By Robin D Laws
Each time we create a GUMSHOE rules set for a fresh setting and genre, we discover specific needs for new rules structures. Will Hindmarch’s post-apocalyptic Razed will include new rules treating scavenging as a form of information gathering. Kenneth Hite’s Bookhounds of London, an imminent sourcepack for Trail of Cthulhu, includes rules for buying rare texts at auction.
Though inspired by their specific generic requirements, these rules sometimes turn out to be applicable to any GUMSHOE game, either with tweaks or straight out of the box.
Another work in progress, this one designed by yours truly, is Ashen Stars, the GUMSHOE game of interstellar justice. It includes various broadly applicable new rules structures.
One of these has, however, been orphaned by the playtest and revision process. The bid contest is a mechanism that collapses the contest—in which two characters pit their abilities and pools against one another—into a single, auction-like resolution. At one point, it was used in the ship combat system, to resolve a stage where the attacking ship compares its weaponry to its target’s defenses. Since then ship combat has undergone a ground-up overhaul, leaving no need for this step. With its absence, Ashen Stars nowhere requires the use of bid contests.
Although ship combat didn’t work as originally planned, the bid contests themselves still make themselves useful in a few specific instances. With space at a premium, it no longer justifies its spot in the core book. Someday we’ll gather up all of the system’s fillips and variations in a GUMSHOE Compendium. Until then, we’re letting this orphaned rules element sleep on the couch here at See Page XX.
In a bid contest, each character decides how many points they’ll spend from their individual pools. The player(s) and/or GM write this number down on a slip of paper. It may never exceed the number of points the character has to draw on from the pool or pools relevant to the action at hand. When bidding from multiple pools, specify which points come from which pools.
When everyone has decided, all participants simultaneously reveal their bids.
Each then rolls a die. Any participant rolling an odd number treats it as a bonus number to be added to the figure on the bid slip.
The participant with the highest total, including bonus (if any), succeeds; other bidder(s) fail. When participants make tying high bids, the GM tries to envision an outcome in which both get what they wanted, or a compromise version thereof. If no such outcome makes sense, ties are resolved according to the following priorities:
- PCs beat supporting characters
- a PC whose personal arc** is featured this episode beats other PCs
- a PC whose Drive has come into play in this episode beats other PCs
- PCs with higher ratings in the relevant abilities beat other PCs
- the PC whose player arrived to the session first beats other PCs
Everyone, win or lose, loses the number of pool points specified on their bid slips. Bonus numbers don’t cause you to pay additional pool points.
Example: Your character is playing Thruvokian Death Poker against two lowlife card sharks, from whom you hope to wrest information on a trade deal. (If you were scoping for clues on the episode’s primary mystery, you’d be able to get everything you need with Interpersonal abilities and wouldn’t have to resort to a gambling scam.)
Everyone is cheating, of course, because if you weren’t, it would only be Thruvokian Cuddling Poker, and no one wants that. Accordingly, you’re all using your Filch abilities. You’ve got 6 points in your pool and a rating of 8. Supporting characters Jimmy Bhatt and Foolship have 4 and 5 points of Filch, respectively, and have spent nothing from their pools. You bid 5 points, secretly writing the number down on a piece of paper. The GM reasons that you’ve given them moderate but not overriding motivation to win and decides that they’ll both spend half their points, rounding up. So she writes down 2 for Jimmy and 3 for Foolship.
You all reveal your bids.
Now you make your bonus rolls: you roll 4, and the GM rolls a 6 for Jimmy and a 1 for Foolship. Your roll is an even number, as is Jimmy’s: these are ignored. Foolship’s 1 increases his effective bid from 3 to 4.
This leaves you as the winning bidder, with a bid of 5.
Win or lose, everyone spends equal to their bids. Your Filch drops from 6 to 1. Jimmy’s falls from 4 to 2, and Foolship’s from 5 to 2. Note that his 1-point bonus does not cost him anything.
You win the game, and now offer to forgive their debt—they’ve wagered the escape pods on their vessel—in exchange for an introduction to local spice merchant Cordell Westrick.
Bid contests are useful when:
- three or more characters contest for the same goal
- two characters resolve an action nested within another contest, like a combat or ship combat. For example:
- – wrestling an sacrificial blade out of a cultist’s hands during a fight to stop a dread summoning
- – stopping a perp from escaping while your fellow HCIU officers use their mutant powers to subdue more actively resistant suspects
- – resolving a shuttle craft pursuit while the rest of your crew is in your main vessel, battling another full-sized ship
Levies in Bidding Contests
When one bidder faces a disadvantage that doesn’t impair the other, that bidder suffers a levy. On a winning bid, the bidder must pay an additional number of points equal to one-third of the bid, rounded up to the nearest whole number. If the winning bidder is unable to pay this additional levy, the victory is reversed and handed to the other bidder. The levy is not included in the bid number you compare with the opposing player’s.
You make a Systems Repair bid of 6 during a ship battle, while facing a levy. Your opponent bids 5 points, so you win the bid. You have 12 Systems Repair points in your pool. You pay first the actual amount of your bid, which is 6 points. Your pool drops from 12 to 6. Now you pay the levy, an additional 2 points (6 ÷ 3 =2.) Your pool drops from 6 to 4.
**Personal arcs are a character feature introduced in Ashen Stars. They grant your players personal sub-plots complementing or counterpointing the episode’s main action.