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.

Contents

  • GUMSHOE One-2-One
  • GUMSHOE links and resources
  • Our GUMSHOE games
  • GUMSHOE short settings
  • GUMSHOE Zooms
  • Third-party GUMSHOE games
  • 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

    Our 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:

    GUMSHOE short settings

    GUMSHOE Zooms 

    Short supplements focused on a key game mechanic or subject, and its possible applications to any GUMSHOE game

    Third-party GUMSHOE games

    • Monster Squad Control – Play Control Room Administrators for Monster Squad, an Internet based startup that kills monsters in this two-page game
    • Bubblegumshoe – Intrepid teen sleuths solving mysteries in a modern American small town
    • Harlem Unbound – Face terrifying horrors from the Lovecraftian Mythos in the exciting world of the Harlem Renaissance at its height
    • Casting the Runes – Set in the Edwardian era, players are occult investigators, exploring the supernatural and uncovering arcane and esoteric mysteries

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

    by Steve Dempsey

    This article discusses an improvised variant of the GUMSHOE rules. It can be just as easily used for Esoterrorists, Fear Itself or any of the forthcoming books.

    Most games of GUMSHOE are played using a scenario that the GM has written. Not only does he introduce each scene and play the non player characters but he also decides in advance what the clues are. Although the GM does not dictate the path the players will take through the adventure, he has a strong hand on the tiller as the clues he chooses will determine to a rather large extent what the players do.

    There are some good reasons not to always play this way. Stephen King says in On Writing, “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” When you tie this in with the GM’s creed, “No scenario ever survives contact with the players”, you will see that the improvised game has some advantages over one written by the GM.

    What you might lose on intricate plotting you are likely to gain on player involvement in the creative process and character play. Players will be much freer to take the scenario in directions that seem more natural to them and their input will have a greater impact on the story.

    Improvisation is nothing terribly difficult to do, the main impact of playing this variant is that the game is not planned up front by a GM but is developed in play by players and GM alike. This means no prep for GMs, other than learning the rules. I’ll be discussing the details of how to do this in three easy stages. Finally I’ll give an example that shows how this works in play.

    1. The set-up

    As with any improvisation, you have to have a theme. It’s an improvisation on something. If you don’t have a theme, then the players won’t know what kind of characters to make.

    So start with a theme. It doesn’t really matter how you come by this as long as there is some consensus within the group. You could let the GM choose (“You’re all students at a Japanese high school, getting ready for a school trip”) or you could have a group discussion about what sounds cool (“I want things lurking in doorways”, “I want magical rituals that take years to cast”, “I want a scene in an 80s disco”). You could also choose something that relates to a moral question (“How far are you prepared to go to stop the monsters?”) or a dilemma (“Family or Job?”).

    But remember that this is GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, Death in the Dark Ages. It’s all about investigation. Some terrible crime has been committed, the bastions of reality are under threat, and the characters are the ones to deal with it.

    For your theme you should also discuss the nature of this threat or crime, even if you don’t want to know the details at this stage. For example, the Japanese schoolgirls are a shoe-in for some kind of mad slasher and the 80’s disco idea smacks of Son of Sam or Zodiac.

    You could discuss who the villain of the piece is going to be. This could be oblique (some Mythos deity) or explicit (one of the schoolgirls). It helps the game if you have some idea of what you are aiming for. It should also help with pacing. You don’t want the bad guy to be revealed to the characters in the first five minutes.

    It’s a good idea, although not necessary, to write down the outcome of your discussions regarding the theme. It’s a handy resource for players and GM alike who can refer to it when making decisions about characters or plot.

    Once you know what the theme is, make up some characters. In many games, this is down in utmost secrecy lest anyone steal your cool idea. In improv, we have a different way of doing things. You all do your characters together. Talk about your characters to each other and say when you like something. Give positive feedback.

    Improv thrives on feedback. You are the audience as well as the actors so big yourselves up. It’s not just about getting a good vibe, this is also about riffing off each other’s characters. If you’ve gone the schoolgirl route, you’ll need to know who is the class swot, who is the cheerleader and who has psychic powers. You’re characters don’t necessarily need to know, but your players do. You need to know where conflicts will arise because that’s what makes the game interesting.

    You can do this by each introducing your character once generation has been done, but that’s a short cut that misses out the links that you can forge between your characters if you do the job collaboratively.

    In improv GUMSHOE, investigative skills work differently. They still allow characters to automatically find core clues or to be spent on supplementary clues. That much does not change. However, because there is no prewritten scenario, the choice of skills determines what the characters are going to encounter. If no one has Art History as a skill, the characters aren’t going to be looking at many paintings. If they all have high trivia scores, then what happened in last week’s episode of Full Metal Alchemist is going to be much more important.

    Decide how long you want the game to last. This can be done by deciding on the number of core clues. One is generally not enough but you can play a decent one session game with only three or four core clues. Don’t forget that some scenes will not be about clues but for transition or colour. Whilst you might like to go for a mammoth ten core clue game, this is probably a bit much and I imagine is best broken down into smaller three or four clue episodes, each with their own internal logic but all building blocks in the greater plot arc.


    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.

    When asked to explain GUMSHOE, a key section part of my standard spiel goes like this:

    “GUMSHOE says that it is never interesting to fail to get information. When you use an Investigative ability, you never have to roll a die. If you have the right ability and use it in the right way, you simply get the clue. However, in the case of other abilities, it is interesting, if sometimes horrible to fail—you slip and fall when the vampire is chasing you, or get caught sneaking into the installation, or are thrown from your horse while trying to impress the empress and her sneering courtiers. These are the general abilities, which you do have to roll for.”

    By definition I only present this pitch to people unfamiliar with the game.

    Old hands, like the people reading this blog, might have a question, though.

    How interesting is it, really, to fail at certain classic GUMSHOE general abilities?

    Most general abilities lead to clear positive outcomes on failure and negative consequences on failure.

    With the various fighting skills, you win a fight or land a blow. Sneaking / Infiltration gets you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Riding, Driving and Piloting avert disaster during chases and other dangerous transportation situations. Stability / Composure maintains mental self-control in weird or pressuring situations. In all cases, success gives the players a triumphant moment, while failure ratchets up the tension.

    But what about the resource-related general abilities, you might ask. This list starts with Preparedness, the general ability every other member of the Pelgrane team were mad at me for picking first when we did the “My Favorite Ability” video series. Other examples include Network from Night’s Black Agents and Scrounging from Yellow King Roleplaying Game: The Wars.

    On the surface, failing a test with these abilities leads a character nowhere.

    • A Preparedness failure means you don’t have the ingredients for an improvised explosive.
    • A Network failure indicates that your favorite Sevastopol gun dealer can’t sell you a Dragunov SVD because she just got bagged by the GRU.
    • A Scrounging failure establishes that you’ll don’t find a cache of stored rations to feed those starving villagers.

    A less astute reader than yourself might consider these uninteresting failures. It is true that they don’t move the plot forward. Still, they carry an emotional resonance, because they allow the players to specifically envision what success looks like.

    When you ask if you have explosives ingredients, know a gun dealer in Sevastopol or can locate a nearby food cache, you’re imaginatively envisioning a possible event. This gives you a moment of hope. Readers of Hamlet’s Hit Points will recognize this as an Anticipation beat. Should you succeed, you get a second emotional up moment. (HHP beat analysis calls this a Procedural up beat.) Should you fail, you instead feel disappointment, as the prospect of the explosion, gun buy, or relief operation you were picturing melts away on you. Either way, the failed test carries emotional content — or, you might say, interest.

    If you always succeeded with resource-style general abilities, you wouldn’t get that. The possibility of failure, even when it requires you to scrap one idea and find another, is what makes these abilities exciting in play.


    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.

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

    A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

    The GUMSHOE system focuses primarily on investigation and by default assumes that moments of interpersonal conflict will be handled through roleplaying. As such it lacks an equivalent of the Persuasion/Rebuff system that lies, for example, at the heart of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. However, if you’re seeking a more mechanically robust way to adjudicate the outcomes of arguments, negotiations, debates and seductions, there are plenty of options to choose from.

    When contemplating a new rule or technique, the GUMSHOE way is to look at the source material, see what techniques it typically uses, and find the simplest possible means of implementing it, consistent with the rest of the system.

    Scenes of interpersonal conflict in mystery novels and TV procedurals are usually handled as in any other dramatic genre, although usually in a more compressed and decisive way.

    In resolving a character conflict in fiction, an author ideally finds a plausible and organic way to portray a plot development he deems to be necessary to his story. This necessity may arise from, among other reasons, a desire to illuminate character, jolt the audience, or move a story toward its inevitable conclusion. In a roleplaying game, the outcome is not preplanned. The PC may or may not bring about a plot turn that moves the group toward a successful resolution. Two elements must be in place: the player has to devise a believable plan, and then the character must have the wherewithal, and perhaps luck, to implement it.

    In the case of interpersonal conflicts, what is plausible and organic depends on the motivations of the character being persuaded. What the GM does determine in advance are the motivations and intentions of the NPC with whom the PC enters into the verbal exchange.

    The motivation is what the character wants. This goal can be specific or general. The more proactive the NPC, the more specific the goal will be.

    Specific goals might include:

    • gaining the Botticelli secret
    • killing Carson Gersh
    • selling the Winston house
    • getting the suitcase full of money

    General motivations are more inchoate and psychological:

    • earning approval
    • hiding sense of insecurity
    • destroying father figures
    • pursuing affection

    If you want to get fancy about it, a specific goal might be rooted in a general goal. Ernest Combs may want to gain the Botticelli Secret to destroy a father figure, his hated former mentor Elias Thwaite.

    Greater complexity can be added in the form of multiple or even contradictory motivations. Mrs. Spooner may want to rent the downstairs apartment, earn the flirtatious attention of handsome men, while still proving that she is a respectable citizen.

    GUMSHOE is player-facing, meaning that it treats PCs and NPCs differently. PCs are the protagonists, who act. NPCs exist only in relation to them and tend not to make rolls on their own. So if an NPC sneaks up on a PC, the action is resolved not by the GM rolling for the NPC, but by the player rolling against his Surveillance or Sense Trouble ability to see if he notices.

    The implication of this principle in interpersonal conflicts is that the PCs are not open to being persuaded or bamboozled, as they are in Dying Earth, by a rules resolution. Only when the players decide it’s in character to be deceived or inveigled do they act against their better judgment. This is in keeping with the procedural genre, which can be described as a romance of competence.

    In a scene of personal conflict, then, a PC must overcome the NPC’s resistance, rooted in his motivation, and pivot him so that he becomes open to an action he is at first unwilling to embark upon.

    We already have this in the system with Interpersonal Investigative abilities. NPCs are often resistant to giving out information until the players figure out what ability (Bargain, Flattery, Seduction, Streetwise, et al) can best be used to overcome their objections.

    Interpersonal abilities can also be used to overcome resistance in other areas. To do so, the player must specify a tactic. The tactic is an approach, offer, or argument made to overcome another person’s resistance. This might or might not cite an interpersonal ability. Let’s say that Ernest Combs has taken a hostage, who the PC wants to him to release.

    If the player comes up with a tactic, which, given Combs’ motivations, will make his capitulation seem plausible, the conflict is resolved in his favor:

    • “Through Intimidation, I make myself seem like a forbidding father figure, then offer to swap places with the hostage.”
    • “Through Flattery, I tell him he’s better than this—if he hurts a hostage, Elias Thwaite will be elated by his moral failure.”
    • “I Bargain with him, promising him a photocopy of the map room if he lets her go.”

    Sometimes non-Interpersonal abilities might apply:

    • “I use Theology to remind him that these are not the actions of a man of faith.”

    A prepared GM can designate one or more possible successful tactics ahead of time, but should also be ready to accept unexpected yet equally plausible suggestions from the players.

    This system not only emulates the source literature, but gives investigators a reason to learn more about the NPCs in any scenario—you never know when you’ll need to persuade them of something later on in the story.

    The extent to which ability ratings influence outcomes is a matter of taste.

    The minimalist approach is the triggered result—here, resistance is overcome simply by citing an ability plus a plausible tactic (or even a plausible tactic to which no ability applies.) The triggered result is congruent with the clue-gathering mechanic.

    You may wish to have players pay a toll to succeed in interactions which yield non-informational advantages. In this case, require an interpersonal spend. The player succeeds after paying 1 or 2 points from the cited ability. Combs releases the hostage on a 2-point spend of Intimidation, Flattery, or Bargain, depending on which tactic the player selects. Add complexity by assessing different spend levels reflecting the relative aptness of the various tactics: the Bargain might cost 1 point, whereas the Flattery, which is a bit of a stretch given the investigator’s previously expressed antipathy for Combs, costs 3.

    Finally, you might prefer, even with a plausible tactic, an uncertain or chancy outcome. In an interpersonal contest, the GM assigns a Difficulty to the persuasion attempt, based on the aptness of the tactic. A Difficulty of 4 is standard; higher than that represents an especially tough challenge. The player can add to the die result by spending points from the relevant investigative ability, gaining a +2 result bonus for each ability point spent. This approach is in keeping with traditional roleplaying approaches to the problem, and introduces an element of suspense, and, therefore, uncertainty. On the downside, it is less like the source material, and therefore less GUMSHOE-y.

    You may always find that one of the three techniques—the triggered result, interpersonal spend, or interpersonal contest—is best suited to your style of play. However, you may find that certain situations call for the automatic certitude of the triggered result, while others cry out for the plot-branching potential of the interpersonal contest. Creators of fiction vary their techniques to achieve a range of effects, and GMs should do likewise.


    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.

    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.

    He’s written several books and more than one chapter on the subject. In this Pelgrane Press video dispatch, GUMSHOE and DramaSystem designer Robin D. Laws distills it all down to his top game mastering tip.

    GUMSHOE divides abilities according to whether failure at that ability can drive narrative. Because it is never interesting to fail to get information, you never fail with your investigative abilities. General abilities, on the other hand, do offer the possibility of something interesting—if often horrible—happening when you fail a test. You can fail to run from the shoggoth while Fleeing, fail to repair your sputtering Cessna’s instrumentation with Mechanics, or fail to keep your wits about you with Composure.

    However, just because failure is often interesting doesn’t mean that any given instance of it will always best further the story.

    As a GM, you may see no particularly entertaining outcome from a failed test.

    • Failing to Sneak past the security guards, as you have imagined them, doesn’t get you a classic interrogation and escape sequence. Nope, just an exasperating hassle that delays the confrontation with the escaped sapient lab rats.
    • When a character is Riding to impress the hardbitten rodeo clowns, a failed test prevents you from running that scene where they try to recruit the group into their ranks.
    • A Counterinsurgency failure might rubbish the otherwise cool plan the group has spent half an hour cooking up, forcing them back into planning mode.

    A common and often useful solution to the boring failure calls for the GM to replace failure with a costly success. You get past the guards but lose 2 Preparedness points when you drop your kit bag. You impress all but one of the rodeo clowns, who later tries to brain you with a wrench. You blow up the revanchist hideout but are identified by witnesses while doing so.

    However, the existence of this technique shouldn’t prevent you from doing the simple thing instead: sometimes, you can just let them win!

    Success establishes the character as competent and impressive, a feeling the players might not get enough of in a tense session. You get a reward as well, skipping an unneeded complicating factor. In a scenario already packed with action, that wrench-wielding rodeo clown might be one plot wrinkle too many to squeeze in before the session clock runs out.

    Even an action that should feel difficult and could yield a rewarding story turn in other circumstances, could in certain instances create more fun as an automatic success.

    A failure at the top of a scenario, especially the first one, starts the proceedings on a sour or unintentionally comic moment.

    Failures that slow the action just as you’ve gotten it rolling likewise get old fast. If you’ve already got plenty of suspense bubbling, yet another problem to deal with registers as demoralizing overkill.

    This doesn’t mean that characters should be able to succeed at unbelievably difficult tasks just to speed your the pacing.

    But so long as success feels credible, or can be made to seem that way by your adjusting your description of the situation, you may find the prospect of certain failures overrated.


    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.

    This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007, but could prove useful for the many subsequent GUMSHOE systems.

    A column about roleplaying

    by Robin D. Laws

    On a fundamental structural level, RPG sessions are their own beast, and are unlike movies, TV, and books. However, these related storytelling forms are always worth looking at for inspiration. Many of their surface techniques remain unplundered by GMs. Most notably, the tricks they use to compress time and make proceedings less boring demand further study, if not slavish emulation.

    For example, let’s look at the differences between a story of investigation as it plays out in a TV cop show as opposed to the way they usually unfold in an RPG.

    In a cop show, each encounter or interrogation generally a few important points of information. Then the script quickly moves onto a new scene in which another character provides more information.

    Often, though not always, the investigators must score a win by overcoming the informant’s reluctance to spill the crucial beans. The informants’ reasons for reluctance, and the means necessary to overcome them, will vary enough to disguise the formula and keep the proceedings entertaining.

    You can’t break it down to a formula, but often the informant:

    A) provides one clue

    B) rules out one possibility

    and concludes by

    C) supplying a third nugget of information pointing the investigators to the next encounter.

    RPG interrogations tend to unfold in actual time. In that, they’re like real police interviews: given the chance, the PCs will ask every question under the sun, looping around, repeating themselves, and amassing great reams of information from each informant, which they’ll then try to sift for the crucial point.

    This poses a challenge to you as GM, because you want a sense of forward movement, to build excitement and stave off boredom and paralysis. Players become easily confused in investigative scenarios. Unlike real cops, they’re picturing their nonexistent people talking to your nonexistent people. As they go, they’re filling in the imaginative blanks, often mistakenly. The more editing and pre-sifting of information you can do for them, the happier they’ll be, and the more satisfying the episode’s pacing will seem.

    By imitating a cop show trick, you can keep each interview quick and to the point. No one in a cop show has time to talk to the cops. (Maybe this is why most of the best cop shows are set in New York City, where no one has time for anyone.) The random group of eccentrics and semi-outlaws who compose the average adventuring group will earn even less time from the basic NPC civilian.

    Here’s a form you can use for each interviewee in an investigative adventure:

    • Reason for Reluctance:
    • Overcoming Reluctance:
    • Clue supplied:
    • Possibility Ruled Out:
    • Next contact:
    • Cut-Off:

    Just like a cop show screenwriter, you’ll want to create as many different reasons for brushing off the PCs as possible, for variety’s sake. Informants crucial to your storyline will require reasons directly related to the motivations you’ve preset for them. For walk-on characters, you can choose reasons at random — or start with the reason and build the character from that starting point.

    Examples can include:

    Complicity: Informant peripherally involved in the crime.

    Confusion: Informant is cooperative, but his perceptions are muddled.

    Greed: Informant seeks payoff before talking, and drives a hard bargain.

    Guilt: Informant has done something bad, but unrelated to the mystery, and fears that this is what the PCs are investigating.

    Hostility: Informant has good reason to hate adventurers as a group.

    Ideology: Informant belongs to a group or class politically opposed to the PCs or their patrons.

    Loyalty: Informant wants to protect someone she (rightly or wrongly) assumes to be the target of their investigation.

    Paranoia: Informant assumes PCs are his (real or imagined) enemies.

    Preoccupation: Informant more concerned with his own pressing business or agenda than with helping the PCs.

    Snobbery: Informant considers himself social better of PCs; recoils at the thought of associating with them.

    The manner in which the PCs must overcome the informant’s reluctance arises from the nature of that reluctance.

    Complicity: PCs must convince informant they know what he did and can arrange for worse treatment if he doesn’t talk.

    Confusion: PCs must sort through informant’s scattered recollections for the important fact.

    Greed: PCs must pay him off, or convince him he’ll be worse off if he doesn’t talk.

    Guilt: Must assure informant that her particular misdeeds are not their concern.

    Hostility: PCs must mollify the informant, or use leverage his grudge against him with intimidation tactics.

    Ideology: Informant must be shown how cooperation benefits his faction.

    Loyalty: Convince informant cooperation will lead to a better outcome for the person she’s protecting.

    Paranoia: Either reassure or terrify the informant.

    Preoccupation: Show how lack of cooperation will hurt the informant’s business or cause.

    Snobbery: Show how cooperation will lead to the PCs’ speedy departure.

    Alternate methods of persuasion should always be possible. Otherwise you risk falling into a variant of the classic plot bottleneck, in which there’s only one way to get a particular piece of information on which all forward development depends. PCs should be able to intimidate snobs or bribe paranoids. For variety’s sake, ensure that no single tactic works on all informants.

    Structurally, any investigative adventure consists of a trail of clues leading like bread crumbs from one encounter to the next, so the nature of the clue is up to you.

    The next contact positions the encounter within that structure, telling you which new scene the character will point the PCs toward. In a cop show, the leads find the clues in a particular order. If you can prepare several different orders in which the clues can be assembled, you face less chance that a dead end point will arise in mid-scenario. (Putting the encounters on index cards helps if you intend to shuffle them as you go.)

    Finally, under the entry labeled cut-off, slot in the reason for the NPC to conclude the encounter after the PCs have squeezed it for all of its information and entertainment value. It’s easier to get NPCs out of scenes in a modern setting with busy schedules and ringing cellphones, but self-respecting supporting characters in any era or genre should be anxious to get on with their own lives as your sense of expediency dictates. Cut-offs may refer back to the character’s original reluctance to talk. A snob wants to shoo uncouth PCs out of his manor as quickly as possible. A paranoid wishes to escape an imagined threat. If the PCs haven’t slapped the cuffs on a complicit character, he will want to leave the jurisdiction as soon as possible.

    Unrelated cut-offs work just as well, and provide an added sense of reality to your world. Mundane details like crying babies, overflowing sinks, cookpots in need of tending, escaping horses, or goods in need of protection from the rain all provide otherwise helpful NPCs excuses to bring their discussions with the heroes to an end.

    I’d stick around and elaborate, but you have all the clues to piece it together. I have an owl to feed. Or something! Good luck with that investigation, now!

    This die isn’t bad, it’s just a bit weird.

    At our GenCon panel on horror, we got asked about the risk of breaking atmosphere in Trail of Cthulhu games by asking for Stability tests. You describe whatever horrific or disturbing sight the investigator encounters in ghastly detail – and then go “now, roll Stability”, dragging the player out of the story and soiling everything with bald mechanics. I don’t entirely agree with the premise – sometimes, switching to mechanics at a moment of high tension lends huge dramatic weight to the roll – but if it resonates with you, then what you need is a bad die.

    A bad die is a die that’s dedicated to a particular purpose. Ideally, it’s visually distinctive – I’ve got a d6 with skulls for pips that gets designated a bad die in some games. The bad die is only used for one type of roll only. For example, in a Trail game, it might only be used for Stability tests. If the GM hands the bad die to a player, the player knows it’s time to make a Stability test, and that failure would be costly. There’s no need to say anything in the heat of play – the GM makes it clear before the game that if you’re given the bad die, you’ve got to make a Stability test and that failure will mean a big Stability loss.

    You can use bad dice for other purposes. You could have a bad die for Sense Trouble rolls, or Heat checks in Night’s Black Agents. In 13th Age, you might designate a particular d20 as the bad die for Last Gasp saves. As long as the bad die can be easily distinguished from other dice, and the players are told beforehand what the bad die entails, it gives the GM another non-verbal channel to communicate with the players.

    In the Community Content Spotlight, each month I write up a short review of a community content title available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!


    Stick around after the review for news about our Community Content Contest.

    THE PHANTOM OF THE BASTILLE

    The following review contains spoilers for Phantom of the Bastille.

    Rick Dakan’s Phantom of the Bastille is a lavishly researched, imaginative scenario for Fear Itself that takes players to Paris in 1789, the beginning of the French Revolution. Planned as the first in a series of French Revolution scenarios, we get a glimpse into the chaos of, and the different groups jostling for dominance in, late-1780s France.

    Like many historical scenarios, Phantom of the Bastille latches onto a major historical event and then deep dives into an unusual idiosyncrasy. And that is part of the joy of historically situated gaming: major events (like the fall of the Bastille) always have strange surprises, particularities, coincidences, and falsehoods told about them. What Dakan has done is take a pseudo-legendary figure, the Comte De Lorges (who was supposedly a prisoner in the Bastille), and asked “Why do people report the existence of the Comte, when no such person ever existed?” Rick’s answer creates all kinds of new Fear Itself fodder: a new creature of Unremitting Horror; the unnatural, putrescent death of King Louis XV; the tragic painting of a family destroyed by the scenario’s inciting action. It was this last which I was personally most drawn to. I wanted to see how my players would respond to a fallen family of the French aristocracy — how would the characters be swayed, and what schemes would they devise in order to protect this pitiable family?

    Interestingly, the scenario’s villain is also a sympathetic GMC (although I did find myself, after seeing the results of the villain’s actions, thinking that were I playing the scenario, I would probably have advocated for the character’s demise — it is the French Revolution, after all).

    The pre-generated investigators are all Freemasons (or members of their sister organizations), which provides an easy “in” to the scenario and provides fodder both for more characters (should one of the PCs die — unthinkable!) and for information-holding allies. It was easy to see, even in the structure of this first scenario, how a whole campaign could be strung out from this framework ( “Headhounds of Paris,” anyone? Because of the guillotine… get it?… nevermind). Rick also employs a clever “counterespionage spend” mechanic by grouping three of the Investigative abilities, which spends of can “distract or counter the spies” of one of the scenario’s factions, and are increasingly costly. They got me thinking about other ways that abilities could be grouped and spent toward particular ends in new scenarios.

    (As a sidenote, maybe my favorite thing about the scenario, as an eighteenth-century literary theorist, is tha

    t there’s an opportunity for some very memorable roleplaying with the Marquis de Sade — yes, that Marquis de Sade, for whom the practice of “sadism” is named, although it’s probably notwhat you expect.)

    The scenario is lavishly illustrated with period-sourced paintings and engravings, and was laid out by our very own Will Hindmarch. Rick has some great additional resources on his website whether you’re planning on running Phantom of the Bastille, Fear Itself, or another game set at the dawn of the French Revolution. Also consider giving him a follow on Twitter.

    Title: Phantom of the Bastille
    Author: Rick Dakan
    System: Fear Itself, 2nd Edition
    Price: $4.95 PDF

    Community Content Contest

    Last week I announced the GUMSHOE Community Content Contest, where one winning product will receive professional layout and a custom cover provided by Pelgrane Press. I’m happy to announce that the final deadline will be Monday, September 7th, 2020. (I’ve also updated the original posting to reflect this.)

    For more information about the contest, please see the original posting, or get a hold of me either on our Discord or by leaving a comment.

    Good luck with your entries!


    The Pelgrane Press Community Program brings you into the fold with other GUMSHOE game designers, affording creators (whatever that means to you!) the opportunity to post and sell their own products on DriveThruRPG. We currently accept material for Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch. Have a kooky idea you’d like to write up and get out there? A flushed out scenario you think others would enjoy? The Community Program is the place to showcase these ideas. If you’re interested in creating something for the Community Program, read more about it here.


    Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

    When choosing his favorite monster, Robin looked to three criteria: ickiness, impersonality, and versatility.


    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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