Thursday, September 16, 2010

Jared Sorensen's Inspectres Worth a Look

A few years back, I was up in Oakland attending a professional conference for work. The conference was held downtown and fate had it that the conference hotel was right across the street from one of America's premier game stores -- Oakland's Endgame. Like many gamers, I have a secret dream of retiring as a game store owner. If I ever get to fulfill that fantasy, Endgame will be the business model that will attempt to emulate. It has an environment that is novice friendly, but a deep enough catalog and sufficient gaming space to satisfy he hard core. One of Endgame's chief virtues is their love of all forms of gaming and their enthusiastic support of the hobby. They strongly promote the big names and hip Eurogames, but they also support and encourage the play of independently published games -- in particular games published by Indie Press Revolution.

I walked around the store and examined their inventory, looking to see if they had any games on hand that I didn't own that might interest me. Their friendly staff directed me to a bookcase in their role playing section and listed off a couple of titles. I bought copies of The Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard, and Inspectres.

I was impressed with all three products. The role playing market was in the middle of the d20 SRD Era, and seeing games that had unique rules mechanics was a fresh change. Also fresh was the focus all of these games place on narrative and player empowerment. This was especially true of Jared Sorensen's Inspectres.

Theme

The premise of Inspectres is a simple one. There are mysterious and supernatural things in the world that can pester humanity from time to time. In response to these supernatural pests -- likely due to a large influx of Silicon Valley venture capital -- the Inspectres fully-licensed and insured "Supernatural Investigation & Elimination Service" was formed. The Inspectres are "Fighting the Forces of Darkness, do you don't have to."

Player's in an Inspectres campaign play working class -- and some white collar as well -- heroes who fight the supernatural as their day job. For them, banishing the hordes of Servitors of Garoneesh from Delta Sigma house's basement, is akin to your average bug exterminator completing a termite treatment. While they may be battling threats beyond imagination, and others might find that exciting, it is just their day job. These people have lives outside of their local franchise. Fighting the supernatural is "normal," "routine," and even hum-drum.

This is all key to the setting, because Sorensen believes that goofy isn't funny. He believes that the mundane is funny, and he's right. When a group of players/people try to be funny, they often end up being goofy. When they take something bizarre and attempt to make it normal and dull, the opportunity for real humor begins. Humor is rooted in irony, and having monster hunting be a dull cubicle based Office Space inspired hell is funny.

Mechanics

The underlying mechanics of Inspectres are deceptively simple, and are remarkable at reinforcing the intended style of play.

Inspectres determines the outcome of player's actions through the use of a mechanic I call the Sorensen Narrative Resolution System or SNRS -- and its a system he has used a couple of times before in different guises.

As in other role playing game mechanics, the SNRS gives players ratings in certain areas -- Academics, Athletics, Technology, and Contact (there is also a Cool stat, but most players don't start out Cool). In addition to these individual ratings, the players will have access to their Inspectres Franchise's resources which are called the Library Card, Gym Card, Credit Card, and Bank. All players have access to the franchise's resources, which explains why even untrained incompetents can be successful if they work at a well equipped franchise.

These ratings allow players to roll a certain number of dice, which are then used to interpret the outcome of an action. In a standard role playing game, there would be a target number and beating that target number would mean success and failing to beat the target number would mean that the action didn't succeed. This is where the SNRS differs from other games. In Inspectres, the outcome of the die roll determines who has narrative control over the action. What this means is that the action is described after the die roll, and that the results of the die roll determine whether the player or the game master has control (and how much control they have) of the outcome. Depending on the story being told, a player could gain control of an outcome and narrate failure or the GM could narrate success. It all depends on what the individual believes will create a better story. When the player/GM has only partial control of an action, things get pretty interesting.

The SNRS's narrative approach to roleplaying action resolution is great to see in action. It does require a commitment to attempt to be narratively creative from all of the participants, but if everyone commits it is a great time. There are some additional twists and turns to the system, but you'll have to buy the book to read them.

It really is worth the price of admission of $20 for the small booklet. The game has a fun setting and a simple mechanic that can satisfy hard core role players and serves as a wonderful introduction to the hobby for new players.



Movie

I wanted to note that Sorensen has recently teamed up with the good folks at Reactor 88 studios and is working on a feature length production based on the Inspectres setting. I saw the first 10 minutes at Gen Con this year, and I think that the film looks like a fun production from a DIY studio. We'll see what the end result is, but I think that it will hold up quite well against its chief competition in the "Gaming Movie" genre -- The Gamers.

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