By Robin D Laws
Any game design that starts with me reading an enormous stack of Jack Vance novels is one after my own heart. Before re-acquainting myself with his classic cycle of novels set in the far future Gaean Reach, I assumed that Pelgrane’s companion to The Dying Earth Roleplaying Game would use its rules—or rather, the streamlined and reconfigured version of them that now appears as Skulduggery.
Reading the books, including the Demon Princes and Alastor series, as well as Ports of Call/Lurulu and such standalones as Maske: Thaery and The Night Lamp, I realized that, despite the many similarities between Vance’s fantasy and SF settings, a different underlying structure was at work here, one that would require another core rules set—one that, fortunately, lay to hand in convenient GUMSHOE form.
In both the Dying Earth and Gaean Reach, characters speak to one another with an elevated wit, encounter horror and beauty in equal measure, and embody the eternal selfishness and cupidity of humankind. Though a mordant irony suffuses all of Vance’s works, the space opera titles concern themselves less with the constant one-upmanship and reversal found in the three mature works of the Dying Earth (Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel’s Saga, and Rhialto the Marvellous.) The lead characters of these books are scoundrels, nearly as deserving of comeuppance as the antagonists they strive to outwit. Their schemes and plots take place under the rules of Swiftian satire. As readers, we are as amused to see their fortunes overturned as rewarded. The Skulduggery core resolution system, with its rolls and rerolls, emulates the dynamic of constant reversal found in these books.
The Gaean Reach books, on the other hand, extend to the reader a more traditional sense of heroism. Their self-reliant protagonists are sympathetic heroes whose success we root for. The villains earn our hatred, though varying degrees of vicious psychopathy and contemptible pettiness. The self-interested, caviling types of the Dying Earth appear, but as secondary characters placing minor obstacles in the heroes’ paths. Nearly without exception, they draw us into the action with a simple device. The villain wrongs the hero; the hero seeks vengeance. At a midpoint in the action the hero may suffer a single, mammoth setback, which we suffer alongside him. Showing his resolve, he perseveres, and, by following a trail of clues to the villain, whose identity and location are generally obscured to him, achieves the retribution for which he, and we, burn.
This is not a structure of constant reversal, of dueling scoundrels. It is a story centered around investigation, which may be interrupted by scenes of action and danger, sometimes to the great detriment of the protagonists. That is to say, it’s GUMSHOE.
All along Pelgrane-in-Chief Simon Rogers and I assumed that this project would entail some crossover between the company’s two house systems. But instead of GUMSHOE-flavored Skulduggery, the end result revealed itself as Skulduggery-flavored GUMSHOE.
It wouldn’t feel like a Vancian setting without the sometimes florid, sometimes terse, always barbed repartee at the heart of his work. So the first Skulduggery import had to be the tagline system, which rewards the player with tokens for adroitly deploying supplied lines of Vancian dialogue. This system encourages players, including those who otherwise wouldn’t try, to speak in this heightened lingo. Although the results are inevitably less polished than on Vance’s pages, the tagline process reliably succeeds in evoking that spirit—even in players who think they can’t do it, and without the boost wouldn’t let themselves try.
In Skulduggery, the tokens you earn for tagline use buy you ability refreshes. They do this in The Gaean Reach, too. But that can’t be their only function, because GUMSHOE characters don’t deplete their pools as quickly or constantly as their Skulduggery counterparts, especially during a scenario’s investigation-heavy stretches.
Adding a new currency, the token, to GUMSHOE allowed me to solve other design challenges. Gaean Reach guns instantly kill on a single shot. This runs counter to the roleplaying tradition of the extended fight sequence, in which life ebbs away in increments. No one wants their characters to die after a single unfavorable roll. Likewise, many plots end prematurely when heroes can kill their enemies with the same solitary die result.
As one would expect, Vance writes his way around the lethality of his setting’s weaponry. He constructs his situations so that his vengeance-seekers don’t immediately meet and shoot dead his main bad guys. Henchmen and alien creatures die by the drove, but the primary antagonists elude their fire…for a time.
The game emulates this narrative convention by requiring you to spend additional tagline tokens to gain story permission to shoot key antagonists. On the flipside, you can spend tokens to explain your way out of situations in which your enemies ought to be able to shoot you dead.
One way to keep a game currency scarce is to give the players lots of ways to spend it. As in the original Dying Earth RPG, tokens also function as experience points, which you can spend to gain new abilities or add to the ratings of those you already have.
This dovetails with another import from the Skulduggery incarnation of the Dying Earth rules: a lightning-quick character generation process, in which a set of randomly distributed cards defines the characters’ abilities and outward personae.
On-the-fly, players can then spend tokens to fill out crucial but missing abilities, especially the investigative ones. (A backstop process makes sure that someone has a needed ability even if no one has any tokens to spend.) Buying an ability shared by no one else costs less than adding someone else’s existing specialty to your character sheet. This wrinkle prevents spotlight hogs from generalizing their way to omni-competence.
Along with a simplified ability list, these changes make for the most streamlined, newbie-friendly iteration of GUMSHOE yet. I’ve configured this version like this because the game’s default premise activity—pursuit of a terrible enemy who has wronged each member of the party—assumes a finite series, which ends with his climactic defeat.
(As the word “default” implies, we also include options to continue past the nemesis’ destruction, or to adopt alternate frames.)
As a side-effect of this choice, those hankering for an instant-start GUMSHOE with a collapsed ability list now have a game tuned for convention runs—presumably ones in which the PCs avenge themselves not over the course of a series, but in four fast, fatal hours.
by Robin D Laws
The GUMSHOE rules break with roleplaying tradition in several notable ways. Most obviously, its information gathering skills, here called investigative abilities, default toward automatic success, with a point-spend mechanism to allow for extraordinary successes and additional benefits.
Also, its general abilities—those governing activities where failure is as likely to lead to an interesting plot development as success—don’t much concern themselves with the simulation of a measurable reality arising from the characters’ capabilities. Instead they allow players a strong but uncertain control over when their characters succeed and fail.
This approach emulates the structure of procedural ensemble fiction, where each of the main characters gets a number of chances to shine per story. The clearest model for this appears in episodic TV. Over the course of a series, if not in every episode, key characters receive a roughly equal number of spotlight moments, in which they overcome major obstacles in a cool and compelling way. Each character does this in accordance with his or her key traits or abilities.
GUMSHOE general abilities port this narrative convention into roleplaying. You get X opportunities to shine per scenario, where X is a somewhat fuzzy and unpredictable number. Your character may shine with an atypical ability, but more often than not triumphs by employing the abilities most associated with her.
When creating your character, envision the sorts of victories you want your character taking part in, and allocate your build points to the abilities that best suit those moments.
If the mechanics seem weird to you, you are probably applying the simulative thinking of other fine rules systems to GUMSHOE, resulting in a classic expectations mismatch.
Your character does not, for example, become literally worse in her abilities as you spend points. Ratings remain unchanged as you spend points. Point-spending is something players do on the fictional level, not something that happens to the characters in their reality.
If your Athletics rating is 8, you are better, overall, at performing physical tasks than a teammate with an Athletics rating of 4. When making a pound-for-pound comparison, always use ratings, not pools.
However, if you’ve already spent 4 points, and your teammate has spent none, you now have a roughly equal chance of successfully performing Athletics-related tasks until the next refresh occurs. But you already have one or two successes under your belt, most likely, while he hasn’t done anything to demonstrate his athletic prowess. You have already shown yourself to be the superior athlete by overcoming obstacles using your Athletics. All else being equal, you will be the superior athlete more often than a character with a lower rating.
Variables may muddy the waters. You might spend low and roll low, losing when you thought you would win. Obstacles you tackle might present higher Difficulties than those lower-rated fellow PCs dare to confront. But over time, you will rack up more key moments with your higher rating.
In fiction, character is action. In procedural fiction, in which the characters face obstacles external to themselves, what counts is how often you win, and how. Your characters’ bad-assedness is established not by the number still sitting in your pool column, but by your achievements so far.
GMs can assist in this perception by describing unexpected setbacks not as a failure of the character’s abilities, but as the result of external complications. Scotty doesn’t suddenly forget how to fix the Enterprise. But he may be delayed by ion interference—especially if he already got the ship out of a big jam earlier in the episode. Now it’s Kirk’s turn to solve the problem using his key abilities, or maybe Spock’s.
The die rolling component of tests, twinned with the concealment of Difficulty numbers, introduces the uncertainty, and therefore the suspense, needed to balance players’ dual roles as authors and spectators. In the mainline roleplaying tradition, you control your character to some extent, but are anxious for his success at various intervals. GUMSHOE tips the balance a little more towards the author side, by letting you pick your successes. But it maintains tension by introducing doubt to any general ability outcome.
In real life, the results of important decisions remains unknowable until we make them. Compelling fiction works the same way. When viewpoint characters take action, we hope for their success and fear for the consequences of possible failure. This happens in most roleplaying games when a die is rolled. GUMSHOE ratchets the tension up a notch by adding a tough decision point on top of that.
Uncertainty comes, in part, from never knowing how many times you’ll need a given ability in the remainder of the scenario. Knowing that the base Difficulty is 4, you will often be right in deciding how many points to spend, should you decide to. But both decisions remain at least somewhat fraught. If it makes you a little anxious, it is doing its job.
The added anxiety suits the genres GUMSHOE chooses to address: the gritty space opera of Ashen Stars, the deglamorized super-heroics of Mutant City Blues, and the horror of The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu. If you’re playing the latter and complaining about a mechanism that confronts you, just a touch, with the essential unknowability of human existence, perhaps you need to go back and reread “Supernatural Horror In Literature.”
GUMSHOE has always adjusted its basic parameters to the needs of each game. Should we someday get the license for Care Bears Mysteries, we’ll surely dial down the point-spend uncertainty principle.
Until then, you can never be sure at any moment that you’re spending the absolutely right number of points on any given action. But you can ask yourself how much you want this particular triumph, and spend accordingly. Not with your calculating head, but with your storytelling gut.
 It’s true that a few abilities, like Health and Stability, bend the pattern, functioning as resources that deplete over time. Hiving them off from the general abilities would add as many new confusions as it it would solve.
 Disclaimer: not an actual entertainment property.
Ulf Andersson has kindly supplied us with Refresh cheat sheets for all the GUMSHOE games, including Night’s Black Agents (which is available to pre-order now). These are extremely useful and comprehensive resources, a must for any GUMSHOE GM.
GUMSHOE Cheat Sheets
You can download the PDF here.
By Robin D. Laws
Although I’m not a line developer or editor for the GUMSHOE line, the Head Pelgrane occasionally asks me to comment on manuscripts in progress. Over time I’ve been able to see certain issues crop up in the work of multiple authors. This process has improved not only those books, but my own work. It’s easier to see problematic material in someone else’s draft than in your own. Manuscript review has also crystallized my thoughts on how GUMSHOE, and particularly its scenarios, might be refined and better presented. While revising our internal writer’s guidelines to reflect these developing insights, we thought we’d open them up to a general audience by presenting key selections in this and next month’s installment of See P. XX.
Let’s reverse the universe’s usual polarity by moving from the general to the specific—from tips to punch up any piece of writing, to those applicable to roleplaying scenario writing, and finally to the finer points of GUMSHOE.
Punching Up Any Piece of Writing
These rules will stand you in good stead in most fiction or non-fiction writing. Exceptions pertain in particular fields: scientific papers demand the passive voice, for example.
You may groan at the familiarity of certain examples, but they show up repeatedly in the work of skilled professional writers, and so bear repeated hammering.
You’ll note that I advise writers to take these steps during revision. Stopping your first draft to wrestle with sentence structure kills momentum and may plunge you into the chill waters of self-doubt and frustration. Tackle this stuff later, when spotting and fixing errors fosters a sense of accomplishment. Eventually you’ll internalize these tricks and instinctively perform them during the writing phase.
Avoid the passive voice, in which you obscure the object of an action by turning it into the subject of the sentence.
The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed by mi-go.
By de-emphasizing the person, force, thing or shambling horror, performing the action, you weaken your sentence’s impact.
If you’re writing a business press release or apologizing for a politician, you may omit the real subject of the sentence entirely:
Mistakes were made.
The sanity of the Congressman was destroyed.
Here you’re fudging on purpose, removing culpability and attributing the action to some unnamed force. You mi-go apologist, you!
When revising your manuscript, and you see any variation of the verb “to be” followed by a past participle, reconfigure it.
Mi-go destroyed the Congressman’s sanity.
I made mistakes.
As with any general writing tip, you may find specific reason to violate this dictum. Dialogue justifies all manner of prose sins. Perhaps mi-go always speak in the passive. I wouldn’t put it past them. The overall point remains—only do this when you can justify it.
Here’s an issue I used to conflate with passive voice before I started reviewing other people’s manuscripts and got corrected on it. When reviewing your manuscript, look for instances of the verb “to be” and its variations—“is,” “are”, “was” and “am.” Most sentences pair these with an additional verb.
The sheepbots are grazing on the hill.
The vampire was sucking her blood.
Wherever you can do so without weirdly contorting your sentence’s rhythm or syntax, reconfigure to drop the “to be” and rely entirely on the more vivid paired verb.
The sheepbots grazed on the hill.
The vampire sucked her blood.
You may be using “to be” to indicate timing—it suggests an ongoing action, rather than one that has already completed itself. Do this only when absolutely necessary—often the exact sequence of events proves less important than the stronger punch of the single action verb.
Over-reliance on “to be” becomes a special temptation when writing in the abstract mode found in the essay, or in rules text.
The second edition is better organized than the first.
Use of weak verbs is a sign of a beginning writer.
This rule is the key to GUMSHOE.
By replacing instances of “to be” whenever possible, you’ll accumulate a repertoire of stronger, more precise substitute verbs.
We reorganized this edition for superior ease of reference.
Use of weak verbs reveals the hand of the beginning writer.
To understand GUMSHOE, absorb this key rule.
Paring “of the”
Sentences including the word pairing “of the” can often be tightened by replacing them with an apostrophe.
He hires the crew to repatriate the mantle of the king.
He hires the crew to repatriate the king’s mantle.
Consider this issue wherever it appears, but don’t treat it as an iron-clad rule. You may want to leave an “of the” as is:
- for rhythm
- to maintain formality
- when emulating an older style
- to preserve thought order by ensuring that a sentence ends on a particular clause.
Sometimes the apostrophe version strikes the reading ear as jarringly direct.
The following issues prose issues apply specifically (or at least particularly) to the roleplaying form.
Deprecation of the “will”
Though often mentioned, this issue continues to bedevil scenarios, which are written in a strange conditional future tense. In a sentence describing an action which a PC or GMC may or may not take, you may find yourself reflexively inserting the word “will”:
If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny will burn the car.
Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants will scramble for the hidden exit.
You can do yourself, and your editors, no better favor than to train yourself out of this habit. In this construction, “will” is totally unnecessary, and thus deadens the sentence’s impact:
If the agents reach the safe house, Keletny burns the car.
Should scavengers get past the drop door, the mutants scramble for the hidden exit.
Plurals Are Pluralistic
In the future hypothetical voice of roleplaying writing you often find yourself constructing sentences around players and/or their characters whose genders are unknown to you. More inconveniently still, grammar predates feminism, rendering all attempts at gender inclusivity awkward in one way or another.
GUMSHOE uses the conceit that the hypothetical unknown GM is female and the players male. As a side benefit, this sometimes clarifies sentences featuring multiple pronouns.
Even better, when you can, turn the subject plural to avoiding assuming gender for your hypothetical subject.
The character can leave his pistol at the door, or leave it on the ship.
Characters can leave their pistols at the door, or leave them on the ship.
Next month: We move beyond prose issues to navigate you past scenario design pitfalls, general and GUMSHOE.
With Kenneth Hite’s GUMSHOE vampire spy thriller Night’s Black Agents now percolating out into the gamer bloodstream, you may be seeking resources for your real-life geopolitical chasing and shooting needs.
One site to bookmark is In Moscow’s Shadows, the blog of Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s criminal underworld, its national security apparatus, and the intersections between the two. (If the name sounds familiar, you may know Mark from his secret identity as a stalwart of the Glorantha community and author of the Mythic Russia RPG.) Watch also for his column, Siloviks and Scoundrels, in the Moscow News.
An example of the blog’s NBA utility can be found in this recent round-up of the various police and security forces we may see deployed if the anti-Putin protests escalate.
By Robin D Laws
Though most players find GUMSHOE simple and straightforward, we’ve heard from a few folks who’ve had trouble assimilating it. Usually this happens when they see that it’s a little different from the roleplaying rules they’re used to, and then assume that it’s even more different than it really is. Here are the questions we tend to get from players as they grapple with GUMSHOE, along with the answers that helped them make the adjustment. Use these to guide any of your players who haven’t yet had the cartoon lightbulb of recognition appear above their heads.
Doesn’t the game railroad the players down a single path?
No more so than any other investigative game in which the players attempt to unravel a mystery whose answer the GM has determined in advance. (Nor do you have to determine it in advance) If the only source of narrative branches in a scenario is the possibility that the PCs will fail to understand what’s going on, it’s already a railroad. For this reason, GUMSHOE actually allows you to see the clue path more clearly and construct it to avoid single-track plotting. You do this by ensuring that there are multiple paths to the eventual solution.
In many instances, the feeling that players enjoy freedom of decision-making matters more than the actuality of your plot diagram. A story replete with chances to fork the narrative in unexpected directions may feel like a railroad if the players feel pressured or constrained. Conversely, a single-track plot might feel free and open if they feel that they’re forging ahead and you’re scrambling to keep up with them. When players feel hemmed in or see only one undesirable way forward, the GM may need to point to their various options, showing them that they’re not being railroaded.
Won’t the players just rattle off all of the abilities on their character sheets every time they enter a scene?
No more so than in a game where you have to roll against your abilities to get information. Players who imagine this happen are assuming a much greater difference between the traditional style and the GUMSHOE approach than actually exists. In each case, players always have to describe a logical course of action that might lead to their getting information, directly or indirectly suggesting the ability they use to get it. In the traditional model, there’s a roll; the GM supplies the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped—but it’s the only step skipped.
Player: I scan the area for unusual energy signatures.
GM: Roll Energy Signatures.
Player: I succeed.
GM: You detect a harmonic anomaly on the quantum level—a sure sign that Xzar technology has been used here, and recently.
Player: I scan the area for unusual energy signatures.
GM: [Checks worksheet to see if the player’s character has Energy Signatures, which she does.] You detect a harmonic anomaly on the quantum level—a sure sign that Xzar technology has been used here, and recently.
In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out “Anthropology! Archaeology! Botany! Cybe Culture! Evidence Collection!” They don’t do this because it would be weird, boring, and stupid—and because in neither case does it fill all the requirements necessary to get information from a scene.
The only difference is the lack of a die roll. It has a big effect on play, but that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly taking the express train straight to Crazytown.
What if the players come up with a different way to get the information than the scenario specifies?
Give it to them. GUMSHOE always provides at least one way to get clues into player hands. Reward player creativity when they find others. Disallow this only where it:
- pushes aside another player who ought to be able to use an ability he’s heavily invested in to get the info, and who would be upset to see his spotlight stolen
- makes no fricking sense whatsoever
In the latter case, work with the player to suggest a more plausible means of using the proposed ability to acquire the clue in question.
In some cases, an unorthodox ability use might require a spend or trigger some negative consequence in the story. In general, though, GUMSHOE is about allowing access to information, not disallowing it. The default GMing style handed down by oral tradition from the hobby’s early days trains us to be on the lookout for actions to disallow. GUMSHOE works best when you always look for ways to say yes.
How hard should I hint if the players are floundering?
As much as you have to, and (ideally) no more.
The barrier we traditionally erect between player autonomy and GM intervention is like any other roleplaying technique—it’s useful only insofar as it makes our games more enjoyable. In GUMSHOE or any other system, frustrated players are generally happy to be nudged back on track, even if you use techniques that would otherwise seem intrusive. Hint as unobtrusively as you can, but hint all the same. When possible, disguise your hinting by using the mechanisms the game provides you. In this case, use your Investigative Ability Worksheet to find an ability that would logically provide the insight needed to see past the current roadblock. Then narrate it as if the character who has the ability has had a hunch or breakthrough:
“Suddenly you remember the phrase your Forensic Accounting professor kept hammering into you: follow the money!”
[Industrial Design] “Maybe it’s the engineer in you, but you can’t help thinking there’s something about that schematic you missed the first time around.”
[Interrogation] “It occurs to you that maybe it’s time to take somebody into custody and ask a few tough questions.”
The extent to which you subtly usher the players along is also a pacing issue. What seems intrusive and railroady in the middle of a session may feel satisfyingly efficient as the clock ticks down toward the end.
What are the common causes of player floundering?
Stopping to ask why players are stuck is the first step to hinting them out of their conceptual paralysis. A few common syndromes lie behind most floundering incidents:
Problem: Someone already came up with the right, simple answer, but it was dismissed or forgotten.
Solution: Tell the group that they’ve already considered and dismissed the right answer.
Problem: The group is stuck in endless speculative mode.
Solution: They need more information. Remind them of this basic investigative principle.
Problem: The group knows what to do, but is too risk-averse to proceed.
Solution: Tell them to nut up. That’s why they get paid the bigcreds.
What if players over-investigate every little detail?
Expect players to surprise you by applying their investigative abilities to tangential descriptive details. For example, as the players explore a palace on a Tudor synthculture world, you might mention that a medieval-inspired tapestry hangs over a wooden throne. The core clue is a residue of alien protoplasm on the bottom of the throne. You mentioned the tapestry simply to add another evocative detail. Now your players are asking you what’s on the tapestry, whether it’s antique or modern, and whether the star pattern shown in its sky tells them anything.
A useful clue that dovetails with the episode’s central mystery might occur to you here. If not, though, you can still treat this as more than a null moment to be quickly dismissed. Instead, treat tangential queries as opportunities to underline the characters’ competence, while at the same time signaling that they have no great relevance to the case at hand. You can do this simply with a “no big deal” tone of voice or body language, or you can spell it out explicitly.
[Astronomy] “You can recall a thousand star systems from memory, and can say right away that the pattern of stars is just an arbitrary pattern chosen by the artist.”
[History, Human] “The images depict an idealized image of Henry VIII—exactly what you’d expect from someone who didn’t bother to delve into the actual history.”
[Chemistry] “What’s it made of? The usual synthetic fibers, exactly as you’d expect.”
What if the player actions suggest a clue that isn’t in the written scenario?
This will happen all the time. No scenario, no matter how tightly written, can provide every answer to the questions players will use their abilities to ask. When this comes up:
Using your knowledge of the scenario’s backstory, think up the most logical answer to the question.
- Pause to make sure that your answer doesn’t contradict either the facts needed to supply the solution to the ultimate mystery, or any of the core clues along the way. If it does, modify it to fit the rest of the mystery.
- Supply the info. This might lead to new scenes and alternate ways of gathering the core clues. Improvise as needed to keep up with player actions.
Doesn’t the clue structure make the game hard to prepare for, or to run on the fly?
It’s true that good mysteries are hard to plot, in roleplaying or in other media. You have to be able to plot in two directions, creating both a logical backstory that makes sense when reconstructed, and (as a bare minimum) at least one logical path for the investigators to follow when unraveling it. However, if you keep the backstory reasonably simple, you can rely on the players to provide all the complications and red herrings you need. With this in mind, preparation for a game session can be as easy as jotting down a few point form notes sketching out the backstory and scene structure. Provided you keep the basic details and story logic straight in your head, this very basic structure makes plotting easier, not harder.
In this case, you’re in luck: space opera conventions mean that Ashen Stars mysteries can be simpler than those in police procedurals or horror games.
In my group, we never see the game ground to a halt on a missed information roll, so why play GUMSHOE?
Play it because it focuses and streamlines play, eliminating the elaborate workarounds your GM has to use to make the missed information rolls invisible to you. It replaces these moments of circular plotting with more interesting scenes that move the story forward.
Optional Rule: No-Spend Investigative Spends
Although most groups enjoy the investigative spend rules, a few have reported problems with them. Some players find that the need to ask for investigative spends intrudes too much on the illusion of fictional reality, or makes it too clear that there are certain actions they ought to take during particular scenes.
Here’s another method of providing the flavor clues available through investigative spends, for groups that prefer it. This optional rule is equally applicable to all GUMSHOE games. Be aware that, like most optional rules, this imposes a trade-off you should be aware of before implementation. In this case, the GM takes on a greater bookkeeping burden in exchange for making the system more transparent to her players.
Before play begins, the GM checks all character sheets for investigative abilities with a rating higher than 1. She complies a master list, arranged per ability, ranking the characters in order of their ratings.
Graz Prister has Downside at 4. Clementine Heidegger has it at 3, and Arno Black at 2. The entry in the GM’s master list looks like this:
Players alert the GM whenever they add to their investigative abilities, so they can keep the master list up to date.
Whenever the PCs enter an investigative scene in which a spend is available, the GM checks the master list to see if any of them could afford to make the spend. The first time this happens, the GM chooses the topmost character, and puts a number of ticks next to the name equal to the size of the spend. During subsequent scenes in which a spend can be made in the same ability, the GM chooses, from among the PCs whose ratings equal or exceed the spend, the one with the fewest tick marks. The tick marks do not represent expenditures; under this system it is possible for a player with 2 points in a particular ability to get two or more 2-point clues, if no one else in the group qualifies to earn them.
This approach doles out the flavor clues in a way that favors players who’ve invested the most points in any given ability, but hides the mechanism from them, so they can’t see the plot gears in motion. It also tends to result in the revelation of more flavor clues.
The PCs are interviewing a witness, a hollow-eyed spaceport hanger-on named Lou. The scenario notes say that on a 1-point spend, a character with Downside will know the meaning of the decorative glowing sub-dermal implant that Lou wears on his left wrist. You, the GM, check your master list for Downside, and see that no spends have been made against it this scenario. So the highest-ranked character with the least tick marks is Graz. You describe the implant and tell his player: “The bracelet indicates that he’s a timestooge—a dupe of a bogus nufaith run by con artists pretending to be temporal travelers.”
Two scenes later, another opportunity for a Downside spend comes up. This is for a 2-point spend, to know that the radiation scars on the arm of a witness were probably put there by the notorious smuggler who loves to brand enemies with a jury-rigged weapon. You check the list, which now looks like this:
Graz 4 ♦
Graz already has a tick next to her name, so Clementine gets this clue. You then put two tick marks next to her name:
Clementine 3 ♦♦
The GM can either start fresh with no tick marks at the beginning of each scenario, or continue the existing list from one case to the next.
by Steve Dempsey
You enjoy the investigative genre, you dig the GUMSHOE system, you’ve got Cthulhuesque horrors all lined up for Trail of Cthulhu, Super Criminals bursting out all over in Mutant City Blues or a Jungian monster from the Id for Fear Itself. There’s just one thing that’s bugging you. You don’t want to play in the given settings. Instead you want Cowboys or Cro-Magnons or Anthropomorphic Kitchen Utensils with Pasta Limbs. Well, perhaps not that. But you get the drift. You don’t want the vanilla background but you’re not quite sure how adapt the game to suit your wonder campaign. So here’s what you do.
There are four parts to the GUMSHOE rules which take system specific dispositions. These are abilities, occupations (or stereotypes) , drives (or risk factors) and benefits. We’ll consider each of these in turn, to understand how they work and how to change them to fit your new setting.
Occupations (or Stereotypes)
Your character’s job is more than just a way to get occupational ability bonuses (if you’re playing Trail of Cthulhu). Even more so in Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues, where occupations are pre-defined (elite investigator and cop respectively), it defines the kinds of thing one might expect your character to do in the setting. It’s also more than that. It defines their role in the stories you’ll tell.
So go back to the fiction that inspired this setting in the first place. What did the protagonist in the film do before he was called upon to investigate and deal with the Bad Thing? What job did the heroine do that meant she was well placed for dealing with the threat. As you can see, how characters became investigators is important.
For example, in a Western setting, if you only allow White Hat (that is Good Guy) occupations such as Sheriff, Deputy, School Ma’am, Plucky Kid, Retired Protector of the Poor and Doctor, then, it’s a strong indication that the characters will be (at least at the start) good guys. They are all also likely to be on the same side (much as in Esoterrorists). If however you go with Bandit, Landowner, Sheriff, Vigilante and Cattle Baron, then it’s clear that the waters of morality will be muddied and interparty conflict strongly on the menu.
Unless everyone agrees to start play with a bunch of all do-gooders or ne’er-do-wells, or you only want a very narrow range of characters (you’re all super-powered refuse engineers tracking down the dirt that threatens humanity) it’s best to give the players quite a wide choice, at least ten or twelve. Not only does this inspire the players and make it easier for players to find a fit for their concept but it also gives them a good idea of the kind of characters they’ll be involved with.
In Trail of Cthulhu, you need to go further than just a description and provide a list of occupational abilities (which are half-price to that character) and a special ability. We’ll come onto the list of abilities later but you should bear in mind that you need about 10 for each character and that the lists should be sufficiently different from each other to distinguish between the occupations. You also need to provide a special ability. You can take inspiration from those which already exist. Several occupations get access to special information (church or medical records, museums or newspapers), get a skill bonus (criminals, hobos or military) or refreshes (author and artists). Again, consider your sources of inspiration. Perhaps the Sheriff can Raise a Posse (giving a pool of Tracking and Shooting points, depletion indicates injury to the deputies), the School Ma’am has got just the book back in her house and the Plucky Kid has a secret den in the town where he can’t be found.
When coming up with your list of allowable occupations, consider:
- What media inspired the background and what do people in it do?
- What you want the characters to do?
- How do they become investigators?
Drives (or Risk Factors)
The drive is the stick and, as Kenneth Hite puts it, the stunted, dubious carrot which tempts characters into the investigation and draws them away from getting help. Even if as a Keeper you never need invoke a character’s drive to encourage the player into a dangerous situation, you will find that an involved player’s character already embodies its drive. The Cro-Magnon Shaman approaches the Hungry Spirit out of pride, or perhaps fear of failure, the Warrior tackles the cave bear because he has nothing to live for or wants to add another painting to his wall. You should choose a list of drives which give characters justifications which fit the fictional background, not only in terms of the player justifying the character’s actions but also in terms of the setting’s cultural norms. The drives in Trail of Cthulhu are largely intellectual justifications, in Fear Itself they have a more emotional bent, is ennui a suitable drive for a Cro-Magnon, or Antiquarianism (“Don’t drop that flint scraper, it’s Neanderthal!”)? I’d go for something more primal such as hunger, rage, shame or curiosity. Again, give the players a range of choices, around ten, to allow them to differentiate between the characters and see what will be driving the others on.
Depending on the setting, you might also want to include penalties and bonuses. In Trail of Cthulhu, turning away from the horror is a strong choice for a character to make. The penalty is mechanical evidence of the inner turmoil that the character suffers. If handled well, this can be a dramatic high-point of a game and eventually the character is likely to return, drawn back in spite of their good sense, to the fight. It might be suitable, for example, to impose a health penalty on a Cro-Magnon who refused their drive, to represent the tribe’s scorn and hence the lack of food coming their way. It could, in a game based on social standing, damage a character’s credit rating. It’s worth having a think about what avoiding danger means in the background.
- How do want the players to approach the danger?
- What are the cultural norms of the background?
- Do you want penalties/bonuses and how is this represented in the background?
Abilities are the nitty-gritty of what characters do in the game. Which abilities are available directly influence what actions characters take and so having the right mix is important. As mentioned previously, you need enough to distinguish between the different occupations so you need to get the right mix of abilities and level of detail. It’s best not to multiply the abilities to the extent that the point spread is very thin, but then again, if for example your game is CSI based then you might wish to split up the different forensic specialisms. No more than 50 investigative abilities and 30 general abilities is a good rule of thumb. It’s probably easiest to start with one of the published lists and modify that to your tastes.
The naming of the ability is important. If you don’t want characters to torture people, don’t have that as an ability. Use intimidation or pressurising. It’s also important that the skill be named in such a way that the players can remember what it does. Access and Security Bypass are not clear but Hacking is. Go with what’s easy to understand, especially with new abilities.
The technology available to the characters is a big indication of what abilities they might have. There’s no point in Cro-Magnons having photography, firearms or art history. On the other hand, outdoorsman might be too broad an ability which could be better split into different terrain types such as woods, water and ice, plains, and mountains.
There are two kinds of abilities. Those which govern investigation and those which govern action.
For the former, you should also consider how characters get clues. Is it through some learned knowledge (academia), interacting with people (interpersonal) or the application of a skill (technical)? Try to get a spread between the three categories but don’t worry if one dominates. With the Cro-Magnons as much as the Cowboys, academia is unlikely to feature strongly but in a game of crime busting wizards, you’d expect book learnin’ to be right up there in the many different flavours of esoteric and historical knowledge.
For general skills consider the range of action scenes in the game. For Cro-Magnons, it’s probably about hunting, trapping, a bit of dancing and turning dead mammoths into food, clothes and weapons. Couple this with running away, taming smaller critters and signalling and that’s probably your lot. Cowboys can use pretty much the same abilities as Trail of Cthulhu with planes but adding trains and dollies to the choices for driving.
You might also wish to consider breaking down the combat abilities further introducing martial arts, or different kinds of firearms abilities. Here are some examples of tweaks to the combat system appropriate to different genres:
- Quick Draw, make an athletics check to see who fires first in a duel. The highest score goes first but suffers a +2 to the hit threshold.
- Called Shot, +2 damage but +2 to the hit threshold
- Hail of Stones, a group of people throwing stones can require anyone passing through the area covered to make an athletics check with a difficulty equal to the number of throwers or take 1d-2 damage (minimum 1). This will drive off wild animals.
- What’s the technology?
- How do people get information (i.e. clues)?
- What level of detail is important (Science v Physics/Chemistry/Biology v Atmospheric Physics/Nuclear Physics/… etc.)?
- What action scenes do you envisage?
- Any combat options needed?
In the structure of GUMSHOE, there are core clues which are free and supplementary clues which are not. Core clues are those which signpost new avenues of investigation whereas supplementary clues give some indication as to what the mystery is about. Besides those you can also spend investigative points on benefits. These are advantages a character can buy which are not direct clues, probably not even clues at all but make the characters’ live easier or more interesting. As a keeper, it’s a good idea to have some benefits prepared in reserve to suggest to players and get the ball rolling. You might pay a point of streetwise to ensure that the cattle baron’s men are off in pastures far when you go to his stead, or two points of herbalism to give the whole tribe mushroom induced visions, to prove the power of your ju-ju. One of the more common spends is to get a contact. Oral History might allow you to impress some Cro-Magnon children who will act as a look-out for you or for the Cowboys, you might spend Cop Talk on getting a contact in the Pinkertons. The rule of thumb I use is that a one point benefit spend gives two points to create a pool of another ability. This does sound like a simple way to generate lots of extra points so don’t let the players abuse it (not that that has ever happened in one of my games).
- What’s the culture?
- What’s the technology?
- What institutions are there? (In which you can get a contact)
Wrapping it up
Whilst in time honoured tradition you might think that it’s the Keeper’s job to decide all of the features in advance and then imposing your decisions on the players, you could also consider doing this setting building work together. In my experience, the best way to get player buy-in and immediate involvement in the background is to involve them in creating the background and character design.
by Robin D. Laws
In response to a previous installment of this column, mxyzplk writes:
My group hasn’t gotten around to playing GUMSHOE yet despite me owning several of the books, but we have played games with somewhat similar mechanics before, and it seems like it runs the risk of either a) hoarding points or b) running out and then having to sit on your hands the rest of the adventure, knowing that if you get in a scuffle with someone you’re lunchmeat because you don’t have anything left to spend. I’d be interested in your analysis on how to not have this happen.
Like a lot of seemingly obvious, game-breaking problems that come to mind on an initial read of a roleplaying rules set, this is not much of an issue when you actually sit down to play. That’s the thing about apparently crippling rules issues—they don’t make it through in-house playtest, much less to print.
(The same goes triple for concerns formed from a second- or third-hand understanding of a game.)
GUMSHOE’s general spend mechanism exerts a push-pull dynamic. It is meant to make you as a player want to hoard points… and then not do it. In practice, that’s what happens. Players like to do things. When they decide that their character is going to try to do something, they want the character to succeed. They may spend only a point per general action early in a session, holding the bigger expenditures for especially dangerous or climactic events later on. This is how they’re supposed to do it.
When you attempt a general action in GUMSHOE, you roll a six-sided die and add the number of points you’ve spent from your pool. The baseline Difficulty for actions is 4. The average roll on a d6 is 3.5. In other words, when attempting actions of standard Difficulty, you’ll succeed half of the time without spending anything. Spending a single point means you’re almost certain to succeed. Spending 2 points cinches it.
So in the case of an ability you really care about, one you’ve bothered to seriously invest in, you can succeed many times before running out of points.
And if players do hoard in the early going, when most Difficulties will be at the baseline, their failure rate will increase only slightly. The effect is noticeable but far from game-breaking.
If it happens at all, which it won’t in most groups. Players don’t like it when their characters fail, even at trivial actions. When push comes to shove, they spend, at least a little. If anything, GUMSHOE characters fail less than their equivalents in other game systems. Run the numbers and you’ll see that they fail much less often than BRP characters, for example.
This decreased failure rate was built into the game, based on the observation that characters in other story forms—even in horror—fail less than most roleplaying games would have them do. Or rather, they face setbacks at pivotal moments, when it is maximally interesting for them to do so.
Remember also that general abilities are the side dish to GUMSHOE’s main course, investigative activities. Most of a game session will be devoted to gathering information and putting it together. Moments of fighting, driving, climbing and so on occur in brief flashes. You can go for hours of game time without ever having a reason to spend a point on anything.
So that’s the one worry, hoarding, addressed. What about its opposite, the free-spending grasshopper who runs out of points early and then has to sit on his hands?
If players overspend on easier Difficulties early in the game and then find themselves pressed in the late going, that’s the system doing its job. The problem is self-correcting: the next time out, players will spend more carefully.
The point of the mechanism is to invest the players emotionally in any general ability attempt, to make them ask how much do I really want this? The lesson learned from an over-spending session will reinforce this, granting the decision-making process greater heft.
Now, you may want your players to have full access to all of their points when it comes time for the pulse-pounding conclusion, after all the clues are tallied and it’s time to go down into the basement to confront the batrachian cultists, or strafe the McMillenist base with only a shuttlecraft cannon. All you have to do is give them a chance to refresh their pools beforehand. This is one of the oldest principles in gaming, wearing slightly different clothing. You’re making the same choice you would before a set-piece fight in D&D, allowing the players to rest and regain their hit points and spells. Resource management in RPGs is nothing new. GM adjustments to resource availability for dramatic purposes has always been part of the repertoire. The only difference with GUMSHOE is cosmetic: we’re more clearly calling a resource a resource.
Like your hit points and available spells in a D&D fight, general spends control the number of successful actions you can take in a single big scene. Unlike D&D combats, they ensure that action sequences are short and to the point. (In the horror games, where the PCs are typically outmatched, the right way to say that might be “short, brutish, and to the point.”) In D&D and its cousins, the fight is the main dish. The whiff factor that comes with the broad spread of a d20 result is intrinsic to its extended pacing. Not so in GUMSHOE, which is all about getting your hits in up front.
In the end, this is another case where the GUMSHOE rules seem on a cursory glance to diverge more sharply from the roleplaying norm than they really do when you sit down at the gaming table. Which is an argument for giving any new game an actual whirl before getting hung up over its possible shortcomings.
This is not to say that GUMSHOE or any other game is without drawbacks, or will hit the sweet spot for every group. Tastes vary. Any game will have things it does better than others. A game’s real pluses and minuses for your particular mix of players will almost never match your first-read worries.
You can’t know how a game plays until you take it for a spin. So, whatever new game you’ve been poring over, call up your friends, schedule a session, and get playing.
We have three new playtesting opportunities available at the moment. If you’re interested in playtesting any of these please email me with the name of the game in the subject field (e.g. Love of Money Playtest), stating whether or not you’ve playtested for Pelgrane before. The deadline for these playtests is the end of March.
The Love of Money – The Esoterrorists
This is a fantastic new adventure from Matthew Sanderson. Ordo Veritatis agent John Sheldon has gone off the organisations rader following the loss of his wife in a car accident. He has been tracked to Amsterdam and the shady Metallon Corporation, an industrial giant headed by Johan van der Hulst, a prominant Esoterrorist with a very influential ‘imaginary’ friend. Your team must travel to Amsterdam and discover the dark secrets of van der Hulst and the true goal of the Metallon Corporation before it is too late.
The Dying Earth Revivification Folio – Dying Earth/Skulduggery
In preparation for the re-launch of The Dying Earth, Robin D Laws presents The Dying Earth RPG with the new, simpler Skulduggery rules system. It’s a standalone book, you don’t need to own the Skulduggery core book.
Pathshoe – GUMSHOE/Pathfinder
Gareth Hanrahan has produced a supplement for Pathfinder which will open new ways to approach discovery and adventuring and enable players to bring in the investigative rules from GUMSHOE into your Pathfinder game.
At Dragonmeet we ran a seminar on investigative gaming featuring (from left to right) Gareth Hanrahan, Robin Laws, Ken Hite, and yours truly . Please forgive the initial plugging of forthcoming Pelgrane Press products at the beginning – the bulk of the seminar concentrates on investigative gaming and the touchy subject of railroading.
This lead to a number of lengthy threads on enworld, on rpg.net and therpgsite.
The full seminar paints a much clearer picture – you can listen here (kindly hosted by Yog-Sothoth). I think you can see from this photo (thanks, Tom Baynham) that we enjoyed ourselves.
Podcast: Play in new window