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: https://highrockpress.com/blogs/news/metatopia-2017-review)

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 (http://www.museoffire.com/Games/). 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 Yog-Sothoth.com. 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 Yog-Sothoth.com 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:





A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Mercantilists previously under Castaignes want to go slow

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


    • Theresa Tucker – patrol officer in psych ward at Bellevue 


    • Eula Mckenzie – nurse on duty at Bellevue 


    • Wilbur Salazar – original complainant 


    • Yolanda Howell – her kids were hacking around 


    • Ed & Andy Howell – her kids 


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


    • Aaron Moran – got turned into a clown head 



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Having appeared on GM advice panels for lots of years, I’m always on the alert for changes in the types of questions audience members put forward.

These can vary quite a bit depending on the convention. An expensive destination show like Gen Con, or one directed to an ultra-dedicated community like The Kraken will feature challenging, graduate-level questions. At shows where local folks can walk on in to plunk down their admission fee the questions, questions tend to reflect the concerns of newer players—and thus the direction we might be headed in as tastes and experiences change.

This might be anecdotal or a blip in the radarsphere, but lately I’ve noticed a shift from the previous classic question to a new one.

The old question is “How do I deal with the overbearing player in my group?”

Now I’m hearing a lot more, “How do I draw out the shy player in my group?”

I’ve heard the second one over the years too, but the balance has shifted.

Whether this presages a new wonderful generation with heightened sensitivity or not is a sociological question that could spawn a hot take full of groundless generalizations. Instead let’s instead look at that evergreen RPG question.

My basic answer, going all the way back to Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering, has been to recognize that many players who seem to under-participate actually like it that way. They prefer to sit back and quasi-spectate and aren’t waiting for you to coax them into the open. Maybe they don’t contribute as many ideas, strategies or brilliant character moments as the more outgoing group members, but they contribute all the same. Maybe they drive other players to game, supply the snacks, or just add to the social atmosphere in an indefinable but necessary way. They provide the social glue that makes quorum possible week in and week out.

In a D&D game, you can give the casual player a straightforward PC to play and tell him when to roll when he needs to. Cough, cough, human fighter, cough.

Investigative play, which dominates all GUMSHOE games, requires more participation. Even so, there are ways to decrease the burden on players who take a backseat by choice.

For a shy player, the most pressuring element of a GUMSHOE game is not the demons of The Esoterrorists, cultists of Trail of Cthulhu, or vampires of Night’s Black Agents. It’s the need to converse at length with possibly hostile people and wrest information from them.

When ensuring that all players get to take point in an interview scene of their own, you might wait for the shy player to step forward and volunteer for a particular encounter. If they don’t, don’t force it on them. Allow them to lob supplementary questions into interviews conducted by other players, even when their PCs aren’t literally present. And if they remain content to sit back and watch interviews without doing that either, this is also fine.

A semi-retiring player may be happy to interview less intimidating witnesses. You might make sure your scenario includes someone the player can talk to without fearing that they’re going to make a mistake or get the group in trouble. When introducing low-stress witnesses into the story, make a point of describing them in a way that puts the player at ease. If the player does choose to pick a tough or tricky suspect to talk to, dial back your portrayal, injecting less stress into the exchange than you would for a player who gives as good as she gets.

A GUMSHOE scenario usually assumes that the PCs are, taken together, experts in any field they need to understand to piece together the mystery. Still, building in a friendly expert for the less aggressive player to interact with may help the flow of your session.

A cooperative witness needn’t oversimplify the mystery. The group still has to interpret the information witnesses supply, even when given without resistance. (A shy player could be just as flustered by an overly forthcoming GMC as a withholding one, so take care not to bowl them over with a gusher of info and details.)

Casual players may prefer spotlight moments allowing them to interact with impersonal obstacles.

Technical investigative abilities suit shy players well. They can go off to the lab to run tests while the extroverted players interview suspects.

Academic investigative abilities, the things that their characters already know, remember, or can research, allow you to portray shy players’ characters as gaining clues for the group without fraught interaction.

If interaction in particular and not the spotlight in general hangs them up, you might build in moments for shy players to shine while using general abilities. These players often enjoy playing stealthy types, so this may be as simple as creating a place for them to sneak into and out of.

Players who don’t like tension can be guided toward supportive general abilities:

  • First Aid lets them patch up other group members after they go out and take the risks.
  • With Preparedness, they can open up their packs to pull out the piece of equipment that saves the day.
  • With Piloting they can swoop in to rescue the rest of the party as the shoggoths charge down the ice field.
  • Systems Repair has them turbocharging the spaceship’s engine for a surprise escape from the magnetic field while the rest of the group antagonizes enemies on the planet below.

Ultimately every shy player is cautious in a distinct, individual way. If your shy person does perk up and show a special interest in a facet of play, build more of that into future games.

But if they want to remain in their shells, respect that. For some, it’s the place where clams are happiest.

by Steven Hammond

First let me open by saying that https://theblackbook.io is live and taking email addresses for anyone who wants to take part in the alpha or beta tests, or get notified when the new Black Book goes live.

You may recall that during the months of September and October we asked all of you to upload your character sheets — scans of used print sheets, custom digital ones, etc. The idea was to learn where the current sheets were coming up short and use the knowledge to make better ones in the new app. Thanks to your input the exercise was a success. We gave away both certificates —  Alf Joakim Persson from Sweden won the first. The other winner didn’t give us permission to publish their name.

So, what did we learn? First, almost everybody was looking for an easier way to find a character’s abilities in play. A common solution was to only show the abilities their character had points in. Many people wanted those abilities in a single, alphabetical list — not sorted into categories. From this suggestion, we think the app needs to have separate edit and play modes. The categories, seem useful when creating a character so edit mode might look a lot like the current sheets. Play mode would streamline the list of abilities to only those possessed by a character, sorted into a single list. There could be an option to group into categories, or maybe we could indicate the category with some iconography. Reducing the number of abilities shown will be critical to the mobile experience where we can only accommodate a single column of text.

The second most common change was to make Health and Stability more prominent. People achieved this by making larger label and numbers in place of the number grid used in Gumshoe character sheets. Again, I think this calls for separate edit and play modes. When creating your character, health and stability are but two of the many abilities you will need to manipulate. In play, however, they can become larger and more prominent.

Two other reasons people customized their character sheets were to add custom abilities and game specific features like cherries in Night’s Black Agents. We will support these features though perhaps not right at launch.

Which takes me to the final topic I want to discuss this month. I am still not publicly discussing dates, but we should start an alpha test phase in the next few weeks. I expect that the alpha will be basic character sheet functionality for Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents. We will quickly add more GUMSHOE games and additional features and enter beta when we are feature complete for launch — or close to it. I haven’t decided on numbers for the test phases, but we will send invitations out in groups in the order in which people signed up.

How do you sign up? Go to https://theblackbook.io and enter your email address. That is all you need to do. We won’t use that address for anything other than inviting you to join the new Black Book. And while you are waiting for that invitation to arrive, go ahead and answer this month’s poll. We are looking for more information on how you want your character’s abilities listed during creation and in play.

Poll Questions

Our analysis of the submitted character sheets showed that the most common reason people customized their sheet was to make it easier to find abilities in play. Help us find the best sorting methods with the two questions, below. If you have other ideas, leave them in the comments.

When creating a new character, I would like to see the abilities sorted as follows:

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

In play, I would like to see my character’s abilities sorted as follows:

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Here’s an expanded use for the Sense Trouble ability one of my players, Chris Huth, sold me on recently. The basic principle can apply to any GUMSHOE game that includes this general ability.

We’ve reached the Aftermath sequence of our Yellow King Roleplaying Game playtest.

In its alternate 2017, landlines remain the basic telephonic technology. Answering machines do not yet exist. (A hundred years of tyranny has a stultifying effect on consumer electronics.)

To get messages about developments in a case, the team has to check in with an answering service hired by Chris’ character, Jerry Jean-Leon.

On learning that a police detective had called to ask them to come in for an interview, Jerry asked the answering service receptionist whether the tone of the call sounded routine, or worrisome.

I started by playing her as not savvy enough to tell that on a call from a cop. As standard procedure, he’d be pretty good at keeping it neutral. The receptionist wasn’t a trained investigator.

Chris wanted to specify that he went out of his way to hire someone who would actually be able to read that kind of nuance, even from a pro. He offered to make a Sense Trouble test to get this result.

We normally think of Sense Trouble as happening in the here and now, as reflecting what the hero can directly sense.

Here we were talking about a situation where the sensing would be done by another character, a GMC some distance away.

Plus, it would reflect an action taken in the past—Jerry’s extra cautious effort to make sure he had hired a messaging service with ultra-sharp employees.

GUMSHOE precedent already exists for tests that establish an action you’ve undertaken in the past. The Preparedness test lets you declare that you happen to have already packed a particular item you need.

The end result would still stem from Jerry’s ability to anticipate trouble, so I agreed with Chris that this could work. Finding an answering machine service with security instincts sounded tough to me, so I set a Difficulty one point higher than the standard 4.

Chris made the test, so the receptionist told him that indeed, the detective sounded like he was after them, but trying to be cool about it.

In any game where the PCs might have made arrangements with a functionary like the answering service receptionist, you could likewise use Sense Trouble to measure that person’s ability to anticipate danger. Whether it appears as a robotic monitoring device, an Ordo Veritatis auxiliary on stakeout duty or a blood magic ward depends on which flavor of GUMSHOE you’re playing.

Previous Entries