See Page XX: Improv and GUMSHOE Scenario Structure

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

GUMSHOE core games present the GM with a default scenario structure you can use when creating your own mysteries to challenge your players. By following it you can ensure that the investigators have at least one, and preferably many, routes to solve the adventure’s key question, whether that be a killer’s identity, a vampire’s conspiracy, or a demonic entities’ location. It supplies a number of scenes in which the PCs can interview witnesses, examine physical clues, and hit the books in search of pertinent facts. Each key scene includes at least one core clue: a piece of information leading the team to another scene. As part of the standard header for the scene, we indicate its Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs–the scenes that feed into it, and that it propels investigators toward, respectively. This especially helps when writing published adventures, forcing the writer to make sure that each scene goes somewhere. Ideally the Lead-Outs line encourages the scenario creator to build in core clues that point in more than one direction. This gives the players the opportunity to make choices, deciding which leads to follow and in what order. These decisions ward off the dreaded linear or railroaded scenario. You can build in Alternate scenes that the characters can choose to explore, but don’t need in order to solve the mystery.  Both a Core and an Alternate scene can share the same Lead-Out. Designate the most obvious or likely scene as the Core scene and the one that feels like the sidelight as the Alternate. For a home brew scenario the distinction between the two doesn’t matter: bother with it only if you’re writing, say, a con game for someone else to run.

(Unlike a Core scene, an Alternate needn’t have a Lead-Out. Keep these to a minimum, and make sure they’re entertaining as heck in their own right. A session full of scenes that don’t pay off makes for a not only meandering but also confusing installment of your mystery.)

This isn’t the only way to put together a scenario but it’s one you can depend on to reliably deliver. Recently we have given this default structure a name, the Maze of Clues, to distinguish it from others.

Ken, in such scenarios as “The Carmilla Sanction” from The Edom Files, uses an alternate set-up called the Ocean of Clues. It establishes a mystery and a rich assortment of hooks you use to create your own scenes during play.

Both The Armitage Files and Dracula Dossier could be regarded as Ocean of Clues scenarios writ large over the course of an entire campaign.

When you prepare your own scenarios in advance, whether you write them in full or (more likely) as point form notes you will flesh out into scenes as you go, the Maze of Clues will help you elaborate your premise into a narrative that the players will fully realize when you play.

When you straight-up improvise without that kind of prep, don’t worry about the Maze of Clues and its different scene types. You’re not trying to reverse engineer your way into a scenario you can then assign Scene Types and Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs to. Nor will you have any reason to create the Scene Flow diagram that accompanies our published Maze of Clues scenarios. Focus on showing the players a good time. Almost any GM will find it more useful to focus their notes on details of the mystery’s backstory.

When I improv a scenario, I jot down names of people and establishments in a Google doc shared with the players. An example from a recent Yellow King session, from our “Aftermath” sequence:

  • Mercantilists previously under Castaignes want to go slow

  • Commercials want money
  • Jessie Daniels – chief of staff to Hank and perhaps his successor as war crime trial advocates
    • Melvin Mason – Guardian leader and a possible patron 

 

    • Theresa Tucker – patrol officer in psych ward at Bellevue 

 

    • Eula Mckenzie – nurse on duty at Bellevue 

 

    • Wilbur Salazar – original complainant 

 

    • Yolanda Howell – her kids were hacking around 

 

    • Ed & Andy Howell – her kids 

 

    • Lt Rita Woods – Theresa’s shift commander, hostile to the PCs 

 

    • Aaron Moran – got turned into a clown head 

 

 

Glorious Sun – dive bar near the cemetery, doesn’t take kindly to slinks and has a clown jar if you want to turn the red velvet sad clown painting around

 

Charles Cunningham – super of building where the mermaid is in the basement, wears sea captain outfit

I worry about distinct scenes and their placement in the Maze of Clues only if, and when, I later take that seat-of-the-pants session and write it for publication. (Sometimes I have to ask my players if they remember how they got from point A to point B!)

Some GUMSHOE games, including Ashen Stars and Yellow King, use a timing increment called an interval, which begins when one clue is discovered and ends when the next is found. For these games you do have to be able to decide what pieces of information count as core clues. But this is simple: a core clue is any bit of information, almost certainly derived from an investigative ability, that points to another scene. A shift in scene generally entails a change of location. In some instances that might be a virtual shift: for example, from the corpse you’re poking at in the morgue to the digital archive your forensics expert starts searching for obscure and suppressed biomedical research papers. Any info introducing another GMC, place or avenue of inquiry that leads the group closer to the mystery’s solution is a core clue. Should you ever ask yourself the question, “Is this a core clue?”, the answer is almost surely yes. Err on the side of declaring a new interval. Another test: if it’s not important enough to put in your notes, it’s not a core clue.

If the heroes get stuck and can’t see a way forward, you’ll solve that problem as you go, by inventing a new Core clue to pull them deeper into the mystery. Where the Maze of Clues exists to solve problems before they occur, you’re there to keep matters rolling in real time.

In short, scenario structures are here to serve you, not to have you serve them. Your improvised scenario can, in retrospect, be expressed as a Maze of Clues with Core and Alternate scenes and Antagonist Reactions and the rest. But there’s no reason for you to do that, or give yourself the nagging feeling that you ought to be able to.

Instead, use that time to figure out just how Aaron Moran got turned into a clown head–and what the team can do to stop it from happening to others.

3 Responses to “See Page XX: Improv and GUMSHOE Scenario Structure”

  1. If your notes are shared with the players, where do you keep surprises? Or are they shared after the game?

    • Chris Sellers says:

      I had a similar question. It seems like those notes are something you’d want to share with players only one note at a time, and only after introducing that place, GMC or datum in the course of play.

      Thanks for this write-up! It’s exactly what I was searching for to help me make new GUMSHOE adventures.

  2. Robin Laws says:

    The notes are player-facing and spoiler-free. Character descriptions appear only as players meet or learn about the GMCs and contain only enough info to jog their memories as the scenario continues.

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