Warning Label:I’m reviewing the KapCon games I played in some detail. There will be spoilers that make it impossible to play the game, and I will be naming names of people I played with and things I both liked and disliked. If you think you’ll be offended, I suggest you stop reading now and go hug a Koala.
I signed up to Precinct ’77 – Battle Royale (S02E12) because last year’s Precinct ’77 game got good buzz, and I enjoyed the setting stuff in the Mini-6 book when I read it at the time it came out. I had in mind some kind of pretty light-hearted action-comedy-investigation, a Magnum PI or a Remington Steele; maybe even dialled up a little higher to an A-Team. 6 seconds into reading my character sheet Sledgehammer seemed like a perfect fit.
60 seconds into my character sheet I realized I was onto page 4 or so of text, with a pre-configured character list out of a Russian novel. Well, I thought, it was billed as episode 12 of the second season – a bit of prehistory wasn’t unreasonable. I tried to get to grips with the names, but I failed miserably as the game got under way…
Murder, is there anything worse? A body washed up against a pier, pulled out by some wharfies. a young Asian woman murdered and dumped like so much garbage. Sledgehammer never had it so tough, by which I mean, he never really ever had a stone cold killing. I’m not really sure Magnum PI did either and I know Remington Steele didn’t, which means that I’m on the periphery of something a little darker and more serious than I’d thought. My partner, Lucy as Detective Bayder, shows the “T” for time-out and mouths that she has no concept of what to do or even what the possibilities are. Well, The Wire it ain’t, but this is a crime scene, so I begin investigating it
“Mash, this is not a police procedural.”
But, as Dale helpfully points out, this is the guy writing his masters thesis on detective fiction. I dream about the stuff, and so this was basically just like chucking out some catnip. I snapped the hell out of it and Marcus cut across to Mr Elvy and Ms Harper. In this game Dale’s a big black guy and Ruth’s two days from retirement.
Dale is what you’d call a veteran, and he knows the real genre tropes. He screams out in his super-tooled auto and gets the swaggering underway, until it’s time to go back to the docks. With investigation ruled out by the GM as unnecessary, and Dale’s blackalicious lead to follow, I make my move and canvas the area for witnesses using a polaroid of the dead woman.
Marcus takes some pity on me because clearly I haven’t got a clue, and throws me a bone, someone to haul in for questioning and at least get the fuck out of the area where crime could legitimately be investigated.
Meanwhile, Ruth’s nearly ex-detective goes for a donut.
If you can’t spot the problem by now, then turn to the end of the post, check the solution and come back. I’ll wait.
It was, I think, the classic case of the group just not getting it (aside from Dale), and the GM not having a railroad tucked away in his back pocket to make sure that didn’t matter. About 2 hours into the game the wheels finally just fell off entirely with Marcus’ energy giving out and Dale heroically ploughing on by himself toward getting the bad guy.
I’m still not too sure I know who was killed or why. Not in any way that means a damned thing anyway.
The obvious thing is then – what about next time? Marcus is bound to run one of these things again – I can definitely see that in the right group this setup would be just bitchin’. And man, I’d love to be in that group.
From the game-writing perspective, it’s hard not to advise against a full-mechanics sheet plus 3 pages of text. While it gives that in media res feeling, it also feels more like a limitation than an empowerment. Hard-sell a situation in progress in the player brief, and leave them to make up the minor NPCs that are going to be snitches and tough guy contacts.
From the perspective of sitting at the table, I almost wonder whether we spent too much time trying to work around limitations of genre understanding. When I was on the investigative track the options were to try and get it sorted from within the fiction – basically what Dale was doing, or to make a player-level signal outside of the fiction – basically what Marcus did. Once you’re outside of the fiction, while it’s like giving a line reading to an actor, you might as well go whole-hog on that. I can see though, some potential problems with that as a general position, because it feels like deprotagonisation. I’d have happily gone where Marcus and Dale pointed me because I trust them, but that is not the general case.
The third way is to roll with the missed genre cues and change-up. This also has big problems, because it changes the fundamental nature of the game, and so is incredibly difficult to do on the fly.
One way or another, I felt like this game really didn’t work for anyone at the table, which is a difficult way to start off the con.
And for everyone scrolling down to the bottom to get the answer… the problem is everyone was on a different page, and most of those different pages weren’t page 1 of something.