Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Screen – Part 15: My GM Bucket List

Games I have always wanted to run but, for various reasons, haven’t:

  • A Western (tick that off the list)
  • Pulp Adventure (Not to my satisfaction and sure to be a post in itself)
  • A Con/Hustle type game.

The third on this list has been swimming around in my head of late. A lot of this desire can be blamed on my watching Leverage and Hu$tle and thinking ‘Damn! That’s cool, what if I ran this as a game!’ Which is always the first thing that occurs to me whenever I’m watching something awesome–

There was a brief moment, once, when I considered running a musical-style game after watching that episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I thought better of it though before my players could lynch me or, even worse, try singing.

–then the headache of trying to marry two different mediums is the last thing that occurs before I scream ‘Fuck this sh* ooh scotch!’

See, one of the problem is the structure of television versus the participatory nature of role-play. One has an audience spending their time in front of the show and HOPING/EXPECTING/WANTING to be fooled. The other has an audience checking under their pillows for traps every night.

A second problem is that the revealed narrative that makes up role-play means that players put their cards on table (some games it is, in fact, cards.  In this scenario it is, but that’s later) and even though the characters they’re playing may not have a clue, the player is more than aware of what’s going on. Sometimes they have to feign ignorance. Sometimes they invent convulted reasons why they shouldn’t.

Let’s use an example. Oceans 11 (The remake). Spoiler warning by the way:

The abridged version has us follow the creation of a team of thieves, who undertake reconaissance of three casinos who share a vault filled with $150 million, with the intention of robbing it. The grouping/convincing of team players, the intelligence fact-finding of the casinos, the theft of the “Pinch Device” to switch off the alarms, the break-in itself are typical roleplay fare that can be duplicated.

The problem arises in that the robbery involves the use a mock-up of the vault (otherwise thought of as a training ground) to broadcast a fake robbery/shootout, fake SWAT equipment, a bribed thug and a player who, for all intents and purposes to the audience, has gone rogue from the group but was working with them all along.

Imagine, if you will, being the GM of a group who have just told you the reason they thwarted your cunning plan is due to a complex, risky, and expensive idea – that they’d already done in the past without your knowledge – for why their actions go off without a hitch. You’d sooner choke on 4-sided dice for a year before letting players get away with that shit.

The flip side though is that you can have them do all the prep-work for this in-game and your con becomes just like every other role-play session you’ve run. Except longer and likely duller…

The element of the Con Narrative is ‘The Reversal’, where it looks like the con-artists have been outscammed or problems have arisen, then turns out that they were soooo smart that they anticpated it all along and pull a counterscam that’s been building up unseen by the audience. That’s the part we’re there to see. We’re expecting it to happen but we don’t know how.

In role-play, you expect it to happen and then you get to see the nuts and bolts of how it happens in linear progression so no surprise for you or your players. But could you, in fact, pull a Reversal that will surprise your audience in role-play? Let’s break it down:

  • The first thing to be aware of is that your audience aren’t just the players, it’s you as well. Granted, the mechanic I’m about to outline could be limited to your players but I believe that if you’re crazy enough to run a con-based role-play, you’re crazy enough to want to be fooled by your players.
  • The second thing to be aware of is that your players have to be imaginative and resourceful and take pleasure in the doing of such things, not just be there to roll some dice to win at stuff. That’s covered in earlier installments of Behind The Screen so let’s assume that your players like the cut of your jib.  (My advice; players who run games as well)
  • The third thing is that this mechanic would work for self-contained one-night games. I don’t think it would be as effective for cons split over multiple nights though. There aren’t any con-based TV shows that require you to tune in for the latest installment and if there are, I can’t think of any.*

Here’s the idea:  Get a deck of playing cards, count out as many cards as you have people at your table, including yourself. Add 3 cards on top of that number. For example: If you and your players equal 4 people, deal 7 cards.

One of these cards is a Joker. If you have a lot of players (8 or more) or a very intricate game, use 2 Jokers.

Deal these cards face-down, one card each and include yourself. The rest of the cards are placed aside, also face-down. You and your players are then allowed to look at your cards, but not allowed to show anyone else. A good poker face is key for this mechanic to work well.

The person or persons with the Joker card have the ability to retroactively add details or actions to the story. They can use this card at any time, or not at all if it’s not necessary. It’s good for one time per adventure and it has to be conceivable within the actions that have taken place.

For example: The player could say that he/she slipped a listening device onto the mark and became aware that the jig was up, giving him/her a chance to prepare a plan. It wouldn’t allow you to fly to Paris, follow the mark, listen in on his conversations and return in one night. Particularly if the character is flat broke (typically how con artists begin such endeavours).

They have to be feasible actions cause the GM still has the ability to veto it if the rewrite doesn’t make sense or isn’t good enough.

If the GM gets the card, then he can apply a retroactive action to the NPC. You might think that it’s a waste as the GM could just do this anyway but one of the challenges of running a con-game is keeping the details straight so your players can plan and prepare. Also it’s less fun if you keep shifting the goal posts without this mechanic.  Finally, part of demonstrating how sooooo smart your characters are is how they react to complications on the fly.

If nobody gets the cards, then its down to who has the better plan between GM and player. No retroactive actions for anyone. The joy of this is not knowing whether a Joker made it to anyone’s hands until it’s played out or until the game is finished.

If your players are inventive then there’ll be some amazing stories about how they escape certain doom. Or at least they’ll be funny.

For consideration or rejection, as is anything in these articles. Any ideas for improvement are welcomed in the comments.

 *Leverage’s Finale was broken into two parts but each involved a self-contained con with beginning, resolution and conclusion. So, yes, the story can carry from game to game, but not, so much, the con.

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