A Gumshoe LARP by Graham Walmsley

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

by Graham Walmsley

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

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

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

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

The Characters

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

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

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

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

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

Investigative Skills

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

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

Clues

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

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

Clue: Investigative Procedure

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

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

There will be Core Clues, too.

Core Clue: Streetwise

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

And some clues might have time limits.

Core Clue: Architecture

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

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

Player Clues

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

Clue: Flirting or Intimidation

You know Dr Brown intended to change his will.

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

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

Core Clue: Cop Talk

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

Murders

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

Core Clue (Murder)

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

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

Core Clue: Medicine or Investigative Ability

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

Clue: Investigative Ability

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

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

Stability

How can we work Stability into this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In our revised LARP rules, the probabilities are:

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

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

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

Mental Illness

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

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

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

What Would Cause a Stability Check?

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

Clue: Investigative Procedure

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

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

Core Clue (Murder)

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

Core Clue (Murder)

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

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

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

Health

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

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

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

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

Denouement

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

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

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

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

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

Sample Characters

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

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

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

Sample clues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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