By Hao Zhang

There’s an idea, a saying that when a thing travels, evolution, alteration, and other unexpected outcomes go with it. This idea sometimes can lead one to pleasant views. And this is how we at Labyrinth see it.

Before we formally begin the mumbling, we’d like to notify you dear readers that we wrote this article majorly based on our personal impressions and memories, therefore it would not be a bad idea to treat what we are about to recount as a mere story:

[the beginning]

By the end of 20th century, there were rumors and legends being told on the Chinese-speaking part of the Internet of stories about a sort of game, a unique kind of playing, which allows its players to freely act out the characters and to experience their adventures in a way that no other form of gaming can provide. It’s called Tabletop Roleplaying Games.

For many of us players in China—a place that’s literally a half planet away from where TRPG was born, this was how we first heard of it.

By the end of 1999, an article was published on the nation-wide magazine Popsoft, it was likely the very first systematic introduction of TRPGs written in the Chinese language. Due to the magazine’s popularity, we can also safely say that it was likely the first time TRPG was introduced to the mass-public of Chinese players.

Shortly after that, the Dragonlance novels and RA Salvator’s Forgotten Realms novels were published.

Following this, the D&D 3.0 edition core rule books.

For the first time, TRPG doesn’t just exist in the “introduction threads,” for the first time those who formerly could only say “I’m curious about this TRPG thing” could actually become a player.

And this was the beginning of an actual TRPG player population in China.

Since the stories about TRPG were mostly spreading within the video gaming communities (Popsoft itself can be arguably deemed as a video game magazine, too), most of these early players are also video game players. It’s interesting to mention that before many of these first TRPG players ventured into the world of TRPG, they first played CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.

That said, due to the fact that the fantasy novels were basically introduced to Chinese youth at the same epoch, among the first TRPG players we also have a lot of fantasy novel readers. But in most cases a Chinese TRPG player is both a fantasy novel reader and a video game fan.

To put this on a larger scale, we can say that most of the first TRPG players were the Chinese young people who are fascinated by western pop culture in general.

And since then, TRPG began to flourish in China… as many of us once so hoped.

Actually, since then, until the D&D 3.5 and 4.0 rule books both got published in 2009 by two different entities, it was mostly just silence.

The number of TRPG players in China remained relatively low for many years, the lucky ones who managed to talk their friends into TRPGs mostly play in local board game cafes, and the less-lucky-but-determined ones could only play online.

Due to the lack of actual games, many TRPG players here formed an online reading habit and became rather knowledgeable about various pop culture subjects. At first it was heavily focused on D&D and genres like high fantasy, but soon other games/systems (like World of Darkness, Sword World RPG, and GURPS) and other genres were explored.

Thanks to these knowledgeable pioneers and their activeness in all sorts of video game forums, while TRPG itself seemed very insignificant and marginal in China, the influence it had on the entire Chinese pop culture is tremendous: together with fantasy novels and animations, it inspired a whole generation of web novel writers and game designers, it’s like the Illuminati society for Chinese pop culture aficionados, you just cannot call yourself an insider without stating your admiration and interest in TRPG…

Speaking of Chinese pop culture, it’s also hard to avoid mentioning animations and other Japanese pop culture works. If the the influence of earlier works like Slayers was still largely limited to the anime fan community, the impact of classics like Record of Lodoss War was just huge.

As more animes and light novels were made since the late 2000s, this impact from Japan got more significant and began to turn Japanese pop culture fans into TRPG players.

From the Japanese pop culture fanbase emerged a wave of new players whom are introduced to the TRPG via light novels, manga, J-CRPG, anime, and Japanese-style visualized AARs (in some of these AARs the characters have “Yukkuri” version portraits of Touhou characters and they often talk in the voice of Google), a considerable part of these AARs are CoC AARs.

And thanks to Nyaruko: Crawling with Love, today a lot of people among us here in China are used to refer Nyarlathotep as Nyaruko even in non-anime discussions.

Despite that many earlier “western school” players are also anime watchers, due to the cultural differences that existed in the two different worlds, the “Japanese school” players have a small cultural gap with the “western school” players. That said, fusions can be also widely observed.

And while TRPG in China slowly evolved here, “another secret cult”—the Cthulhu culture also crept into the Middle Kingdom and gained its own place.

It’s hard to tell which one arrived first: the CoC game, or the literature works associated with Cthulhu mythos, or maybe they appeared at the same time in one online thread? We can only tell with certainty that some of the literature was published along with some other fantasy novels here in PRC during the first decade of 21st century.

If TRPG is a marginal cult, then in general the Cthulhu culture was even more marginal, when TRPG was still recognized by the pop culture geeks and hailed as an important source of inspiration, Cthulhu mythos was like a whisper, only murmured in the least visited corners of Chinese-speaking Internet.

The very reason for the Cthulhu pop culture itself looking so alike to the in-work secret cults and mysteries, was probably that the Cthulhu-associated works were never (or at least just rarely) systematically introduced, if somebody in the 2000s would have searched “克苏鲁” (the Chinese transcription of Cthulhu), he would most likely only get scattered information: a couple of books, some short introductions to HP Lovecraft, some longer articles full of specific terms, and some “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” replies here and there.

Of course this mystery doesn’t last forever, as the Chinese pop culture community grows and the earlier fans expand their explorations into more and more different worlds (resulting in more translated works and even original works), and as the Japanese creators started to use more Cthulhu-related references in their works, now it becomes much easier for anyone interested to get information. On top of that, we at Labyrinth even have Trail of Cthulhu translated and published.

We’ve been saying that a majority of the Chinese TRPG fanbase are into western pop culture (and they play western characters more often than not during games), but as most of them are still born and raised in China, a cultural difference still exists. Here’s a quick example, for many Chinese players, the Prohibition Era is something they are unfamiliar with, and thus moonshine and bootlegging can be interpreted in unexpected ways…

This doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the games though, many players smartly avoid such issues with characters from backgrounds they are unfamiliar with. And the Chinese players are sometimes very into playing out their characters’ personalities and charms , some creative folks here even play with largely minimalized rules to have greater freedom (meanwhile some others deem this unorthodox).

So this is how the things feels like at a glance and how they became so. So far TRPG culture and Cthulhu culture have grown slightly bigger than they originally were when they first arrived, but these cultures are still young here and will have a long way to go to until they can be considered as fully fledged.

But as long as the legends of TRPG are still being told and the Lovecraftian mysteries are still being whispered, this story will just live on.

Hao Zhang is the founder and CEO of Labyrinth Culture
Ever after his engagement in the localization of D&D 3rd Edition Core Rule Books in 2000, Hao has always been an over-serious aficionado and a zealous promoter of TRPG. He founded Visionary e-magazine, the first magazine in China that focus solely on TRPG in 2005 and co-founded Khan Kon in 2011. The games he brought to Chinese players include Fiasco, Trail of Cthulhu, and Pathfinder.


A steady improvement curve for heroes makes sense in certain roleplaying genres. Fighting foes, getting stuff from them, and becoming increasingly powerful is not incidental to F20—it’s the core activity. The journey of a D&D character from first to twentieth level mirrors that of Conan as he progresses from scruffy barbarian to implacable king. Improvement features in other genres, too: training sequences are a staple element of “Arrow” and “The Flash,” for example. (Though I’d argue they’re more about getting bonuses for the problem of the week than permanent changes to the character sheet.)

That kind of zero-to-hero career trajectory doesn’t feature in the mystery genre. We don’t see Sherlock Holmes gradually eke his way to polymath status, or Marlowe progress from greenhorn to jaded private eye. That goes double for occult investigators, from Constantine to the Winchesters, who if anything go from damaged to more damaged.

GUMSHOE characters start out highly competent, and give players the ability to decide when their best successes occur.

So there’s no intellectual justification for character improvement in GUMSHOE. Neither is there a game balance necessity. Adding General ability points too quickly just throws the system out of whack, forcing an upward adjustment of Difficulty numbers for no good reason but to keep up with the looser ability economy. Investigative ability creep, over time, makes the PCs more similar to one another.

While designing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, I decided to test whether I could get away with curtailing Improvement. Rather than remove it entirely, I started out with an approach where you’d get less than 1 Improvement point per scenario, timed unpredictably:

Improvement Roll

At the conclusion of each scenario (which may have taken one or more sessions), decide who the focus player for that scenario was.

If the scenario sprang from a particular player’s Deuced Peculiar Thing, designate that player as the focus.

Otherwise, pick the player you think took the crucial role in figuring out the scenario’s mystery, or did the most to solve the problem the investigation exposed.

Don’t worry about singling the player out for a special reward. Being the focus carries no particular benefit, but somebody has to do it.

Check to see how many players are holding Shock or Injury cards. Ignore Continuity cards acquired during previous scenarios.

This determines the target number needed for a die roll the focus player makes.

If at least one player has an Injury card and at least one other has a Shock card, the target is 4.

If the group has at least one Injury card but no Shock cards, or vice versa, the target is 5.

If no one was left with an Injury or Shock card, the target is 6.

The focus rolls a die; on a result that meets or beats the target, all players get 2 Improvement points.

You’ll see that this adds complexity in order to arrive at its result—one that players found emotionally frustrating.

Instead I went with something simpler, but more generous—though less so than standard GUMSHOE. You get 1 Improvement point per scenario, full stop.

Although there is no intellectual or structural justification for Improvement in GUMSHOE, another factor trumps that:

Players like it.

They’ve been trained to expect it.

It makes them happy.

So in the end, they get it.

In the collaborative medium of roleplaying games, practice always matters more than theory.

by Simon Rogers

In most cases, GUMSHOE puts the dice in the hands of the players. Instead of the GM making a Stealth test for a creature to sneak up on a character, players make a Sense Trouble test to avoid being surprised. When the roles are reversed, it’s the players who make a Stealth test to get the drop on their opponent. We call this approach “player-facing.” The only time GMs make die rolls is in combat and in other, longer contests.  This article suggests how we can tear the dice from the GM’s warm and clammy hands during combat and put them in the warm clammy hands of the players.

How It Works

In standard GUMSHOE, when a GMC opponent makes an attack, the GM makes a test against the PC’s Hit Threshold, adds some points from the creature’s combat pool, then rolls damage if the test is successful.

In this new player-facing combat, the player makes a test to resist the attack and takes consequences if they fail. Conceptually, with this approach, it’s easier if the players think of their Health pool as Defense or Endurance rather than a measure of how much actual damage their character is taking. If this better for your group, simply rename Health as Defense.

Calculate the Difficulty of the Health Test

The base Difficulty for the player’s Health test is 3. This is increased by any points the GM spends from the creature’s Attack pool. We call this number the Attack Difficulty.

Instead of adding points from the Attack pool, another, quicker approach, is that the GM just adds a fixed amount to the Attack Difficulty equal to the creature’s Attack pool divide by three and rounded down.

Attack Pool Modifier
0-2 +0
3-5 +1
6-8 +2
9-11 +3

In most GUMSHOE settings, the GM will state the Attack Difficulty, unless the PC has no combat training, or the PCs are entirely unfamiliar with the creature.

Make the Health Test

The player makes the Health test against the creature’s Attack Difficulty. The player adds their Hit Threshold minus three to the roll plus any Health points they want to spend. Usually Hit Threshold is 3, meaning you add nothing, or 4, so you add +1.

Take the Consequences of Failure

If the player fails the test, they take damage equal to the creature’s Damage Modifier, with a minimum of one, and will take a Condition. The Conditions are Staggered, Hurt, Seriously Wounded, and Dead. Staggered is new to GUMSHOE, the others, you know already.

The first time a PC is hit in a combat (whether they take damage or not), they are Staggered. Being Staggered increases the Difficulty of Health tests by 1, and means the next time you are hit you are Hurt, regardless of your Health pool, the time after that Seriously Wounded, and then, you guessed it, Dead. After combat, any Staggered PCs can lose this status simply by resting for a few minutes. If you are Hurt by an attack, your Heath falls to zero. If you are Seriously Wounded by an attack your Health falls to -6.

If the PC is not yet Hurt and hits zero Health through spends on Health tests and damage, then the standard wound rules apply, but if a PC is already Hurt, they become Seriously Wounded (and their Health falls to -5),  and if Seriously Wounded, Dead.

Regardless of how they end up Hurt or Seriously Wounded, the PC must make the usual Consciousness test to stay on their feet.


You can use armour to avoid taking a Condition, but only once per battle, for each +1 the armour provides. So, for example, light armour (+1) will give you one chance to avoid being Staggered, Hurt, or even Dead on a failed Health test. Heavy Armour (+2) gives you two chances.

An Example of Player-Facing Combat

Bertha Wiseman is facing off against a thug armed with a knife. She is wielding an épée. Her Health is 10, and her Hit Threshold is 4 (she has 8 in Athletics). Her Attack pool is 5.

The thug has 7 Health, a Hit Threshold of 3, and an Attack pool of 8. Using the quick approach, the thug’s Attack bonus is +2 (his Attack pool divided by 3, rounded down). A knife has a-1 Damage Modifier. The minimum damage is 1, so that -1 becomes 1.

  • Bertha goes first as she has the highest Attack rating, spends two points from her Attack pool to ensure her blade strikes and rolls 3 points of damage.
  • Now it’s the thug’s turn. The GM announces the Difficulty of Bertha’s Health test. It’s 3 plus the thug’s Attack bonus of 2, so 5.
  • Bertha makes a Difficulty 5 Health test against the thug’s attack, choosing to spend zero points of Health. She has a Hit Threshold of 4, so she adds one to her roll and luckily rolls a 4, so she takes no damage.
  • She makes her attack, again spending 2 points, and rolling 4 damage. The thug’s Health is now 3.
  • The thug attacks. Once again Bertha makes her test against her foe, spending 4 points of Health to ensure she isn’t hit. Her Health is now 6.
  • She attacks again, but she has no Attack points to spend, and rolls a 2—a miss.
  • Bertha makes her Health test against the attacking thug, spending no points, and fails to make the test. She takes 1 point of damage and her Health is 5. She is now Staggered. If she gets hit again, she will be Hurt.
  • Bertha lashes out at the thug with her poker. She needs to roll a 4 or higher rather than a 3, because she is Staggered. She rolls a 4, and does 2 points of damage to the thug. He is at 1 Health.
  • Bertha spends 4 points of Health to avoid being hit, leaving her with just 2 points left, but ensuring that she doesn’t get Hurt.

Now it’s Bertha’s turn…

We will leave the Staggered Bertha facing the thug, and wish her the best.

An alternative approach which was an inspiration for this article can be found in Diceless GMing in GUMSHOE by MP Duxbury.

For a more abstracted, quicker, and entirely placing-facing alternative to this suggestion, take a look at The Yellow King RPG.




A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Since investigative roleplaying first burst from its sunken atoll and called itself Call of Cthulhu, mystery solving and horror have always been linked in the gamer mind.

As a result, when Simon first asked me to design a system for investigative play, it made sense to debut GUMSHOE in the horror genre, with The Esoterrorists.

Since then many of our other GUMSHOE games have also essayed variations of the horror genre. It’s what we like, what many of you like, and a natural fit.

Each time we’ve returned to this well, we’ve explored a different ethos, or variety, of horror.

The Esoterrorists might be termed topical horror. It posits that the true terrors we face today aren’t hiding in graveyards or haunted houses, but in the headlines and our social media feeds. The game’s occult conspiracy gains power by leveraging the cognitive dissonance and collective dread we experience when something terrible is transmitted to us by the global media. It taps into, and mediates, the feeling that our broader world has spun out of control. In my bid to create an original setting, I devised a type of horror without a huge corpus of preexisting examples. Satirical horror sometimes has a topical horror vibe, so you might point to the works of Larry Cohen or Joe Dante’s “Masters of Horror” episodes as existing in the same territory. The Purge franchise delves deeper into topical horror with each installment.

Fear Itself, in which ordinary people try to survive horror situations, is pitched as personal horror. Players define the worst thing their characters ever did, and the running and shrieking and losing Stability invoke the human flaws those backstory events suggest.

Trail of Cthulhu follows two traditions established by Call of Cthulhu, which it adapts to the GUMSHOE system.

In its purist mode, Trail confronts players with cosmic horror: the psychic and moral devastation accompanying the full realization of humanity’s insignificance in a vast and indifferent universe. Whether you’re beholding the incarnation of an ancient god-beast or discovering that history stretches back through inhuman eons, Lovecraft’s creations all speak to the collapse of humanocentric worldviews in response to 20th century science.

In Trail’s pulp mode you play in an adventure horror universe. Characters may pay lip service to the philosophical implications of cosmic materialism, but in the meantime there’s ghouls and Deep Ones and cultists in need of a good machine-gunning.

Night’s Black Agents fuses two genres, for a heady mix you might call gothic spy thriller. It takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its many 19th century cousins and mixes them with Bourne-movie urgency, not to mention munitions. NBA takes the baseline paranoia of the spy genre and links it to a hidden demimonde of gothic menace and predation. In the spy genre, any of your so-called allies might be a mole; here, that mole might also mesmerize you and drain your blood. You can walk into a honeypot operation and come out not only compromised, but undead.

Cthulhu Confidential likewise finds the commonalities between horror and another genre to arrive at what you might call cosmic noir. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and the hardboiled detective tale evolved at about the same time. The existential alienation of the noir genre thus easily slots into the alien existentialism of the Mythos. Cthulhu Confidential pairs the psychic disintegration of Mythos awakening with the moral disintegration discovered by hardboiled detectives as they uncover the social rot the city’s high and mighty wish to conceal. Terrible truths lie behind the surfaces of history and the local power structure.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game explores reality horror. Taking its cue from the original cycle of stories by Robert W. Chambers, it locates its fright in the idea that both our minds, and reality itself, can be altered, upended and ultimately destroyed by a work of art. Or a symbol, even. You can try not to see, then discover you’ve read the play all the same.

YKRPG takes this a step further by encouraging you to play similar or connected characters across four distinct realities, not all of them in the same timeline. To give a sense of contrast to the reality-hopping, each of its four settings provides a distinctive genre sub-flavor.

Paris, set in the original 1895 of a couple of the Chambers stories, evokes a variant pulp horror, one where the sources of inspiration are not the magazine pot-boilers of the 30s and 40s but the thriller fiction of the 19th century. This starts the series off on a note of derring-do, as you confront vampires, Frankensteins, magicians and gargoyles, all given a Carcosan spin.

The Wars takes a journey into the rare but redolent weird war horror subgenre. Although it can take on a pulpy flavor, especially with the setting’s bizarre war machines, references to the true horrors of war remain below the surface.

Aftermath, set in an alternate America just after the repressive Castaigne regime has been overthrown by insurgents like your player characters, combines political machinations with reality horror. You might call it topical horror from an imaginary history.

And This is Normal Now, set in what initially looks like our own world and time, plays with a growing and contagious perception. The characters learn that the underpinnings of our lives are swirling away in favor of a new and sinister set of possibilities. Though not far from the feeling of Fear Itself, this sequence encourages the GM to find horror in contemporary trends, from the latest app to the nightclub that’s all over Instagram. And if you bump into some Cronenbergian science horror along the way, well, don’t say you weren’t warned.

That gives you, the GUMSHOE GM looking for a new horror game, a wide variety of sinister spices and styles to choose from.

And us a challenge the next time we get the itch to unleash another horror game.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Previously on See Page XX, I talked about the difficulties we occasionally hear about when GMs who have trained themselves to say “no” come to the GUMSHOE system with those assumptions in mind.

This time I’d like to look at how early roleplaying culture took on that mindset, and how assumptions are shifting during the current RPG renaissance.

GUMSHOE, along with many other games, actively works to move the story forward. When we spot a barrier to narrative development, we add tools to help GMs and players push them out of the way.

For example, the Drives system found in many GUMSHOE iterations, from Fear Itself to The Yellow King, puts the onus on players to engage with the premise and take actions that lead to an engaging story.

It works to correct a previous prevailing unspoken assumption, in which it is the GM’s job to entice reluctant players to take risks with their characters. Drives remind them to make active choices a perfectly rational but uninteresting character might go to some trouble to avoid.

This assumption, like so much else, arises from the early history of the form, which thought more about reward and punishment than about building a fun story together. Early players learned at their peril not to make “stupid” mistakes that would kill off their characters. Drives work to change the question from an older model, “how can I avoid deadly mistakes?” to “what inspires me to make exciting choices?”

To repeat a Thing I Always Say, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson weren’t trying to create a new narrative art form when they developed the ideas that turned into Dungeons & Dragons, the original roleplaying-game-as-we-know-it. They were working in the wargaming tradition, inventing a new game that reduced the unit size from a squad, battalion or legion to a single individual with a sword or pointy hat.

Included in that brainwave was the brilliant, habit-forming concept of the experience point, a currency you continue to accrue to your character over time. That persistence and growth led by inevitable consequence to narrative.

But it also created an adversarial dynamic between DM and players. The DM has an infinite supply of experience points, creating an environment that withholds them from players until they fight the world and pry them loose.

Early DM advice advised against excessively punitive treatment of the players and the characters, not because the game wasn’t a contest between the characters and the world, but because the game stopped working when DMs abused their unlimited power. DMs had to remind themselves that they weren’t there to crush the players, but to give them the most exciting set of challenges.

Power-mad Dungeon Masters weren’t a mere matter of folklore. When I interviewed him for 40 Years of Gen Con, Dave Arneson recalled the time when he sat down to play with a young DM, who promptly narrated a massive anvil plummeting from the heavens to squash his character to a pulp. “I killed Dave Arneson! I killed Dave Arneson!” the kid cried, to the delight of surrounding tables. Such were the terrible lessons of the early dungeon wars…

Along with warnings against this sort of stuff in early books came contrary messages. DMs were advised to punish uncooperative players with bolts of electrical damage to their characters, or presented with the infamous instant-kill traps in Tomb of Horrors.

We often think of adversarial roleplaying as something that the DM inflicts on players. Anyone whose original Gaming Hut really had shag carpeting, wood paneling and a Peter Frampton album for a screen no doubt remembers players coming at them hard. They rolled at you either in search of those addictive XP and the new levels they brought, or just the opportunity to screw with The Man, who happened to be you. The greater the emphasis on the reward, the more the DM had to ride herd, controlling cheating, minimaxing, and rules lawyering. This was not an era of “yes and” but of “duh, no!”

The experience point still rules the land of D&D, but these days in a more enlightened tyranny. Over the years XPs have become a pacing element measuring the rate at which your characters inevitably get better. Years of design adjustments have cut out exploitable jackpot effects. Later customs of play encourage the whole group to progress at the same rate, and for replacement characters to rejoin at par with the rest of the party. No longer do we assume that they restart at level 1 and try to stay alive long enough to catch up on the XP curve.

Other games carried over the assumptions of rapacious players you had to say no to. Build point games such as Champions and GURPS rewarded system mastery and the search for bargain-priced powers and disadvantages. They relied on GMs to watch for and curtail abuses.

Assumptions of power and control extended to authority over the narrative. The idea that a player could invent a useful prop to describe during a fight scene seems like a dead obvious collaborative element today. When it appeared in the original Feng Shui, it blew minds. Even so, the first edition of that game is nonetheless rife with passages assuming that the players want to hose you, the GM, and that you can turn that thirst to your benefit.

With decades of story-emulating play devices behind us, players have not only become less rapacious overall, but also less movable by either bribery and punishment.

GUMSHOE’s first version of Drives included a mechanical penalty for players who refused to go along when the GM invoked them. This proved unnecessary; once reminded of a Drive, no halfway cooperative player refuses the adjustment.

In a world where thirteen year olds exist, the hunger for advancement and putting one over on the GM will never vanish entirely. But their version of fun is no longer the baseline for every table. Our latest generation of new players is as much influenced by actual play podcasts and the hunger for character and story as by an unruly desire to minimax and grub for XPs.

As player behavior has changed in the aggregate, what the designer needs to do to facilitate maximum fun for all has altered as well. Design change has both shaped, and been shaped by, cultural shifts within the roleplaying community writ large.

Gaming culture can change invisibly as our personal assumptions remain fixed and unexamined. That’s why, I think, when a GM who has played many games over the years misreads a rule, that the misreading will default to the forbidding, even in a system built to be permissive.

That presents a communications challenge, it’s also a tribute to the complexity of a form that continues to evolve in dialogue with its audience of collaborators.


GUMSHOE is a system for designing and playing investigative roleplaying games and adventures, emulating stories where investigators uncover a series of clues, and interpret them to solve a mystery.

In a GUMSHOE game, the player characters discover something which triggers their investigation, and then the Game Moderator (GM) narrates them through a number of scenes, during which they use their Investigative Abilities to gather the core clues they need to move the narrative forward. They must then put the clues together to uncover the secrets behind the mystery.


This is a new iteration of GUMSHOE, designed for one player, and one GM. You can find out more about it here.

GUMSHOE links and resources


Any RPG which uses the GUMSHOE system redefines it for that setting, and so there is no “GUMSHOE book”. Each of the RPGs below contains the full GUMSHOE rules for creating characters and playing in that world, as well as guidance on designing your own investigations for that particular setting.

Follow the links below to find out about our GUMSHOE games:

A Column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Many moons ago I encountered a phenomenon I later termed an unrule.

A rule, as goes without saying, is text the designer includes into a game to explain how it is played.

An unrule is text you have to include to prevent players from making a mistaken assumption about your game, based on their experience of other games.

This first cropped up during playtesting for the Shadowfist card game. Players were tripping themselves by expecting its characters to act just like Magic: the Gathering creatures.

If you came to Shadowfist cold without having played MtG, it would never occur to you to expect characters to act in this way.

But if you had already learned Magic, as of course many potential Shadowfist players had, you might have assumed this. Or you might see that we didn’t use same rule, but ask rules support just to be sure.

So we had to include an unrule–a piece of rules text telling you not to do the thing you would do if this was Magic you were playing.

Unrules needn’t arise from comparison to a specific equivalent rule in another game. They can come about simply by substituting general familiarity with a game form–roleplaying let’s say–to general familiarity for a close reading of the rules.

We all do this. Roleplaying games are full of rules, and we learn by analogy. The more previous RPG books we’ve read, the greater the chance that we let our eyes dart quickly over a section that seems to be saying the standard thing we’re used to seeing that section say. Missing out how a given part of the system works is absolutely par for the course.

For example, Simon recently spoke to a GM who was having trouble with GUMSHOE because you can run out of points in an investigative ability, and therefore can’t continue to use it, stopping you from solving the mystery.

Which would in fact be a terrible flaw in the game, given that the whole point of the system is to ensure that investigators always get the information they need.

The rules directly explain, in clear and explicit detail, that investigative points are never required to get the crucial clues you need to move through the mystery.

You are never required to spend to get pivotal information–especially what we call core clues, the ones that signal the appearance of brand new leads and avenues of investigation. If there’s a new person you need to talk to, place you need to poke around in, or area of research you must embark on, you always get that info, period. No point spend required.

Instead point expenditures give you special extra spiffy benefits above and beyond access to vital clues. In early GUMSHOE scenarios you sometimes got especially impressive information that didn’t directly impact the case, or gained the standard clue in a particularly impressive way. Over the years we’ve put that thought aside in favor of practical benefits to the character. You might learn how to kill a creature more easily, cement an alliance with a helpful GMC, convince an angry bystander not to slug you, and so forth.

Spending every single investigative point on your character sheet never stymies you. You can always continue to gather the clues the scenario provides, just as before. Assuming your character looks in the right place and has the needed ability, you get the info. If you look in the right place but don’t have the ability, another PC will have it. Is that player not present this week? We have workarounds for that, too.

Since you don’t need to spend investigative points to gather key clues, running out of investigative points is extremely rare in practice, when playing the rules as they appear on the page. Spending them all means that you’ve accrued a bunch of benefits, and can’t garner any more of them. It never stops you from proceeding.

Likewise if you have a general ability, used to overcome practical problems and dangesrs, and spend all of your points in it, you continue to use it. You have less of a chance of succeeding, as you can no longer spend points to add a positive modifier to your result. But you will still succeed at least half the time against the most common difficulty number.

Mistaken assumptions like this are hard to head off. Where players are reading a rule into the text that doesn’t exist, you can write a rule telling them not to do that. Though it may be odd to explain what a game doesn’t do, implicitly heading off a comparison to another game can be done.

Reaching players who assume Y when you explicitly write X is a tougher conundrum.

Misperceived rules prove particularly thorny during playtest. Playtest draft documents are a mess, littered with bits to be written later, sections not yet optimally placed, and no index or graphic elements to help one’s saintly playtesters find the references they’re looking for.

You may get an account of a failed game session but never realize that the results were based on misunderstood versions of the rules. Ideally you get enough context to see what has gone wrong and take action. Depending on the misperception, you might flag the existing rule with more insistent visual cues, add redundant text to hammer the point harder, or emphasize it through repetition in various sections of the book. The best way to have this problem is to find out you genuinely wrote an unclear rule, because then you can simply fix it by rewriting for clarity.

The real headscratcher comes long after playtest, when most everyone gets the rule as written and you discover a surprising misinterpretation standing between a pocket of players and enjoyment of your game. Simon has been investigating the possibilities of a squirrel-based system, where his favorite urban rodents fan out from Clapham and across the world, watching Pelgrane’s games play at the tabletop and then reporting back in their distinctive angry shriek when they see rules misunderstandings in action.

Until we get that up and running, GUMSHOE fans, we’re going to have to rely on you to keep watch for misperceptions preventing unfortunate others from enjoying a rules system that works perfectly well for you. Show them the light with the gentility our readers are known for. Remind them GUMSHOE always wants them to get the information. It always wants them to have what they need to solve the mystery. When it comes to clue-gathering, GUMSHOE says yes.

by Lisa Padol

Ever since GUMSHOE came out, there’s been a lot of focus on the investigation skills. But it seems to me that the emphasis in discussion is on the wrong thing.

The key thing is not that the PCs will always find the core clues (if they are looking in the right place with the right skill — as Robin Laws said, if the person with the skill in examining corpses refuses to examine the corpse, there’s nothing any system can do to help). If that’s all there were to GUMSHOE, it could be replaced by a post-it note saying “Don’t make the players roll to find the plot!”

No, the key thing is that GUMSHOE reminds us that a clue is not a person, place, or thing, but rather, the raw information. What do the PCs need to know to get to a satisfying climax — not necessarily one that means they succeed or survive, but one that satisfies the players (including the GM)?

I run commercial scenarios rather than making up my own, and I have converted two Call of Cthulhu scenarios to Trail of Cthulhu, as the folks I ran Eternal Lies for vastly prefer Trail. So, two related questions for me are:

  • How do I make sure that the players and the characters get the clues when they go in directions the authors of the scenarios and campaigns I run did not anticipate?
  • What do I do when the characters lack skills the authors assume they have?

As a fellow gamer noted, one doesn’t want to have to prep clues for every single skill in whatever GUMSHOE game one might be running, but one also doesn’t necessarily want to wing it. How does one prepare for tailoring a scenario to a specific group of players and their PCs?

What I do is diagram everything. What are the core clues in this scene? What do they point to? What skills does the author assume will be used to find them? (Side note: This makes sure you know what the core clues are, and also helps you do damage control if the author’s screwed up.)

So, now I’ve got a bunch of scribbled notes. Next, I ask who am I running this for, and who are they playing? Odds are you’re going to know that in advance. If it’s a convention game, you may not know the who, but you’re likely to go with pre-gens. If you don’t go with pre-gens, I highly recommend what Mel White did with Night’s Black Agents, which is fairly similar to Brian Rogers’s Sticks Improv and I think drawn from Skulduggery. That is, you make up different piles with various skill mixes.

Brian Rogers explained Sticks Improv as follows:

Sticks Improv works by having 5-6 stacks of 10 cards. 4 stacks
represent attributes, the key components of the characters in
the setting (for d20 fantasy it’s flavors of fighter, rogue,
mage and cleric, for other settings they are attributes like
Charm, Physique or Erudition, and in GUMSHOE it would be some
combination of the most important investigation or procedural
skills); each of these stacks is identical so the players will
have some combination of the settings key characters elements,
and they are ranked as Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Least so
players can prioritize what they consider most important. In
GUMSHOE this prioritization would determine pool size.

The other two stacks are color elements – magical gifts, special
powers, additional resources – that are keyed to the settings
chrome. Each of these is unique. These are all of equal utility,
and add to the attributes. In GUMSHOE this would be
investigating or procedural skills that are less common to the
setting, MOS or the special traits of certain templates in
GUMSHOE like sensing vamps.

Ultimately these 6 cards make up the whole character. Players
select a card from one stack and pass the remaining cards in the
stack to the right. Eventually everyone has 1 card from each
stack. The limited number of certain cards gives niche
protection, and each set of 6 cards will make a viable unique

(Jason Walters gave it a shout out here:

Mel White described what we were doing in one of his Night’s Black Agents games as creating characters using an improvised Click and Lock system. This may or may not have borrowed from The Dying Earth RPG, The Gaean Reach RPG, and Tony Lower-Basch’s Capes ( I believe we drew at random 3 Professions cards, 1 Drive card, and 1 General skills card. All of these cards had skills, and if two or more cards had the same skill, then the points on each card were added together, and that was how many points the character had in that skill.

So, you know what PCs are in the mix and what skills they have. You can make yourself a spreadsheet, just remember, or have printouts of their character sheets close to hand. (Sidenote: I do a strictly alphabetical spreadsheet of all the skills, generic and investigative combined, possibly using bold for the latter.)

Now, look at the core clues again. Are there any clues where it’s not obvious to you how the PCs might (not “will”, of course — players are perverse) get these? If not, great! You’re done. Sure, things will go weird in play, but you probably can’t anticipate how, so don’t sweat it. (Okay, I don’t follow my own advice here, and I do try to figure out what is likely to go weird, how, and how to cover for it, but that’s not what we’re focusing on.)

If there are clues where the listed skills are not those any of the PCs possess — or if you’re thinking, “Okay, now when the party splits and the one person with Art History just isn’t where the clue is” — this is where you focus your attention. If there’s a Whole Lot of core clues like this, well, either the author’s screwed up or you’ve got a very idiosyncratic group. (I certainly do!) This doesn’t make your job easier, of course, but best you know the facts on the ground now.

Here are some suggestions for how to make sure the PCs pick up the clues you want:

* Change the PCs’ Abilities.

  • The players can move points around in the middle of a session, and if they have unspent points, they can spend them during a session. Can they spend points buying appropriate Abilities to solve the problem?

* Check if there’s an obviously related skill the players can use. Fr’ex…

  • No one has Art History. Okay, what is the clue? Some of these holy icons are older than five centuries, let’s say. Holy icons? Does anyone have Theology or the equivalent? Are you playing Night’s Black Agents? Could someone create an NPC with Art History? The Network skill is your friend. Is it at all plausible that the PCs knew they’d be looking at holy icons or otherwise have a need for Art History? If so, would you accept a roll of Preparedness? “I knew we were going to look at a bunch of icons, so I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and boned up on this.”
  • No one has Cop Talk. Will Law do? Is the officer in charge susceptible to Flattery? While you might not believe that the PC can directly Intimidate the police per se, could how about a sort of indirect use of Intimidate, where the officer is worried about looking foolish or weak and wants to impress upon the PC that the opposite is the case?

* Review what the stubborn core clues are supposed to do.

  • The cop won’t talk? Okay, who else might know about the case? Is there a perpetrator who might talk if a PC uses Reassurance? A night clerk who might be bribed with Bargain to let the PC look at the report? A lawyer or reporter convinced there’s been an injustice? A witness that didn’t come forth, but who might appear in a newspaper photograph? Even if none of these are mentioned, could there be one? What does the cop know that the PCs need to know?
  • One of the old icons is the one sought after by Dracula, and the PCs need to narrow it down to the ones older than five centuries? Okay, do any of these have unusual histories that could be found via Library Use? Were any of them a source of recent theft? Law or Cop Talk. Did one or two of them develop a recent history of being cursed? Were strangers offering absurdly high prices for certain icons? Oral History.

* Look at the non-core clues.

Are there any of these you want to make sure might come out? If so, go through the same steps. This is a matter of taste; I find that many non-core clues make a scenario so much more meaningful that I want to make sure there’s a really high chance of them coming out. The difference here is that you charge for the information. One point is the default. It has to be very useful if it costs two points, and beyond that? Well, generally, in my opinion, the author’s wrong if they’re charging more than two points, but there are rare exceptions.

Hopefully, you’ve nailed it as well as you can by now. If not, and you’ve time, talk to your fellow GMs. I have had help from gamers all over the world, thanks to the wonders of the internet, and I have tried to reciprocate. There are GUMSHOE groups, groups specific to each flavor of GUMSHOE, groups specific to individual campaigns, and forums like the ones on I am deeply indebted to numerous, generous people all trying to help each other out here. (Seriously, look at the Eternal Lies Google+ group and the forum topics dealing with that campaign — we all hit a lot of the same issues at about the same time, as we all fell in love with this campaign and inflicted it upon, er, ran it for our local groups.)

Lisa Padol has been running roleplaying games since 1991, reviewing them as long, and editing them for about a decade. She has been running GUMSHOE since Eternal Lies came out and still has to remind herself that she doesn’t have time to playtest everything for Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

Some players find damage dealing  in baseline GUMSHOE emotionally unsatisfying. This becomes an issue especially when they’ve spent a lot of points, or gotten a high die roll, only to roll low on the damage die, plinking the opponent for a miserable 1 or 2 points of Health.

Rolling high to hit and then minimum damage is the longstanding plight of RPG characters. But spending lots of a resource to do next to nothing heightens the sting. And in GUMSHOE an opponent with an Armor value knocks that off your damage, worsening the plink effect. If your group feels that pain, give them the following option.

After rolling for damage, a player may choose to substitute the margin from the successful attack for the damage die result. The margin is the difference between the test result (spend plus roll) and its Hit Threshold.

Professor Wingate swings her katana at the ghoul. Her player, Maia, spends 4 points of Wingate’s Weapons ability and rolls a 5. The final result, 9, beats the ghoul’s Hit Threshold of 3. Maia then rolls for damage but gets 1. Combined with the katana’s damage of 1, this would result in a miserable 2 points of damage. The ghoul’s rubbery flesh Armor of 1 would decrease that even further, to 1. Maia calculates the margin: the result of 9 minus the Hit Threshold of 3 equals 6. She swaps the margin of 6 for the die roll of 1. The katana damage bonus and the ghoul’s Armor cancel out, and its Health drops by 6 points, from 8 to 2. It meeps in furious dismay.

Possible drawbacks of implementing this variant rule:

  • This introduces another decision point for the player on each successful hit, probably slowing combat slightly. It won’t happen every time though–just when great hit results are followed up by lousy damage rolls.
  • It gives the players power to mow through opposition quicker by upping their attack spends. If you find that this weakens creature stats too severely, increase enemy Health ratings by 20% across the board.

For obvious reasons, this rule applies only to iterations of GUMSHOE that include damage rolls. It does not affect GUMSHOE One-2-One or the new quickshock combat system found in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

[I’d like to thank the GUMSHOE community for their suggestions on this topic.]

This article assumes you are running a pre-written adventure, for any GUMSHOE game – though much of the advice applies to adventures you’ve outlined yourself, or even if you are improvising. It also assumes you’ve read the rules of the game you are running, but it doesn’t require in-depth knowledge.

We’ll start with an aside: earlier GUMSHOE adventures sometimes offer point spends in scenes for information. I recommend that you give any such information out without a point spend, and reserve point spends for the benefits discussed in Part Two.

The Adventures Structure Meets the Gamers

First, read the adventure and get the structure of it – the way scenes link together. These are usually a collection of connected scenes. Like a battle plan, this structure does not always survive contact with the enemy. (Though that’s perhaps not the best way to think of the players!) The adventure is there to hold your hand and guide you – it’s not a straightjacket.

Here are some tips on giving players that sense of freedom and openness.

  • All adventures are linear in retrospect. If the players are having fun, they won’t notice the structure. The only time they’ll notice a structure is if you rigidly stick to it. Only say “You can’t do that,” if it’s based on what the characters are capable of, not what the adventure demands.
  • Expect to improvise scenes, and clues within scenes, just as you would in any game with a pre-planned adventure.
  • You can bring characters back into the adventure structure by improvising clues which draw them back into it – either NPC or physical evidence. You can also move clues from planned scenes to your improvised ones.
  • The list of abilities we suggest in each scene to acquire clues is just a suggestion. If a player suggests an ability or method which might plausibly get the clue, let them use it.
  • The clue is the way in which the information is delivered, and matches the ability. You can change the clue (and hence the ability) to provide the same information. For example, a Research clue can be converted to an Interpersonal one if you speak to the librarian.
  • If no character in a scene has the right ability, they can use their floating pool of points to assign to an ability or remember what an absent character can do.

Running the Game – Investigation

The first and most important thing to note is that actual game play in GUMSHOE is pretty much the same as in, say, Call of Cthulhu or other investigative games. Players describe what their characters are doing, just as they would in any other game, and use abilities in the same way. The difference only comes when they gain information – if they have the ability, have roleplayed their use of it, they get the clue.

In all investigative games, players forget clues, get side-tracked and talk, talk, rather than walk, walk. Here are tips to keep things going:

  • It’s fine, in your GM voice, to periodically restate and summarize known clues. The characters are competent and know what’s going on. Your players are easily distracted and can’t be expected to encompass that knowledge.
  • Let the players plan as long as they are having fun with it –probably for longer than you will! If they get bogged down, remind them that they have the Preparedness and that you won’t punish them for a lack of prep.
  • GMs know the mystery, the players really don’t. Be free with explanations, and give more information in the form a new clues if they get bogged down.
  • If the players won’t leave a scene, let them know that they have gathered all the information available, and that if they search, they’ll find stuff.
  • Read the list of benefits available for point spends for the system you are running – offer spends, but encourage your players to suggest them, too, Ensure every one of their spends is worthwhile.


Running the Game – Antagonist Reactions

Almost every investigation features a fight or a chase. It ramps up the tension and imperils the characters. Here is some advice on running fights.

Almost all of GUMSHOE is player-facing, that is, the players roll the dice. Fights are an exception – both you and the players roll a die and add points to attack their foes. However, you are running your creatures to give the players the best experience, not to use the most effective approach when imperilling the characters.

Standard GUMSHOE gives you antagonists a pool of points which works just like the players’ pools. In general, don’t spend enough points for an auto-success. The only exception might be the first attack from an expert sniper, a super-powerful Mythos foe, or the big bad vampire in Night’s Black Agents. Some versions of GUMSHOE even offer an Attack Pattern, which suggests point spends on each round of combat.

There is a full example of Trail of Cthulhu combat to get you started.

Other Resources:





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