Game Moderators seeing the Push rules in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game and now second edition Mutant City Blues sometimes ask how to import them into previous GUMSHOE games.

To recap how Pushes work, players get two of them per scenario. They can spend Pushes to gain non-informational benefits from their investigative abilities. For example:

  • A Painting Push lets you say that you had a work accepted to the group show at the haunted gallery.
  • A Reassurance Push allows you to calm a terrified witness, so that he follows your instructions and stays out of harm’s way.
  • With a Chemistry Push, you can synthesize an antidote to the venom of the snake that just bit your comrade.

Previous GUMSHOE games have you allocate a number of points to each ability. This gives you a pool of points, which you can spend to gain the same sorts of benefits. The GM decides whether a benefit costs 1, 2, or sometimes even 3 points.

To use Pushes in a GUMSHOE iteration with investigative points, convert scenarios as follows:

  • Some scenarios charge you for non-core clues—information that doesn’t lead you directly to another scene. Never require a Push for this. (In fact, I’d personally drop this entirely in any version of GUMSHOE, and always provide all information for free.)
  • When a benefit costs 1 point, provide it at no cost if the player suggests it unprompted.
  • Otherwise, when you see a 1-point spend listed in any scenario, and you think it would be useful or cool or otherwise gratifying enough to suggest to the player as a possibility, it costs 1 Push. If it seems marginally useful and not worth a Push, ignore it entirely.
  • Any benefits costing more than 1 point cost 1 Push.
  • If you think your players will find the benefit of a 2+ point spend overpriced, provide it for free (if asked) or let it go unmentioned.

A very small number of abilities in the crunchier GUMSHOE games, such as Ashen Stars, call for point spends to power particular effects. These probably require case-by-case design work to adapt to the Push rules. As a rule of thumb, a clearly useful special benefit either costs a Push or can be used at no cost, but only once per session.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. 

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Give a Clue

The heart of the GUMSHOE system is its method of ensuring that players always gather the clues essential to the solution of a mystery and lots of other supplementary information as well provided that they have the right investigative abilities, and describe their characters look in the right place and/or perform the right actions. Some potential players have of the game have concluded is that the removal of random determination from the clue dispensation process must render it dry and mechanical. The reality of the play experience is that it is just as fluid as in any other mystery game.

The reason for this fluidity lies in the freedom granted the GM to dispense clues in various ways. These keep the investigative scenes spontaneous and interactive.

Until now, these methods have been implicit in the scenario text. I’m confident that GMs instinctively get them in play and in a way am reluctant to pin them down too much, for fear of overriding good on-the-spot judgment for what appears to be a heavily prescribed set of techniques.

With that caveat, here are some terms to codify the methods GMs use to provide clues in GUMSHOE:

Immediately Apparent

An immediately apparent clue is supplied to the player without action on the character’s part. All an investigator with the governing ability has to do to spot the clue is to enter the scene. Ideally, the GM scans his master list of investigative abilities, on which the ratings of the various PCs are marked, picks the most likely investigator with the ability, and announces the clue:

[indicating a particular player]: “You can tell right away that the hieroglyphics on the statue are phony modern gibberish.”

Here the GM is responding to a passage in the scenario that says:

Archaeology shows that the hieroglyphics on the statue are phony modern gibberish.

There are two reasons to treat a clue as immediately apparent: believability and playability. Believability holds that clues where anyone acquainted with the ability in question would logically spot something on a cursory inspection should be provided without prompting. On the other hand, playability dictates that essential clues which even good players are unlikely to look for should also be made immediately apparent.

Certain clues are immediately apparent without abilities. If there’s a gun hidden under a bed, and a player asks, “What’s under the bed?” they don’t need Evidence Collection to find it. All they need is a pair of functioning eyes.

Action-Dependent

Most clues are action-dependent, meaning that the players must specify that they’re doing something before the GM provides the clue. The action taken can be very basic: searching the room, looking for fingerprints, taking a closer look at that painting in the corner. Or it can be quite specific: gathering fibers, performing a centrifuge test, smelling the air for the distinctive tang of werewolf.

GM: Jenkins hands you a photograph, of what appears to be a sasquatch standing in a stand of bullrushes.

Player: As an experienced photographer, I want to know if the image of the monster has been faked.

[The GM refers to the scenario notes, which read:

A check for fakery with Photography shows that it is a composite image.]

GM: It’s a composite; the shadows in the figure don’t match the direction of light in the background.

Shifting Clue Types

The wording of GUMSHOE scenarios suggests which of these two categories the clues fall into, without being absolutely explicit about it. I toyed with the idea of making these more definite, by marking them with icons. Ultimately I decided against this, because the most important thing about clue dispensation is to pay attention to the progress players are making and adjust on the fly. Most immediate clues can be turned into action-dependent clues as needed, and vice versa.

If your players are slogging their way through a mystery whose basic backstory just isn’t registering, you may want to supply suggested actions, effectively turning an action-dependent clue into an immediate clue: “Your Forensics experience leads you to check inside her mouth, where you find a strange parasitic infestation.”

On other occasions it is more satisfying for the players if you strongly hint at a suitable action, rather than providing the clue outright:

GM: Jenkins hands you a photograph, of what appears to be a sasquatch standing in a stand of bullrushes.

It strikes you as off, somehow.

Player: I check it for signs of fakery!

Although you might expect the players to regard this as an unsubtle shove in the right direction, many players are not only content to receive hints like this, but still feel a sense of accomplishment simply for going on to fill in the obvious next action. The more frustrated a group becomes, the greater the emotional reward for pouncing on a hint.

Always allow the players plenty of time to take actual active measures before you start hinting them in a fruitful direction.

This idea can be spun in the opposite direction. If your players are especially proactive, you can reward their initiative by converting immediately apparent clues into action-dependent ones.

GM: The wall inside the burial chamber is covered in old hieroglyphics.

Player: Aha! Are they phonetic or logographic?

GM: Neither. They’re gibberish — modern forgeries.

Players are more able to show off their characters’ brilliance in areas they are themselves acquainted with.

All in all, the degree of effort players must go through to accumulate clues is a matter for constant and sensitive adjustment, based on factors including session pacing, the group’s concentration level, and players’ personal knowledge of character abilities. The defaults suggested by the scenario wording are no substitute for a GM’s judgment and attention. Knowing when to push and when to let the players push you is an essential component of the GM’s craft. You are probably already doing it, unconsciously, but by paying more active attention to it, you can further sharpen your presentation.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

When asked to explain GUMSHOE, a key section part of my standard spiel goes like this:

“GUMSHOE says that it is never interesting to fail to get information. When you use an Investigative ability, you never have to roll a die. If you have the right ability and use it in the right way, you simply get the clue. However, in the case of other abilities, it is interesting, if sometimes horrible to fail—you slip and fall when the vampire is chasing you, or get caught sneaking into the installation, or are thrown from your horse while trying to impress the empress and her sneering courtiers. These are the general abilities, which you do have to roll for.”

By definition I only present this pitch to people unfamiliar with the game.

Old hands, like the people reading this blog, might have a question, though.

How interesting is it, really, to fail at certain classic GUMSHOE general abilities?

Most general abilities lead to clear positive outcomes on failure and negative consequences on failure.

With the various fighting skills, you win a fight or land a blow. Sneaking / Infiltration gets you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Riding, Driving and Piloting avert disaster during chases and other dangerous transportation situations. Stability / Composure maintains mental self-control in weird or pressuring situations. In all cases, success gives the players a triumphant moment, while failure ratchets up the tension.

But what about the resource-related general abilities, you might ask. This list starts with Preparedness, the general ability every other member of the Pelgrane team were mad at me for picking first when we did the “My Favorite Ability” video series. Other examples include Network from Night’s Black Agents and Scrounging from Yellow King Roleplaying Game: The Wars.

On the surface, failing a test with these abilities leads a character nowhere.

  • A Preparedness failure means you don’t have the ingredients for an improvised explosive.
  • A Network failure indicates that your favorite Sevastopol gun dealer can’t sell you a Dragunov SVD because she just got bagged by the GRU.
  • A Scrounging failure establishes that you’ll don’t find a cache of stored rations to feed those starving villagers.

A less astute reader than yourself might consider these uninteresting failures. It is true that they don’t move the plot forward. Still, they carry an emotional resonance, because they allow the players to specifically envision what success looks like.

When you ask if you have explosives ingredients, know a gun dealer in Sevastopol or can locate a nearby food cache, you’re imaginatively envisioning a possible event. This gives you a moment of hope. Readers of Hamlet’s Hit Points will recognize this as an Anticipation beat. Should you succeed, you get a second emotional up moment. (HHP beat analysis calls this a Procedural up beat.) Should you fail, you instead feel disappointment, as the prospect of the explosion, gun buy, or relief operation you were picturing melts away on you. Either way, the failed test carries emotional content — or, you might say, interest.

If you always succeeded with resource-style general abilities, you wouldn’t get that. The possibility of failure, even when it requires you to scrap one idea and find another, is what makes these abilities exciting in play.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in December 2007. 

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system focuses primarily on investigation and by default assumes that moments of interpersonal conflict will be handled through roleplaying. As such it lacks an equivalent of the Persuasion/Rebuff system that lies, for example, at the heart of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. However, if you’re seeking a more mechanically robust way to adjudicate the outcomes of arguments, negotiations, debates and seductions, there are plenty of options to choose from.

When contemplating a new rule or technique, the GUMSHOE way is to look at the source material, see what techniques it typically uses, and find the simplest possible means of implementing it, consistent with the rest of the system.

Scenes of interpersonal conflict in mystery novels and TV procedurals are usually handled as in any other dramatic genre, although usually in a more compressed and decisive way.

In resolving a character conflict in fiction, an author ideally finds a plausible and organic way to portray a plot development he deems to be necessary to his story. This necessity may arise from, among other reasons, a desire to illuminate character, jolt the audience, or move a story toward its inevitable conclusion. In a roleplaying game, the outcome is not preplanned. The PC may or may not bring about a plot turn that moves the group toward a successful resolution. Two elements must be in place: the player has to devise a believable plan, and then the character must have the wherewithal, and perhaps luck, to implement it.

In the case of interpersonal conflicts, what is plausible and organic depends on the motivations of the character being persuaded. What the GM does determine in advance are the motivations and intentions of the NPC with whom the PC enters into the verbal exchange.

The motivation is what the character wants. This goal can be specific or general. The more proactive the NPC, the more specific the goal will be.

Specific goals might include:

  • gaining the Botticelli secret
  • killing Carson Gersh
  • selling the Winston house
  • getting the suitcase full of money

General motivations are more inchoate and psychological:

  • earning approval
  • hiding sense of insecurity
  • destroying father figures
  • pursuing affection

If you want to get fancy about it, a specific goal might be rooted in a general goal. Ernest Combs may want to gain the Botticelli Secret to destroy a father figure, his hated former mentor Elias Thwaite.

Greater complexity can be added in the form of multiple or even contradictory motivations. Mrs. Spooner may want to rent the downstairs apartment, earn the flirtatious attention of handsome men, while still proving that she is a respectable citizen.

GUMSHOE is player-facing, meaning that it treats PCs and NPCs differently. PCs are the protagonists, who act. NPCs exist only in relation to them and tend not to make rolls on their own. So if an NPC sneaks up on a PC, the action is resolved not by the GM rolling for the NPC, but by the player rolling against his Surveillance or Sense Trouble ability to see if he notices.

The implication of this principle in interpersonal conflicts is that the PCs are not open to being persuaded or bamboozled, as they are in Dying Earth, by a rules resolution. Only when the players decide it’s in character to be deceived or inveigled do they act against their better judgment. This is in keeping with the procedural genre, which can be described as a romance of competence.

In a scene of personal conflict, then, a PC must overcome the NPC’s resistance, rooted in his motivation, and pivot him so that he becomes open to an action he is at first unwilling to embark upon.

We already have this in the system with Interpersonal Investigative abilities. NPCs are often resistant to giving out information until the players figure out what ability (Bargain, Flattery, Seduction, Streetwise, et al) can best be used to overcome their objections.

Interpersonal abilities can also be used to overcome resistance in other areas. To do so, the player must specify a tactic. The tactic is an approach, offer, or argument made to overcome another person’s resistance. This might or might not cite an interpersonal ability. Let’s say that Ernest Combs has taken a hostage, who the PC wants to him to release.

If the player comes up with a tactic, which, given Combs’ motivations, will make his capitulation seem plausible, the conflict is resolved in his favor:

  • “Through Intimidation, I make myself seem like a forbidding father figure, then offer to swap places with the hostage.”
  • “Through Flattery, I tell him he’s better than this—if he hurts a hostage, Elias Thwaite will be elated by his moral failure.”
  • “I Bargain with him, promising him a photocopy of the map room if he lets her go.”

Sometimes non-Interpersonal abilities might apply:

  • “I use Theology to remind him that these are not the actions of a man of faith.”

A prepared GM can designate one or more possible successful tactics ahead of time, but should also be ready to accept unexpected yet equally plausible suggestions from the players.

This system not only emulates the source literature, but gives investigators a reason to learn more about the NPCs in any scenario—you never know when you’ll need to persuade them of something later on in the story.

The extent to which ability ratings influence outcomes is a matter of taste.

The minimalist approach is the triggered result—here, resistance is overcome simply by citing an ability plus a plausible tactic (or even a plausible tactic to which no ability applies.) The triggered result is congruent with the clue-gathering mechanic.

You may wish to have players pay a toll to succeed in interactions which yield non-informational advantages. In this case, require an interpersonal spend. The player succeeds after paying 1 or 2 points from the cited ability. Combs releases the hostage on a 2-point spend of Intimidation, Flattery, or Bargain, depending on which tactic the player selects. Add complexity by assessing different spend levels reflecting the relative aptness of the various tactics: the Bargain might cost 1 point, whereas the Flattery, which is a bit of a stretch given the investigator’s previously expressed antipathy for Combs, costs 3.

Finally, you might prefer, even with a plausible tactic, an uncertain or chancy outcome. In an interpersonal contest, the GM assigns a Difficulty to the persuasion attempt, based on the aptness of the tactic. A Difficulty of 4 is standard; higher than that represents an especially tough challenge. The player can add to the die result by spending points from the relevant investigative ability, gaining a +2 result bonus for each ability point spent. This approach is in keeping with traditional roleplaying approaches to the problem, and introduces an element of suspense, and, therefore, uncertainty. On the downside, it is less like the source material, and therefore less GUMSHOE-y.

You may always find that one of the three techniques—the triggered result, interpersonal spend, or interpersonal contest—is best suited to your style of play. However, you may find that certain situations call for the automatic certitude of the triggered result, while others cry out for the plot-branching potential of the interpersonal contest. Creators of fiction vary their techniques to achieve a range of effects, and GMs should do likewise.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

by Graham Walmsley

At first sight, Gumshoe would make a perfect LARP. There’s little die-rolling, so it suits a game played standing up; and, as an investigative game, it’s about talking to people. It sounds ideal. Would it work?

In this article, I’ll attempt to create a Gumshoe LARP. For the setting, I’ll use an English murder mystery: a staple of investigative LARPs.

For the ruleset, I’ll use Fear Itself. So it’ll be a horrific murder mystery: think Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

This LARP will have little combat and much talking. There’ll be about 20 players, in costume, and pregenerated characters. The game will last about four hours, at the end of which the players will find, amongst themselves, a murderer.

The Characters

As with all Fear Itself characters, the PCs will have a Worst Thing They Ever Did and Sources Of Stability. These are superb roleplaying tools, especially for a LARP.

The characters will also have a Risk Factor: the reason they don’t just call the police and lock themselves in the bathroom.

In addition, there’ll be Affinities and Enmities. These will create alliances and factions, which are golden in LARPs: they instantly let players know who they’re with and who they’re against; who to talk to and who to avoid.

Finally, each character will have something They Want. Let’s take this a step further: we’ll fix the pregenerated characters so that every character’s want could be granted by another character. That gives everyone a goal: something to work for, which they might achieve.

Let’s call this new characteristic “What I Can Give”. It might, for example, be Money, Forgiveness, Property or Healing. For game purposes, each character has an infinite amount of this quality to give: if a character can give Money, they have an infinite amount of money to give, to whom they choose.

Investigative Skills

When you’re walking around, playing your character, complex character sheets get in the way. Instead, let’s put the skills on cards: instead of having two Streetwise points, you’ll have two Streetwise cards. Rather than spending a point, you discard a card.

We’ll let players choose skills as follows: there’s a central pile of cards, from which each player takes 10. This also means skills will be distributed between the players: if there are only three Architecture cards, a maximum of three people may have that skill.

Clues

Some clues will work exactly as in Fear Itself: the GM holds them and players spend points – or, rather, discard cards – to get them.

For example, you’d discard an Investigative Procedure card to get the following clue:

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There are scratches surrounding the lock, as if it has been picked.

If a player told the GM he was closely examining the lock, he’d also get that clue.

There will be Core Clues, too.

Core Clue: Streetwise

A street kid tells you that Father Morgan was attempting to wash blood from his hands in the gutter.

And some clues might have time limits.

Core Clue: Architecture

There is a false wall behind this bookcase. (Do not reveal until after the second murder).

But we can be cleverer. LARPS work best when players talk to each other, not the GM. So let’s put clues in the hands of the players.

Player Clues

Each player will hold a number of clues: say, three or four. These will be allocated to each pregenerated character before the game.

Clue: Flirting or Intimidation

You know Dr Brown intended to change his will.

If you hold this clue, and someone uses Flirting or Intimidation on you, you must reveal it.

Players will hold Core Clues, too. Again, some of these might have time limits attached.

Core Clue: Cop Talk

You know damn well Father Morgan killed Sir Ralph and you’ve got photographs to prove it. Do not reveal this until after the second murder.

Murders

Best of all, the murders themselves will be Core Clues. Here’s an example:

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die.

Also, each murder will have associated Clues, some of which would be Core Clues, and some not:

Core Clue: Medicine or Investigative Ability

From a blue tinge to the lips, you can tell the victim has been poisoned with cyanide, ingested in the last ten minutes.

Clue: Investigative Ability

The glass from which the victim was drinking has been wiped clean of prints, save for the victim’s fingerprints.

The murder victim would hold these clues and, after they die (giving the “Murder” clue), they’d give out other clues to players who used an appropriate ability.

Stability

How can we work Stability into this?

Since we’re using cards already, let’s have Stability Cards instead of Stability Points. However, you can’t hold negative cards, so we’ll have to tweak the rules.

Let’s move the scale upwards: on 5 Stability Cards or less, you’re shaken; on 2 or less, you’re mentally ill; when you’ve no cards, you’re incurable. You start with around 10 cards.

Note that we’ve halved the length of the scale, so we must halve the Stability Losses:

  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to do serious harm: 1 Stability Card
  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to kill: 2 Stability Cards
  • Witnessing a grisly murder: 2 Stability Cards
  • Discovering the corpse of a friend or loved one: 3 Stability Cards
  • Seeing a friend or loved one killed: 4 Cards

However, in Gumshoe, you roll dice to check Stability. Dice work badly in LARPs: because everyone’s walking around, it’s hard to roll them.

Instead, let’s try this. On the wall, we’ll have a clock. Then, on each Stability card, we’ll print 6 random numbers, from 1 to 12.

To do a Stability check, look at the clock and note the number the minute hand points to (if there’s doubt, ask someone else and agree). Then draw one of your Stability cards, at random. If that number is on the card, you’re fine; if not, discard an appropriate number of Stability cards.

As in the original Gumshoe rules, you may spend Stability to increase the chance of succeeding. Simply draw any number of extra Stability Cards. You must discard these extra cards whether or not you succeed: but, if the number is on them, you succeed the Stability check.

The chances of succeeding, using this system, are slightly different from those in the original rules. In the original rules, the probabilities of succeeding would be:

  • With no points: 50%
  • With one point: 66%
  • With two points: 83%
  • With three points: 100%

In our revised LARP rules, the probabilities are:

  • With no cards: 50%
  • With one card: 75%
  • With two cards: 87%
  • With three cards: 93%

and, with more cards, the probability of success increases gradually towards 100%. Nevertheless, it’s a good approximation to the original rules.

I’ve chosen a clock because it seems appropriate to a murder mystery: I imagine grandfather clocks and meals served at specific times. However, there are various options: we might use occult symbols instead of clock numbers. The symbol to match against could be on another Stability card.

Mental Illness

If you get a mental illness, how do you communicate that to the other players? In a tabletop, it’s easy; but, in a LARP, you don’t want to stop the game to accommodate it.

Instead, let’s use sticky notes. When you get a mental illness, you collect a sticky note from the GM, and place it on your forehead.

You won’t know what it says, but other players will read it and react: “Talk about me behind my back”, perhaps, or “I am talking at twice the normal speed” or “I am covered in blood”.

What Would Cause a Stability Check?

Firstly, the GM might have pre-arranged Stability checks written into clues.

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There is an ancient skeleton lying under the floorboards (Stability Check: 1 Card).

Then, prospective murder victims would have stability checks written into their Murder Clues. The gorier the murder, the greater the Stability check.

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die. (Stability Check: 1 Card fpr witnessing the murder )

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the third murder victim. You die by being mauled, by an unseen assailant, perhaps a huge dog. (Stability Check: 2 Cards fpr witnessing the murder )

Of course, you lose more Stability Cards if the victim is a friend or loved one.

Finally, of course, a player can cause another character to check their Stability, by attacking them.

Health

How should we handle combat and Health levels? We could do it in a similar way to Stability: have Health cards, perhaps, with clock numbers printed on them.

However, combat plays little part in murder mysteries. Sure, there are murders, but they’ll be pre-planned. Also, in a short LARP, it seems unfair to allow players to remove each other from the game by killing each other.

So let’s make a bold decision: there won’t be Health levels. You can attack someone and force them to make a Stability check. You can even decide, together, that the attack caused a wound. But you can’t kill anyone.

To me, this makes for a more interesting game. Attacking someone won’t hurt them: but it might send them mad.

Denouement

So, that’s the backbone of Gumshoe as a murder mystery LARP. Taking a step back, how does it seem?

There are issues. What happens if a player wants to imprison another? What if they want to break through a door?

Also note that, because there’s only one location, there’s effectively only one scene in the game. This is a problem: Gumshoe games use scenes as a pacing device: for example, the final clue will rarely be available in the first scene, only in a later scene. This game needs a similar pacing mechanism: perhaps the clue giving the identity of the murderer is unavailable until after the final murder.

Despite these, I like the idea. It seems playable and fun. I’d happily wander round, investigating murders, and, if I needed a change, attack someone to drive them mad.

So, that done, the only thing left to do is play it and see if it works.

Sample Characters

Lord Bristol
Concept: Vain landowner
Risk Factor: Dismissive
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Disinherit my son, Alfred when I found out he was about to marry Sarah, the maid
What I Want: Absolution for my part in the war
What I Can Give: Property
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Mrs Warpole
Enmities: Alfred Bristol, Jack Brass

Jack Brass
Concept: Cunning Master of the Stables
Risk Factor: Thrill-seeking
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Shoot Lord Bristol’s best stallion in a drunken rage
What I Want: A small townhouse
What I Can Give: My hand in marriage
Affinities: Sarah Devizes, Alfred Bristol
Enmities: Lord Bristol, Father Nigel

Sarah Devizes
Concept: Religious maid
Risk Factor: Horny
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Throw a pan of boiling water over Emma, my sister
What I Want: A good husband
What I Can Give: Forgiveness
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Father Nigel
Enmities: Jack Brass, Lord Bristol

Sample clues

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Lord Bristol
After one hour, you are trampled to death by a horse in the stables.

Core Clue: Natural History
Held by: GM
Found in: Stables
The horses have been drugged with extreme doses of a stimulant.

Clue: Reassurance
Held by: Sarah Devizes
Alfred used to beat you. You were glad when he called the engagement off.

Clue: Streetwise
Held by: Jack Brass
You’ve seen Bristol drinking very, very heavily. He has a secret whisky bottle concealed under the study floorboards.

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Sir James Degby
The first time you are served food or drink after the first murder, you are poisoned.

Clue: Investigative Procedure or declared search
Held by: GM
Found in: Study
Under the study floorboards is a whisky bottle, half empty.

Core Clue: Intimidation or Reassurance
Held by: Father Nigel
After three hours, reveal that Sarah confessed to you that she was planning to kill her father-in-law.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

The following news items and diary entries originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2006 and 2009.

You can find the entries for 1998-2000 here.

You can find the entries for 2001-2002 here.

Editor’s note: A few of these news items were not categorized by month or year – I have done my best to approximate their chronology, and have marked them with a small sun symbol.

2006

The ‘Footsteps of Fools’ series – An interlocking series of Cugel-Level adventures. The first ones are for sale via the products page and at RPG NOW. These are “The Day of the Quelo” (a Cugel-Level adventure that can stand alone or be incorporated into the second FoF release – “Strangers in Saskervoy“), and “All’s Fair At Azenomei” (the first adventure in the new FoF series).

News for June 2006 – The Pelgrane is flapping forward with so much vigor this month that we’ve had to create a separate page for all the details.

2007

News for February 2007 – The GUMSHOE system has been launched with The Esoterrorists, a game of investigation and occult horror. You can get it at the webstore. The Forum (ed. – now defunct) now has GUMSHOE and Esoterrorist areas.

Forthcoming GUMSHOE releases include:

Fear Itself, the GUMSHOE Horror game. (Already written and in layout.)
Trail of Cthulhu, by Kenneth Hite, licensed from Chaosium, Inc. (Underway)
The Book of Unremitting Horror, based on Dave Allsop and Adrian Bott’s excellent d20 version with a new adventure and new material for The Esoterrorists. (Due to be completed mid-March.)
Little Girl Lost – an epic Esoterrorist campaign by Ian Sturrock.

News for April 2007 – More PDF versions of our products are available from our webstore, including the Esoterrorists. If you’ve bought the print version, you can download the PDF from your existing order page. Robin gives us part II of his article on structure in GUMSHOE adventures. Finally, more Dying Earth goodness from Ian Thomson with spells and cantraps of forest and field in Violet Cusps.

News for July 2007
Fear Itself , the next GUMSHOE publication, is now at the printers. It should be out next week.
I received proof copies of The Compendium of Universal Knowledge, but I’m not happy with the hardback, so that will be delayed a little until I have seen further samples.

GUMSHOE Unremitting Horror is awaiting an index.  Albion’s Ransom (fomerly Little Girl Lost), the first big Esoterrorist adventure has been playtested and is receiving its final edit.

We’ve done a reprint of XPS 4/5 available from the webstore. If you have purchased a PDF, please email me and I’ll send you a voucher for the difference.

News for August 2007
Fear Itself is released. Fear Itself plunges ordinary people into a disturbing contemporary world of madness and violence. Players take the roles of regular folks much like themselves, who are inexorably drawn into confrontation with the creatures of the Outer Black, an unearthly realm of alien menace. With or without its distinctive mythology, GMs can use it to replicate the shudders and shocks of the horror genre in both film and literature.

The limited edition Compendium of Universal Knowledge for the Dying Earth is being printed this week.

There are fifty copies in total, and about twenty remain unreserved. If you’d like to reserve a copy, please email me. It will be $49.95.

The GUMSHOE book of Unremitting Horror is being printed, and includes everything from the d20 Book of Unremitting Horror, as well as new creatures, Esoterrorist background material, and lots of adventures.
All these books will be available at GenCon Indy, where there will also be demos of Esoterrorists and Fear Itself. We’ll also be producing a limited edition of Robin’s comic The Birds. Robin will be on the stand for signings.
The Lords of Cil” is the third pdf release in Ian Thomson’s epic Cugel-Level campaign for DERPG.

2008

News for January 2008

We’ve released The Fields of Silver – a new Turjan-level campaign from Lynne Hardy.  Read more in this article.

2009

News for April 2009

We will no longer be selling the Dying Earth as of 1st May 2009. Print products and PDFs are available from the Pelgrane store and Indie Press Revolution.


The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 


A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Mixing and Matching With GUMSHOE

In addition to its primary goal of rethinking the way we run investigative scenarios, GUMSHOE is also an ongoing experiment in rules modularity. Along with whatever plain, ordinary rules are needed to evoke a particular setting or sub-genre, each new iteration of the game introduces new tools and techniques which can be mixed and matched to create your own investigative games. Many can also be applied to other roleplaying games and genres.

The Esoterrorists presents a simple, introductory version of the core GUMSHOE rules. It sets forth a simple, accessible setting, along with the very basic components you need to run occult investigation: Stability rules, a stripped-down approach to weapons, and so on.

Fear Itself reproduces horror stories in which ordinary people come face to face with things that go bump in the night. It removes a few of the complexities of The Esoterrorists, which assumes that all of the players are professional investigators. For example, the many technical abilities of the first game are collapsed into a catch-all, as are many of its academic skills. To preserve the ordinariness of the characters, it encourages a maximum of one PC from any sort of law enforcement or military background.

These are rare examples of modular adjustments to GUMSHOE rules that can’t be fed back into an Esoterrorists game. It is not so much a rules addition as a necessary rules subtraction, again to evoke a specific sub-genre. These changes can, however, suit another game concept featuring non-specialist investigators.

Other new facets of Fear Itself can be added to The Esoterrorists, or used in elements in other investigative settings. To start with a small example, Fear Itself introduces a new general ability, Fleeing. This is a necessary component of any undiluted horror game, reflecting that genre’s many characters who are not all-around athletes but nonetheless turn out to be highly capable at screaming and running away. This narrow ability can be imported to The Esoterrorists or other settings.

When you depart from the horror genre, Fleeing remains useful when giving game statistics to supporting characters that the PCs might be trying to either chase or rescue. They may not be able to perform feats of strength or put up a struggle when caught, but they can get away from pursuers, at least for a while.

Fear Itself includes a number of psychic abilities, including Aura Reading, Remote Viewing, and Premonitions, granting PCs access to minor occult powers. These could easily be made available to Esoterrorists characters. Most GMs will want to do as Fear Itself does, and allow only one character per group to have a psychic ability. Add too many psychics into the mix, and you start to drift from the realm of horror into contemporary fantasy.

On the other hand, you could embrace this tendency, creating an all-psychic detachment of the Ordo Veritatis to which the PCs belong. This might be a sort of suicide squad within the organization, sent in to tackle tough, psi-oriented assignments that ordinary agents can’t handle. If so, they’re probably followed by a monitoring team composed entirely of supporting characters, who keep them under surveillance and watch for signs that they’ve lost their already-tentative hold on sanity. As the psychic Ordo members go crazy, their minders swoop in, spiriting them off to permanent incarceration in a Veritatis-approved mental institution. In extreme cases, they may need to efficiently take out freshly-crazed psychic operatives with well-placed sniper bullets.

Be cautious when populating your world with psychics. Superhuman powers which work in unpredictable or undocumented ways throw a wrench into players’ efforts to reconstruct the events they’re investigating. They have to be able to incorporate the existence of such abilities into their theories of the case. Let’s say they find out that a supporting character lets slip a fact she could only know if she was present at the crime scene. If she is capable of Remote Viewing, that’s a second possibility, which the investigators must now be able to take into account. This difficulty is in large part the subject matter of Mutant City Blues, the upcoming GUMSHOE game of police procedural investigation in a world of widespread super-powers. There, the operations of the various superhuman powers are well-known and incorporated into forensic science. The investigators must take them into account, but unquestionably know how they work, and what their various limitations are.

Also appearing in Fear Itself are a number of techniques to flesh out characterization. They belong in a pure horror version of the game because, by enabling us to relate more acutely to these ordinary people before they’re plunged into deadly jeopardy, they intensify the terror. They include the directed scenes, in which the players are given personal goals for their characters, as they would be in a scene of improvised theater. Directed scenes prove especially useful to play out flashbacks. These scenes from the past bring the character’s backstory, which usually languishes unrevealed in each player’s personal notes, vividly onstage, for the entire group to see. They also enable the players to sharpen their character-portrayal skills, as they’re called on to act out minor roles in each others’ directed scenes and flashbacks.

Though initially designed for horror, these techniques work in any genre. You could employ them to introduce dramatic elements to the otherwise highly mission-focused Esoterrorists structure. For that matter, as they’re unconnected to GUMSHOE’s other rules structures, you could just as easily insert them in nearly any other RPG, from D&D to Vampire. With the exception of certain rigidly constructed indie-style games, or comedy games that require relatively facile characters, like Dying Earth or Og, they fit almost any gaming experience.

Mutant City Blues offers a different, but related, mechanism. It creates a structure resembling many police procedural TV shows, giving the players partial control of it. Players are encouraged to submit possible Sub-Plots, story threads of personal drama involving their characters when they’re not solving the main cases. This technique could equally well be added to any ongoing Esoterrorists or Fear Itself series, or any other GUMSHOE game of your own devising, so long as it features continuing characters and cares about their personal development. Like directed scenes and flashbacks, this element can be completely uncoupled from GUMSHOE and welded onto most other normative RPG games.

Another feature of Fear Itself requires players to select Risk Factors for their characters, explaining why they head toward trouble when other ordinary people would flee from it. This is a necessary component of any horror game, answering the question: why do they go down into that basement? Given the risk-aversion characteristic of some players, it’s also one requiring some reinforcement in play. Risk Factors include Gung Ho, Skeptical, Horny, and Oblivious. Though the descriptions of the various factors are keyed to horror, they could easily be adapted to any other genre requiring selfless, proactive protagonists.

We’ll continue to search for similarly useful modular elements for future GUMSHOE products. If we’re really lucky, we’ll start to see GUMSHOE gamers designing their own add-ons, and sharing them with the rest of us, via their blogs or on the Pelgrane forums.


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in September 2006.

Updates

Gomoshan’s Tomb
QuickStart Rules
GUMSHOE and Esoterrorists
Rhialto Update
Corrections and Clarifications

Gomoshan’s Tomb
This month brings the release of Gomoshan’s Tomb, a scenario in the well respected tradition of exploring and looting ancient ruins – though with suitably distinctive Dying Earth twist to this hoary old genre. Designed for characters in the mould of Turjan, it gives. Available as a PDF from our webstore.

The DERPG QuickStart Rules
After a few thoughtful email exchanges with people interested in the Dying Earth RPG Quick Start Rules, I’ve decided to reintroduce the QSR as a free PDF download. I had made the QSR free with any purchase, making it possible to get the rules plus decent adventure materials for under $3.00. The reason for the change was this – the QSR are very, very good, and we have lots of free adventures on the website. Download patterns suggested people were grabbing the QSR, plus an adventure, then coming back a few weeks later for more free adventures. This implies that the QSR alone are enough to play a decent version of the game. Obviously, we feel that the complete rules are much better, and offer superior play possibilities, but this potential is not obvious to people who have a good game in their hands already. That said, the last thing I want to do is irritate potential customers, or stop people sampling the game without risk, so we’ve restored the Quick Start Rules page.

GUMSHOE and Esoterrorists
Robin has finished work on his new GUMSHOE rules and the Esoterrorist background. The playtest went better than anything we’ve run before, and I’m very happy with the game. It fits with our new games design brief. It’s much more mainstream than the Dying Earth RPG, and can be used with any mystery-based background. Next, Robin is working on a GUMSHOE version of the Book of Unremitting Horror, and Adrian Bott will be creating a new adventure for this setting. The Esoterror background and the Unremitting Horror background can be run separately, or together depending on the style of game you and your players enjoy. I’ll be writing at more length about Esoterrorists next time.

Rhialto Update
Trevis Martin and Jérôme Huguenin have completed their illustrations for Rhialto’s Book of Marvels, and Jérôme has began work on the layout.

Corrections and Clarifications
In the last Page XX we published an article, generally well received, called “Is the RPG Industry Screwed?” – a mischievous title, I agree. I’d like to make it clear that the article was compiled by me (Simon Rogers) and not Robin D Laws. This clarification is more to prevent harm to his reputation than to benefit mine! I’d also like to state (and this should hardly be necessary) that the opinions I quote are those of the people I quote, and not necessarily my own. I was very careful not to make predictions, and my own comments are full of cowardly cavills and hedging. I do not predict a riot.

Finally, I ignored the elephant in the room, Hasbro, the big fish that the little fish all circle around. It’s Dungeons and Dragons, the grand daddy of the industry that we rely on to bring in new customers, while we smaller fry pick around the edges. I hope to rectify this grevious error in a future article. One person who emailed me took from my article that I don’t like Dungeons and Dragons. Looking at the article I am at a loss to see where he got that impression. On the contrary; I ran a 1st Ed D&D campaign for 18 years, we’ve published Dying Earth d20 conversions, the Primer of Practical Magic and the Book of Unremitting Horror. I am still very fond of the game, in fact I ran it at SteveCon earlier this year, although I don’t get as much chance to play as I might like due to variations in taste amongst my game group. I generally run 1st Edition because I had the time to completely absorb it when I was twelve, and I can’t give the same attention to later editions, good though they may be. I’ve played 3rd Edition, but I would be a little nervous running it with players who know the rules well.


The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

GUMSHOE divides abilities according to whether failure at that ability can drive narrative. Because it is never interesting to fail to get information, you never fail with your investigative abilities. General abilities, on the other hand, do offer the possibility of something interesting—if often horrible—happening when you fail a test. You can fail to run from the shoggoth while Fleeing, fail to repair your sputtering Cessna’s instrumentation with Mechanics, or fail to keep your wits about you with Composure.

However, just because failure is often interesting doesn’t mean that any given instance of it will always best further the story.

As a GM, you may see no particularly entertaining outcome from a failed test.

  • Failing to Sneak past the security guards, as you have imagined them, doesn’t get you a classic interrogation and escape sequence. Nope, just an exasperating hassle that delays the confrontation with the escaped sapient lab rats.
  • When a character is Riding to impress the hardbitten rodeo clowns, a failed test prevents you from running that scene where they try to recruit the group into their ranks.
  • A Counterinsurgency failure might rubbish the otherwise cool plan the group has spent half an hour cooking up, forcing them back into planning mode.

A common and often useful solution to the boring failure calls for the GM to replace failure with a costly success. You get past the guards but lose 2 Preparedness points when you drop your kit bag. You impress all but one of the rodeo clowns, who later tries to brain you with a wrench. You blow up the revanchist hideout but are identified by witnesses while doing so.

However, the existence of this technique shouldn’t prevent you from doing the simple thing instead: sometimes, you can just let them win!

Success establishes the character as competent and impressive, a feeling the players might not get enough of in a tense session. You get a reward as well, skipping an unneeded complicating factor. In a scenario already packed with action, that wrench-wielding rodeo clown might be one plot wrinkle too many to squeeze in before the session clock runs out.

Even an action that should feel difficult and could yield a rewarding story turn in other circumstances, could in certain instances create more fun as an automatic success.

A failure at the top of a scenario, especially the first one, starts the proceedings on a sour or unintentionally comic moment.

Failures that slow the action just as you’ve gotten it rolling likewise get old fast. If you’ve already got plenty of suspense bubbling, yet another problem to deal with registers as demoralizing overkill.

This doesn’t mean that characters should be able to succeed at unbelievably difficult tasks just to speed your the pacing.

But so long as success feels credible, or can be made to seem that way by your adjusting your description of the situation, you may find the prospect of certain failures overrated.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

The following article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in June 2006.

June brings us to the completion of work on our webstore. Substantial progress has also been made on all of our outstanding manuscripts, and what’s more, new roleplaying games in the pipeline – yes, that’s plural. And remember at the store, you may obtain a free copy of the Quickstart Rules with any other DERPG purchase.

Dying Earth E-Books
All of our Dying Earth books and magazines except Demons of the Dying Earth are now available for purchase in PDF form from the webstore at a substantial discount from the print price. All of our print versions now include the PDF, sent straight away by email when you complete your order, so you can get started. Anyone who has ordered since 2nd November last year will find that they have a PDF version of any Dying Earth book they have bought to download from their order page. By popular request, we have also added the ability to accept PayPal.

Keep Page XX Going
It is the moment for a little unbecoming begging. Page XX is time consuming and expensive to produce. It’s great fun to do, and I’d like to release it more regularly. If you enjoy Page XX, please buy something from our webstore  to help us keep it going. The new PDF products mean that your support won’t break the bank.

Dying Earth in the Pipeline
A flurry of activity this month means we have three artists and three layout people working away on “Rhialto’s Book of Marvels“, the “Compendium of Universal Knowledge” and Fields of Silver.
Rhialto’s Book of Marvels is the long-awaited source book for Arch-Magicians. Created by Robin D Laws, designer-in-Chief of the Dying Earth RPG, it features a totally new mechanics with which you can actually win the game. Expect fraught discussions, drunken magical brawls between manses, feeble attempts at seduction and childish one-upmanship. Combined with world-shattering magic, of course. One of the artists has a blog where you can see some of the illustrations for Rhialto (ed: this blog no longer seems to be active).

The Compendium of Universal Knowledge is a gazetteer, a bestiary and an encyclopedia of the Dying Earth. It includes entries by almost all our writers, and is being compiled and edited with additional material by David Thomas. It includes entries long and short, creatures, locations, spells, and people. We use the simple conceit that the book is sentient – the book wrote itself. Observe if you will a sample article from the Compendium, and a first cut of the layout style.

New Times Demand New Games
Pelgrane Press will also be producing new games with the following qualities:

  • Easy to learn
  • Easy to teach
  • Easy to play
  • Innovative
  • Approachable

A GM should be able to learn each game in half an hour, nuances in a hour or so. It should be easy to teach the basics of the game to a novice in fifteen minutes. The design should take account of developments in gaming over the last ten years and offer something genuinely original. GMs will want to take the game out time and time again.

The Esoterrorists and Gumshoe core rules – The first of these new games will be created by Robin D Laws. We asked him to make a rule set which supports investigative roleplaying and a default background to go with him. I’ve seen and playtested the first draft, and the game is entering full play test on 12th June. Adrian Bott will be reworking the Book of Unremitting Horror for the new system, and we’ll be creating other adventures and rules supplements with an investigative theme. Robin says:
“Unlike other investigative roleplaying games, the Esoterrorist’s GUMSHOE rules system ensures that the plot never grinds to a halt due to a failed die roll. As the top paranormal detectives, you never fail in your areas of expertise. When necessary, you can expend extra effort to glean more from the evidence than any plodding journeyman could hope to find.”

Unreality – Something weird happened to you. Maybe you woke up one morning and found you were married with three kids, perhaps a bus tried to eat or maybe dogs no longer exist. You’ve been unborn. You can manipulate unreality, but it will slowly eat away at everything that is real about you – what anchors you to your humanity. It’s your job to prevent causality violation using your new-found abilities while avoiding the backlash. The system peculiarly makes it easier to do things with unreality the more improbable they are.
Steve Dempsey, long time Dying Earth contributor is creating this new game for us. We’ve run internal play tests and will be ready for a full playtest in a couple of weeks.


The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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