Calvin’s Commentaries: Grey Cells

Often we think of role-playing games as those set in the world of swords and sorcery – Dungeons and Dragons long being the poster child for the entire genre.

But RPGs span a vast array of genres, with a new game about to be released; Grey Cells, being an example.

“Grey Cells is a game of unraveling mysteries. It’s about stepping into a dark morass of crime and deceit and piecing together nuggets of truth into a full picture of what really happened. Players take the roles of investigators of all stripes – policemen and detectives, reporters, scientists, socialites and criminals (reformed or otherwise),” explained the game’s recent successful Kickstarter campaign.

I immediately thought of the potential to play out tales that would reflect Sherlock Holmes or maybe Mike Hammer, which seems to be the perfect fit for what Grey Cells is trying to accomplish.

Game developer Bogdan Constantinescu explained the germ of an idea for the game came from mysteries.

“Poirot and Cake,” he said. “Myself, my brother and one of our friends were avid detective fiction fans and would meet up to watch and try to solve Agatha Christie mysteries while also demolishing an entire cake between the three of us. Even if we didn’t beat Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple to the solution, we were too full of sugar to mind.

“After a while, we decided to combine our passions, and created a campaign about a fantasy detective agency in the city of Waterdeep. We used Pathfinder because we were intimately familiar with it by that point, and it was fantastic.

“However, Pathfinder (and D&D) is a game about swinging swords and fighting monsters, not about solving crimes.

“Indeed, it often felt like we were playing two separate games and would sometimes have to tweak the rules of Pathfinder to not interfere in the investigation. After looking at several other games, I decided to put my game design skills to the test and make my own.”

So exactly what did the creator hope to achieve in creating an entirely new RPG system.

“I wanted the game to focus on the investigation itself: to provide players with the challenge and satisfaction of solving mysteries,” said Constantinescu. “That’s what Grey Cells is fundamentally about – not just telling detective stories but testing your own grey cells. Many of the game’s mechanics give players many angles through which to find information, and help to guide new players towards the kinds of questions that will yield the best results.”

Of course, you need a mystery to pursue and that means providing the game master with the tools to weave a mystery.

“One of the most important parts of the game is the tools that it gives the game master, both in terms of preparing and running the game,” said Constantinescu. “I know from experience that it’s hard to prepare a mystery with little to no help from the game you’re playing, and I needed Grey Cells to address that. I included systems and advice to help the game master make mysteries from the simplest starting points and to populate it with effective and connected non-player characters. “Furthermore, the tools they players have also help the Game Master – you don’t have to prepare a railroad or a trail of breadcrumbs. All you need to know is what happened and what’s going on now, and the players will use their abilities to connect those dots for you.”

Of course, players need tools too.

“Every character wields powerful tools to shake loose information from the world,” stated the Kickstarter. “When making deductions, some characters abilities can build on the information you’ve gathered to help you connect the pieces more clearly. This makes it much less likely that players become stuck without recourse.

“And once you have that information you can start making deductions yourself, or you can have your character help you. Several character abilities assist in interpreting evidence and can help put your deductions on the right track. They’ll never solve the case for you, but they allow you to utilize your character’s experience in the field to aid in the deductive process, should you need it.”

This is a game where the focus is likely to be on the role-playing aspect of gaming.

“Cases can involve a lot of dialogue with non-player characters, be they witnesses, suspects or even friends and allies brought into the world by the players themselves,” noted the Kickstarter. “However, Grey Cells doesn’t have a ‘charisma stat’ to help you convince and manipulate them. “Instead, how well you can persuade or intimidate someone depends on how much you know about them. Discover what they want, what they fear, and what their dirty secrets are and you’ll have them talking in no time.

“This creates a more thematic experience – people won’t cave until you have something to press them with. Also, since success is dependent on something that’s not on your character sheet, each player’s voice is equally powerful; you don’t have to stand aside while the persuasive character does all the talking.”

For Constantinescu creating this game builds off a long-held interest.

“I was playing my first RPG when I was five or six years old – my brother and I had a totally freeform storytelling game we would play in the car, where he was the game master and I was the player,” he said. “Moving into 2nd Edition D&D was natural, and exciting – suddenly having ‘rules’ to contend with made for a far more strategic experience. I’m a firm believer that constraints breed creativity, and D&D gave us swords and sorcery worlds primed for adventure, rather than the ‘anything goes’ structure we had before. We took to it so hard that the two of us have a D&D campaign that has been running for about 20 years, and a hero’s journey that tracked all the way from a bright-eyed gnome hopping off a leaky dinghy to defeating and usurping one of the Demon Lords of Hell.

“For a long time, most of my tabletop roleplaying was within D&D, though I did occasionally branch out into games like Demon the Fallen and the Song of Ice and Fire RPG. In the last five to ten years, with so many new and amazing RPGs entering the scene I’ve had opportunities to try many more, including Apocalypse World, Masks, City of Mist, Warhammer Fantasy RPG, the Star Trek CODA system, Fiasco, Dread, The Shab-Al-Hiri Roach, and others that I’ve mostly forgotten.

“I’ve also played more computer RPGs than I could possibly name, from behemoths like Baldur’s Gate and World of Warcraft to smaller (but also excellent) titles like the Avernum series. This breadth of playing experience definitely helped give me the confidence to start making my own games. Often these were mashes of mechanics created to tell a specific type of story, but as I dove further into game development and attended several Game Jams, I decided to make a fully realized RPG.

With all that experience, how long did the development take?

“It took some time for Grey Cells to transform from an idea I was tinkering with to a dedicated game project,” said Constantinescu. “In total, the game has been in development for about two years and has had as many full rewrites in that time. It’s existed in very different states, and I took what worked from those versions and carried them forward until I had a game that could stand on its own, and that was fun and compelling to play.”

So what was the most difficult aspect of designing the game?

“Social interaction is a massive challenge in any RPG,” said Constantinescu. “Human conversation is so incredibly complicated in real life than trying to squeeze it into a mechanized system often leaves a lot to be desired.

“In a mystery game, this is doubly important: Nonplayer characters (NPCs) need to be able to have secrets, and they have to be able to ‘keep’ them, and lie to you about them. But, the players also need to be able to use the game to get things out of them, or you end up with conversation (a huge part of many investigations) being disconnected from the game itself.

“The greatest challenge came in the balance of giving players the power to make NPCs talk, while also maintaining NPC autonomy. If a high roll knocks loose everything an NPC knows, the case can be over real quick. The system needed to keep the NPCs mysterious but also give the players more power as they learn more about the case.

“My solution was to have players’ power in conversation be dependent on how much they know about who they’re talking to The more they know about who they are and what naughty things they’ve been up to, the better position they are in to interrogate them. This gives the players power at the points in the story where it’s appropriate, it doesn’t let them bust the case early, and it creates an exciting narrative arc as you return to a suspect armed with new evidence.”

But the heart of Grey Cells remains the mystery said, Constantinescu.

“Mysteries are hard to write, and I think games should help the game master as much as they can,” he said. “While making Grey Cells, I’ve run dozens of playtests and have had to come up with many unique mysteries. I’ve examined my process in making them, studied mystery writing in general and created a toolset that can take you from a premise as simple as ‘someone was shot!’ to a fully fleshed out mystery. Yes, it still takes effort to put it together but the game gives you an effective framework to build your mystery so that you’re never grasping at straws.

What makes it the best part of the game is that it’s robust enough that you can lift it and apply it to almost any other RPG. It’s not dependent on the Grey Cells ruleset to support it: you can use it to chase a master thief in D&D, root out a drug syndicate in Apocalypse World, or find a serial killer in Blades in the Dark’s”

If you enjoy exploring RPGs that veer into different genres then this is a must to check out by searching Grey Cells on Facebook.

About Author