Sunday, November 8, 2020

Can you run a CO-OP, Shared-GM Urban Mystery Adventure that doesn't go full 'narrative gaming'? Procedures and a Play Report

There is a small but robust world of resources available for solo RPG play. One might therefore assume that resources for cooperative play with multiple players using solo tools should be just as numerous, but it ain't so - unless one sets aside just a few key contenders, or moves well beyond playing something that feels like a 'normal RPG' and into the fairly different world of narrative story games. Lately, I've been running a drop-in, episodic campaign that mashes up Blades in the Dark and On Mighty Thews. Due to various schedule constraints, I have recently needed to emphasize low-prep or even no-prep gaming. Also, as much as I love usually haunting the back side of the GM screen, I do sometimes tire of always being the GM. So, last night I pushed the envelope even further. Building on my recent success with a solo mystery adventure using On Mighty Thews, I set up a cooperative gaming session in which we combined heavy use of random tables, structured game rules, and diffuse GM authority. The result: an urban mystery/intrigue adventure with four players and no GM, real suspense and uncertainty, and a meaningful, coherent mystery that started absolutely from scratch and then took just a few hours to unravel

Some tools of the trade

In case that sounds fun to emulate, allow me to unpack all that. 

Please note that all DTRPG links below are affiliate links. 


Before I say anything else, let me say this: go check out Ironsworn if you haven't already. It's free (for the base game), and uses a modified PbtA-engine that allows solo, cooperative, or traditional GM-run gaming using one system. If Ironsworn is your jam, you can probably ignore everything else I have to say here. As it happens, however, I've never really been grabbed enough by Ironsworn to dive deeply into it. Perhaps I will at some point. For now, it seems to have more bells and whistles than I'm aiming for, but also still can benefit from some other, external resources. I am using a couple pages from Ironsworn's oracle tables in my synthesis below, but I find my own mixture of multiple but simpler resources more to my taste. 

Other than Ironsworn, what options are out there for running a cooperative game session with multiple players? For the most part, I am setting aside here the whole world of shared-authority narrative story games like Fiasco, Archipelago, Microscope, etc. There's nothing wrong with them - I've had great fun playing Fiasco and Microscope - but those games don't function in the same way or pursue the same goals that I'm after right now. One sometimes encounters the complaint that such games lead to little more than a shared creative writing exercise. If that sounds fun, go for it! 

What I want right now, however, is a way to play co-op that incorporates much of the experience of traditional RPG gaming, even traditional old-school gaming. This means principles such as: meaningful uncertainty and suspense within a coherent story, albeit one that is allowed to emerge through play; some sense of dependence on a reality 'out there,' so that the in-game reality is not simply determined by the whims or ideas of the players; and an actual chance for character death with or without player fiat, allowing for meaningful risk-taking in play. All that, but with almost no advance prep, and no GM. 

There is ample discussion of playing solo in a trad-RPG way (check these out for example, or check out the subreddit for solo roleplaying), but there is not much discussion online (that I've seen) for moving these techniques up to the level of a group playing together. Nordic Weasel Games' Blade and Lockpick can help, though I find its resolution system a bit too abstract for my tastes. No doubt there are other candidates out there; feel free to mention them in the comments. 

The shift from one to many players shouldn't be underestimated; it offers problems as well as opportunities. 'Spotlight time' becomes an issue. Reconciling different perspectives and opinions during play becomes an issue. On the other hand, one gains the power and randomness of combining different perspectives, as well. Much of that goes beyond what I'll address here, and boils down to whether the members of a group trust each other and enjoy working well together. At some basic level, however, running a group-game well without a GM is a bit more complicated than just grabbing some solo oracles, and saying 'we'll let everyone interpret the results together.' 

Here's what I did last night. The key principles were to have one facilitator (but without the dominant authority of a GM), rely very heavily on random-table input almost whenever possible, deliberately move the spotlight around when setting up the game, and then rely on a light system that allows PCs to dictate facts about the world, but without guaranteed success and with real risk - either of harm, or of further unexpected wrinkles in the plot. 


First, you might gain from reading two earlier posts of mine: one about a trial of solo procedures, the other about faction and setting design for my current drop-in campaign. We're in a vaguely steampunky fantasy metropolis evocative of Venice and Alexandria. The PCs are secret agents trying to break the power of a several vicious factions that currently dominate the city. 

Random-roll resources on which I relied heavily were:

- The Nocturnal Table. Awesomeness.
- Ironsworn: just a few Oracle tables, but they were quite helpful.
- Scarlet Heroes: quite a few of the oracles and random tables from the solo-play section. 

Scarlet Heroes and Ironsworn already offer their own complete systems. I've set aside the Ironsworn system, as already noted above. Scarlet Heroes' solo procedures include a nice system for structured urban, wilderness, or dungeon adventures, but these felt a bit too structured for me; I wanted more room for the story to grow in fits and starts, organically. So I used the random tables from those games but kept to my own On Mighty Thews / Blades in the Dark microhack for the system, chiefly because it allows for generation of new facts in play, but can make attempting such generation risky. 

The only necessary prep I did before the game was to print out the most relevant pages from the various solo tools I'll mention below, start creating my own character (a few minutes), decide that we would be investigating a recent murder, and roll up the identity of the victim using The Nocturnal Table. The unfortunate corpse had recently been a city official, a tax assessor who counted building corners to determine property taxes. That's not much prep!

Once we got started, I went through the steps below. You should note, to be fair, that while I eschewed many aspects of the traditional GM role, I kept a 'facilitator' role, since I had the random tables in front of me, and kept the group moving on track through the relevant procedures. Having a dedicated facilitator might be a minimum sine qua non for this, but I'm not sure. 

The game started. I picked one player, and asked her: "In what kind of district of the City does tonight's game mainly take place? Financial, residential, temple, docks, or mercantile.?" She chose a temple district. I rolled 4 times on the Scarlet Heroes Urban Locations table to generate a few places in the area to jog our scene-framing ideas. One was an exclusive tea-house, which became important.

We then rolled 3 times on the Ironsworn Settlement Trouble Oracle table to determine 'current events' problems affecting the neighborhood. These would be background noise that might or might not become relevant to the mystery. We went around the table explaining what each one meant in context:

- A debt comes due: the Water Cobras (a bizarre schismatic terrorist group that splintered off from the Fallen Star Cult) have just called in a massive financial debt from the Ribbonguard, the (possibly undead) enforcers who make sure the city stays loyal to its distant Priest-King. We all agreed that this was a pretty bold move. 

- Old wounds reopen: during our previous game session, the Inquisitors (good guys...most days) attacked the Fallen Star Cult right as the PCs were running an op against the Cult, as well. Apparently the feud between those two factions has reignited and is now running hot. 

- Someone is captured: one of the beetle-men of the Old Guard (they claim they are the old Queen's governor and garrison, but transformed into humanoid beetles since the conquest; most people don't believe the city could be that weird) has been caught by the Ribbonguard, and is scheduled for execution later this week. 

I quickly finished generating my own character, using player input to help me choose a weakness/disadvantage, and I informed the player whose characters I've killed the most as GM that he was in charge of adjudicating anything that might particularly affect my character (I'll just say: revenge is clearly sweet for my players). 

Now it was time to set up the mystery. I told the players who the murder victim was. I said that the victim's death was unusual enough to clearly not be random urban violence. Asking one of the players to say how the man died, I learned that he took some kind of acid spray to the center of his chest. Since there had been suspiciously little official investigation, my character (a disgraced former investigator) commissioned the rest of the party to help him crack the case. We then generated 4 possible leads - known contacts of the deceased. For each lead, I rolled on Scarlet Heroes' NPC relationship table and NPC generation table to create some individuals, and then asked the other players to offer a rumor they had heard about how that person might fit into the city's power politics. The leads generated were:

- The victim's ex-wife, rumored to be a covert supporter of the corrup noble House running the city.
- The victim's superior - the Provincial Governor. 
- The victim's subordinate, who moonlighted as a pickpocket, and had gotten in hot water after trying to steal something from the Lapis Eye faction.
- Finally, the victim's grandfather, who was a jaded physician, rumored to have once been kicked out of the Necropolis Gatekeeper's faction for doing something too heinous for even them to tolerate. 

Off to the races! We decided to hit up the district's Tea House to see whether any of our leads might be there. We rolled twice to generate the establishment's normal clientele: priests and enforcers. Wow. Apparently the place used to be a clerical retreat, but after the conquest it started attracting a lot of thirsty government thugs as well, giving the place an oddly divided air about it. 

In we went. It turned out that, of our leads, only the Provincial Governor was there with some staff bodyguards. One PC hit up a conversation with one of the bodyguards and learned that the governor had been stressed out lately and worried about some kind of exposure for recent activity. Another PC snuck into the Tea House kitchen and laced the Governor's Tea with truth serum (my current hack uses Blades in the Dark-style Flashback rolls to test whether we have access to stuff like this, and On Mighty Thews-based Lore rolls to test whether we could generate true clues/information). Once the Governor was suitably addled, my character approached and got some information out of his former boss: apparently she wasn't responsible for the killing, and she didn't know who was, either, but she clearly was up to some kind of interesting shenanigans otherwise. As we wrapped up at the Tea House, we encountered a pair of mind-controlled emissaries from the Lapis Eye coming to meet with the Governor. We tried to exchange information with them but the Eye wasn't biting. So, dead end for now down that route; another PC, however, managed to get from the Tea-Keeper the location of the murder victim's larcenous subordinate: (random roll...) a rich mausoleum. Huh. 

Two PCs headed off to said mausoleum to find "Tweedles," the pickpocket (I know, I know...). Random rolls told us this area was 'isolated' and 'hidden' and, keeping with the same theme, it's key feature was that it was used as a hideaway, which seemed pretty suspicious [I find that the sustained use of random roll tables in play tends not only to surprise, but also sometimes to just endorse or confirm the logical sense of narrative direction, but without being predictable]. At the mausoleum, the players found a group of wine-slurping beggars (rolled up from The Nocturnal Table). They got Tweedles' location within the site from the beggars, and went to find the pickpocket. Reaching Tweedles' hidey-hole, a PC snuck ahead and attempted a Lore roll, wanting to create some facts about the location. He rolled well, and was able to create the disconcerting facts that Tweedles' dead body lay inside, and that it had been hit with the same kind of acid to the chest that had taken his boss. The players then tried to check the dark mausoleum around the body for other clues. This time, they rolled poorly...triggering my failed Lore Check procedure:

When someone risks a Lore roll and fails, Roll 1d6.
1-2: Dead end. Look for clues somewhere else.
3-4: Plot twist! Roll on the Ironsworn Major Plot Twist Oracle table. 
5-6: Too much Heat! All this snooping drew the wrong sort of attention. You're attacked; roll on the Scarlet Heroes Foe/Threat tables to find out who attacks. 

They got a 6, and found themselves facing a group of 9 common thugs led by an 'Indentured Mage' with blue energy crackling about his fingertips! Uh oh. 

Fortunately the party's heavy-hitter was one of the two PCs present; the outnumbered players pulled out a win. Despite being completely randomly-generated, this hit squad now obviously was a pretty important part of the story of the mystery. The players searched the bodies for clues (requiring another Lore roll) and found evidence that the attempted killers worked for the Water Cobras - the bizarre, terrorist splinter sect off the Fallen Star Cult - and also found, in the dead mage's satchel, the severed mandible-pincers of a humanoid beetle-man. 


Not wanting to risk another Lore roll themselves, those two players came back to team up with the rest of us. With our combined resources, a Lore roll 'revealed' that one could squirt acid-spittle from the severed mandible; the severed mandible matched the profile of the prisoner being held for execution by the Ribbonguard; and a short text, etched into the chitinous mandible, said 'Debt paid in full via alternate payment.' We surmised that apparently the Ribbonguard had handed a dangerous weapon over to the Water Cobras in lieu of paying off their financial debt. Apparently the weapon came from the recent arrestee; but why, we still wondered, had someone - apparently the Water Cobras - killed Tweedles and his supervisor, a civic official? 

We decided to go interview the first victim's grandfather, a physician named Esteban, to look for more clues. Random rolls indicated that we could find this weary doctor's shop in a 'tattered marketplace.' Upon our arrival, we rolled on The Nocturnal Table to see who else might be present already in the doc's office. It was...oh good grief...a group of ten cultists donning ritual leather masks, offering any passersby a mask as well. 

Ok. That was out of left field, but in context, it sure seemed to link the good doctor to the recent cult activity! My investigator character, observing the scene, successfully made a Lore roll and announced several facts: the cultists all bore the thumb-tattoo of the Water Cobras; the doctor had one, too; and there was a giant metal cage at the back of the shop, covered by a drape but with chitinous insect-feet visible at the bottom. 

At this point, I simply offered to narrate what I thought was going on. The group agreed. The doctor, in a crazed, fanatical voice, called the whole masked crowd forward. Pulling off the drape, he revealed a mangled beetle-man in the cage. The leather masks had mosquito-like beaks...the clearly-insane doctor now called the crowd forward to slurp acidic goo out of the caged victim's wounds. "It will burn, it will burn," warned the doctor, "but it will open your minds to the Old Ones, too..."

You will be shocked to hear that we quickly agreed, as a group, to launch an immediate surprise attack on the cultists and try to free the prisoner. Unfortunately, another random roll indicated that the group of cultists were actually quite strong. We were about one or two rolls away from a near-TPK when one PC - a potions-maker - pulled off a flashback roll to explain the bomb he was carrying. Successfully sneaking around the foes, he affixed the bomb on the room's structural support column, and warned us all to RUN!!!!

My character decided not to abandon the bug-guy, but I had to burn a bunch of Stress trying to rescue him, and ended up accepting a point of ongoing Trauma in order to get him out. We all fled as the building collapsed behind us, burying what was left of the insane slurpy cultists - and our last lead.

Although the rescued, mangled prisoner could not speak, he could write. One last Lore roll closed the mystery for us, as the beetle-man reported what he'd overheard during captivity: the Ribbonguard, after capturing him, had indeed sold him to the Water Cobras to get them to renounce their financial claim. But the Water Cobras had demanded also the right to test the weapon on two public officials, without retaliation. 

What a weird mystery! But we had an answer to our starting questions, after a wild ride - and the whole thing took less than three hours. 


That was weird, but really fun. The mystery didn't even exist before we started playing, and it ended up developing organically through play until it reached a point of coherence and satisfying (if disturbing) answers. True, those answers all relied on our own interpretation of what dice rolls meant, and they required flexibility and improvisation, but the dice rolls and random tables meant we couldn't predict the final shape of things until the very end. 

I will note that using The Nocturnal Table's triple d100 table of zany urban NPCs is a real hoot for this kind of thing. Sometimes it just gives you ... beggars. Instead, you often encounter something like the bizarre mask-wearing cultists who starred in our finale. One could set TNT aside and rely entirely on the NPC-generating material in Scarlet Heroes, but combining them really provides content weird enough to throw your story in completely unexpected directions. Highly recommended.

Hopefully my various recent posts have offered enough content to explain what I'm up to, but if anyone has questions about my system hack or approach, just holler in the comments. 

Thanks for reading. Happy gaming!


  1. Over on the Solo Roleplaying subreddit, a reader pointed out that Mythic GM Emulator could handle all this just fine. I should have mentioned Mythic here as well! However, although I don't have Mythic I have read up on it a bit. It seems to be the Microsoft or Starbucks of the Solo GM emulator world - and apparently with good reason. My sense, however, which I'd love to fact-check with any well-informed readers, is that Mythic is 1) quite generic in order to suit many genres, and 2) relies mostly on questions that will generate a Yes/No/And/But answer. The tools I'm using help me push a bit deeper into specific genre territory without relying on my own imagination alone. Anyway, there are many tools out there for this stuff!

    1. And here's another (I haven't used this one, either, but it's PWYW).

    2. Yes, Mythic is deliberately genre-neutral and mostly features a fairly complicated Yes/No/And procedure. It also generates random events (based on rolling doubles when asking Yes/No) with a generic verb/noun table.

      I do feel that genre-specific random tables help supplement generic ones like Mythic, CRGE, or the Game Master's Apprentice (which is mostly what I use nowadays.)

      The best thing about Mythic is actually the framework and procedures for solo play, and the examples provided.

  2. There are the ever increasing number of D100 Dungeon products, some of which seem like they may be more to your liking.

    ^ Geek Gamers on YouTube has been a great resource on her Soloing efforts.

    ^ Me, Myself, and Die (also YouTube) is currently rocking a great solo Ironsworn adventure.

  3. Discovered this game recently PbtA game that is GMless and mystery based. One thing it really seems to be missing is random tables to help with inspiration/surprise.

    1. Thanks for pointing out that game!
      Yeah, I found that rich random tables really make this whole exercise much more enjoyable for me - they add such a genuine sense of surprise that coming up with everything together lacks.


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