GUMSHOE

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.

GUMSHOE One-2-One

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

GUMSHOE Games

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:

During the Kickstarter for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, I laid out one method of serving Shock and Injury cards to players electronically, as image files sent to a mobile-enabled platform. At that time, I recommended using Google Photos for this purpose. Belatedly I realize that there was a better way to do it, using the workspace application Slack.

Here’s how to do that:

If you haven’t done so already, create a Slack workspace for your game group.

(I now find this an essential tool for my group, no matter what we’re playing. The Polly poll app, for example, gives you a handy way to conduct an advance roll call and make sure you have quorum before anyone grabs their dice and heads your way.)

Within the workspace, create a separate channel for each player character. Depending on how well you remember PC names, you may want to name it after the character, or place the player’s name before or after the investigator name. Slack doesn’t allow spaces or upper case letters in channel names so you’ll have to resort to underscores:

#ella_wharton

#noelle_ella_wharton

#ella_wharton_noelle

Alternately, you could serve cards into the private message inbox of each player. However, some players like to use that for banter, out of game arrangements and other side business. Creating a channel for each player keeps that clear for cards and in-game notes, and reminds other players of the cast of investigators.

Also, if a member of your group is without a mobile device, they can sit next to a player with a laptop or tablet. With a little looking over-the-shoulder, the obliging device owner can switch between channels as needed to allow the other person to check their cards in hand.

When a character receives a Shock or Injury card, you upload it to the appropriate channel. You can do this directly from a folder if using a laptop. On a tablet, you can put the card images in Dropbox and share them from that service’s mobile app into the Slack app.

Slack permits only the creator of a message line to delete that line, so when a player discards a card, you’ll have to delete it in order for it to disappear. Be sure your players let you know when they fulfill a discard condition.

We’re currently assembling materials for our YKRPG resources page, including image files for each card. If you need them before we get that done, you can check the books for the cards you think you’ll need and turn them into images. Accomplish this either by screenshotting the PDF or by opening the PDF in an image editing program such as GIMP. Then crop the cards into separate images, save with the card titles as file names, and you’re good to go.

Some GMs will still prefer the tactile quality of paper cards printed, cut up, and handed to players. But for those, like me, who consider immediate access to all the cards in the game the ideal, a Slack full of pallid masks and black stars should do the trick.

People Have Opinions about service platforms. If you come up with an even better way, let us know!

Only 100 copies of the faux-leatherbound limited edition The Fall of DELTA GREEN exist. 50 are available to customers in the U.S. and Canada, and 50 are available to customers outside the U.S. and Canada. The books are faux leather with gold foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed bookplate signed by Kenneth Hite which you can add to your book.

Limited edition with bookplate

It is the 1960s. The stars are coming right.

The United States declares war on poverty and sends half a million troops to Indochina; desegregates voting booths and shoots rockets at the moon. Everyone believes that if we put our mind to it and our backs into it, there’s nothing we can’t do to make the world better, for America and everyone else.

You know that this is a lie. You are an Agent of DELTA GREEN, an authorized but unacknowledged black program of the United States national security establishment, tasked to hunt and destroy the Cthulhu Mythos. You know that plans and ideals, peace and love, matter less than a single atom drifting in the galaxy. All you can do is rage against doom, burn out your mind and body, and damn your nonexistent soul keeping your family, your country, your planet, ignorant and safe for one more day.

Written by ENnie Award-winning designer Kenneth Hite, The Fall of DELTA GREEN corebook adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME from Arc Dream Publishing to the award-winning GUMSHOE system. It opens the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations both foreign and domestic, the last days of DELTA GREEN before the Joint Chiefs shut the program down in 1970.

Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies, in deadly one-shot adventures or a campaign spanning the years from hope to madness. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness.

The Fall of DELTA GREEN features:

  • Lethal combat and covert action in the 1960s, featuring assault rifles, flamethrowers, mortar shells, spy cameras, truth drugs, and getting rid of the bodies DELTA GREEN operations always seem to leave behind.
  • “Back in the World” vignettes that let you explore the human side of your Agent’s life—and often track their slow destruction by DELTA GREEN.
  • The rich world of the Delta Green Mythos, including a gazetteer of unnatural lands, the desperate truth of Hastur, and period takes on the top-secret MAJESTIC program, the Nazi Karotechia, the alien Greys, and the decadent Cult of Transcendence.
  • Detailed advice for making mysteries, magics, monsters, and DELTA GREEN operations.
  • Interoperability with Night’s Black AgentsTrail of Cthulhu, and The Esoterrorists: Use your favorite GUMSHOE rules to battle the unnatural in the 1960s!

The decade begins in sunny optimism, and ends in nighted disaster in the jungles of Indochina.

After the summer of the 1950s, now comes the fall—The Fall of DELTA GREEN.

Related Links

Stock #: PELGDG01L Author: Kenneth Hite
Artists: Jen McCleary, Gislaine Avila, Nyra Drakae, Kennedy C. Garza, Melissa Gay, Quintin Gleim, Jérôme Huguenin, David Lewis Johnson, Erika Leveque, Anthony Moravian, Ernanda Souza, and Karolina Węgrzyn Format: 368-page, full color, smythe-sewn hardback

Buy the limited edition

If you’re the kind of GM who hosts inspirational movie nights for your players, my number one suggestion for getting them in the GUMSHOE mindset has to be All the President’ Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976.)

It reinforces the two most important tips players need to get into the mindset of investigators and successfully solve the complex mysteries the game system specializes in:

    * Keep learning more

    • * You gotta talk to people

    Made gripping by Pakula’s masterfully subtle direction, the William Goldman script zeroes in on one thing and one thing only—the process by which reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) find the facts that connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel to the highest levels of the Nixon administration. We see exactly nothing of the protagonists’ private lives. They get scarcely a sliver of backstory—just enough to identify them as underdogs we want to see succeed. It’s all about the information gathering.

    Along the way Woodstein, as the team comes to be known, learns a third axiom of investigation that applies more to some GUMSHOE games than others. Their secret source Deep Throat tells them to:

    • * Follow the money

    Bernstein speculates his way to a correct theory of the case almost immediately. But they have to prove it to print it. Together or separately he and Woodward try to pry from scared or otherwise unwilling participants confirmations they can use. They engage in a delicate cat and mouse with reluctant witnesses. Their interview technique suggests a new GUMSHOE Interpersonal Ability called Doggedness. They worm their way into encounters with resistant informants, then rely on social norms to win a grudging, often partial, admission, by continuing to ask questions despite repeated refusals.

    When one dirty trickster, Donald Segretti, seems weirdly pleased to unburden himself, it plays as a comic twist on the already established pattern.

    The movie also demonstrates a great technique for depicting a difficulty or stymied investigation. At several points the duo hits a wall and has to dig in and keep on digging. Pakula shows the stalled progress without ever killing his film’s momentum. He does this by always making the visual depiction of the arduous legwork aesthetically pleasing in some way. The best example of this occurs in the Library of Congress, as an overhead shot pulls back further and further from the two as they sort through a stack of documents. Becoming smaller and smaller in the frame, the characters are visually dwarfed by the monumental scope of their task. As viewers, the beauty and ingenuity of the shot keep us riveted.

    Steal this technique in your games by montaging the PCs through a segment of numbing legwork with a quick and entertaining verbal flourish. You might create one yourself, or invite the players to supply the narration that then bridges them to the next core clue.

    The film is now available in a fine BluRay transfer. Its ample special features supply historical context on the entire Watergate story for anyone who needs it.


    GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

    A column about roleplaying

    by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

    Here’s the relevant section from YKRPG:

    Pushes

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

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

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

    You never use Pushes on General abilities.

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

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

    Your character starts each scenario with 2 Pushes.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Sample kits for The Esoterrorists might look like this:

    Professor

    Archaeology

    Architecture

    Art History

    Astronomy

    History

    Linguistics

    Federal Law Enforcement Agent

    Bureaucracy

    Forensic Accounting

    Forensic Psychology

    Interrogation

    Law

    Research

    Homicide Cop

    Bullshit Detector

    Cop Talk

    Evidence Collection

    Interrogation

    Intimidation

    Local Knowledge

    Medical Examiner

    Forensic Anthropology

    Forensic Entomology

    Natural History

    Pathology

    Photography

    Reassurance

    Debunker / Stage Magician

    Anthropology

    Chemistry

    Cryptography

    Explosive Devices

    Flattery

    Occult Studies

    Techie

    Ballistics

    Data Retrieval

    Document Analysis

    Electronic Surveillance

    Fingerprinting

    Textual Analysis

    Con Artist

    Flirting

    Impersonate

    Languages

    Negotiation

    Streetwise

    Trivia

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

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


    GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

     

    The friends are gone.

     

    The world was thrust upon us. And we cannot fail it.

    Each of the people is created with a purpose. Some have inherited the planet, helping maintain the biosynthetic earth. Others are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the people. A rare few of us are designed for troubleshooting. We are the ones who can trace, examine, and handle glitches in our refined system. Troubleshooters have not been necessary in living memory. Yet here we are, needed and newborn. Our purpose? Hope.

    Created in a world without humans, newly finished robots awaken as their home borders on collapse. As the material necessary to continue robot life becomes scarce, and terrifying glitches become more common, troubleshooters become flickering beacons of hope.  Robot Dreams puts players into the roles of those troubleshooters, robots designed to keep their community safe and free of glitches.

    The increasing glitches herald the dying of a culture. Ghosts of days past whisper in the network, threatening to undo the peaceful life the robots live. The pilgrimage to the genetic pools is meaningless and fraught with danger. Aged robots, no longer upgradeable, spew old beliefs, causing rifts in society. Aliens promise genetic salvation while offering enslavement and absorption.

    As the troubleshooters struggle to keep the people safe, old questions arise. Why did the friends create the robots? Where have they gone? But deeper questions haunt their cores: Can they be more than they were created to be? Will they forge a brave new world from the remnants of the past? Or will they flicker and expire?

    Robot Dreams, the GUMSHOE game of investigation in a haunting, synthetic world, comes to you from the brilliant mind of Kate Bullock (Bluestocking’s Organic Gaming, The Crossroads Carnival). Players tackle the role of troubleshooters, newborn robots driven to explore the forgotten world left behind by the friends and discover what corruption permeates their circuits and networks.

    Project Status: In Development

     

    A column about roleplaying

    by Robin D. Laws

    The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is now out of my hands and progressing through the next stages of production on its way to actuality.

    Thanks to the eagle efforts of our dauntless playtesters, I received lots of extremely useful feedback on game play, resulting in a number of changes to the final version.

    Kickstarter backers have a preview version representing the state of the manuscript as of mid-summer last year. Playtesters saw and played intermediate versions from the fall and then the end of last year.

    The most consistent message from testers was that the game was deadlier than I thought, cycling through PCs at a higher than expected rate.

    And here I was worrying, based on the foe-smashing exploits of my own in-house group, that the combat system was too lenient!

    If you have a previous draft, then, you’ll see a number of changes to lengthen investigator lifespan.

    Foe Difficulties have been scaled down.

    More of the foes at the higher end of the Relative Challenge scale now appear with additional ways to lower their Difficulty numbers by gaining information about them before you fight them.

    Starting general ability build points have been nudged upwards, to give you more points to spend on key survival abilities.

    Perhaps most effectively, the text now explicitly gives players guidelines for the number of points the system expects them to invest in such character-preserving abilities as Fighting, Composure, Athletics and (in The Wars) Battlefield.

    Also in The Wars, Scrounging, a theme for an ability in search of a vital game purpose, can now be used to refresh other characters’ Battlefield ability. That’s what you use to avoid bombs, barrages and other means of mass death on the front lines of the Continental War. Scrounging now mirrors the way Morale can be used to boost Composure for PCs in that sequence and in Aftermath.

    To complete the adjustment, GMs can now choose between two toughness settings, Horror and Occult Adventure modes. In Horror, your character leaves play after accumulating 3 Injury cards or 3 shock cards. The more forgiving Occult Adventure mode takes you out after 4 Injury or 4 Shock cards.

    Another common theme in playtest reports: players hated paying Tolls. These mandatory point spends, which you can make from any combo of Athletics, Fighting and Health, model the low-grade wear and tear you suffer even when you win a fight. Weaker foes now have Tolls of 0, so you don’t start to deal with Tolls until you’re fighting someone big and bad. Also, Tolls dropped across the board.

    I didn’t dump them entirely. Experience with past systems has shown that players also resist a combat system that lets them emerge from a victory totally unscathed. The final rule strikes a balance between two opposing flavors of cognitive dissonance.

    On my final design pass I eliminated a number of rules that went unmentioned by playtesters and unused in my own group. They hit the cutting room floor for not generating enough engagement to justify their presence.

    In Aftermath I removed War Footing, a state of high alert players used to be able to declare for their characters. It gave them a bonus to Fighting and a penalty to Composure—the idea that they were risking their hard-won adjustment to civilian life by falling back into their insurgent mindset. War Footing didn’t get used because players had to remember to invoke it, and already had plenty of other stuff to think about. Also it has to be a hard tradeoff to achieve its thematic end, and brains don’t like those. As one of those ideas that shows a certain logic on paper but never pays off in practice, War Footing hit the bricks.

    Another rule that added complexity for a thematic payoff that paid off was a distinction, in This is Normal Now, between sapient and non-sapient Foes. My original thought was that it ought to be harder for the ordinary people of that final sequence to kill intelligent beings. In the end I dropped it in favor of a simpler set of foe difficulties. If the distinction had factored into player decisions in an interesting way it could have justified its existence. But in an investigative game a Difficulty bonus doesn’t much change who the PCs choose to attack and who to run from. So out it went.

    The greatest number of revision waves happened in the Shock and Injury card sections. Familiarity with play honed my feel for the sorts of effects and discards that made a splash, and which ones fell flat, were hard to implement, or rarely applied.

    So for example The Tremors, a workhorse, low-intensity Shock card, started its life looking like this:

    Your next Interpersonal Push costs 2 Pushes.

    Discard after it applies, or at end of scenario.

    But in the final version has become more overtly interactive:

    -1 to Presence.

    Discard by going to a scary location. Discard by initiating an encounter with a scary person, creature or entity.

    The updated version prompts action, where the original makes a particular, not terribly common action less likely or impossible.

    While remaining true to its core idea that failing to gain information is never entertaining, GUMSHOE has continued to evolve since its debut more than a decade ago.

    Someday I may well find myself creating a bunch of new sub-systems for some genre or setting we haven’t tackled before, tossing about half of them before the book goes to layout.

    All with the help of our indispensable playtesters, who we can’t thank enough for making our games better.

    Collage illustration for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game by Dean Engelhardt


    The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is Pelgrane’s mind-shattering, era-spanning game of reality horror based on the classic stories of Robert W. Chambers. Coming in December 2018.

    Limited edition with bookplate

    Night’s Black Agents won two silver ENnie awards for Best Game and Best Writing, and was nominated for Best Rules, Best Interior Art and Product of the Year. Find out why with the limited edition!

    Only 100 copies of the faux-leatherbound limited edition Night’s Black Agents exist. 50 are available to customers in the U.S. and Canada, and 50 are available to customers outside the U.S. and Canada. The books are faux leather with silver foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed book plate signed by Kenneth Hite, which you can add to your book.

    Night’s Black Agents puts you in the role of a deadly secret agent, taking down the forces of darkness.

    Bring your favorite high-octane spy thrillers to the table with Night’s Black Agents from legendary designer Kenneth Hite (Trail of Cthulhu). Have friends who love console shooters? This is the tabletop RPG for them! Access the eyes-only Resources page for blank agent dossiers, quick-reference sheets, a 20-minute demo and more — but sweep for tracking devices first.

     

    Buy the limited edition

    The Cold War is over. Bush’s War is winding down.

    You were a shadowy soldier in those fights, trained to move through the secret world: deniable and deadly.

    Then you got out, or you got shut out, or you got burned out. You didn’t come in from the cold. Instead, you found your own entrances into Europe’s clandestine networks of power and crime. You did a few ops, and you asked even fewer questions. Who gave you that job in Prague? Who paid for your silence in that Swiss account? You told yourself it didn’t matter.

    It turned out to matter a lot. Because it turned out you were working for vampires.

    Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.

    Or worse.

    Night’s Black Agents brings the GUMSHOE engine to the spy thriller genre, combining the propulsive paranoia of movies like Ronin and The Bourne Identity with supernatural horror straight out of Bram Stoker. Investigation is crucial, but it never slows down the action, which explodes with expanded options for bone-crunching combat, high-tech tradecraft, and adrenaline-fueled chases.

    Updating classic Gothic terrors for the postmodern age, Night’s Black Agents presents thoroughly modular monstrosity: GMs can build their own vampires, mashup their own minions, kitbash their own conspiracies to suit their personal sense of style and story. Rules options let you set the level of betrayal, grit, and action in your game. Riff from the worked examples or mix and match vampiric abilities, agendas, and assets for a completely custom sanguinary spy saga.

    The included hook adventure gets the campaign going; the included city setting shows you what might be clotting in Marseilles’ veins even now. Rack silver bullets in your Glock, twist a UV bulb into your Maglite, and keep watching the mirrors … and pray you’ve got your vampire stories straight.

    Designer’s blog entries

    An interview with the publisher

    Free downloads and resources for Night’s Black Agents

    Listen to Ken Hite talk about Night’s Black Agents on the Fear the Boot podcast

     

     

    Review Highlights

    Read all the reviews here.

    As good as the toolkits that Night’s Black Agents provides are, the rules and advice deliver on the game and genre that they promise. Whether it is blood pumping action or heart stopping shocks, Night’s Black Agents is probably best shaken, and definitely has the “Vampire Spy Thriller” staked. – Matthew Pook

    Vampires and spies – once you’re past the initial surprise, you’ll see that they work tremendously well in tandem. Well, I think they do, and I think the book’s an absolute knockout. – Sidney Roundwood

     

    In Part One, I discussed the basics of running a pre-written GUMSHOE adventure. Based on a recent poll about half of you write your own adventures, or adapt ours, with a few brave souls improvising completely. This article covers the improvisation that’s required when characters go in unexpected directions or ask unexpected questions, whether in a pre-planned adventure or not.

    Investigative Recap

    I’ll start by reiterating a few core concepts for Investigative abilities:

    • If you have any rating in an Investigative ability at all, you are good at doing that stuff. If you run out of points, you are still good at it. If you walk into a scene, you are doing it through the lens of being a great architect, painter, researcher, or evidence collector. As the GM, you should deliver information to people with that ability anything which is obvious to a person with that ability, and if they ask questions using their ability, endeavour to provide as much information as possible through the lens of that ability.
    • Point spends should be confined to special benefits—information should be free. Benefits might speed up clue acquisition, but shouldn’t stop you from getting the information. For example, if you found a book, zero points and a few hours might extract what you need, or you could spend a point to have a flash of insight.
    • GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether the information is provided by the GM, or requested by the players. You can balance these approaches in reaction to your players’ style or even their energy on the night. But in general, it’s better for the players to interact with the scene in their imagination and suggest abilities they will use. Not only does it make the players more involved, it’s more likely to lead to fun improvised clues.
    • If a player with a suitable ability isn’t in a scene, there are three approaches for dealing with it. Either assume that everyone is kind-of, sort-of along for every scene, have the character remember a fact or technique taught to them by their absent teammates, or tweak the clue so it matches the abilities of the characters who are present.
    • Your attitude to giving out information will strongly affect the way your players act in-game. If they know they are going to extract all reasonable information in a scene, then they will stop the nasty habit of entirely tearing places apart and being too concerned they have missed something. So, my advice is, give out information, and if necessary, let them know there is nothing else to be found.
    • Finally and most importantly, Investigative abilities are not a straightjacket. Always err on the side of giving out information to players who propose plausible methods of obtaining information, and offer new ways of advancing to the next scene if they don’t get anywhere. Improvise around any blockages.

    What Are Clues?

    The investigative side of GUMSHOE is a way of delivering information that we call clues to the players. By a clue, I mean:

    • Information which takes you to another scene (a matchbook with a fingerprint on it)
    • Something which helps you prepare for a future encounter (you find the blackmail letter)
    • An item or information which provides a direct benefit like refreshing a pool or adding a new ability (a Mythos tome)
    • Background information which adds colour (the painting was created by famous cat artist Louis Wain)
    • Something which highlights themes of the game (a mummified foetus in a horror game)

    Investigative abilities determine how the players will interact with the shared imaginary space of the game.  Sometimes these interactions provide pre-planned clues. When the adventure presents clues, it also suggests methods by which the clues can be delivered—one or more Investigative abilities. Any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario. So far, so good.

    Improvised Clues

    But what if the players examine something you didn’t consider or suggest great ideas in passing you want to incorporate? They really tend to glom on to things in the scene you hadn’t even considered—and that’s a great thing. For example, “Is there any correspondence around?”, “Is there a sale note for that painting?”, or “I look for scuff marks on the floor.” These are improvised clues.

    The first thing to consider is what ability could plausibly interact with the clue? Encourage your players to be the ones to suggest what ability they use. Otherwise, check the ability matrix to see which abilities they have and might match (or just ask if they have an ability).

    The next thing to consider is what type of improvised clue you want to deliver:

    • It can duplicate a pre-planned lead which takes you to another scene. This is easy, and very good practice as it encourages inventiveness and makes players feel clever. (Instead of the matchbook, it could be a cypher in a diary, an auction record, or some very distinctive mud marks on the floor.)
    • It can take you to another scene you hadn’t planned—an improvised lead (“We must visit cat painter Louis Wain to find out the provenance of this image.”). If you do this, you’ll need to consider how to move from the new scene back into the planned adventure, or whether it will lead to more improvised scenes. You don’t have to worry too much about when to do this—usually in a gap between scenes, and it’s easy to put another interesting breadcrumb in the way. First, for example, they might need to dig out Wain’s home address—throw it at the players how they might do this, and plan the encounter while they discuss it. If you have a scene diagram—add an arrow leading to this new scene.
    • It can provide a direct benefit. This one is easy and rewarding. In this case, it’s best to offer the benefit in conjunction with a point spend—see below. (For example, finding a case with antique guns and re-enabling the firing pin, or improvising gunpowder in a pharmacy.)
    • Background information which provides colour. If the players do you the courtesy of being fascinated by something in a scene, then add colour. (“Yes, the painting is very new, and you spot some ginger cat hairs on the antimacassars.”) These clues can easily turn into an improvised lead if players are really taken with them. If you aren’t feeling particularly inventive, or want to get things on track, make it clear that there isn’t anything special about it.
    • Something which highlights the theme of the game. If they insist on poking around in crevices in a horror game, reward them with something unpleasant. (There is a desiccated cat corpse under the bed, strangled by its own collar.)

    Special Benefits

    Finally, a note on special benefits. These are what players get if they spend their Investigative points. The mechanical role of Investigative pool points is to manage spotlight time, indicate to the GM how important something is to the player, and as a method for the players and GMs to signal “oncoming coolness” to each other. A player who says, “Can I spend a Bureaucracy point here?” is requesting something cool for his agent to do or discover during the scene. When the GM offers a spend she’s signaling that there’s something awesome available during this scene that she thinks the player (or players) would enjoy. This repartee will eventually become nearly seamless and automatic.

    To reiterate core GUMSHOE rules, benefit spends include:

    • Giving you an advantage in a future contest of General abilities
    • Making supporting characters have a favourable impression of you
    • Giving you a flashback scene
    • Speeding up an investigation

    In a more improvised game, special benefits can also be a way of players feeding the GM interesting suggestions without them explicitly having a GM role. These are usually in the form of a question: for example, “These old buildings often have priest holes, is there one around?” or “Is there another sketch concealed beneath the cat painting?” If this suits your group and play style—encourage this behaviour in your players. It will lead to more player involvement, and even take a little work for you.

    Make sure that every point spend feels worthwhile, and if it’s at all possible, let them know what they are getting, and how many points it will cost before they spend.

    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.
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