A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Pity the poor monsters. With Halloween over, they’re nursing hangovers and anticipating fallow months of scant employment over the holiday season.

Here at Pelgrane we love our monsters twelve months a year.

But what happens when you love a monster too much to want your GUMSHOE characters to fight it?

We think of horror stories as featuring monsters as antagonists. Right from the start though, with Frankenstein, the genre has called into question the nature of monstrousness. For every out-and-out fiend, like Dracula, we get a beleaguered beast, like King Kong, we should merely have left alone.

Recapitulating horror tales where we empathize for the Other requires some translation to work in the GUMSHOE format. Investigative horror assumes that the protagonists learn about, and then vanquish, monstrous beings. For this to work the players have to want to see the creatures defeated.

Our key horror games handle this issue by keeping the creatures clearly predatory. The Lovecraftian beasties bedeviling Trail of Cthulhu investigators want to stick our heads in jars or drag us down into the watery depths. The Outer Dark Entities of The Esoterrorists revel in their planned destruction of our world. If they’re misunderstood, it’s by the poor human saps who think they can gain power by letting them through the membrane.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t evoke the more creature-friendly strand of the horror tradition. We do have to exercise some care, ensuring that players can continue to sympathize with their own characters when the monsters they confront turn out to be misunderstood.

Plenty of horror tales have us root for the Other as an instrument of just vengeance. They don’t feature investigators attempting to thwart them. Freaks wouldn’t make a lick of emotional sense if it centered around a team of cops or private eyes trying to protect the cruel Cleopatra and Hercules from terrible comeuppance at the hands of the sideshow performers.

If you’re structuring a GUMSHOE scenario so that the targets of the creatures deserve an awful fate, your players will eventually ask why they’re trying to stop them, instead of helping them.

For example, you might want to explore a social issue through the vengeful ghost trope. At first it might seem appealing to show ghosts of workers killed in 1911’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire fatally haunting sweatshop operators. But if you depict the vengeance as righteous, players won’t feel particularly motivated to protect their victims. If you depict the ghosts choosing the wrong targets, you’re making villains out of the people whose tragedy you meant to highlight.

You can answer that question by making your vengeance-seekers unsympathetic from the jump. Sure, Freddie Krueger wants to get back at the children of the people who burned him to death, but they did that to him because he was a serial killer. This, of course, solves the issue by entirely sidestepping it.

A monster can evoke sympathy even as it nonetheless has to be stopped. It might be justifiably enraged after being dislodged from its lair, or transported to the Broadway stage in chains. Still, its inevitable rampage threatens innocent lives, and the investigators have to discover the means to either pacify or destroy the creature before many more are killed. This allows the investigators to feel a sense of pathos when the beast meets its destruction.

Alternately though, you could design the mystery so that they’re trying to find a way to save both the creature and its potential innocent victims. Maybe they need to find the amulet allowing them to pacify the fish-man, luring it safely back to its lagoon. Or the scenario occurs in the creature’s island, grotto or isolated valley, with the heroes figuring out a way to stop the real antagonists, the showmen who want to capture the so-called monster.

A sapient monster might serve as an unwilling antagonist. A lycanthropy victim might be the one who contacts the investigators, begging them to find a way to cure her condition before the full moon next rises. She’s been through the whole routine of chaining herself up at night, but somehow that always fails, leaving her roaming the moors again. So far she’s only devoured cattle but she’s sure that eventually she’ll stumble across the wrong hiker and tear him apart. The real antagonists might turn out to be the sorcerers who cursed her, man-eating werewolves who don’t want the cure getting out, or the sinister researcher intent on using her blood as a pharmaceutical ingredient.

Your tragic monster might have already gone down the path of murder and destruction, while retaining enough self-awareness to regret it. The cannibal clone of a researcher’s dead husband has enough conscience to regret his flesh-eating compulsion. But then, only human meat grants him sustenance, and he isn’t up for suicide. Again, your scenario could give the players a moral choice between finding a cure or simply killing him.

You could twist this into your take on the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. The heroes discover that the killer they’ve been tracking is one of two personalities occupying the same body. Killing or imprisoning the monster means that the affable, helpful and entirely innocent alter ego suffers punishment too. Do the investigators prevail on the good half to make the ultimate sacrifice? Again, solving the mystery by finding a cure provides a less fraught conclusion for players who rebel when presented with no-win situations.

The easiest version of the sympathetic monster is one in which evil humans know of the creature’s existence and are framing it for their own crimes. The snake folk mind their own business in the remote mountains, until meth cookers familiar with his legend start dropping corpses covered in fake fang marks. When the investigators find out that the real monsters are people, they might take care of them on their own. Or, if they’ve established good relations with the reptile people, they might invite them to help clean up the nest of killers threatening their quiet, isolated lives.


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 number one critique of GUMSHOE among those who have little or no experience of the system is that the investigative rules turn the scenario into a railroad, where the players blindly follow a predetermined series of clues – which, being an erudite regular reader of Page XX, you know is not true. Hot on its heels, though, is another complaint you may encounter with new players – that the point-spending aspect of general abilities means that there’s little difference between a supremely skilled character and an amateur over an extended fight.

If I’m a super-lethal spy, the best sniper in the world with a mighty 15 in Firearms, then that probably gives me at most five guaranteed hits (spending 3 points per attack, plus my die roll against a Hit Threshold of 4) – possibly fewer if the bad guys have cover or other advantages. After I spend all my points, I’m rolling a plain d6 for my attacks, just like the schlub next to me who has only a single point of Firearms.

Three arguments for the current rules:

  • You Don’t Need That Many Successes: In most general abilities, you rarely need to succeed multiple times in an adventure. One or two guaranteed successes in Stealth, Mechanics, Preparedness or Driving is often more than enough to overcome any challenge. Most General Abilities only get called once per session at most. This argument does fall down a little when it comes to combat abilities, but for most abilities, a higher pool does model the effect of higher competence.
  • You Can Refresh: Especially in games that allow refreshes in the middle of the action (Night’s Black Agents and moves like Technothriller Monologue, Timewatch and Stitches), a player can take action to get points back. Having the sniper have to spend a round describing how they move to get to a better firing position is more fun than yet another round of “I shoot, I hit”. Forcing the characters to rest and refresh to get their abilities back pushes the game towards a nice rhythm and gives a sense of time passing.
  • It’s More Interesting: Players tend to have higher pools than most of their opponents, so switching to a different ability is often an option. Out of Firearms? Grab a knife and start swinging with Weapons. Out of Driving in a chase scene? Then ditch the car and start parkouring with Athletics. Out of Preparedness? Start improvising with Mechanics.

However, if a prospective player remains obstinate, one compromise is to give a flat +1 bonus to all tests involving a general ability if a character has a rating of 8 or more in that ability. So, if you’ve got Firearms 8 or more, you get a +1 bonus to all Firearms rolls. That gives the super-experienced, super-competent gunman a permanent edge over the barely trained goon, but doesn’t distort the regular GUMSHOE point-spending mechanic too much, so the characters will still need to make spends, seek out refreshes and so on.

This added rule can be added straight into most GUMSHOE games; for games that already offer 8-rating cherries like Night’s Black Agents, offer the flat bonus as an alternative cherry.

When creating your own game with the GUMSHOE rules – or when hacking an existing game – one key early step is deciding which investigative abilities you’re going to include. Different games use radically different numbers and lists of abilities – compare the sprawling list of abilities in The Esoterrorists to the much more compact list in Fear Itself.

Investigative abilities fulfil four key functions:

Obviously, they let the investigators find clues, especially core clues that point the way to the next scene. I always think of investigative abilities as how the players interrogate the game world – they’re a list of prompts for questions the players can ask. Investigative abilities don’t need to cover every possible approach – a game about pulp archaeologists doesn’t need to differentiate, say, Chemistry and Physics. A detective game inspired by Poirot is going to have a lot more abilities relating to observation, psychology, and social interaction than one inspired by CSI.

This is taken to an extreme in the Yellow King rules – take a look at the Paris-era investigative abilities, which compel the players to see the mystery through a lens of art.

Choose abilities that reflect the sort of mystery you want them to solve.

Related to this, investigative abilities inform the players about their characters and the setting. You can put important information about the setting right on the character sheet. Night’s Black Agents, for example, drips with technothriller jargon, stuffing its character sheet full of Traffic Analysis, Tradecraft, Urban Survival and Human Terrain. Esoterrorists has a clinical, literally forensic list of abilities that clearly conveys that this game is about information gathering. Timewatch has a much slimmer, more casual list of abilities (Science!) while still telling players what’s important (three different flavours of history).

Interpersonal abilities are especially suited for this – if your game includes Etiquette and Gossip, it’s clearly a game of mannered protagonists. If it includes Social Media and Street Gangs, it’s probably a cyberpunk game.

You can highlight key facets of your setting by turning it into an investigative ability. Cthulhu City, for instance, emphasises the urban environment by adding District Knowledge.

Evoke setting through evocative ability names and choices.

Investigative abilities also provide benefits when spent (or Pushed). Depending on the game, this may simply be more information, reduce difficulties/give pools of General Ability points, or give the players a degree of control over the story. The interaction of investigative spends to the wider game is beyond the scope of this article, but when picking investigative abilities, try to think of associated benefits. If none spring to mind immediately, the ability may be drawn too narrowly.

Think about suitable benefits for each ability.

Investigative abilities let players distinguish their characters from one another. In some games, this isn’t an issue – in Timewatch, for example, it doesn’t matter if the psychic velociraptor and the cyborg ninja have a lot of overlap in their investigative abilities, as no-one’s going to mistake one for the other in play, while in Ashen Stars, characters have species and roles to give them a unique hat to wear. However, when your Fall of Delta Green group consists of six Federal Agents from an alphabet soup of agencies, or everyone’s a mutant cop, having a long enough ability list to give everyone a field of expertise is a good idea. That means you may need to identify a set of core abilities that everyone needs to have, and then add some more abilities as possible niches.

It’s permissible to include abilities that every player character in a setting would reasonably possess (all Night’s Black Agents characters have Tradecraft, for instance). Give such abilities for free.

Using packages or templates can also help guide players.

Have enough abilities on the list to avoid identical player characters.

That said, some abilities are close to universal. The core cluster of Interpersonal Abilities (Reassurance, Intimidation, Bargain/Negotiation, and Bullshit Detector/Assess Honesty) are valid investigative routes in almost any conceivable game. Architecture is surprisingly useful, as many adventures involve, well, places. A quick “you find this out through background reading” Research/Library Use ability is extremely handy to have.

Consider starting with an existing list and pruning it down, or starting with an incredibly bare-bones list and adding more as you playtest.

Different gaming groups (and, for that matter, different GUMSHOE writers!) have different tastes, and you likely need to experiment to find the sort of investigative ability list best works for your group. Experiment – or perhaps investigate – to find your own ideal mix…

When organizing an RPG corebook a tension typically arises between its two roles as a tutorial document and a reference guide. The perfect organization remains an impossible ideal, perhaps humming along on some Platonic plane but not in this reality. Learning and playing an RPG isn’t nonlinear, in that you start doing it and eventually wind up having done it. But the line you and your group follow winds up being different from anyone else’s.

With that in mind I broadly structure GUMSHOE core sets to follow the players’ experience of the game, then move on to material both players and GMs need, and finally to GM-only sections, including setting, GM tips, and the intro scenario. Within each section, however, I follow reference guide principles. So you get all of the combat rules together, in an order roughly patterned on the way a fight plays out. But within that, sections are also ordered in conceptual order. This means that if subsystem H requires the use of core rule 3, that core rule has to appear before the subsystem. (Sometimes I’ll tuck a needed but infrequently used subsystem in an appendix, where it isn’t looking all complicated and confusing in the main body of the rules.)

Whatever the book structure, it’s not what happens when a GM teaches the game to others.

If I got to choose how everyone does it, I’d recommend keeping rules explanation to an absolute minimum until needed in play, with the following stages:

1. general intro to the setting, core activity, and, if unfamiliar to the group, the basic style and ethos of the rules set. (“You play ultra-competent occult investigators who fight an occult conspiracy on behalf of an international secret agency. It uses GUMSHOE, rules tuned specifically for investigative storytelling.”)

2. character generation, focusing on player choices, with only the rules details needed to understand the choices before them. (“These are your investigative abilities, which you use to reliably get information when you look in the right place. The numbers next to them provide special benefits beyond that, which I’ll explain in play.”)

3. the first scenario, with rules explanations supplied when they come up. (“Okay, this is one of the general abilities we talked about earlier. You’re rolling a six-sided die, hoping to hit a target number, usually 4. You can spend any number of points from your pool to increase the chances of success.”)

When players ask questions during character generation, answer until they’re satisfied. They’re probably not looking for the whole spiel. In most cases you’ll find they’re focused on imagining their characters and aren’t primed to also fully absorb even the comparatively simple rules found in GUMSHOE.

This way they don’t feel overwhelmed with information, and get to reserve their attention to the creative side of character generation. When the time comes to use a rule in play, it’s more likely to stick. You’re demonstrating it by example, with an attached emotional resonance from the story situation.

This method also allows learning in short bursts, also a key to memorizing abstractions.

by Steven Hammond

Gen Con was a blast this year. I played a few games, talked to people I only see at Gen Con, and spent several hours helping out in the Pelgrane Booth. I had fun chatting with all the GUMSHOE and Black Book fans that stopped by. If you picked up a flyer in Indy, the discount codes on it will work until October 1. If you missed Gen Con, we love you too. The discount code WeDontAllFitInIndy will give you 20% off a 1-year Player subscription and it’s also good until October 1, 2019.

Summer wasn’t all play though. A couple of interns joined us and we cranked through the GM tools to get them ready for beta testing, which launched this week.

What are the GM Tools? They are a set of tools designed to help the GM offer a more immersive experience. Modeled after the GM matrices in the back of most GUMSHOE games, they

  • Help the GM keep track of characters’ ability ratings and pools, updating in real time as points are spent.
  • Remind the GM of character connections like Sources of Stability, Bonds and Network contacts.
  • Show the GM who’s been getting spotlight time recently, helping to keep the fun moving around the table.

Below is a short video that shows how the GM tools work in play.

 

The Tools currently support Trail of Cthulhu (and Bookhounds of London), Night’s Black Agents (and the Dracula Dossier), and The Fall of DELTA GREEN. The Yellow King RPG is coming soon with support for Shock and Injury Cards — we still have a couple tricky things to work out there.

Participating in the beta is easy. All Player level subscribers have access to the GM Tools via the “Campaigns” link on the left. Click that, then click “New Campaign” at the top menu to get started. Now you can invite anybody you want to play with. Anybody with a Free account can use the Play mode features when connected to a campaign.

Anybody who provides helpful feedback during the beta will get a free 1-year upgrade to the GM level. You can use our contact form to submit feedback. We are not only looking for bugs and usability issues, we are also looking for feedback on parts you like and new features you’d like to see added.

Take a look at the video and let us know what you think in the comments below.

GMs sometimes fear that certain RPG abilities give away too much to the players. In GUMSHOE the abilities that most trigger these fears are the ones that actually act as the GM’s best friend.

Intuition in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is one of these. We can get to that one later.

The classic example is Bullshit Detector—or as it is known in games set in a more genteel era, Assess Honesty.

GMs read the description and worry that the capacity to spot the telltale signs of deception will ruin their mysteries. When you think about it, though, very few mysteries hinge on the simple question of whether a suspect is lying.

Remember, the ability doesn’t necessarily tell the character what witnesses are lying about, just that they’re fudging or withholding something.

Drive this home in play by including witnesses who have an unrelated secret they’re anxious to to conceal, from investigators and everyone else. They’re denying professional screw-ups, cheating on their partners, cooking the books, indulging in a reputation-destroying vice, or hiding their involvement in crimes the investigators don’t care about.

With many investigative abilities, I’ll prompt players who don’t ask to use them. Not so with Bullshit Detector. Players who have it get used to actively invoking it.

When I want to make it dead obvious that a character isn’t telling the truth, I don’t mention Bullshit Detector. Instead I play the GMC as obviously shifty, with darting eyes, a worried look, or blurted phrases.

Even when the investigator questions the main bad guy, knowing that he’s lying rarely does more than confirm an existing suspicion. It rarely moves the team further toward the solution of the mystery. It certainly doesn’t let the group short-cut its way to the ending.

Sure, you’ve got a hunch that he’s hinky, but that doesn’t get you a warrant, or prove to the Ordo Veritatis head office that it’s okay to call in the commandos. It narrows down your range of leads but rarely even serves as a core clue moving you to the next scene.

Yeah, Bullshit Detector tells you that Old Man Grisby is pulling your leg about something. But that doesn’t tell you to go to the ghoul crypt, or reveal his immortal past, or lead you to the confederate who can be bribed into turning over his document collection.

As a GM I find Bullshit Detector most useful in ruling out deception. Players often fixate on innocent secondary characters, deciding that they must be the dread masterminds. Or they might not like what a witness has to tell them, because it contradicts their current speculation on the nature of the case. “Mrs. Chan doesn’t strike you as dishonest,” nudges the players back on track.

In actual play you’ll find yourself worrying less about preserving red herrings than in separating players from incorrect notions they’ve firmly stuck themselves to. Bullshit Detector helps you do that.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

by Kevin Kulp

It’s not an obvious choice, but the new high-damage combat system makes Swords of the Serpentine work in some very interesting ways.

When I tell a Trail of Cthulhu player that there’s a swords & sorcery game using GUMSHOE, they sometimes look concerned and ask me “…Why?” I laugh every time, in part because the impetus for Swords of the Serpentine (SotS) came from a design exercise where I started off convinced that hacking GUMSHOE for classic fantasy was damn near impossible. I quickly realized I was wrong.

The problem isn’t fantasy mysteries. Mystery is everywhere in classic swords and sorcery stories. They aren’t usually classic “whodunit?” mysteries (although they can be, as in Terry Pratchett’s City Watch Discworld series). More often they’re heroes venturing forth into unknown danger and trying to figure it out before it kills them. Sometimes they’re mysterious power groups working against the heroes (as in Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch), and sometimes they’re heroes trying to survive in hostile wilderness or cities with mysterious dangers that they really want to figure out quickly (lots of Conan stories by Robert E. Howard). Sometimes they’re even gangs of thieves stealing things the heroes want before the heroes have had a chance to steal them themselves (such as in Claws from the Night, a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story by Fritz Leiber). Even adventures for games like D&D are full of mysteries, even if that mystery is “what happened to Keraptis 1300 years ago, and why did he steal these magic weapons?”

No, the real problem I had to solve was combat. Trail of Cthulhu is a game of horror against unspeakable odds, and so it isn’t tuned to give you powerful heroes succeeding through wit and strength of arm. Damage is low in ToC and investigators die quickly.

For SotS, I instead needed epic, cinematic combat, delightful banter that allowed heroes like Cugel the Clever (in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series) to succeed without ever picking up a dagger, and a rules structure that relied far more on the hero’s own capabilities than on their gear. If this game was going to work, combat had to feel great.

GUMSHOE turns out to be perfect for this, but not through weapons. Weapons in Swords of the Serpentine have very little differentiation between them (daggers do +0 damage and greataxes do +2 damage, and that’s not exactly splashy), so combat becomes far more about what a player chooses to do than about what weapon they’re using. My big question when designing was how to turn player cleverness and a hero’s standard capabilities into big impressive combat damage.

The secret is in Investigative abilities. Early GUMSHOE games hinted at the capabilities of Investigative abilities, asking GMs to give players more information when pool points were spent. Night’s Black Agents started to have Investigative points linked to action, where having Investigative ranks got you clues but spending Investigative pool points gave players narrative control that caused things to happen. I codified this into TimeWatch (where you can try things like thwarting a villain’s escape by spending a point of Architecture, going back in time, and altering the building’s blueprints so that there’s no fire escape for her to flee down). In SotS Investigative spends are even more flexible, and they’re the primary way you achieve flashy, cinematic combat in a fight.

In SotS if you can rationalize an Investigative spend to help yourself in combat, you can do it. Such spends can boost defenses or allow special effects, but they’re usually used to boost damage by one extra die per point spent. Sometimes the ability you’ll try is obvious…

“I’m going to jump off the balcony and bury my sword in his back. I’ll spend 2 points of Tactics of Death for an extra 2d6 damage.”

And sometimes – the best times – you need to be creative. If you can explain how an ability might be useful, you can spend it for combat effects or extra damage.

“Can I spend points of Nobility to do extra damage?”

“No, that’s stupid.”

“How about this? Growing up, my parents brought in a different fencing tutor every year, and they taught me dozens of ways to kill a man so that he suffered slowly and painfully.”

“Oh, in that case? Of course you can spend Nobility points for extra damage!”

You have control over your own burst damage and usually – by how you spend your General ability points – over when you hit while attacking. Are you going to save points for a final battle? Is it better to specialize in abilities (and increase how much damage you can cause at once during a fight) or spread your points out (becoming far more flexible while adventuring)? How are you creatively managing to find combat uses for less obvious abilities?

This creates a really interesting effect in play, where players feel like big damn heroes who often have to describe the cool thing they’ve thought up so that they can gain the benefit of those points. Players are encouraged to take risks and be creative because that’s the only way they’ll gain those resources. Add the ability to pass your damage to another player with a teamwork attack, the ability to attack a foe’s Morale just by using words as weapons, and newly-redesigned Maneuvers to disarm your foe or kick them off a roof, and you end up with memorable, fast but flexible fights.

As we move towards the end of the playtest period (end of February – fill out that Google form, playtesters, and thanks!), I’m really not surprised that GUMSHOE makes a good platform for Swords & Sorcery. I’m surprised that playtesters are saying things like “we felt like we were in a Lankhmar story” and that they’re making the combat system sing so quickly. As the game gets closer to publication, I can’t wait to hear what people have done with it.

Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine, and formerly helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Should you decide to play The Yellow King Roleplaying Game using the baseline version of GUMSHOE found in previous games, such as Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, or The Esoterrorists, you’ll want to translate its Foe stats.

You might also decide to snag YKRPG creatures to mess with investigators from another game, and need to perform the same maneuver.

Here’s a guide to doing that, but first, standard disclaimers apply.

In no version of GUMSHOE are creatures designed according to a formula or template. They always require eyeballing and adjustment as you move from initial conception to finished set of game statistics.

Never let the rough number ranges here take precedence over what you think makes sense for a creature.

Also remember that you can always increase the threat represented by a particular monster up or down by creating situational factors that confer advantage or disadvantage on the PCs in the particular fight you want to stage.

Difficulty Modifiers in QuickShock make this explicit, also highlighting ways that information gathered by the PCs can assist them when the story gets to the fighty bit. This is a concept you can easily steal for baseline GUMSHOE, as Difficulty modifiers exist in that game, even though they don’t appear directly in the foe descriptions.


When converting, use the foe’s Relative Challenge as a rough benchmark for the range of stats it might have in baseline GUMSHOE.

Some games split use more combat abilities than the other. For this purpose we’ll use “Main Fighting” and “Secondary Fighting” as placeholders for Scuffling, Shooting, Weapons and the like. Assign them as needed for the theme of your creature and your game’s genre.

You’ll have to assign Stealth and Alertness modifiers to QuickShock creatures, which do not include those numbers. Use the theme of the creature to decide how easy it is to sneak up on the creature, and how easily it sneaks up on others.

Glance at the Injury cards a creature dishes out, as sometimes an otherwise unimpressive enemy comes with cards nastier than you’d expect, which you’ll want to take into account when assigning Weapon damages. In the case of exotic attacks with lingering effects, use the card text as inspiration for special attack details. You may wish to steal these from existing standard GUMSHOE creatures, finding one that plays the same sort of trick.

Hit Threshold is as much a factor of creature size or other descriptive qualities as a matter of strict progression up a ladder of menace. A gigantic but formidable creature might have a Hit Threshold of 2; a small and weak one, like Lovecraft’s Brown Jenkin, might be hard to hit.

Once you’ve finished, eyeball the results and fix any number that seems oddly high or low given the concept of the creature.

Anyone with sufficient time on their hands to backwards-engineer the conversion kits from standard to QuickShock GUMSHOE will spot instances where I moved a creature into a different Challenge ranking for YKRPG than a literal reading of its standard stats would call for. When it comes to creature conversions between any two systems, theme should always win.

Weak

Athletics 4-9, Health 2-4, Main Fighting 5-7, Secondary Fighting 3-5

Hit Threshold 3

Weapon -2 to -2

Armor 0-1

Tough but Outmatched

Athletics 6-8, Health 6-10, Main Fighting 7-16, Secondary Fighting 6-10

Hit Threshold 4

Weapon -1 to 1

Armor 1-2

Evenly Matched

Athletics 9-12, Health 7-9, Main Fighting 9-12, Secondary Fighting 5-7

Hit Threshold 4-5

Weapon -1 to 3

Armor 1-3

Superior

Athletics 7-12, Health 8-18, Main Fighting 13-20, Secondary Fighting 7-9

Hit Threshold 3-4

Weapon 2-5

Armor 2-5

Vastly Superior

Athletics 10-30, Health 14-21, Main Fighting 18-28, Secondary Fighting 13-23

Hit Threshold 3- 4

Weapon 2-4

Armor 3-5

Overwhelming

Athletics 18-36, Health 32-40, Main Fighting 23-27, Secondary Fighting 18-22

Hit Threshold 2-4

Weapon 4-12

Armor 4-12

Too Awful to Contemplate

Athletics 30-50, Health 30-50, Main Fighting 28-32, Secondary Fighting 22-27

Hit Threshold 2-6

Weapon 5-12

Armor 4-12


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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:

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