Today’s guest post comes from Jonathan McFarland. He’s contributed to all of the Chill 3rd Edition products in one way or another. Jonathan spends his days as a police detective investigating crime and his nights designing and writing for roleplaying game publishers like Onyx Path and Growling Door. He used to believe in ghosts and still believes in people.
Transcript from Huntsville “Dancing Man” Case
Tanishia: What did you see?
Monty: *long pause* I don’t know. *long pause* It was big. He was big.
M: I’m not sure it was a he. It was big and moved really fast.
T: Yeah, um, you told me you heard Jesse scream. When you walked in, what was the first thing that happened.
M: I saw it drop her to the ground and then it, ah, turned around. It turned around when I hollered. *cough* I feel like I must be crazy.
T: No matter what you saw, I’d like to know. Even if it you don’t know if it was real, I just want to hear what happened.
M: *sighs* Okay, but it got weird fast…
During the initial design process for Chill 3rd Edition, we determined that a narrow list of skills related to the characters’ roles as envoys made for better gameplay than the exhaustive list of tangential skills from the previous additions (sorry to any fans of Semaphore and Farming). We landed on nine Skills, and while two dealt with physical conflict (CQC and Ranged Weapons), three specifically described how the envoys uncover leads and clues during a case. One of those Skills, Interview, holds special significance for me. The bulk of my work as a criminal investigator revolves around interviewing people, and I believe the quiet drama of an interview can be a powerful part of a Chill session.
Most experienced roleplayers and Chill Masters are familiar with using combat scenes to create an explosive climax or showcase a player character’s special talents or powers. In much the same way, a prepared Chill Master can set the stage for memorable game moments during an interview using some of these techniques:
Know the NPC: If you’ve had the time to plan the case thoroughly, you should know the NPC’s background, personality, and what role the NPC plays within the narrative. Even if you make up a non-player character on the fly (to serve a twist in the story or a novel idea from a player, for example), take a moment to note the NPC’s name, what they want most, what they have to lose, and what they have to gain.
Mirror your player: If the player starts describing her character’s intent or demeanor when interacting with the NPC to be interviewed, respond in kind with third-person information about the NPCs appearance, mannerisms, tone of voice, etc. If the player starts asking questions in character, slide into that improvisational moment and take on the voice (figuratively and possibly literally) of the NPC.
Create details: Describe how the NPC’s eyes float to the character’s waistband and ankles searching out a concealed weapon, or the way an NPC reflexively touches the mobile phone in her pocket hoping for a text from her son. Tell the player about how the victim’s brother fidgets with the hem of his shirt every time they ask about the victim’s girlfriend. Chill presents relatively simple rules for determining what kind of clues get presented to the player through Information checks, but the details create the world of the game and help the players experience the game as a story.
Let the dice create moments: In a combat scene you don’t expect the player to be capable of fighting like their character, and the same goes for an interview. If the player rolls a Colossal success for the Interview check, showcase the envoy’s skill even if the player doesn’t provide ideas about what their success means for the interview. Describe how the character confronts the subject about a lie, prompting the interviewee to reveal valuable information. If a player rolls a High or Colossal success with a less important NPC, consider shifting an Esoteric or Interest clue from another Information check elsewhere in the case in order to reward the success (provided doing so does not unravel or obstruct the internal logic of the mystery).
Let the player create moments: Some players want to interpret the check results after a roll, and provided their input does not contradict an important element of the case, run with their ideas. A player may describe how an NPC reacts to a question or gesture; if possible, incorporate their description into the interview. Sharing narrative control with players is an easy way to create additional investment and make the game more fun for everyone.
Build an interview narrative: Going into an Information check, you will know what clues and information about the mystery are available to the envoys. After the roll, you know which clues should be provided. While providing that information as quick exposition can be useful when a game is running long or the players seem less interested in the NPC, consider slowing down the process when the players look engaged. Roleplay some of the back and forth of the interview, ask the player what questions they will ask, and give the substantive information in the clues with some context relevant to the NPC. The player’s roll may earn the Interest clue that the NPC heard gunshots from the campground two nights ago, but during real interviews and conversations, people provide sensory and contextual details as they recount events. An interview with an NPC can be a mini-story within the case and help the players feel more invested in the outcome of their characters’ investigation.
Pay attention to your players: If the players seem particularly curious or invested in an NPC, make a note for yourself. Once you identify a character the players care about, you can make them a recurring character if appropriate, or kill/corrupt/feature them later for some added pathos.
Interviews can be made real for the players during a game of Chill in ways that other parts of gameplay cannot, so remember to make the most of them.