I gotta say, it’s a good thing I already wrote GUMSHOE rules for expeditions. Because now I’m not surprised when everything takes longer and seems harder than it did when we planned this thing. Mythos Expeditions has, like its namesake, run into its share of excitement along the way. Promising paths had to be neglected, heroic comrades fell along the trail, and I can’t get the sound of those drums out of my head! The drums! The drums! Oh, hold on, I’ve got Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” on repeat on iTunes. My bad. I blame FX’ The Americans, which is giving me a Cold War nostalgia that is very dangerous in a man with an espionage RPG line. Very dangerous. Hmm. Oh, right. Where were we? Or, rather, when were we?
That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as the adventures for Mythos Expeditions have come in. One or two are still out gathering firewood or looking for fresh water, but I’m fairly confident that we’ve got our table of contents right here, right after “GUMSHOE Rules for Expeditions”:
“The Gobi Sleepers,” by Steven S. Long
Maverick paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews is making one last trip to the wilds of Mongolia, to uncover primordial fossils revealing the true heritage of mankind. At the edge of the world, on the brink of an invasion, the expedition must sift the dust of the Gobi and survive the truth. Andrews’ last expedition was in 1930, but time tends to get weird out in Inner Mongolia.
“Ravenous Silences,” by Anthony Warren
Plague and rebellion grip Liberia in West Africa, but the brave scholars of the Miskatonic Medical Relief Expedition are undaunted. And, so far, undevoured! The Kru Rebellion ran from 1931 to 1936, and this adventure can run likewise.
“Lost on a Sea of Dreams,” by Adam Gauntlett
Oceanographer William Beebe has invented an amazing device, the bathysphere, that promises to revolutionize deep exploration forever. A team of Miskatonic scholars is bringing him an improved model … sailing on a course leading through the Bermuda Triangle. Beebe’s Bermuda expeditions ran from 1930 to 1934, opening up a vast horizon of chronological possibilities.
“An Incident at the Border,” by Kenneth Hite
Set in a Paraguay battling for its life against Bolivian invasion, this expedition takes Miskatonic geologists — and a helpful oil company engineer — deep into the desolate heart of the Gran Chaco. Artillery strikes, vampire bats, dust storms: Paraguay’s got it all during the Chaco War (1932-1935).
“The Jaguars of El-Thar,” by Tristan J. Tarwater
An unstable anthropologist in the wilds of Mayan Yucatan. The prestige (and expedition budget) of Miskatonic’s Mayan studies program is on the line, in a remote province thrown into turmoil by Depression, rebellion, and the return of unwelcome outsiders. Riffs off the Mayan “Caste War” ending in April 1933, as well as another event that year that might spoil the adventure if I revealed it here.
“Tongued With Fire,” by Bill White
The historical roots of the Prester John legend — perhaps of the beginnings of Christianity in India — draw Miskatonic scholars to the hills above the Punjab to uncover the true significance of an ancient artifact that may have been touched by John the Baptist! Flashing back to Kipling’s Raj and forward to Gandhi’s revolution, this expedition likely launches between 1936 and 1939.
“Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” by Emma Marlow
A mysterious stone whistle carved by an unknown tribe in the interior of a New Guinea island! Cannibals! Limestone caverns no human eye has ever seen! Errol Freaking Flynn! And I haven’t even teased the best thing about this scenario yet. If you have a single pulp-gamer bone in your body, you will run this adventure set in May, 1937. Trust me.
“A Load of Blarney,” by Lauren Roy
A curious shape in a cargo of iron leads Miskatonic’s finest on a tangled trail through Irish history, past rath and grange and standing stone, through the Moon-Bog of the Barrys, and into a mythic terror. It begins with the historical sinking of the steamship Annagher in December 1937, and ends … well, that would be telling, would it not?
“Cerulean Halo,” by Matthew Sanderson
President Roosevelt wants to return to Clipperton Island, an isolated speck in the Pacific hundreds of miles south of Mexico, an island legendary for its deep-sea fishing and haunted by its murderous past. Miskatonic University wants FDR to take along a Miskatonic naturalist who knows the island. There isn’t one, so the Investigators will have to do instead. The President did indeed visit Clipperton in July 1938, so you must have found nothing amiss before then, right?
You’ll note I’ve put those adventures in rough chronological order. Why is that? I will explain, in the manner common to such things, by means of a rambling exposition. Mythos Expeditions is a collection of scenarios, not a campaign. The basic expedition structure is fairly inescapable: Investigators travel through danger, meet horror, escape/overcome it or die/go mad/both. When the only core clue you really need is marked with a big red “X” on the map, the advantage, the killer app (heh), the key to a good expedition scenario is the scenery: the setting, the horror, the sense of, yes, travel to a strange far place. Running all these adventures in a row strains those advantages. Fodor’s Disease sets in: “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgian Congo.”
Ideally, you’ll parcel them out over years of play, tossing an expedition into the middle of an ongoing series of urban Arkham adventures, rural Massachusetts bonfires, and campus intrigues. Putting these scenarios in chronological order, then, helps you plant seeds ahead of time. It lets you know when “sweeps week” might be coming for your campaign, and gives you big events to build up to. Sure, you can change things up — only a churl would cavil if you extended the Yucatan Caste War, or moved FDR’s second Clipperton fishing trip up to his first term. You’re not tied to the real history (which is oddly bereft of Yithians and blasphemous frog-people, anyhow) — but you can always play in it, if you want. I think that’s more fun. Maybe that’s just me.
And if you further differ with me, and want to run them all in a row, who am I to say you can’t? I say no such thing. However you want to play, spaced out or time-shifted, this book will also contain guidelines for using these adventures as the spine of an Armitage Inquiry campaign. Rules for bringing knowledge back to the Orne Library, so that everyone in the Inquiry can build up those dedicated pool points. If I have time, maybe a sub-system for playing through an academic career (student or faculty) at Miskatonic University, where “publish or perish” takes on a whole new meaning. Or maybe that will have to go in a later issue of Ken Writes About Stuff. It’s hard to say. I just have to keep striding forward, toward that big red “X” on the map. And somehow stop these maddening drums.
Pop quiz, hotshot: a mysterious figure tosses a grenade at you. How much damage do you take? In GUMSHOE, it depends on who’s throwing the grenade.
A cultist of Hastur? Point-blank grenade damage in Trail of Cthulhu is +3. Right there, one table, look it up, bang. Or rather, boom.
A vampiric henchman, or a mutant criminal? Point-blank grenade damage in Night’s Black Agents (within 2m in Mutant City Blues) is +0, plus 6 more points (three times the grenade’s explosive class of 2) for a net of +6. A little more figgering, but still, boom. (The table should probably have the rule in it, so you don’t have to flip any pages. Notes for future second editions.)
An Esoterrorist? A grenade near enough to do damage in the Esoterror Fact Book does +2 damage, rolled three times. You can spend 4 points of Athletics to dive away from one roll, and 6 points of athletics to dodge two rolls. It’s your choice, but someone has to remember the rule.
A giggling slasher, or a sentient locust? In Fear Itself and Ashen Stars, the GM is just gonna roll something and decide how hosed you should be.
Pete’s Dad? You’ve gotta ask the other guy, but it don’t look good.
You probably want to get grenaded by an Esoterrorist, if you’re the spry type.
Why so many different versions? Isn’t a grenade just a grenade? (Yes, GURPS fans, I know. Put your hands down.) Part of the reason is that Robin and I keep coming up with new (and, one hopes, often better) ideas for game mechanics. One of the really great joys of GUMSHOE development is the ability to tag-team design this way. (Or at least it is for those of us tag-teamed with Robin; he may see it differently. On an unrelated note, the 18th-century strongman Belzoni did a stunt in which he carried a ton of dwarves on his back.)
But a bigger reason is this: GUMSHOE games are first and foremost about building a game experience that models a specific narrative style, a specific genre. In Trail of Cthulhu, maintaining a mood of horror is key, so we don’t want to get down in the rules weeds. Damage should be fast, simple, and (with Purist mode Health levels anyway) unpleasant. In both Night’s Black Agents and Mutant City Blues, those genres (spy thriller and police procedural) feed off the bling of surface details. The rules should be crunchier to reflect that, and they should cover more types of explosives and scale higher than the relatively simple Trail of Cthulhu chart. Also, the damage can be higher, because the heroes are badass spies or genuine superheroes. The Esoterror Fact Book thing isn’t really a grenade rule, although it’s presented as one. It’s actually a Thriller Combat Maneuver because it models cinematic badassery. I could easily have lifted it as an option for Night’s Black Agents, probably calling it “Thrown Clear of the Blast.” (It’s going in Double Tap, never you fear.) In lo-fi horror and space adventure serial, you almost never see grenades, so they’re not even present in the Fear Itself or Ashen Stars rules text. If grenades are so important to the specific story that the GM needs to add them, she’ll have a much better idea of how much damage they should do to her heroes or their foes. (Hint: It may not even be the same amount of damage.)
This little grenade workshop exemplifies the kind of thing that makes developing the eventual Open GUMSHOE (a stretch goal secured by your generous support for Hillfolk) a mite tricky. But it’s also what makes GUMSHOE so powerful: you can swap out grenade rules as easily as you can port byakhee into the Bleed, or send Toronto super-cops after dhampirs.
And it’s not all grenades. You can change up really fundamental rules for the game, like how the dice work, with almost as little effort. During the Dragonmeet GUMSHOE panel in 2011, I teased a questioner who said his players were made nervous by the finality of GUMSHOE spends, calling a “take-backs” version (you can spend after the roll, maybe at double the cost) WhineSHOE. I meant it, of course, with love tempered only very little by the frustration of the chef who sees a diner enthusiastically pouring balsamic vinegar on the Dover sole. Staunch and valued friend of GUMSHOE Lowell Francis took it in good spirit, proposing a couple of changes he’d like to see in his own “WhineSHOE” post. In his LiveJournal, gameratus Joshua Kronengold proposed another very interesting variant:
Instead of “1 spend = +1 [to the die],” replace this with “1 spend = +1 or roll +1 die, keeping the highest”. The nice thing about this is that +1 die is actually strictly worse than a straight +1 (adding a die and dropping the lowest increases the likely result by +35/36). But Gumshoe isn’t about your maximum total; it’s about your chance of failure, and there the first +1 die (but not so much the rest; extra dice have a steep diminishing return) drastically drops your worst cases — changing the chance of a 1 from 1/6 to 1/36 (although there you’d rather go from 1/6 to 0/6), a 2 or worse from 2/3 to 1/9, and a 3 or worse from 1/2 to 1/4.
I thought this was such a good, neat, elegant hack that I shot it off to Simon and Robin, and found out that Simon has been doing much the same thing as a house rule for “Mastery” skills in his homebrewed GUMSHOE Fantasy game. It definitely could fit in the default cinematic “competence porn” world of Night’s Black Agents, and probably as a Pulp rule for Trail of Cthulhu. I wouldn’t use it in Purist mode for Trail, or Dust mode NBA. If your Bleed is more Star Trek than Blake’s 7, maybe it goes in Ashen Stars, too. I’d also probably limit it to “only one extra die,” for simplicity’s sake.
Anyhow, my point is this. Because of the nature of the GUMSHOE lines, and the nature of GUMSHOE itself, there are a lot of GUMSHOE variants floating around out there. Some of them might not be best practices, and even some best practices might not be for everyone. Lowell wants to integrate FATE more closely with GUMSHOE, while R.B. Bergstrom summed up the real secret core of GUMSHOE better than I think almost anyone has in a recent post in his blog Transitive Property of Gaming. (If it helps, mentally swap Bennies, the Savage Worlds term he uses below, for Fate points from FATE when you read this)
The GUMSHOE system, in a nutshell, is a game where your entire character sheet is nothing but Bennies. It’s like starting every session with about 80 Bennies per player, and I find that to be awesome.
So obviously, there’s no one right answer, but there are way too many great answers than we can easily track. Some of them apparently being quietly implemented by the publisher without telling his designers. (On an unrelated note, Belzoni eventually left the strongman business to blow holes in priceless antiquities.)
So I’d like to propose that we set up shop somewhere on the Pelgrane site to keep a bunch of best practices, hacks, tweaks, and horrible ideas. Until we get the GUMSHOE Lab clean and sparkly, we can use the comments section on this post. Or post more hacks to the Pelgrane forums under the “GUMSHOE General Discussion” category. But I swear we’re going to get the GUMSHOE Lab up and running, and stock it with all the hacks we can scrounge up, probably once Robin gets the Open GUMSHOE draft to a stage he likes.
Having said all that, I should note that we are trying out a unified system of Expeditions rules for GUMSHOE in Mythos Expeditions. Once we’ve seen how seven or eight good designers who aren’t me hit those rules, I’ll know if they should only be the Trail of Cthulhu Expeditions rules by the time the project is through. I tried a first cut at “the journey is the danger” rules in the “Lord of the Jungle” adventure in Shadows Over Filmland, but those were way too finicky to backdrop everything from the Mountains of Madness to a gulag prison break. So I went back to basics, came up with a single metric for testing Survival (an Expedition’s Health rating, basically) and hung some mechanics off that. It’s certainly simpler to write, and I suspect it’s geometrically simpler to run.
Right now, though, we’re at the exciting stage where I’ve sent out the Expeditions rules, an outline, and a sample expedition (to romantic Paraguay! O magical land of brush warfare and vampire bats!) to a whole caravan of super-neat authors, and I’m getting their pitches back. We’ll release a table of contents once we have it, mostly as a brag. I’d like to say Mythos Expeditions will be a spring playtest (or rather eight or so spring playtests) and a summer release, but we haven’t made all our Survival tests on this one yet. I should probably pack some grenades, come to think of it.