This article offers a way you can use the 13th Age Escalation Die in your GUMSHOE games.
GUMSHOE games and 13th Age manage the narrative flow of combat – the emotional upbeats and downbeats – very differently.
In all GUMSHOE games, players usually start a battle with more combat resources than when the battle is done. Each combat ability has a pool of points. Those points represent flexibility, preparedness, competence and freshness. The PCs start on a high, burn through these resources, and must get their opponents down and out of the fight quickly, or resort to another resource – their ability to flee. This is just right for games such as Night’s Black Agents, where competent Agents need to seize the initiative, give it their all, finish their foes and get the hell out of there.
In 13th Age, typically, the narrative is reversed. Players start at a relative disadvantage against their foes. In round 2, the Escalation Die makes a welcome appearance, set at 1, and all the players can add this value onto their attack rolls. Some values of the Die also trigger other benefits. Each round the die increases by 1. So the combat starts on a low with player characters fighting superior foes, reaches a point at which it could go either way, then usually turns in the favour of the player characters, just the dramatic arc you want for heroic adventurers.
Using the Escalation Die in GUMSHOE
So, if you want that 13th Age feeling in GUMSHOE, for a more pulpy, heroic arc, how can you do it? Well, that d6 can’t act as a bonus, because the steps are too big for a d6-based system. Resources in GUMSHOE are pools of points and bonuses, where they happen, are usually no more than 1. So, here is method which is resource-based but offers the same ebb and flow as 13th Age.
The Escalation Die appears in round 2, set at 1. It increases each round by 1. If all players agree, they can tap the Escalation Die at the beginning of any character’s turn and all characters refresh a combat pool, Athletics or Health by the value on the die, and the die disappears from the table. The players should describe what changes the mood of scene – a narrow-eyed glance of shared determination, inspired words, or just a well-practised, coordinated attack.
If the value on the die is 6, no agreement is required. You can’t refresh Health if it is below zero. Any excess points are removed at the end of the combat. Just as in 13th Age, you can’t increase the die if you are backing off from combat – you must take the initiative. To balance this, Game Masters will need to up the total combat ratings of baddies by 3 multiplied by the number of players. So, if you have four players, you’d distribute 12 points between the foes in a typical combat.
Do let me know if you try this and if it works for you.
A Column about Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Clue-gathering in GUMSHOE differs from previous investigative games in one very minor way. Its central tweak isn’t even an extra step to the process players may already be familiar with. GUMSHOE removes a step from the standard approach. Anyone who’s played nearly any trad RPG expects to:
- identify the skill or ability required to gain a piece of information
- roll a die to see if they succeed or fail
- in the case of a success, listen to the GM narrate that information to them.
All GUMSHOE does is eliminate step 2. You:
- identify a suitable ability
- listen as the GM provides the information
For all it does to open up possibilities for richer, more elaborate mysteries, this tweak can prove almost too simple, at least where learning curve is concerned. The brain doesn’t like it when we make it learn new ways of doing things, especially when they’re fractional variations on an established pattern. This balk response sometimes manifests itself as a complaint that GUMSHOE is too mechanistic or intrusive, even though its core mechanic does less than the method people are used to.
People typically don’t find it persuasive to be told that their responses are objectively wrong. Even when they are.
So even though GUMSHOE is by definition less mechanistic than the three-step method of gaining information, the false perception that it is more so can be countered by means other than direct logic.
You can do this applying a basic, already commonly used GM technique that, ironically enough, you could also easily use with the three-step method. Wherever possible, describe the fictional reality instead of the rules that mediate its outcomes.
Here’s an exchange that does sound mechanistic, because it pulls the player out of the character’s perspective by directly referencing rules terms:
Player: Does he seem to be lying?
GM: What ability do you use to determine that?
Player: Assess Honesty.
GM: Using Assess Honesty, you get the sense that he’s trying to put one over on you.
If you use the GM reference sheet you’ve compiled listing the various characters’ abilities, you can skip the step where the player is called upon to explicitly reference a particular rules bit.
Player: Does he seem to be lying?
GM: [looks at reference sheet, see that player’s character has Assess Honesty] His eyes dart wildly as he speaks, so yeah, you get the feeling he’s trying to put one over on you.
Some players might complain that this is too spoonfeedy, depriving them of the mental work required to apply the correct ability to the situation. The obvious solution is to use seamless narration for players seeking an immersive experience, and continue to call for ability selections from those who don’t want you to conceal the gears and levers.
You can still ask for clarification on the ability being used without calling for a direct cite.
Player: I ask the old geezer sitting by the well whether he’s seen anything suspicious.
GM: [in character, playing him as anxious, craning his neck around to see who’s watching] “Why you don’t seem to be from around these parts, young feller.”
Player: “Listen, you old bag of bones. I ain’t got the patience for any nonsense from you. Cough up what you know or you’ll wish you had.”
You don’t need to ask whether this player is using Intimidation, because she’s doing what any strong storyteller does, showing instead of telling. Assuming the character has the ability, you then proceed to cough up what the old man knows:
GM: “Things ain’t been the same around these parts since the Whateleys reclaimed their ancestral manor. But I don’t aim to cross them, no sirree bub!”
If you check the ref sheet and see that the player doesn’t have the ability, the fiction-breaking way to say that is:
GM: You’re using Intimidate but Professor Haskins doesn’t actually have the ability. Stephanie’s character does, though.
To keep the rules behind the curtain, you might instead say:
GM: The geezer laughs to see you, all five foot six of you, in your tweedy jacket and your reedy New England accent, trying to pull a tough guy act. You look over at McCracken and figure leaning on witnesses is maybe more his department.
Vague requests for information can also transform into moments that flesh out a character’s backstory.
Player: How old does this rock carving look?
GM: What is your prior experience with rock carvings?
Player: I studied petroglyphs with the Robertson Expedition of 1927, in the deepest woods of Algonquin Park.
Here you’re prompting the player for an in-world description more memorable than “I have 1 point in Archaeology.”
One drawback of this trick is that it can induce prolix players to wax digressive, slowing down the action. Be careful who you use it with.
Though richer and more descriptive—or rather, because it is richer and more descriptive—constantly coming up with phrasings that hide the rules can be mentally taxing. When we reference rules constructs, it is not just because we need them to determine what happens. They also function as a short-hand to collapse our communications, getting to the meat of a scene faster.
In most groups, you’ll find yourself, and the players, seamlessly dropping in and out of direct rules reference without paying attention to the ongoing micro-shifts in perspective this entails. If your games are going fine already, don’t mess them up by thinking too hard about this. Just keep on doing what you’re doing.
Improvising With GUMSHOE by Steve Dempsey
This article discusses an improvised variant of the GUMSHOE rules. It can be just as easily used for Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, or any other GUMSHOE game.
Most games of GUMSHOE are played using a scenario that the GM has written. Not only does she introduce each scene and play the non player characters but she also decides in advance what the clues are. Although the GM does not dictate the path the players will take through the adventure, she has a strong hand on the tiller as the clues she chooses will determine to a rather large extent what the players do.
There are some good reasons not to always play this way. Stephen King says in On Writing, “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” When you tie this in with the GM’s creed, “No scenario ever survives contact with the players”, you will see that the improvised game has some advantages over one written by the GM.
What you might lose on intricate plotting you are likely to gain on player involvement in the creative process and character play. Players will be much freer to take the scenario in directions that seem more natural to them and their input will have a greater impact on the story.
Improvisation is nothing terribly difficult to do, the main impact of playing this variant is that the game is not planned up front by a GM but is developed in play by players and GM alike. This means no prep for GMs, other than learning the rules. I’ll be discussing the details of how to do this in three easy stages. Finally I’ll give an example that shows how this works in play.
1. The set-up
As with any improvisation, you have to have a theme. It’s an improvisation on something. If you don’t have a theme, then the players won’t know what kind of characters to make.
So start with a theme. It doesn’t really matter how you come by this as long as there is some consensus within the group. You could let the GM choose (“You’re all students at a Japanese high school, getting ready for a school trip”) or you could have a group discussion about what sounds cool (“I want things lurking in doorways”, “I want magical rituals that take years to cast”, “I want a scene in an 80s disco”). You could also choose something that relates to a moral question (“How far are you prepared to go to stop the monsters?”) or a dilemma (“Family or Job?”).
But remember that this is GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, and Mutant City Blues. It’s all about investigation. Some terrible crime has been committed, the bastions of reality are under threat, and the characters are the ones to deal with it.
For your theme you should also discuss the nature of this threat or crime, even if you don’t want to know the details at this stage. For example, the Japanese schoolgirls are a shoe-in for some kind of mad slasher and the 80’s disco idea smacks of Son of Sam or Zodiac.
You could discuss who the villain of the piece is going to be. This could be oblique (some Mythos deity) or explicit (one of the schoolgirls). It helps the game if you have some idea of what you are aiming for. It should also help with pacing. You don’t want the bad guy to be revealed to the characters in the first five minutes.
It’s a good idea, although not necessary, to write down the outcome of your discussions regarding the theme. It’s a handy resource for players and GM alike who can refer to it when making decisions about characters or plot.
Once you know what the theme is, make up some characters. In many games, this is down in utmost secrecy lest anyone steal your cool idea. In improv, we have a different way of doing things. You all do your characters together. Talk about your characters to each other and say when you like something. Give positive feedback.
Improv thrives on feedback. You are the audience as well as the actors so big yourselves up. It’s not just about getting a good vibe, this is also about riffing off each other’s characters. If you’ve gone the schoolgirl route, you’ll need to know who is the class swot, who is the cheerleader and who has psychic powers. You’re characters don’t necessarily need to know, but your players do. You need to know where conflicts will arise because that’s what makes the game interesting.
You can do this by each introducing your character once generation has been done, but that’s a short cut that misses out the links that you can forge between your characters if you do the job collaboratively.
In improv GUMSHOE, investigative skills work differently. They still allow characters to automatically find core clues or to be spent on supplementary clues. That much does not change. However, because there is no prewritten scenario, the choice of skills determines what the characters are going to encounter. If no one has Art History as a skill, the characters aren’t going to be looking at many paintings. If they all have high trivia scores, then what happened in last week’s episode of Full Metal Alchemist is going to be much more important.
Decide how long you want the game to last. This can be done by deciding on the number of core clues. One is generally not enough but you can play a decent one session game with only three or four core clues. Don’t forget that some scenes will not be about clues but for transition or colour. Whilst you might like to go for a mammoth ten core clue game, this is probably a bit much and I imagine is best broken down into smaller three or four clue episodes, each with their own internal logic but all building blocks in the greater plot arc.
2. What do we do now?
Now you play. Without any kind of pre-existing scenario this sounds a bit scary but you do have something to go on, namely all the work that you’ve put in so far to create the theme and the characters. You should all have a pretty good idea of how the general direction of the game so now what you do is ask for scenes.
Anyone can ask for a scene, player or GM, but the GM gets to decide the order in which they are played. The first scene is usually called for by the GM who will use it to introduce the game, the characters and perhaps something about the mystery that’s about to be investigated.
A scene is where a least one character will attempt some kind of action. An action is where a character finds a clue, has social interaction with a PC or NPC or uses their general skills to some end. It’s a fairly loose definition but you’ll know one when you see one. For a scene to work it has to have some kind of danger, excitement, threat or drive the plot of the game.
It’s the GM’s job to set-up scenes and to play NPCs. They can take account of player wishes but ultimately it is there responsibility to decide who and what is in the scene.
It’s also the GM’s job to make sure that transitions between scenes are handled. This is essentially narration. It’s the bits in 24 that happen during the ad breaks when Jack Bauer drives to the next action packed scene, or at the start when the voice says “Previously on Heroes”. Transitions are important because they tie everything together. They can also have bits of exposition such as when a PC talks to his critically ill wife in hospital, flashbacks to a scene in the life of the villain or even foreshadowing of future events. The extent to which you expose plot to the players in these scenes is very much up to the will of the group. Some don’t want out of character knowledge but some relish the TV show style construction that has interposed shots of the bad guy committing his latest dastardly crime, think Skylar in Heroes.
3. How to improvise
Here are some techniques that you can use to help with your improvisation. If you want more information on improvisation for roleplaying I recommend the Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley).
These techniques are not difficult to use and they have been shown in theatre sports (see Impro by Keith Johnstone) to improve stories generated through improvisation.
Don’t try to be too clever
If your character goes into a bar for the first time, they should probably order a drink, they probably wouldn’t do a back flip over the bar and shoot the pianist. If you do this kind of thing, you ruin spoil the narrative by doing things for which the other players can’t see the justification. Characters should act in character and do what’s natural for them to do. You’ll find that acting naturally helps the game along much better because the other players will come to know what to expect from your character.
This follows on from the first technique. You won’t be able to understand what the other characters are like if you try to block everything they do. So if a character proposes going into a bar, you probably shouldn’t say “It’s closed” or “I don’t go in bars”. It’s fine to say, “Well, I wouldn’t usually, but just this once”. In fact this is very good because this reveals something about your character as well as encouraging the other player’s development of the game.
Build on what’s already happened. If an NPC gets mentioned by name in an early scene, bring them back later on. If a detail is mentioned, make it appear in a later scene under a different light, make it more or less important than it was. The reason behind reincorporation is because it reinforces the narrative by drawing attention to the salient points.
Reincorporation is also known as Chekov’s Gun because he once wrote in a letter to a friend, “”If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
4. An example of play
So here’s an example. Brenda is running a game for Steve and Anya. They decide that they want to play Fear Itself set in the London in the 70s. The player characters will all be involved in the punk scene, the tone will be gritty and the game should involve some kind of parasitical infection.
Steve’s character is called Sanjit, a fanzine writer from Bromley. His writing has some influence in the small milieu but he’s not necessarily well liked, mainly because of the sarcastic tone of his writing. He’s unemployed.
Anya’s character, Ariadne, has come down to London from Birmingham, to escape from Heavy Metal. She’s a competent drummer and has got a gig with a band called Dole Kids. Ariadne and Sanjit share a grotty room in Berwick St.
Brenda thinks that the plot probably involves something to do with some chord progression carrying the infection but that’s not something she can decide. But it is her job to frame the first scene . Given the theme, there’s nowhere better to start the game that at a club. (This is Not Being Too Clever .)
It’s a Friday night and the Dive, a club in Camden pub basement, is heaving. The floor is sticky with beer, the walls and ceiling dripping with sweat. Dole Kids are just coming off having done a decent set. Sanjit is in the off-stage area having a discussion with Molly, lead singer of Kick in the Head who are due on next. Molly has taken umbrage at something Sanjit wrote in his last fanzine. Her band is on stage and waiting for her.
The scene is played out to introduce the characters and any NPCs. From what happens it’s clear that Molly will feature later in the game. On this occasion Molly storms off up the steps to the stage barging into Ariadne. This only escalates the arguments. She spits at the group and she runs up to sing. They follow her and end up being beaten up by Kick in the Head and their loyal following. Molly takes pity on the PCs and gets them back to her dressing room where they share a joint.
Next, Anya calls for a Core Clue scene. As there hasn’t been anything horrible happen yet, this scene should introduce the first elements of horror. It’s probably time for someone to die.
Anya asks for the scene to take place at the after show party. Brenda sets the scene but allows the players to place their own characters. It’s after the gig at a party in a squat next to a kebab shop. There is no electricity in the building and it’s entirely lit by candles. Someone has a grotty tape player which is blasting out the rather indistinct sounds of Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Anya says that Ariadne is snogging some groupie in a wrecked bathroom, candles reflecting off broken bits of mirror. Steve decides that Sanjit is holding forth in a damp and grimy kitchen to a small coterie of fanzine fans.
Brenda narrates what happens next. Suddenly a scream comes from upstairs. A teenage goth staggers into a stairwell, his face contorted in horror. He collapses and falls. People run up to see what’s going on. As Anya called the scene, it’s up to her what the clue is. She can take suggestions from the other players. Ariadne comes out to see what’s going on and uses Intimidation to get everyone else to back off so she can get to the clue. Anya says that the boy has passed out, he’s got a joint tightly clenched in his hand. Ariadne checks him out and takes the joint. (This is Reincorporation of the joint.) She goes to take a puff but just before she does, notices something strange in the joint. Brenda suggests that this might be some kind of small wriggly worm, and Steve adds that perhaps as Ariadne is leaning over the boy she notices something pass across his eyeball, although it’s not clear what.
Anya decides to go with the wriggling worm in the joint. Steve also decides on a supplementary clue, spending a point of Streetwise, he decides that Sanjit knows the unconscious lad. He’s a pagan called Perdition,also from Bromley who Sanjit knows is into some “heavy magic shit”.
Brenda narrates what happens next. Perdition wakes up with a start and looks around. He smiles strangely and attempts to kiss Ariadne. He is superhumanly strong but together they manage to force him outside. He chases after someone else. Everyone else has run away at this point, except for Molly, who announces “Oh my God, I’ve got the same dealer as that monster!” She gets out her weed and it too is infected with worms.
We have a plot! Everyone has smoked the infected weed, who knows what might happen to them now? The game will continue long into the night.
You now have some tools that you can use to improvise games. If you give this a go, remember that a light touch is often needed with this kind of game, don’t go trampling all over other people’s ideas, give them space and time to come to fruition. It’s a question of mutual respect.
Finally, the improvisation may well not work at all. You might find that you’ve painted yourselves into some kind of dead-end story. But don’t worry about it. Improv, like any other game technique, doesn’t always work. The thing is not to worry to much about this and to just try again from a bit before when things started to go off the rails.
With a bit of patience, you’ll seen be off again.
Steve Dempsey, the author of this piece, has written for Armitage Files and Dreamhounds of Paris, and is our most experienced GM.
GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.
(originally posted in Dec 2007 Page XX)
This toy version of GUMSHOE introduces you to the basic concepts of the system which powers Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists and Night’s Black Agents. Note, I’m not a game designer (whatever wikipedia says), and this version of GUMSHOE really is just for demonstration purposes.
GUMSHOE was designed to power games which feature some investigative elements. The GUMSHOE system itself is very simple and each GUMSHOE game adds system elements to support the gameplay the designer of that iteration intends, which adds complexity to the base. This version strips GUMSHOE down so you can see how it works, a bit like a model suspension bridge made from string and card does for, well, suspension bridges.
The most current version of a GUMSHOE game, with the most up-to-date advice, is Esoterrorists 2nd Edition.
We’ll learn the game and you can create a character as we go along.
Every character has investigative abilities, rated from 1 to 4. Even one point in an ability means you are highly proficient in that ability.
Investigative abilities have three functions.
- First, they allow your character interact with a game scene and extract essential information in play, information which points you to other game scenes. This information (called a core clue) can be a location, a person, an item – anything that points you at a future game scene. You do not spend from your pool to get a core clue.
- Second, you can extract any information your character would reasonably know without effort, also at zero cost.
- Third, you can use the ability to gain special benefits related to those abilities. These benefits can offer information which allows you to overcome or avoid danger, a bonus on a General Ability test, they can make you look cool, or form a connection with and NPC. Special benefits cost points from the ability pool.
It’s possible to gain certain kinds of information from a scene, obvious to anyone, without having an ability. This is called a simple search. A simple search might get you a matchbook, whereas an investigative ability might get you the fingerprints and then the identity of the last person to touch it.
Using Investigative Abilities In Play
To use an ability in a scene, you either describe what a character with that ability would do in that scene, or describe what you’d do in the scene and the GM will suggest an ability. You can seek information actively, for example, “I use Art to determine the provenance of that painting.” Sometimes the GM will provide information a character with your abilities would know without asking, for example, “With Science you can see the particles’ motion defies known laws.” Likewise, in a scene, you can suggest special benefits or they can offered by the GM. In general, GMs do not need to mention in play that a piece of information is a core clue or distinguish it from a zero-point clue.
Any ability which could reasonably get information can be used to get that information. The ability can be predetermined or improvised by the GM or emerge from roleplaying in game scenes.
If you are used to playing games where you use abilities for which you roll dice to determine success, roleplay exactly as you would do in those games.
Assign Your Investigative Abilities
The investigative abilities in Toy GUMSHOE are Who You Are, Science, Art, Technical and Interpersonal. Who You Are is an adjective -noun combination describing your character. You get 2 points in Who You Are. Pick any of the following combination of numbers, and assign them to the other four abilities.
Game Design Aside: What Abilities do
Investigative abilities offer niche protection, so that each player has a chance to interact with scenes in a way specific to their character; and spotlight management, so players get an equal chance to shine through the special benefits they use. Special benefit spends deplete abilties, so they also encourage more interesting And varied choices, and add a frisson to the end game as those choices become constrained.
General Abilities cover any action you want to do which doesn’t acquire information, and for which an element of randomness is fun, and has an important consequence. In toy GUMSHOE, there are Body, Mind, Moves, Fighting and Senses.
- Body is your current level of resistance to a potentially damaging event doing you harm.
- Mind is your level current resilience to the the effects of mental stress.
- Moves are anything physical you attempt to do, except fighting.
- Fighting is used to restrain or harm an opponent.
- Senses make you aware of danger, of being watched or potentially ambushed.
Testing General Abilities
If you face an important challenge in play not related to gathering information, you make a test. The GM determines a Difficulty, a number ranging from 3 to 8, with 4 as a standard. Spend points from the appropriate general ability pool, then roll a d6. Add the number of points you’ve spent to the die roll. If the total matches or beats the Difficulty number, you succeed. If not you fail. In most GUMSHOE games the GM does not tell you the Difficulty number before you make the choice.
Assign Your General Abilities
You get 4 points free in each of Body and Mind, and an additional 24 points to split between the five abilities. No ability may be higher than 10. (You could add a “What you do” skill to General abilities as the General equivalent of “Who you are”)
Game Design Aside: Abilities and Setting
Most GUMSHOE games have ten or more abilities fine-tuned and flavoured to the setting, with just the right amount of granularity. GMs work to provide information and benefits which match the investigative abilities and challenges which match the general ones. So in Mutant City Blues there are a multitude of specialist abilities to investigate a crime scene; in Fear Itself, just one. Toy GUMSHOE is generic, but you can add any abilities you want to the list, or subdivide the abilities to match your match the setting.
Next Up: Interpersonal Interaction, Fighting and Chasing
For a minimal prep game, I use a potted version of the suggestions in the Trail book, that is, work backwards from the Horrible Truth to the Hook. I’ll do this now on the fly.
Professor Legato is a puppet controlled by Mi-Go. He is performing sinister experiments on paid subjects. The Mi-Go are using the data. We’ll set it in Cambridge 1931, and I’ll make him a Professor of physics.
I turn to the trusty internet archive and root out the Baedeker guide to Great Britain and old OS maps site to get a plan of the town. I google “Cambridge 1930s physics” and get “The discovery of the neutron in 1932 by James Chadwick, a physicist at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, allowed physicists to theorize that the nucleus was composed of protons and neutrons.” So, Legato is a colleague of Chadwick. Check out Chadwick.
Legato has installed a device which allows people to conceive the true nature of the atom, a revelation of crushing power which shows them their utter insignificance.
Trail of Clues
The volunteers go on to perform horrible crimes, commit suicide or just behave strangely. They were all in debt and without many friends; some were mental patients. What evidence would this leave?
When I think of clues, I don’t worry too much about the abilities. These links are straightforward to improvise, and players usually suggest them.
- Newspaper reports
- Peter Higley in police custody, and crime reports
- Recent patients at the local hospital mental health ward.
- PCs find out their connections to the lab, through perhaps a newspaper clipping (an advert) found in their digs.
- The newspaper has details of who placed the ad, and all those people who responded.
These clues will tend to be free floating – so I can place them in scenes where it is appropriate.
At least one of the volunteer, say Horrace Limnal, a street lighter, is dangerous. He has locked himself in his house. He has painted all the windows black and constructed a model of what he saw out of everything he found in his room. He hides in the cupboard and attacks them when they come in, screaming about the terrible light.
If it’s needed, have a Mi-Go puppet watching Limnal’s apartment notice them and trail them, eventually attempting to confront them in a very non-human fashion (think that android in Alien trying to kill Ripley with the magazine.)
I always use the personal element. Look at the PCs and their Drives. Make them all friends/colleagues at one of the colleges and have one of their friends/offsping of a friend be one of the affected. How about a student goes on a mad rampage during a party – one of the volunteers?
I’d look at all the character sheets and incoporate their abilities into the clues. For example – Astronomy – A weird meteor shower five weeks ago (signalling the arrival of the Mi-Go). Be ready to dole out interesting special benefits, too. In Cambridge there will be tons of academics who will offer help, for example.
Finally I grab a list of names, and I’m ready to go. That’s about enough for a session – and later sessions are much easier.
Stunning Weaponry in GUMSHOE
Most GUMSHOE games discourage the use of TASERs and other real-world stunning technology. They’re incredibly effective in law enforcement, but it’s less exciting for play if either player characters or their opponents drop instantly after a single hit. Robin D. Laws’ investigative space opera Ashen Stars is a notable exception, where (in the model of good sci-fi and Star Trek episodes everywhere) disruptors have the ability to drop an unprotected target immediately unconscious.
The time travel game TimeWatch takes a slightly different approach. Stunning technology was important to the game—when Genghis Khan is coming at you, you’ll want to protect yourself without necessarily killing him and changing history—but I wanted rules that both felt satisfying and gave characters some difficult choices in terms of staying conscious. You can easily adapt these rules to any TASER or stun-gun in any GUMSHOE game.
The PaciFist Neural Disruptor
Future, Chronomorphic, Hackable, Subtle, Standard; Close range, Stun 5
PaciFists are ranged stun-guns usable with both the Scuffling (for point-blank use only) and Shooting abilities, and are specially designed for covert TimeWatch agent use. They are chronomorphic, blending in to a historical era by changing their physical shape and appearance. Agents can usually decide what shape their PaciFist assumes: a walking cane, a six-gun revolver, a mobile phone, a pipe, or whatever appropriate form the agent wishes.
PaciFists have a rating of Stun 5 (see below). They only work at point-blank and (if used with the Shooting ability) close range, and are ineffective at farther ranges. That’s their tradeoff for making no noise and having no visible beam; the only way to tell a PaciFist has been fired is by the slight scent of ozone and a toppling, unconscious body, which makes them perfect for undercover work.
Making a successful Tinkering test (typically a Mechanics or System Repair test in other GUMSHOE games) can overcharge a PaciFist, boosting its effect up to either Stun 6 or near range, your choice, for its next shot. Rolling a 1 on the d6 during an overcharged attack burns out the weapon regardless of whether the attack was successful. Fixing a burned out weapon requires 10 minutes of work time and a successful Tinkering test.
Non-PaciFist disruptors (such as you might find in Ashen Stars) typically work at longer range but aren’t subtle, making both light and noise when they fire (as any good raygun should!) TASERs and stun guns (such as you might find in Esoterrorists or Night’s Black Agents) work at the same range as PaciFists do, but are visible and make noise.
GM Advice: Neural Disruptors and Fun Gameplay
The rules for non-lethal fire represent a compromise between genre fidelity and playability. In classic science fiction stories, future technology such as stun rays typically take out a target in one shot. Writers always contrive to keep this satisfying.
In a game, limiting firefight shots so that they either result in a miss or in instant victory is generally unsatisfying. It‘s fun to mow down insignificant opponents in one shot, but not to be taken out with one hit or to do the same to a central opponent.
Accordingly, the rules are configured to allow you to still instantly zap minor opponents, but to require several attacks to down a PC or major antagonist (depending on how much Health they’re willing to spend, and how lucky they get). This still feels faster and more decisive than the standard RPG combat, and thus retains a touch of futuristic flavor, while still keeping tabletop play fun.
Neural disruptors such as PaciFists are useful in a time travel game, because the players have more creative options when they know they can surreptitiously knock a mind-controlled Albert Einstein out cold while not killing him in the process. If your TimeWatch campaign is grittier, focus on firearms and beam weapons and be willing to accept some accidental and history-changing lethality.
How Does Stunning Work?
PaciFists, TASERs, stun guns, tranquilizer darts and neural disruptors work by knocking you unconscious without causing extensive Health damage. Resisting stunning works much like resisting unconsciousness. The Difficulty number, however, is set by the Stun value of the weapon used against you instead of by your current Health.
When hit with a stunning weapon, you must make a Stun test. Roll a die with the Stun rating of the weapon as your Difficulty. You may deliberately strain yourself to remain conscious, voluntarily reducing your Health pool by an amount of your choice. For each point you reduce it, add 1 to your die result. If you strain your Health below 0 or below -5, you will also have to make a Consciousness test after the Stunning attack is resolved. If you are attacked by more than one stunning weapon in a single round, you make a separate Stun test for each attack.
If you succeed in a Stun test, you remain conscious but are briefly impaired; you suffer a non-cumulative 1 point penalty to the Difficulty of any actions (including other Stun tests) you attempt until the end of your next turn. If you fail a Stun test, you are knocked unconscious for a period that varies by weapon, but which is usually 10-60 minutes or until awakened by someone spending 1 Medic point on you (which does not otherwise restore Health.)
Dr. Leah Breen is mind controlled by a parasitic alien hive-mind, and she is trying to stun Mace Hunter with her PaciFist so that she can infect him as well. Mace’s Hit Threshold is 4, but Dr. Breen spends 3 Shooting points to make sure she hits him. Dr. Breen’s PaciFist is a standard Stun 5, so Mace must now make an Stun test at Difficulty 5. Mace trusts his luck; he spends 2 Health, dropping his Health pool from 8 to 6, and rolls a d6. Luckily he rolls a 3, and with the +2 bonus from his expended Health he exactly makes the Stun test.
Mace tries to run, but is briefly impaired from the Stunning attempt, and fails his Athletics test due to the 1 point penalty he suffers until the end of his next turn. Dr. Breen catches up with him quickly. Her player asks the GM if she can make a Tinkering test to boost her PaciFist up to Stun 6 for one round. The GM thinks that seems reasonable, but warns her that her weapon may burn out on a particularly bad roll. Dr. Breen overcharges her weapon, then spends her last 2 Shooting points to shoot Mace again, rolling a 5 and hitting easily.
Mace’s Stun test is now Difficulty 6, but Mace still has a 1 point penalty from the first shot that applies to anything he attempts for the next round. Worried, he burns 5 Health and brings his Health pool down to 1, gaining a bonus of +5-1=+4 on his Stun test. With a target Difficulty of Stun 6 and a net +4 bonus, he’ll only be stunned on a roll of a 1… and that’s what he rolls. Mace Hunter falls to the ground unconscious for 10-60 minutes, and Dr. Breen moves in with an eager and squirming parasite.
Creatures with a Health rating of 3 or less immediately fall unconscious when successfully hit by a neural disruptor, no Stun test allowed. (In other words, GMs who want mooks and minor supporting characters to go down in one shot should give them 3 or fewer Health.)
Stunning works well on humans, but may be less effective on large animals, monsters, mechanical devices, robots, humans from parallel universes, and aliens—most commonly due to the creatures’ increased Health, but rarely due to a natural resistance to stunning. Don’t try to use a neural disruptor on a rampaging wooly mammoth. It will only end in tears, tusks and trampling.
GUMSHOE doesn’t care. It doesn’t care whether a clue is easy to interpret, like a matchbook with a phone number on it, or as hard the Van Gaal code. It doesn’t care what a clue is; a physical object, a realisation, an NPC’s throw-away comment or a simple signpost. It doesn’t care where it is in space or time. A trail of clues can lead you back to the very place you started, with enough extra information gathered on your journey to find something new. GUMSHOE doesn’t care which ability you use to get a lead, only that there is at least one ability which can do the job.
GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether benefits gained from characters’ abilities are pre-determined, offered by the GM, or suggested by the players. It doesn’t care what those abilities are, or how they function. It only cares that there is a match between abilities and information, benefits or interpersonal interaction in the games’ fiction.
GUMSHOE doesn’t care if your character is getting attention by intimidating a suspect, researching a discarded coin or mixing a reagent. It just cares that all players get their chance to shine in the spotlight.
GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether your adventure is pre-planned or improvised, whether it’s a published adventure with carefully crafted scenes, a structure like a peeled onion, a single page with bullet points, or just an idea in the GM’s head. It doesn’t care if abilities lead you into trouble, difficult moral choices, or the wrong direction entirely. It doesn’t care if the game is about players interpreting clues or characters interpreting clues. It doesn’t care if the use of the system is to get the flow of information out of the way, or make it central. It only cares that information that all players want to make available, is made available, to the person who should have it in the game’s fiction.
GUMSHOE takes care of information. You take care of the rest.
GUMSHOE Zoom: Goëtia
Bifrons. Glasya-Labolas. Marchosias. Names to conjure with – literally! This GUMSHOE Zoom takes you inside the pentacle and introduces you to the hierarchy of Hell. Historical European demon-summoning magic just got easier and more realistic. Um … yay?
From the mid-13th century to the early 20th century, Western European magicians summoned, bound, and commanded demons using the Names of God, Jesus, and various angels. Some were black magicians seeking power and poison; others thought of themselves as white magicians investigating the laws of Nature and the deeds of Man.
Their art, goëtia, is the subject of this Zoom. In goëtic magic, there are no fireball spells. If you want to toss a fireball at someone, you have to summon a demon and command it to go toss a fireball at your foe. Same thing if you want to reconcile two enemies, or learn astronomy overnight. It’s demons all the way down.
Praise for Ken Writes About Stuff,
“The content of KWAS is top-notch, as one would expect from a RPG luminary like Kenneth Hite” –Daniel D.
“ brief injection of Hite-ian awesome … they’re just about the right length to digest in a single sitting, and full of amazing ideas that will make anyone’s game into a flavourful occult gumbo” –Bill Templeton
What is a GUMSHOE Zoom?
Not everything can support a game of its own, or even a big sourcebook. For those things, we present the GUMSHOE Zoom, a sort of supplement focused on a key game mechanic and its possible applications. In general, Zooms are interesting potential hacks, or intriguing adaptations of the main rules. Some apply to one specific topic or sub-sub-genre. Others cross all manner of GUMSHOE turf; you can slot them in and adapt them to tales of Cthulhuoid investigation, mean superpowered streets, or alien colonies alike.
Zooms are experimental. That does mean that they haven’t been playtested, necessarily. (If something in here is really really broken – and it’s not, as this ain’t our first rodeo – we’ll fix it in post.) But that also means we encourage you to experiment with them. Changing the cost, or prerequisites, or point effect, or other mechanical parameters of a given Zoom changes how often it shows up and how much drama it drives. The dials are in your hands.
Zooms will change the focus of your play if you use them. Putting a mechanic on the table puts it into your game. Adding a Zoom means more actions, possibly even more scenes, using those rules. Since the Zoom mechanics are intended to encourage specific actions or flavors, to force a card in your storytelling hand, they aren’t “balanced” against “normal” actions or rules. In general, if you don’t want to see more of it, don’t Zoom in on it.
Zooms are optional rules. You can and should ignore them if you don’t want them, or change them at will. After all, if a given Zoom turns out to be crucial to an upcoming GUMSHOE game, we’ll change it to fit that specific genre or form of storytelling.
GUMSHOE Zoom: Goëtia is the eleventh installment of the second Ken Writes About Stuff subscription available to subscribers now – it will be available to buy in the webstore in February. If you have subscribed to the second KWAS subscription, GUMSHOE Zoom: Goëtia is now on your order receipt page, so all you have to do is click on the new link in your order email. (If you can’t find your receipt email, you can get another one sent to you by entering your email address here).
|Stock #: PELH25D
||Author: Kenneth Hite
|Artist: Anna Rogers
|Pages: 15pg PDF
Continuing Ken’s theme of looting 13th Age for GUMSHOE twists, let’s talk about monsters. In 13th Age, monsters have a sort of rudimentary AI – instead of the GM deciding to use their special abilities in advance, they’re triggered by the result of the attack roll. So, for example, if a ghoul gets a natural even hit, it gets to make its target vulnerable. If a frost giant rolls a 16 or higher when attacking, it also gets to freeze its foe.
For example, here’s a basic human thug:
13th Age Human Thug
1st Level troop [Humanoid]
Heavy Mace +5 vs AC – 4 damage
Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming; it’s not a secret.)
PD14 HP 27
Automating monsters like that makes the GM’s life easier. Instead of having to make decisions before rolling the dice, the GM can just attack and let the triggered abilities make the fight more interesting and complex. The thugs, for example, encourage the player characters to focus their fire or dodge away from the ones who have extra damage lined up for next round. Some of the work of making the monster cool gets shifted from the actual play part of the game to pre-game preparation, leaving the GM free to concentrate on evocative descriptions. tactics and other immediate concerns. (Triggered powers can also surprise the GM, which is always fun.)
GUMSHOE monsters and foes have a limited number of points to spend on their attacks, possibly mediated by an attack pattern. While the attack pattern does take some of the heavy lifting away, the GM still has to make decisions about when to spend the bad guy’s ability pools. Let’s try taking away as much resource management as possible from the GM. For general abilities, for every 4 points a creature has in its pool, give it a +1 bonus, to a maximum of +3, and modelling special abilities as special-case rules or powers triggered by a dice roll instead of the GM having to make a choice. Health, obviously, is unchanged.
Obviously, GUMSHOE’s smaller range of random results means that you’ll have to be a little more restrained when it comes to special powers – there’s a big difference between a power that triggers on a natural 20 in 13th Age and a natural 6 in GUMSHOE. Possible triggers for powers include:
- Natural even or odd rolls – good for alternate attacks or special effects
- Natural 1s or 6s
- 5s & 6s – generically ‘good rolls’, useful for foes that have a chance of doing extra damage or inflicting some special condition, like stunning or knocking prone
- Health reaches a certain threshold – perfect for countdown mechanics, where the fie gets nastier towards the end of the fight
- The attacking player character has no points left in a pool – if you’re out of Shooting, the alien monster breaks from cover and rushes towards yo
You can also have a power be limited to a certain number of uses – a ghoul in Night’s Black Agents might get an extra attack on the first three times it rolls a natural 6, but no more.
All these rules are just for monsters and NPCs – player characters still get to juggle points and manage their resources as per the standard GUMSHOE rules.
Esoterrorist Security Guard
General Abilities: Scuffling +1, Shooting +2,
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +1
Stealth Modifier: +0
Damage Modifier: +0 (Pistol), -1 (nightstick)
Freeze!: +2 bonus to Shooting in the first round of combat if the security guard isn’t surprised.
Natural 1: The guard calls for backup. If help’s available, it’ll arrive in the next few minutes. The guard misses his next attack. Treat further natural 1s as simple misses.
Night’s Black Agents Thug (pg. 70)
General abilities: Athletics +2, Driving +1, Hand to Hand +2, Shooting +1, Weapons +2
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: -1
Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), +0 (club), +1 (9mm pistol)
Wall of Fire: If three or more thugs shoot at the same target, the last thug gets +1 Shooting
Gang Assault: If three or more thugs attack the same target with Hand to Hand or Weapons, they all get +1 damage.
Night’s Black Agents Bodyguard (pg. 69)
General abilities: Athletics +3, Driving +2, Hand to Hand +3, Medic +1, Shooting +2, Weapons +2
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +2
Stealth Modifier: -0
Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), -1 (flexible baton), +1 (9mm pistol)
Armor: -1 vs bullets
Protect the Principal: On a natural 5 or 6 when making an Athletics, Driving or Shooting test, the Hit Threshold of whoever the bodyguard’s guarding increases by +2 for the rest of the round.
Stunning Blow: On a natural 6 when making a Hand to Hand attack, the target loses their next action unless they spend 3 Health or Athletics.
Ashen Stars All-Shredder Klorn
General abilities: Athletics +3, Scuffling +3
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +2
Stealth Modifier: -3
Damage Modifier: +6
Natural Even Roll: +2 bonus to Scuffling
Natural Odd Roll: Smash! The klorn destroys some obstacle or object nearby – it breaks through a wall, kicks over a computer console, smashes its spiked tail through the engine coolant tanks, knocks over a nearby ground car or something equally cinematic.
Natural 6: The klorn’s target is impaled on its spear-teeth; +4 bonus damage
Frenzy: When the klorn’s reduced to 10 or less Health, it immediately makes a free Scuffling attack on the nearest foe.
Special: Refreshes health pool when struck by non-lethal disruption fire
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
As a general rule, writers learn to avoid repetition. In the immortal words of David Byrne, say something once, why say it again?
When writing roleplaying material I have to keep reminding myself to strategically violate that general rule.
If there’s one thing playtesting has taught me, it’s that you can write a rule or piece of guidance once, twice, or even three times and still have readers miss it. And roleplayers belong to a pretty elevated class of readers.
But roleplaying texts are dense, and are often read in a non-linear order.
Also, some best practices, even ones we all think we know deep down in our gaming bones, remain elusive in the heat of the moment. Basic common sense they may be, but playtest comments remind us that they need constant hammering home.
One of them is that, although scenarios link clues to a specific ability or abilities, the players can always get the clue if they present you with a credible alternate method. This means credible for the genre, not for our prosaic reality.
Another point you might consider basic to the hobby but nonetheless frequently requires reinforcement is that the GM may have to improvise new material, from minor details to whole scenes and branches, in response to unexpected player choices.
Along with these, here are two more things I often find myself writing into GUMSHOE scenarios, wondering if I should prune them back in favor of a general word in the introduction. In the end I wind up putting each reference back in. Because they can’t, it turns out, be repeated quite enough.
In Response to Specific Questions
A block of scenario text will often provide a set of bullet points a particular witness, suspect or other target of Interpersonal abilities might provide. For example:
After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou says:
- He was down at the docks to collect a debt from a guy. You know, the kind of debt you collect at 2 am on a lonely pier.
- He found the mope he was looking for and was in the middle of applying persuasive means to his sensitive parts when a strange glowing figure flew overhead.
- It had arms and legs and a head, like a person, but was real long and stretched out, with a set of what looked like freaking moth wings.
- The glow reminded him of a firefly, except it was all over and not just coming from one place.
- He was so distracted he let the guy go to chase after it.
- It looked like it landed between the warehouse and the propane depot over there, but by the time Lou got to the spot it was gone already.
I always wind up inserting a phrase into that intro line, so it goes like this:
After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou answers specific questions as follows:
This serves several purposes.
One, it encourages you as GM to break up the information into bite-sized pieces. The scene becomes a back-and-forth between you and the players and not a pause to paraphrase or read text from the scenario.
Two, it requires the players to do more than name the Interpersonal ability they’re using and sit back for a flood of exposition. They still have to ask the right questions to get the info they need.
I’d like to treat this as a given but the lure of text on paper makes it all to easy to forget to keep it interactive.
No Need to Squeeze the Rind
The basic area-clearing adventure many of us cut our teeth on instilled certain expectations about the amount of scenario text that actually comes into play at the gaming table.
In a dungeon crawl, the PCs might miss out on entering particular rooms. But once in a chamber, you expect most of the stuff listed in its entry to happen: the heroes fight the monsters, encounter the traps, and strip the room for loot. Later innovations, like “taking 20” in D&D 3E and its heirs, go further to ensure that everything that can happen in a room, does.
In an investigative scenario, the writer needs to cover more material than any one group will ever uncover. GUMSHOE gives players lots of information, requiring them to sort out the incidental and flavor facts from the core clues required to move to the next layer of the mystery. It must anticipate the most common questions a group will ask.
But that doesn’t mean that any one group will ask all the questions the scenario answers. Some may efficiently ask only the one or two germane questions and move on. Others will pose every query they can think of. No two groups will come up with same list of queries. In a well-designed scenario the logic of the situation leads the players to ask the question that prompts the witness to mention the core clue.
By its very nature, any adventure genre scenario that allows for plot branching has to include text for more scenes than any one run of that scenario will touch on. If it gives you the option to form a bond with the vicar over your mutual interest in pagan sculptures, but no one in the group chooses to pursue that, that’s the price of true choice. Even if the scenario writer included some really cool stuff featuring the vicar.
The players haven’t failed to engage in all possible interactions. They’ve made the choice to interact with other things—the family who live near the graveyard, or the folklorist staying with them at the inn, or whatever.
Nor has the scenario failed to force them to do everything. If an adventure eventually requires you to exhaust every alternative, they’re not really alternatives.
A scenario that provides freedom and choices must include more material than any single group could possibly activate. If that means you as GM see the potential for cool scenes that your players never touch, that’s not just acceptable. That’s a non-linear scenario working as designed.