Spending, Hoarding and GUMSHOE

by Robin D. Laws

In response to a previous installment of this column, mxyzplk writes:

My group hasn’t gotten around to playing GUMSHOE yet despite me owning several of the books, but we have played games with somewhat similar mechanics before, and it seems like it runs the risk of either a) hoarding points or b) running out and then having to sit on your hands the rest of the adventure, knowing that if you get in a scuffle with someone you’re lunchmeat because you don’t have anything left to spend. I’d be interested in your analysis on how to not have this happen.

Like a lot of seemingly obvious, game-breaking problems that come to mind on an initial read of a roleplaying rules set, this is not much of an issue when you actually sit down to play. That’s the thing about apparently crippling rules issues—they don’t make it through in-house playtest, much less to print.

(The same goes triple for concerns formed from a second- or third-hand understanding of a game.)

GUMSHOE’s general spend mechanism exerts a push-pull dynamic. It is meant to make you as a player want to hoard points… and then not do it. In practice, that’s what happens. Players like to do things. When they decide that their character is going to try to do something, they want the character to succeed. They may spend only a point per general action early in a session, holding the bigger expenditures for especially dangerous or climactic events later on. This is how they’re supposed to do it.

When you attempt a general action in GUMSHOE, you roll a six-sided die and add the number of points you’ve spent from your pool. The baseline Difficulty for actions is 4. The average roll on a d6 is 3.5. In other words, when attempting actions of standard Difficulty, you’ll succeed half of the time without spending anything. Spending a single point means you’re almost certain to succeed. Spending 2 points cinches it.

So in the case of an ability you really care about, one you’ve bothered to seriously invest in, you can succeed many times before running out of points.

And if players do hoard in the early going, when most Difficulties will be at the baseline, their failure rate will increase only slightly. The effect is noticeable but far from game-breaking.

If it happens at all, which it won’t in most groups. Players don’t like it when their characters fail, even at trivial actions. When push comes to shove, they spend, at least a little. If anything, GUMSHOE characters fail less than their equivalents in other game systems. Run the numbers and you’ll see that they fail much less often than BRP characters, for example.

This decreased failure rate was built into the game, based on the observation that characters in other story forms—even in horror—fail less than most roleplaying games would have them do. Or rather, they face setbacks at pivotal moments, when it is maximally interesting for them to do so.

Remember also that general abilities are the side dish to GUMSHOE’s main course, investigative activities. Most of a game session will be devoted to gathering information and putting it together. Moments of fighting, driving, climbing and so on occur in brief flashes. You can go for hours of game time without ever having a reason to spend a point on anything.

So that’s the one worry, hoarding, addressed. What about its opposite, the free-spending grasshopper who runs out of points early and then has to sit on his hands?

If players overspend on easier Difficulties early in the game and then find themselves pressed in the late going, that’s the system doing its job. The problem is self-correcting: the next time out, players will spend more carefully.

The point of the mechanism is to invest the players emotionally in any general ability attempt, to make them ask how much do I really want this? The lesson learned from an over-spending session will reinforce this, granting the decision-making process greater heft.

Now, you may want your players to have full access to all of their points when it comes time for the pulse-pounding conclusion, after all the clues are tallied and it’s time to go down into the basement to confront the batrachian cultists, or strafe the McMillenist base with only a shuttlecraft cannon. All you have to do is give them a chance to refresh their pools beforehand. This is one of the oldest principles in gaming, wearing slightly different clothing. You’re making the same choice you would before a set-piece fight in D&D, allowing the players to rest and regain their hit points and spells. Resource management in RPGs is nothing new. GM adjustments to resource availability for dramatic purposes has always been part of the repertoire. The only difference with GUMSHOE is cosmetic: we’re more clearly calling a resource a resource.

Like your hit points and available spells in a D&D fight, general spends control the number of successful actions you can take in a single big scene. Unlike D&D combats, they ensure that action sequences are short and to the point. (In the horror games, where the PCs are typically outmatched, the right way to say that might be “short, brutish, and to the point.”) In D&D and its cousins, the fight is the main dish. The whiff factor that comes with the broad spread of a d20 result is intrinsic to its extended pacing. Not so in GUMSHOE, which is all about getting your hits in up front.

In the end, this is another case where the GUMSHOE rules seem on a cursory glance to diverge more sharply from the roleplaying norm than they really do when you sit down at the gaming table. Which is an argument for giving any new game an actual whirl before getting hung up over its possible shortcomings.

This is not to say that GUMSHOE or any other game is without drawbacks, or will hit the sweet spot for every group. Tastes vary. Any game will have things it does better than others. A game’s real pluses and minuses for your particular mix of players will almost never match your first-read worries.

You can’t know how a game plays until you take it for a spin. So, whatever new game you’ve been poring over, call up your friends, schedule a session, and get playing.

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