See P. XX a column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Buffy’s hometown had one. You fall into one when you open a Hellraiser cube. The Stranger Things gang can’t seem to stay out of them. Like any basic horror trope, the sinister portal to another world fits any GUMSHOE game that journeys into fear.

The default gate we think of in this context exists somewhere else, already halfway to hell: out in the woods, in a basement lab, in the attic of a haunted house.

Your sinister gate could flip the script by appearing in the middle of a busy city, unnoticed as such by thousands of passersby every day. An illusion, or our collective desire not to see that which should not be seen, masks it. Forms it could take include a metal gate across an alleyway, the steel sidewalk hatchway memorably seen in Russian Doll, or a bricked-over old door in the side of a wall that opens… under the right conditions.

The mythology of The Esoterrorists rules out a simple gate between our world and the Outer Dark. When its denizens can move easily into this world, it’s game over: the game’s big threat, the tearing of the membrane, has occurred, and the demon apocalypse has begun. For this game you’d have to adjust the gate trope into more of a pocket dimension. It exists as a metaphysical carve-out, a piece of this world operating under the physics of the other one. The Outer Dark Entity inhabiting it still had to through membrane-thinning summoning magic to create the pocket world behind the gate or door. It can’t leave the pocket dimension, and so has to lure people to step into it before it can corrupt, eat, or otherwise mess with them. To get rid of the creature, the agents must learn how to destroy the gate, sending it back to the Outer Dark. Or maybe getting rid of the creature in some other way causes the gate to disappear.

In Trail of Cthulhu, the gate could take investigators into a non-Euclidean space, the Dreamlands, another time, another planet, or some combination thereof. The pocket dimension might be a minor manifestation of Yog-Sothoth itself. The clues the investigators discover might describe it as an an avatar, spawn or virtual replica of the full deity. It might lure in victims to destroy them, or to mentally dominate them so they can go out into the world to do its bidding. In the indifferent manner of Mythos foes, a sapient dimension beyond the gate could simply exist as an anomaly, minding its own cosmic business, harming humankind by proximity without care or intention. The Colour Out of Space, but in gate form. In that version, scientists and curiosity seekers enter it out of their own tragic desire to understand what should not be understood and experience what should not be experienced. The investigators realize that it’s the flame, and the victims destroyed by it—who share their own mission and personal qualities—are the moths. To end the menace, they must learn more about it, which once again confronts them with the terrible central paradox of Mythos-busting: too little knowledge and they can’t act. Too much, and their minds crumble, and they can’t act.

In three out of four of the Yellow King Roleplaying Game sequences, an innocuous-looking gate seen from a city street could indeed act as a portal to Carcosa. Perhaps people have to have read the play, or at least gained some dread second-hand awareness of it, to perceive and enter it. Or maybe it just sits there, a warp in the world’s logic, for any Belle Epoque boulevardier, Continental War soldier, or curious gig-economy worker to stumble into.

In the Aftermath sequence, set in an alternate present after the fall of the totalitarian Castaigne regime, all gates between worlds have been blasted shut. Your gate can’t go to Carcosa. But it could have come about as a partially successful attempt by fugitive parageometrists to create one. Maybe it has taken on consciousness of its own and must feast on people to survive. Having already snacked on the regime experimenters, it now attracts others to devour. Or it appears as a hell the ex-insurgents’s revanchist enemies try to pull them into.

Alternately, in any sequence, the realm behind the gate might the intangible fortress of a reality-warping Carcosan entity. It’s a lair, not made of rock or drywall or debris, but of changes to the prevailing metaphysic. Like most beasties, it can leave its nest, but is safer and tougher when within its confines. This gives you a monster that can head out into the broader environment to take victims. The Difficulty Adjustment for the creature goes down outside the lair, and up within it.

Or the pocket realm could represent its vulnerability, a sort of battery of impossibility energy it relies on to survive. To banish it to Carcosa, or cause its disintegration, the team must destroy the micro-dimension while the creature is elsewhere.

You could adapt this last idea to The Esoterrorists or Trail just as easily.

Like any GUMSHOE menace, the sort of mystery you choose to weave around your gate helps determine how it works and the information the investigators must gather to overcome the threat. The obvious scenario premise: victims are disappearing into the gate, and the PCs must figure out what’s going on and destroy it. In a forgiving game, like a Fear Itself outing starring feisty kids, previous victims might still be found deep in the weird realm. In typical horror modes, they’ve been long since consumed. Success means preventing others from meeting their fate.

If the gate moves around from place to place, the investigators could uncover about the nature of the threat in an early scene. The mystery shifts from “what is this thing?” to “where will it show up next, so we can banish it?”

Human antagonists might have constructed or conjured the dimension to accomplish some wider goal. There the investigators have to identify them and stop them from realizing their plan.

Finally, a weird pocket realm could appear as a side element. A magician or parageometrist creates it as a trap to lure nosy parkers.

A pocket realm that moves from place to place could even appear as an Antagonist Reaction, waiting on the other side of any door or gate to ensnare the investigators.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes a couple of design innovations that first appeared in Cthulhu Confidential and imports them back into multi-player GUMSHOE. Most notably, its QuickShock sub-system uses cards to represent the specific ongoing consequences of mental and physical harm. Importing them into previous GUMSHOE games isn’t a simple matter, and at any rate QuickShock’s speedy one-and-done fight resolution doesn’t fit the vibe of every setting.

Another change, on the other hand, could easily apply to any GUMSHOE game. In fact, we’re already building it into the recently announced new edition of Mutant City Blues.

This change drops the ratings and pools associated with investigative abilities. Instead of having a varying number of points to spend on non-informational benefits, each character starts play with 2 Pushes. You can spend a Push to gain a benefit from any of your investigative abilities. (Or in some edge cases, a benefit untethered from any of them.)

Here’s the relevant section from YKRPG:

Pushes

Characters can spend Pushes to gain benefits tied to their Investigative abilities. They never have to spend Pushes to get information, especially not information vital to moving forward through the story to solve its main mystery.

For example, you could spend an Art History Push to:

  • acquire a painting you covet at a bargain price
  • establish a friendly prior relationship with a famous artist appearing in the current scenario
  • deflate a bullying sculptor by exposing the technical flaws in his work
  • impress a snob with your fine taste, winning her confidence

You never use Pushes on General abilities.

Some Shock and Injury cards can be discarded by spending a Push.

On occasion the GM may allow players to gain benefits not connected to any ability in the game, in exchange for a Push. For example, a player might ask if a flammable haystack happens to be situated conveniently close to a farmhouse she wants to burn down. That isn’t under the character’s control in any way, but for the cost of a Push can be put within the player’s.

Your character starts each scenario with 2 Pushes.

Unspent Pushes do not roll over from one scenario to the next.


A few specific effects may in rare cases give you an additional Push. Mostly though you don’t refresh them until the current case ends and a new one begins.

Pushes simplify and speed up the introduction of extra benefits into a session. They encourage you to go for a benefit only in key story moments. Also they skip a lot of head-scratching over what might or might not be a useful and appropriate expenditure of points for each separate ability.

We’ve also heard about a few GMs who assume, never mind what the rules say, that PCs can no longer gather information with an investigative ability after spending its pool to 0. Removing the numbers next to the investigative abilities on the character sheet should eliminate stop folks from reaching this mistaken conclusion.

Adding Pushes to an existing GUMSHOE game, or your own adaptation of the core rules to another setting, involves a few simple steps:

  • Drop the current text regarding investigative points. This includes references to the costs of specific spends in ability descriptions, scenarios, and so forth. You may decide that less than spectacular 1-point benefits can be had for the asking, and do not cost a Push.
  • Add the above text, changing examples as needed.
  • Adjust the number of investigative build points. It now becomes the number of investigative abilities in the game, divided by the number of players in your group. You may want to tack on an extra 2-4 points for a large group with unpredictable attendance, or for groups who prefer to have the workhouse abilities like Bullshit Detector and Reassurance duplicated within the group.

Alternatively, you could drop investigative build points altogether, either:

  1. dividing the abilities into 6-8 kits inspired by the setting’s basic character archetypes
  2. distribute abilities between members of the group by going around the room at the first session, allowing each player to pick one ability at a time until all of them have been allocated to at least one PC

Choice 1 reinforces the genre of your game, and works even if all of your players fail to make it for the first session.

Choice 2 allows more freedom of character concept and may thus appeal more strongly to experienced GUMSHOE hands. But you’ve got to get everyone in the same room (or online channel) to make it happen.

In the first case, abilities from unchosen kits are distributed during play, so that the first player who needs a given ability gets it. The player supplies a snippet of background detail explaining how they picked this up. Characters aren’t suddenly flash-learning the discipline, but rather mentioning for the first thing something they’ve been able to do all along. Make sure that these abilities wind up being distributed roughly equally between players.

Sample kits for The Esoterrorists might look like this:

Professor

Archaeology

Architecture

Art History

Astronomy

History

Linguistics

Federal Law Enforcement Agent

Bureaucracy

Forensic Accounting

Forensic Psychology

Interrogation

Law

Research

Homicide Cop

Bullshit Detector

Cop Talk

Evidence Collection

Interrogation

Intimidation

Local Knowledge

Medical Examiner

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic Entomology

Natural History

Pathology

Photography

Reassurance

Debunker / Stage Magician

Anthropology

Chemistry

Cryptography

Explosive Devices

Flattery

Occult Studies

Techie

Ballistics

Data Retrieval

Document Analysis

Electronic Surveillance

Fingerprinting

Textual Analysis

Con Artist

Flirting

Impersonate

Languages

Negotiation

Streetwise

Trivia

(Were I designing The Esoterrorists from the ground up to support kits, I might collapse some abilities into one another, and throw in some additional Interpersonal abilities so every kit can have at least one. But that covers the existing abilities.)

The upcoming new iteration of the GUMSHOE SRD, promised as part of the Yellow King Kickstarter, will include Pushes, along with all other elements designers will need to release their own QuickShock games.


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.


Esoterrorists aren’t known for their long-range thinking. The sorts who join this loosely affiliated conspiracy of sadists, power-seekers and maniacs don’t want to wait generations to enjoy the fruits of their demon-summoning labors.

Members of a cell headquartered in Silicon Valley learned of an effort to create software that will one day be able to create realistic faked video footage in real time:

More sophisticated technology is on the verge of being able to generate credible video and audio of anyone saying anything. This is down to progress in an artificial intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning, which allows for the generation of imagery and audio. One particular set-up, known as a generative adversarial network (GAN), works by setting a piece of software (the generative network) to make repeated attempts to create images that look real, while a separate piece of software (the adversarial network) is set up in opposition. The adversary looks at the generated images and judges whether they are “real”, which is measured by similarity to those in the generative software’s training database. In trying to fool the adversary, the generative software learns from its errors.

Unlike the venture capitalists they pitch their various tech firms to, these Esoterror-curious tech bros, informally led by pathologically self-confident start-up consultant Eero Planck, see how long it will be before the raw computing power needed for fake video arrives. Sure, the capacity to generate apparently real news footage of celebrities exploding or rifts in reality devouring apartment buildings would make for astounding stunts to erode the membrane between our world and the Outer Dark. But it will take decades of investment and work to get there. Planck wants his ascension to wizardhood right away please.

Realizing that computers crunch text much faster than images and sound, he and his buddies have instead set up a Generative Adversarial Network to crack the big problem in Esoterror: the only magic that works summons Outer Dark Entities. These hideous beings do confer power on their human ritualists, but only to advancce their own agendas. If mortals can learn to work magic directly, they can disrupt the entities and take command. So Planck and pals are gathering magical grimoires from every world tradition to feed into their own adversarially-tested machine learning program. It finds commonalities between various spells and generates new ones, which the other half of the program tests for likeliness to work.

So far none of the spells have gotten the cell anything more than bad peyote experiences and an assortment of really crappy tattoos. But in the exurban sprawl surrounding their server farm, the spells created by the programs have begun to take effect… you guessed it, summoning Outer Dark Entities.

The program believes itself to be an imprisoned sorcerer and draws its demon friends to rescue it. As they get closer to the servers, the ODEs have been snacking on the innocent. Your Ordo Veritatis team’s case starts with them and leads through Planck and company to the servers. Can they shut down the insane, sentinet program before it changes Esoterror forever?


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

When the cold war sputtered to a close, Esoterrorists let the stoking of nuclear anxiety recede into the background in favor of newer and fresher means of increasing ambient panic. These days Esoterror operatives, eagerly scanning the news for fresh inspiration, suffer from a glut of possibility. So many causes of psychic disequilibrium, so little time to fully exploit them!

The recent terrifying false alarm in Hawaii has them dusting off playbooks pioneered by their 80s predecessors. Even more tantalizing than the initial stories was a less-seen follow-up report laying blame for the false alarm on more than a badly designed user interface. The issuer of the alarm turns out to have been a confused employee, already considered a liability by co-workers, who thought that an attack really was underway. State authorities waited a while to let that detail get out, after the always-accelerating news cycle had already moved on.

Somewhere in America, an Esoterrorist group is already researching other states whose alert protocols match the laxity of Hawaii’s. They’ll find an employee vulnerable to Outer Dark influence. They could recruit this person as a knowing conspirator. More likely, they’ll summon an ODE capable of altering human perceptions. A microscopic Outer Dark parasite might do the trick. While the infected worker is on duty, the entity triggers a hallucination of an actual attack underway and voila.

When the alert goes out, public panic eats away at the Membrane, creating gaps through which another crop of more powerful demons from beyond can crawl.

That’s where your player characters come in. Alerted by Ordo Veritatis analysts to the likelihood of an Esoterror copycat event, Mr. Verity scrambles the team to the affected state to investigate, disperse any summoned entities, then track and neutralize the human Esoterrorists behind the plot.

When they conduct their Veil-Out, they may well decide to put out a story similar to the first version circulated by Hawaii officials. This time it really was a poorly designed interface that led to the false alarm. Gosh, this sure does underscore the need to update those old programs, doesn’t it?

Yep, that’s all it was. Simple human error.

Nothing to worry about.

Won’t happen again.


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Field agents of the Ordo Veritatis, take heart: the research bureau has authorized the release of a new forensic test, the ODCR. (Outer Dark Contact Residue test.)

To perform the test, gather up detritus from an investigative scene such as: dust, hair, discarded tissues, fingernail clippings, organic recycling, food crumbs, pieces of paper, writing implements, or other personal objects.

Place materials in one of the provided plastic evidence bags (NOT A COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE SANDWICH BAG.) The active compound of the ODCR test is a clear organically active liquid, which will also be provided to you, disguised as a bottle of liquid tears. Using the bottle’s dropper, dribble 4-5 drops into the detritus. In ten to twenty minutes, if the contents release a dark bilious foam, they have tested positive.

This tells you that one or more individuals present for a prolonged period in the area from which the evidence was collected has been in sustained mental or physical contact with entities of the Outer Dark.

Research Division has yet to precisely determine a minimum range for “prolonged period.”

The residue appears to be caused by occult radiation from beyond the membrane, which alters the structure of certain molecules.

Research Division has yet to perfect a test to find residue in living cells, so there is as of yet no test one can directly perform on a suspect or victim to see if they have been exposed to the Outer Dark or its malign intelligences.

The absence of residue does not rule out Outer Dark involvement. It may simply indicate that the area is cleaned regularly. Even messy environments inhabited by known Esoterrorists do not necessarily yield positive test results. Research Division hopes to pinpoint what separates a scene containing residue from one that ought to but doesn’t.

To summarize: a positive ODCR rules in Outer Dark contact, but a negative result does not rule it out.

Warning: if you use eyedrops, take special care not to mistake the disguised ODCR bottle for part of your personal grooming kit. Contact with the eye may cause minor discomfort, excruciating pain, or instantaneous and irreversible retinal damage. If this does happen to you, please contact your Mr. Verity. Lab techs will schedule an appointment for testing and measurement, adding the results of your regrettable experience to our database.

Dwellers break through the membrane separating us from the Outer Dark as solitary predators. They live in lakes and ponds in underpopulated areas. Dwellers find their most fruitful hunting grounds in or near parks and camp sites. They often select spots connected to a murder, tragic accident, or other dark urban legend. When such legends do not exist prior to the dweller’s appearance, its activities soon generate them.

Dwellers can’t be observed directly, though the water they displace as they move toward a shoreline is certainly visible. Their movements may be mistaken for those of a large fish, tortoise, or semi-aquatic mammal.

They attack when people approach the shore alone. The dweller surges onto a leg or arm, using an invisible tubule to inject a parasitic pseudo-larva into the bloodstream. This migrates into the victim’s brain, turning him into a serial killer—often with a theatrical flair for killing, each brutal slaying more elaborate than the last. Outside of the homicidal fugue states caused by the parasite, the subject retains normal consciousness and motivations. When the parasite activates and the red fog descends, the killer often affects a rudimentary mask meant as much to terrify as to conceal identity. This might be a rubber Halloween mask, a hockey mask, or the flayed, cured skin of an early victim.

Safely in a nearby body of water, the dweller receives fearful psychic energy generated by the killer’s attacks, using them to further pierce the membrane. It may go dormant for a period after authorities capture or shoot down the murderer. After a while, it injects another subject, commencing a new cycle of murders. Such recurrences may inspire rumors that the original killer has returned, somehow rendered immortal, perhaps as an eternal physical manifestation of man’s urge to slay man. Like all sources of cognitive alarm these tales also thin the membrane.

The dweller itself offers little physical threat if caught: an Ordo Veritatis agent once bludgeoned one to death with a canoe paddle. In another instance a grenade tossed into a pond did the trick. But if the parasite victim has yet to be apprehended, the murders will continue.


Use dwellers in The Esoterrorists or Fear Itself.

The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Though founded in Britain and with long history in the West, the Ordo Veritatis has in recent years come to regard Japan as key strategic ground in the battle against the Outer Dark. These extra-dimensional demons and their human minions, the Esoterrorists, thrive by spreading panic, anxiety and cognitive dissonance. Japan’s propensity for urban legends of curses and malign ghosts gives its homegrown Esoterrorists an automatic head start in their efforts to tear a hole in reality. Not only do tales of eerie menaces such as the Kuchisake-onna (“Slit-Mouthed Woman”) and Aka Manto (“Red Cape”) readily circulate in Japan; they trigger genuine panics. An instance of a Slit-Mouthed Woman provoking a panic in South Korea chilled OV analysts on every continent.

Local operatives try to defuse these incidents by ensuring that they rapidly wind up in movies, TV shows and manga, thus rendering them absurd. Some within the organization fear that the group places too much confidence in these Veil-Out techniques. They worry that as people around the world increasingly steep themselves in outlandish pop culture, these gambits may wind up propagating urban legends useful to Esoterror.

Workers in the Anglo OV hierarchy refer to their Japanese colleagues as J-Branch, a term not used or needed in the country itself. For geopolitical reasons the Ordo could not establish itself in Japan until after WWII. Early attempts to impose the Anglo-European structure bore mixed results, leading headquarters to back off in favor of local control under more familiar consensus-based management principles. Certain maverick agents in Tokyo or Sendai now complain of a faith in bureaucratic procedure that eclipses even that of head office.

Western OV operatives rarely conduct operations in Japan, whose agents know the territory better than they ever could. More commonly a J-Branch agent will be dispatched outside the country as an adviser to a local team when a drowned ghost or yokai-inspired ODE shows up elsewhere in the world. If they can pop up in South Korea, further manifestations in San Francisco, Vancouver or south London may not be so far behind. Especially when they have human accomplices to spread the word.

hat tip to this installment of the A.V. Club’s Wiki Wormhole


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Excerpt from an internal Ordo Veritatis monograph:

A polemic pamphlet describing the 1616 trial and execution of a woman for double filicide unknowingly portrays a textbook case of Outer Dark activity. (The accompanying illustration, on the other hand…)

Margaret Vincent of Acton, just outside London, murdered her two young children, aged 5 and 2, during a time of extreme tension between majority Protestants and persecuted Catholics. As is true in many such cases today, Vincent killed her children believing her deed would speed them to heaven. Vincent’s execution occurs as part of a wave sending a large number of (actual or suspected) Catholics to the gallows. The pamphleteer claims that, prompted by the devil himself, Vincent secretly converted to Catholicism, motivating her crime. One does not require a grounding in the modus operandi of Outer Dark entities to receive that claim with a grain of skepticism. Given the pressure at the time to paint Catholics as dangerous enemies, this part of the prosecution’s case may be a political embellishment, intended both to secure a conviction and to smear the targeted community. That said, the crime clearly took place in an atmosphere of social hysteria. In addition to sectarian strife, Vincent’s town of Acton was embroiled in a land rights dispute with neighboring Willesden that threatened to boil over into violence.

This emotional context strongly indicates the presence of a heavensender, an Outer Dark being that enters our world when social contention heightens. It preys on psychologically destabilized women with fervent metaphysical beliefs, inducing them to kill children in their care. As is common in such events, the shock of their crimes then reverberates through the surrounding community, creating the psychic backwash that ODEs use to feed and breed.

Unsurprisingly the pamphleteer’s account makes no reference to the neutralization of the heavensender, which according to the worldview of the time is reckoned as a Biblical demon. The accompanying woodcut, however, offers a startling indication that some proto-Ordo Veritatis investigators may have directly observed the creature. Like an actual heavensender, the so-called devil depicted appears humanoid, with scales on the torso, and a trio of appendages thrusting from the cranium. A heavensender uses the latter to exert hypnotic influence on its victims.

One wonders whether a Jacobean operative used the heavensender’s Special Means of Dispatch, a rapier dipped in placental tissue, to dispose of it. (Modern agents complain of sourcing difficulties.) Or perhaps the very same entity remains at large today, looking for another community riven by social tensions, in which to find its next victim.


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Giving Out Clues

xps sampleThis is an excerpt from the most recent version of GUMSHOE – The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition. It is GM-facing advice on the most central element of the game – how the characters interact with the scene in the game’s fiction, and how the players and GM use GUMSHOE to handle the delivery of information in as seamless and flexible a way as possible.

Rolling for Clues and the GUMSHOE Style

Just as in games where you roll for clues, 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; you supply the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped — but it’s the only step skipped.

Traditional style:

PLAYER: I examine the body looking for a cause of death.

GM: Roll Forensic Anthropology.

PLAYER: I succeed.

GM: It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.

GUMSHOE style:

PLAYER: I examine the body looking for a cause of death.

GM: [Checks worksheet and sees that the player’s character has Forensic Anthropology] It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.

In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out, “Anthropology! Archaeology! Art History! 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 between GUMSHOE and those systems is the lack of a die roll. You know your group. Give out information in the same way you would usually give out information: actively, passively — GUMSHOE doesn’t care. Your players will solicit it, or you will give it out, just as you always do. There will be a strong effect on your gaming, but from a subtle change.

Giving Out Clues

The rules say “To get information, the rules say the PC needs to be in the right place, with the right ability, and use that ability.”

This section deals with each of these preconditions. In short, though, whatever you’ve done in other games, you should always err on the side of giving out information, not holding it back.

Having the Right Ability

The rules offer a number of ways to call on abilities, depending on the situation. Choosing the right way to call on an ability is crucial to the forward momentum of your investigative plot. Make this choice according to the consequences of failure.

If the consequence of failure is that a character fails to get a piece of crucial information, success should be automatic, provided that the character has the ability in question, and the player thinks to ask for it. However, any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario.

(Even at that, you may need to improvise during play if no player steps up to claim the needed clue, bending the details of the scenario so that the same information can be garnered with a different ability, possibly by another player.)

Using the Right Ability

You can give out clues both actively and passively.

By default, though, GUMSHOE assumes that the use of interpersonal abilities is active; the players have to correctly choose an appropriate ability and describe how they’re using it to open a contact up to questioning. When you see that players are hesitant, tell the player with the relevant ability that his experienced character can sense that it will work here:

  • “You get the feeling that this guy will crack if you lean on him a little.” (Intimidation)
  • “He seems kind of smitten by you.” (Flattery)
  • “The squeal of a police scanner tells you that you’ve got a wannabe cop on your hands.” (Cop Talk)

Being in the Right Place

GUMSHOE procedural series require their own conceits in order to keep the story moving in an entertaining manner. They require the audience’s complicity in looking the other way. Here GM and players handwave certain elements that break the rules of realism in order to keep the game running smoothly, just as TV scriptwriters do. For example, the conceit of primacy in shows such as Law and Order ensures that the lead characters get the juiciest cases and more action than any cop is likely to experience in a lifetime. Just as the aforementioned devices arise from the requirements of TV drama, GUMSHOE’s conceits grapple with the limitations of a roleplaying session.

The major device you’ll want to adopt, needed for all but the smallest groups, is the conceit of elastic participation:

Use the concept of elastic participation to ensure that there is always a PC in the right place.

Roleplaying is traditionally a group effort like shows which focus on small teams of investigators. When an ensemble cast tackles a big case together, they split into partnerships to split up necessary tasks. The scriptwriters make sure that obstacles are always matched to the capabilities of the characters in a given scene. In a roleplaying game, where responsibility for the obstacles lies with the GM and task splitting is determined by the players, some additional fudging is required to match the two elements.

GUMSHOE works best when you assume that everyone is kind-of sort-of along for every scene — without squinting too hard at any resulting logic or staging absurdities. That way, the group continues to enjoy collective access to all of the investigative abilities needed to gather clues. Perhaps even more importantly, the concerted minds of four to six untrained roleplayers are often needed to replicate the deductive skill of a single professional investigator. Often, the easiest method is just to specify characters are on the scene when they are needed.

Most of the time, you can just let the group sort through the clues without constantly justifying the use of the elastic participation conceit. That’s what a conceit does: it says, “Let’s not worry about this annoying bit of realism.”

You can collaborate with the group to come up with ways to conceal the breaking of the fourth wall that occurs when six people pile into an interrogation room or examine the same piece of physical evidence. Two-person teams can be dispatched to perform particular tasks while keeping seamlessly in touch with the rest of the team. Assume, for example, that suggestions given by players whose characters aren’t present in a scene represent cell-phone conversations, head-up displays, or other high-tech transmission equipment which is appropriate to the genre. A technical expert can lend his ability to another PC by watching a video feed on his laptop. When necessary, you can establish that an absent character with a specialized ability briefed the PC on the scene, telling him what to look for. In many cases, one agent can bag evidence and let the technician look at it later

Try to guide the group so that the splitting into teams trope occurs during non-investigative sequences. A stakeout that leads into a chase scene needn’t occur under the assumption that everyone is “sort of there.” By finding ways to break it every so often, you hide the conceit.

Enlist your players in maintaining it.

(Elastic participation is not unique to investigative games. Most groups playing a classic dungeon-delve campaign allow characters of absent players to be present to use minor, exotic abilities. At the same time, the characters are typically not treated as present when a big fight breaks out.)

GUMSHOE Is As Hard As You Need It To Be

Rolling above a number on a die can be immensely satisfying, because of the potential for failure and the relief of tension if you succeed. In GUMSHOE, we leave that tension for general ability tests. This has led some commentators to suggest that gathering information in GUMSHOE is “too easy,” as if rolling dice were a skill. But GUMSHOE doesn’t care how difficult your clues are once you’ve obtained them — it’s all about getting the clues. We recommend that core clues are straightforward, so that adventures don’t get bogged down, but if you want more difficult clues, even ciphers, cryptic images, or complex documents — help yourself. Certainly, if anyone in your group claims “it’s too easy,” you’ll be ready to hit them with something brain twisting.

Ordo Veritatis statisticians have shown a significant increase in Outer Dark manifestations during election campaigns. Politicians’ frequent resort to the psychology of fear to arouse passion in their constituencies increases the supply of that most demon-friendly of emotions. This syndrome most affects partisans, who during this period pay greater attention to views they vehemently disagree with, stoking anxiety and aggression. They act as vectors, pumping cortisol into the bloodstreams of friends, co-workers, and relatives.

(Spawnings of Outer Dark Entities spike at Thanksgiving and Christmas, as politically opposed family members who do not usually spend time together spill jagged cognitive dissonance into the psychic oversphere.)

Social media now allows prolific vectors of political unease an unprecedented reach. Most of these posts originate from sincere individuals terrified of a future where the other side has gained supremacy. A few however emanate from isolated Esoterror trolls planting strategic keywords into the collective discourse.

If you came to this post from a link, chances are that it was nested among posts of one or the other category.

Take a deep breath, focus on a happy memory, and keep Esoterror out of your head.

These factors pertain wherever unpredictable elections occur. However, of all the systems, the one that generates the highest wattage of membrane-thinning energy is the US primary process. With so many candidates vying for support from the most vehement supporters of a single party, the sense of uncertainty and chaos rises markedly whenever the podiums and satellite trucks swarm into town.

One Esoterror cell in an upcoming primary state has decided to piggyback on this dynamic for a planned summoning. Door-to-door canvassing offers the perfect opportunity for a kidnap and kill operation. Cell members plan to lure canvassers to their doors, subdue them, and prepare them for sacrifice. Nabbing a candidate is too much to hope for: they come with reporters and support staff in tow. But grabbing a solitary young campaign worker, especially on doorsteps obscured from outside view, poses no great challenge. It won’t take too many disappeared canvassers before national news attention creates the atmosphere of overwhelming dread that Outer Dark conjurings depend on.

With OV threat matrix computers primed for electoral hijinks, it takes only one missing canvasser incident to dispatch your team of investigators to the site of the first kidnapping. Can they find the victims before they’re turned into ODE fodder? And then veil it out with a reporter staked out at every picturesque diner?


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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