In Raymond Chandler’s short story “Nevada Gas,” Johnny De Ruse, one of his proto-Marlowe protagonists, pays a hotel detective for answers to questions. In GUMSHOE terms, he’s clearly using the Bargaining ability. Before De Ruse gives him the dough, he extracts a promise not to tip off the man he’s investigating. A few beats later, he discovers that the house dick, Kuvalick, went straight to his target to spill the beans.

GUMSHOE handles requests for benefits other than information as spends. You spend a pool point associated with the investigative ability you’re using. You’d get the info from Kuvalick, then spend a point to get him to shut up.

De Ruse naturally is plenty steamed when he finds out that Kuvalick double-dealt him. You can expect your players to be even more annoyed than their characters if they make spends and get less than nothing for them. Yet to never permit a supporting character to betray them means that you can never use this basic genre situation.

To retain the possibility of petty sellouts in a way players find acceptable, frame it as a choice. As the PC extracts the promise of cooperation from Kuvalick, suggest, in GM authorial voice, something along the lines of “you can see the wheels turning in the backs of his eyes. Trusting him might be a crapshoot.” When the player has 2 points in Bargaining, you could indicate that 1 point lends the chance of cooperation, while 2 buys certainty. Even if the player has only 1 point, she can still decide whether spending it on an untrustworthy recipient is still worth risking. Then when the betrayal comes, the player at least made an aware choice.

(In a scenario you could easily roll randomly to determine whether your Kuvalick equivalent rats the characters out or stays bribed.)

Except in the bleakest setting, let’s say a Purist Cthulhu scenario, I’d then refund the spent point.

This uncertainty principle could extend to other Interpersonal spends, adding suspense to the proceedings. The investigator senses that a 1-point Reassurance spend might or might not keep the scared maid from staying put while you go off to find the ghoul. That the recipient of your 1-point Cop Talk might agree not to record your interaction in his notebook, and so on.

One could argue that characters ought to have Bullshit Detector in order to sense that a bribe might not stick. On the other hand, you could also say that Bargaining includes the ability to assess honesty during a Bargain, Reassurance can test whether your calming words will stick, and so on.

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.

Detective_400Face Madness and Corruption… Alone!

Los Angeles, 1937. Fast-growing city in the world. Suicide capital of America. By day, a place of blue skies and palm trees. By night, a town ruled by the smell of fear. The System, a tight-knit conspiracy of cops, crooks, politicians and businessmen, holds L.A. in its grip. One lone private detective, equipped with smarts, fists, and just maybe a code of honor, uncovers the town’s secret truths. But what happens when you scratch past the veneer of human malfeasance to reveal an eternal evil—the malign, cosmic indifference of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos?

You get Cthulhu ConfidentialTM.

You get GUMSHOE One-2-OneTM.

One Game Master, One Player

GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and reenvisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set, as seen in such hit roleplaying games as Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, for one player and one GM.

Together you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format.

Can’t find an entire game group who can play when you can?

Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience?

Play face to face.

Or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops to play online.

Includes all the rules you need to play, plus a detailed approach to building your own mysteries.

Horror Goes Hardboiled

Cthulhu ConfidentialTM drops your hero into the noir nightscape of hardboiled-era Los Angeles. Meet its powerbrokers, from the kings of its vice rackets to the Hollywood studio bosses who mold America’s dreams. Rub shoulders with cultists and radio evangelists. Frequent its legendary restaurants and glittering nightspots. Just don’t get hit by that careening Packard while standing at the end of the Lido Pier. There’s a dead man at the wheel.

The Party Girl With the Stolen Sanity

Includes a fully rendered scenario, “The Fathomless Sleep.” How exactly did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. Explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism.

A hard case like you won’t stand for any flimsy, half-hearted introductory adventure. “The Fathomless Sleep” serves as a complete model for further mysteries of your creation in the city of fallen angels.

Status: In development

by Yohann Delalande

[Editor’s Note: Yohann ran the the One Sheet GUMSHOE competition on rpggeek, which had an extraordinary 18 entries. Congratulations to all the entrants .You can download all the entries here.]

One of the recurring obstacles every GM has met at least once concerns time vs preparation work. After all, it is usually considered that a good session relies heavily on the amount of details they have gathered upstream in order to create an engaging plot.
However, one among many of the advantages the GUMSHOE system offers to any GMs lies on its flexibility and versatility. As we can see with sandboxy campaigns like The Armitage Files for Trail of Cthulhu and The Dracula Dossier for Night’s Black Agents, most of the investigative work is done in-game, by the players themselves, thus lifting some of the prep work off the GM’s shoulders.
So, what about reducing all that prep work to make an adventure that would be easy and ready to run in a 10-minute read, especially in configurations like pick-up games or con games?
This is actually the idea behind Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s adventure The Haunting and Robin Laws’ The Frosh Week.
So when Simon Rogers asked me if I’d be interested in running a new contest on RPG Geek, I immediately saw how useful a handful of new scenarios would be for GUMSHOE GMs like me.
However, it turned out that the handful I expected became a score of amazing submissions sent to the RPG Geek One Sheet GUMSHOE Contest 2015. The instructions were simple: write a two-page adventure for the GUMSHOE game of your choice and send it to the contest organizer. Then when the time comes, cast your vote.
And among our 18 submissions, three really stood out:

  • Our 1st place winner: The Keepers of the Woods, written by Frederick Foulds, for Trail of Cthulhu. This murder mystery in a Devonshire village will lead the investigators to the discovery of a cult worshipping an ancient god.
  • Our 2nd place winner: The Barreville Flap, written by Michael Grasso, for Moon Dust Men. In the town of Barreville, Montana, strange UFO sightings prompts agents of Project Moon Dust to collect intelligence and technologies, but also to disinform its inhabitants.
  • Our 3rd place winner: Monster Squad Control, written by Tom McGrenery, for the GUMSHOE SRD. Monster Squad is an internet-based monster hunting start-up with control room administrators (the players) working from home while their agent (the GM), is on the field doing all the dirty work.

However, I would also like to highlight the fantastic quality of the other 15 submissions which truly deserve some praise – you can find the whole list s here (registration to RPG Geek is 100% free).
Obviously, we at RPG Geek, would all love to see you read, run, play, enjoy, and comment all the submissions that catch your interest. But most importantly, we really hope they will incite you to write your own One Sheet GUMSHOE adventure and share them with us.
Now it is your turn to amaze us and enthral us with your own trail of clues.

You can download all the entries here.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Some mysteries, like that of life itself, never resolve themselves in anything other than new, stranger questions. Deconstructed mysteries like David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) and Mulholland Drive (2001), Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965) retain the outward form of the mystery genre, with clues and questing investigators, without the reveal at the end. Some supposedly straight mysteries, for example Edgar G. Ulmer’s Grade-Z oddsterpiece Murder is My Beat (1955) present such a peculiar set of clues that they too seem to throw the sureties of the genre into a spiral of arbitrary result. From Zardoz (1974) to Inception (2010), many dreamlike, trippy, or alternate reality films follow the seemingly structureless structure of the existential mystery.

In The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, the Mystery Man’s Ocean Game, created by master monster-maker Dave Allsop, very much follows in this tradition. In case you missed it, it’s right there in the name of the psychologically sadistic outer dark entity: the Mystery Man. This enemy targets the protagonist, turning his life into a series of clues that leads anywhere but out. He destroys his victims by gradually enmeshing them in a hellish, hallucinatory pocket reality.

At first the Mystery Man’s invasive bubble version of the world bleeds into the real one. The hero goes about his everyday life, as weird manifestations bubble in its periphery. Over time they take greater focus, intruding more often, with increasing intensity. Finally the target becomes completely mired in the Ocean Game illusion.

Existential mystery could likewise torment your Trail of Cthulhu characters. Due to pineal gland experiments, a ritual gone awry, or an accidental drift into dreamland, characters could find themselves trapped in an otherworldly realm. In Ashen Stars this effect might occur when your ship drifts into a stellar anomaly, quantum disturbance, or the disembodied aura of a dead Vas Kra. Though it would impose a big drift in genre, even Night’s Black Agents spies might find themselves running operations in a psychic reality created by blood magic. Alternately, you could ditch the genre trappings of the various GUMSHOE game lines for an exercise in unspecified modern weirdness. Or jump publisher boundaries to create your own GUMSHOE-powered iteration of Over the Edge. Whatever the trappings, the solution to the mystery might require the victims to comprehend how and why their reality shifted out from under them. But then there’s still the final question: how to get out.

Before trying this, get buy-in from your players to make sure they’re ready to care more about experiencing the mystery than solving it. For many groups, you may prefer to present the mood and structure of the existential mystery but allow for a scene where they finally figure out what’s going on, get the heck out of there, and put everything away in a neat little box.

A scenario in which investigators do not seek realistic clues which lead them from one actual location or see into another requires some questioning of what is a scene and what is a clue. You might sprinkle a number of weird facts into a scene. You could determine in advance which ones are sufficiently creepy or evocative to pull them further into the story toward another scene. Alternately, whichever detail the players most obsess over becomes the pathway to another, equally puzzling follow-up. This of course requires you to improvise more than a standard scenario might. But then you don’t have to worry about it making literal, as opposed to thematic, sense, making your task considerably easier.

The ending of an existential mystery depends on a central question: are the characters resolving something inner, about themselves, or outer, about existence itself? In the first case, the scenario is most likely resolvable. The characters interact with people, places and situations reflecting their internal conflicts. They either overcome these and escape, healed, into an ordinary reality where questions have answers, or fail, and are trapped forever in the labyrinth or otherwise destroyed. If it’s existence itself they’re tackling, they’re screwed, baby. It’s labyrinths all the way down. Enjoy the minotaurs!

The witnesses, shady characters and monsters they meet along the way will even more than usual embody universal symbols and archetypes. As a student of that classic existential horror mystery, The Wizard of Oz (1939), you already know the drill. Along the way the heroes will meet psychopomp characters who point them on the way, twisted antagonists bent on turning them from the road, and companions of various outre stripes whose limitations the hero must overcome to in order to access their full aid. In many RPGs, this last category might be filled by the other player characters.

Naturally you skin these figures as dictated by the signature tropes and images of your game’s genre. The psychopomp might be the manager of an underground club, an alien star child, a Bucharest arms dealer, or a deceased professor, his advice appearing in the form of a scrawled final diary.

In existential mysteries locations take on a looming significance. Describe a dreamscape version of reality, with ordinary locations distorted, twisted, and blown up to cavernous scale. Render workaday places eerie by depopulating them. Instill the sense that events are unfolding just out of the characters’ sensory range. They hear a party, or the disturbed laughter of maniac children, but no matter how quickly they run toward the source of the sound, never manage to fully behold it.

As GM you don’t have to decide at the outset whether you’re running a journey of inner or cosmic significance. You can instead gauge what the players expect and either deliver that, or satisfy them with the switcheroo of their secret desires. Generally they’ll want to solve the problem but in a horror environment they may instead feel let down if they fail to shamble their way toward to a sanity-blasting outcome.

Page XX

A Column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

When we of the Pelgrane-Industrial Complex write and test GUMSHOE scenarios, we take care to avoid short circuits—moments that, early in play, could conceivably allow the investigators to abruptly move to the end of the story. The dissatisfactions of short-circuiting are various. The players miss out on all the fun interactions, problems, and thrills set out for them to explore, leading to a feeling of anti-climax. You never want to end a scenario with the players wondering, aloud or implicitly, “Is that all there is?” Nor do you want to end a play session after an hour when the group expected at least their standard three to four hours.

Less well considered than the problem of short-circuiting is its opposite number, the need to hot-wire. Hot-wiring, a term I just made up*, refers to the process of cutting material from a scenario to fit a rapidly diminishing time window. You may need to hot-wire because:

  • you have too much adventure left for one session, but not enough for two.
  • one or more key players won’t be able to make it next time.
  • you’re running a one-shot, perhaps at a convention.
  • a key player has to bail early on this session.

The less linkage between scenes in an RPG scenario, the easier they are to hot-wire. In an F20 game like 13th Age, you can drop a couple of the fights. Where the connective tissue between battles seems too hardy to dispense with entirely, you can even elide your way to the climax with a few lines of description: “After several days fighting your way through the orc lands, you finally find yourselves standing at the foot of the Crusader’s grim tower.” Hillfolk’s scenes are so modular that you can stop at any time. Additionally, the narrative driving remains as much up to the players as the GM. And of course in The Dying Earth the picaresque characters continually skate on the edge of comeuppance, with a closing explosion of chaos to rain down on them never further away than the nearest Pelgrane nest.

GUMSHOE, however runs on way scenes connect to one another. Ripping out those circuits means finding the quickest route between where the characters currently are and a climax that makes sense and feels right. GUMSHOE is an investigative game, meaning that players want to come away feeling that they investigated something. Finding clues is the core activity, so you can’t elide that away from them. It would be like skipping not only the connecting fights but the epic final throwdown in a 13th Age run.

To hot-wire a GUMSHOE scenario, find the final scene you want to land on. Some scenarios present multiple climactic scenes based on player choices. Most converge the story into a single final scene, in which certain choices may be foreclosed, penalized or rewarded depending on what the protagonists have already done so far.

Given a choice of climaxes, pick the one that you think the players can work toward most efficiently without feeling that you shoved them onto a greased slide. The ideal hot-wire job doesn’t appear as such to the players. The way to achieve this is to still give them opportunities to be clever. The difference now is that the reward of that cleverness becomes a faster propulsion toward the finish line.

If given one final scene that can play out in various ways, quickly scan for the payoffs it provides to past decisions. See how many of them the players have already made, and how many still lie uncovered. If you can find a way to route them through some or all of those choices on the fast lane to the climax, great. Otherwise, them’s the breaks when you’re rewiring on the fly.

Your main task? Identify the shortest logical-seeming route from the current scene to the end point. Look at the section headers for the various Lead-Ins to that scene. Skip back to those scenes and locate the core clues that enable the investigations to reach it. You may find one or several.

Linear scenarios can be harder to hot-wire than ones that provide multiple routes to the conclusion. A journey investigation as found in Mythos Expeditions may have to use the narrative elision technique to get from the problem at point C in the wilderness to the final one at point J.

Where the climax boasts more than one lead-in, pick the core clue that you can most easily drop into the situation at hand. Or find a core clue that gets you to that penultimate scene, letting the players take it from there.

Let’s say you’re running a modern Trail of Cthulhu scenario** using abilities imported from The Esoterrorists. The climax occurs after hours at an aquarium theme park, where Deep Ones orgiastically empower themselves by tormenting killer whales. The investigators are partway through the scenario, having discovered the fatally slashed corpse of a rogue marine biologist in a gas station bathroom. As written, the corpse lacks ID and the investigators have to crack other scenes to learn who the victim was and then discover she was onto something fishy† at the aquarium. The investigators can discover the latter clue one of two ways: by tracking down and winning over her justifiably paranoid wife, or cracking her notes, as found in an off-site backup.

To hot-wire that scene to lead directly to the orca-torturing aquarium orgy, plant a clue to the off-site backup on the corpse. In the original, the murderers took her purse and car, to cover their tracks. After you hot-wire the scene, they were interrupted by a station employee while trying to steal the vehicle, and fled. This allows the team to find the victim’s tablet on the back seat of her car and use her Dropbox app to access her file. Present this so they have to, as would be usual, search the car for clues, and then figure out that her files might be accessible from a file storage interface app. That way they still get to feel like they’re doing the work of GUMSHOE investigators, feeling a sense of accomplishment as they screech toward their final assignation at that theme park.

*In its roleplaying context. Settle down, car theft enthusiasts.

**Warning: scenario does not yet exist. But GUMSHOE is OGL now, hint hint.

†Honestly extremely sorry about that. I am writing this the day before Gen Con, and it is also very, very hot.

The most vivid GUMSHOE investigative abilities in play are the Interpersonal ones. They allow your characters to get information through extended dialogue with Game Master characters, requiring a touch more player skill than the Technical or Academic categories.

They also show, in the game’s imagined on-screen space, who your character is and what attitudes she brings to her interactions with others. It affects how the other players see her. So when creating your character, give some thought to what the ability you expect to use most says about her.

Figuring out what personal traits go with which interrogation tactic isn’t a complicated exercise. Here are some examples to get you thinking.

Bullshit Detector: A skeptic to the bone, you go into any situation expecting people to lie to you. The question is, which lies are reflexive, and which ones bear on the case at hand? Your caustic sensibility reveals itself in hard-boiled wisecracks.

Impersonate: A natural mimic and deceiver, you enjoy pulling the wool over others’ eyes. You observe people well enough to pretend to be them. A slickness and love of surfaces pervades your dealings with others.

Inspiration: A true idealist, you believe not only in your own principles, but in the capacity of others to rise to become their best selves.

Interrogation: You value the authority you earned from an official role as cop or law enforcement official. With that comes a taste for respect—a thing you expect, but dole out to others only reluctantly.

Intimidation: You bully your way to victory. You may be physically imposing, emotionally intense, or both. The first question you ask yourself in a new interaction is: how do I seize dominance here?

Negotiation: You see life as a series of transactions. You take pains to put on the kindly face of the reassuring questioner, but that’s all part of the wheeling and dealing. What does the other person want, you ask yourself in a new situation. How little can I give him to get it?

Reassurance: You project a kindly demeanor, and get what you want out of people through kindness and empathy. You start encounters asking yourself what everybody needs.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of all Interpersonal abilities in the GUMSHOE SRD, or the only possible treatment of the ones described here. But it will get you started as you wonder which of them warrants the spotlight of a 2 or 3 build point investment.

Creative Commons Original Image Attribution: Double-M

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.

Page XX

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:

  1. identify the skill or ability required to gain a piece of information
  2. roll a die to see if they succeed or fail
  3. in the case of a success, listen to the GM narrate that information to them.

All GUMSHOE does is eliminate step 2. You:

  1. identify a suitable ability
  2. 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.

Just as DramaSystem characters are torn between two dramatic poles, we as roleplayers may find ourselves torn between two roles: character and co-author.

Certain games and play styles encourage us to think only of what our PCs would do. Some players who prefer this approach take a semantic leap overboard and declare any game where you do anything other than that as definitionally not an RPG.

(Really they mean it’s not the kind of RPG they like, but hey. Without hyperbole, we would all be thrown into the sun and instantly incinerated by the screams of a million super-demons.)

Focus only on the character as decision-maker can become a challenge if the player is also intensely self-protective. The extreme version of this player requires the GM to petition him for permission to insert the group into a genre situation. “Why would I go down the basement into the old house? My character would just stay home and call the police!”

GUMSHOE players will recognize that as the problem Drives address. They put the onus of engaging with the premise on the players. GUMSHOE assumes engagement and asks you to specify the flavor of it that suits your investigator’s personality.

Most of us move fluidly between character and co-author states without having to think about it. Your character might talk over everyone else if given the chance. As a player you know enough to establish her as relentlessly verbal, then step back and allow your fellow participants equal time to speak. Your character might want to murder that hobo, but as player you rely on the other players, talking in character, to convince you otherwise. That way you get to show a key point about your character, but the plot doesn’t go in a direction you don’t actually want.

An equivalent disjuncture occurs in our experience as audience members for fiction. We may identify with a character and hope that everything works out for them. At the same time, we might see that the goal they’re pursuing will actually lead them to ruin. So we are rooting for them in general but against them on the specific, tactical level. That’s a type of dramatic irony. You can find it everywhere from Washington Square to “Better Call Saul.”

In a recent DramaSystem session, one of the players bumped into this. His character wanted to solve the problem at hand. (Something about a vat of unicorn blood.) However, as co-author he saw that there was still plenty of tension and story development to be had out of this plot device. If the problem got solved too quickly it would disappoint everyone at the table. As he groped for the right scene to call, I suggested that he come up with one that explained why his character would be unable to do what he wanted. He invented an obstacle in his own character’s way, called a scene around it, and the unicorn blood vat was preserved for another day.

That shows how far DramaSystem takes you onto the co-author side of the continuum. Where procedural games are all about problem-solving, Hillfolk may well encourage you to protect, nurture and cosset your characters’ problems.

Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Improvising With GUMSHOE by Steve Dempsey

logogumshoeThis 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.50423

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.

Don’t block

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.Scene from The Third Man

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.

wormAnya 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)

bookmanThis 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.

Investigative Abilities

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

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

MissBartitsuIf 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


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