge put me nine points behind my opponent.

I do like the idea of keeping the losing event card on the map somehow, but simply making it a dead end.  Other players don't earn points by linking to it, but they won't forget about it entirely.   We could just put the losing card beneath the winning card, offset enough to show the relationship and character (or location) written on the borders.