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

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

In response to our scenario design workshop, we were asked to delve a bit further into the distinction between core and alternate scenes in a GUMSHOE adventure.

TLDR: Make sure there’s one path through a GUMSHOE scenario. Those are your core scenes. Add more paths. Those are your alternate scenes.

A Core Scene provides one or more core clues—information the characters need to find other scenes, where they will gain further information and ultimately gather all the facts they need to solve the central mystery.

To confirm that your story has such a path, plot your core scenes on a diagram. If you can draw a line connects them all, you have a story the characters can be successfully navigate.

For players to exercise agency, though, they must also be able to choose how they move through the story. That’s where the Alternate Scenes come in—they provide other ways for gain some or all of a scenario’s core clues.

You can build in player choice by using only Core Scenes, with scenes that include more than one core clue. If the scene “Library Fire” contains two core clues, which lead to “Coal Chute” and “Wary Widow,” the group that chooses “Coal Chute” first creates a different sequence of events than the one that picks “Wary Widow” first.

Alternate scenes allow a simpler, surefire way of guaranteeing choice within the story. If the core clue leading to “Coal Chute” is found both in “Library Fire” and “Map in the Glovebox,” the players can get to it from at least two directions.

You don’t need more than two or three alternate scenes. By definition, an alternate scene might not happen. By adding more of them you both increase choice, and increase the amount of material you prepare that won’t appear in play.

Not all alternate scenes include core clues. They might feature interesting or fun sidetracks that players can go down or not, as they prefer.

Other scenes might put the characters in danger without providing information. Most notable of these types is the Antagonist Reaction, triggered by player actions, in which bad guys initiate events that push back against the protagonists.

Non-informational scenes, triggered by player decisions, appear in some GUMSHOE games, an example being the Hazards seen in The Yellow King.

Every scenario diagram will and should look different. (The one shown here has its scene titles stripped out, to avoid spoilers.) As you can see, it is a pretty simple example, with a couple of Alternate Scenes and as many Hazards.

When designing a scenario, the first sequence of scenes you invent as you plot from beginning to end are your Core Scenes. That’s almost certainly the easiest and clearest course of investigation for the characters to follow.

When you build in additional choice by creating additional scenes that provide core clues, those are your alternate scenes.

The core / alternate distinction is a tool that helps the designer ensure that the scenario includes a) one viable path through the story and b) and other paths, too.

If you’re writing for another GM to run, the distinction shows your work, indicating which scenes will most likely happen and which ones might or might not.

Players never need to know any of this. For them, the scenes they choose to activate are the story. They don’t see what might have happened if they’d made other choices—unless they read the scenario, or get the GM to tell them.

Though the difference between the two scene types may seem complex when explained, it’s dead simple in practice:

  1. Find one sequence of scenes the characters can navigate to solve the mystery. Those are your Core Scenes.
  2. Add scenes that provide alternate paths through the scenario. Those are your Alternate Scenes.

As long as you follow those two simple steps, you can’t go wrong.


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.

For International GMs Day, Ken’s favorite GMing tip is very timely indeed.



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.

One of the most horrible aspects of this whole pandemic – at least, from where I’m sitting – is that roleplaying conventions will be one of the last events to return safely. Your typical convention is also ideal for spreading coronavirus: a bunch of people talking loudly at short range? In rooms that are famously poorly ventilated? Alas – no conventions this year, and conventions next year will depend on suppression and vaccines.

So, as a substitute, we’ve got virtual cons, run over discord or zoom or other platforms. Some tips I’ve picked up running GUMSHOE games at virtual cons:

  • Don’t waste time
  • Set expectations immediately
  • Break the character sheet down by region
  • Do a sample test early
  • Have your assets ready to go
  • Use multiple channels

Don’t waste time

You definitely don’t need to fill the whole convention timeslot – if it’s a four-hour slot, that’s basically a three hour game plus setup, bathroom breaks, and an early finish if the game goes on track. It helps to keep the initial rules explanation to a minimum – the quicker you get from introducing the game to actually playing, the better. No-one wants to sit through a lengthy breakdown of rules.

Set expectations immediately

Give the players a variation of the elevator pitch so everyone knows what sort of game they’re playing. “You’re all burned spies hunting vampires,”, “you’re all paranormal investigators working for a mysterious Ordo, battling the evils of the Esoterrorists and their extradimensional allies”, “you’re all city watch in fantasy Venice”. Having media references works (“Jason Bourne vs Dracula!”), but make sure you do it as “X meets Y” or “It’s a bit like X or Y” – if you only give a player one touchstone, they’ll assume the game is just like that show.

Break the character sheet down by region

GUMSHOE’s a pretty simple system, and most of the abilities are nicely self-explanatory. Drive home that there are two sorts of abilities – Investigative (NO ROLLING! JUST INFO! SPEND FOR BENEFITS!) and General (SPEND POINTS AND ROLL A D6! BEAT A DIFFICULTY THAT’S USUALLY AROUND 4!) and you’re 90% of the way there.

Do a sample test early

It’s good advice for any convention game, virtual or otherwise, to run a simple demonstration of the resolution system early on, so the players have a handle on how many points they should spend on a typical test, how forgiving the damage system is and so forth. Refreshes are especially important in GUMSHOE, too, so show how they work.

Have your assets ready to go

If you’re using maps, images or other handouts, make sure they’re to hand, electronically speaking. I stick everything I’ll need (or might need) in one Dropbox folder so I can grab them quickly. You don’t need to fill every moment with action, but few things are duller than the GM googling for the right image. (If you do need to grab something, do it while the players are discussing strategy or roleplaying amongst themselves.)


Use multiple channels

Obviously, you can send notes to players as private messages, but the general chat channel’s also very useful for sending material to the players. If there’s a set of facts they need to reference through the scenario – a list of locations, a set of suspects, a timeline –  drop that in the chat channel so the players can easily look it up.

In the Community Content Spotlight, each month I write up a short review of a GUMSHOE community content title, all of which are available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!
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Michael Duxbury’s Game Reserve is a fresh supplement to Fear Itself 2nd Edition, providing “a collection of hunting grounds” for the GM’s pleasure (and the likely dis-pleasure of the characters). If you missed the announcement in last month’s Community Content Spotlight, Game Reserve was Michael’s runner-up entry in the contest, which he turned around for publication on DriveThru in surprisingly short order.

I had been planning on writing up some of the earlier entries to the community content program, but when Michael sent along the finished PDF for this one I knew I wanted to review this instead. The premise is fairly simple: Game Reserve presents six settings for a horrific conclusion to your Fear Itself one shots. Stolen with impunity right off the DriveThru page, these settings are:

  • The Cabin in the Woods
  • The Torture Trap
  • The Fog
  • The Country Manor
  • The Amusement Ride
  • The Underworld

From the get-go Game Reserve is aimed at making the GM’s life easier. Just like using pre-generated investigators, hunting grounds get you up and running faster, with less prep (I could see this being a real-life saver the next time someone asks to play a game “tonight”). Duxbury’s careful to attend to the classic three-act structure, noting that a general premise supplies your investigative trigger; a second act’s characterized by an encounter with the monster; and the monster’s leavings (“All That Remains,” in Fear Itself parlance) lead you into the third act—it’s this third act that the hunting grounds mean to fill.

The diversity of hunting grounds will keep you going for awhile, as they replicate major horror films and franchises: Stephen King’s The Mist, the Saw series, there might even be a little Five Nights at Freddy’s wandering around the inspirations here. And then, of course, there’s my favorite of the hunting grounds, because it suggests an entire world anterior to our own. This is no thinning of the boundary between the living and the dead, nor no puppet that’s been blessed/cursed by reanimation, this is a world all its own—The Underworld.

Leviathan | Hellraiser Film Series Wiki | FandomFor me, a perennial fan of Clive Barker and, attendantly, Hellraiser, “The Underworld” hunting ground suggests that realm the cenobites emerge from at seemingly the slightest provocation, a world reigned over by the mysterious (and slightly ridiculous) d10-shaped Leviathan. As Duxbury points out, The Underworld could prove a perfect capstone to a Fear Itself campaign, or just the right torturous end for a group of one-shot characters who aren’t interested in seeing sunlight again.

Game Reserve’s art is simply done, but still tastefully adds to the ambience of the PDF, and shows how a few simple, easily sourced images add a lot to a final product. Final summation: highly rated for any Fear Itself GM, especially those who might need an occasional get-out-of-jail-prep-free card.

(New feature!) Final Score: 4.5 bear traps out of 5


Title: Game Reserve
Author: Michael Duxbury
System: Fear Itself
Price: $3.99 PDF


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.

Spooky maskWhen running a most improvised scenario (either something as ambitious as the Dracula Dossier or just riffing off a paragraph or two of notes), One Useful Trick is to have a copy of the investigative ability list for your game to hand, and check off abilities as you call for them or the players use them. That lets you see at a glance which abilities you haven’t yet used in play.

Then, look for opportunities to bring in other abilities. Treat it as a prompt, a challenge – “what’s the easiest narrative route in the game from this moment to the action hinging on Art History or Pharmacy or Flirting?”

Often, in improv play, you fall back on the sort of scenes that you’re most comfortable with; I can riff mysterious murders, spooky locations and sieges off the top of my head, but need to remind myself to do interpersonal scenes, crowds, or car chases.

Prompting yourself to bring in abilities you don’t instinctively default to is a great way to vary the scenes in your game. The players in my current Night’s Black Agents game, for example, are much more comfortable hanging back and observing, either by blending into the crowd, perching on rooftops, or getting full value out of all those points invested in Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance and Digital Intrusion. Tracking the abilities used reminds me in the heat of play to put in more interpersonal scenes, forcing them to use messy touch-feely abilities like Reassurance or Intimidation.

A neglected ability doesn’t have to be central to the game, of course. If you’re trying to bring in, say, Astronomy, you could just mention that the characters knows offhand that tonight will be a moonless and especially dark night; often, reminding players that they have a particular ability will start them thinking about ways to use those assets.

Don’t neglect General Abilities, either. If no-one’s used Cover or Disguise in a while, try to drop in some obstacles that require those abilities.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

You’ve found your way to Carcosa, and the bleak shores of Hali. A boatman, his visage concealed by a cloak, poles his way up to you. You ask for passage across the black lake. He leans forward, his caul falling partly away to reveal a mask-like visage.

“And what do you have to offer in return, my friends?”

Of the interpersonal investigative abilities, the ones you use to get information from people you talk to, Negotiation is a GUMSHOE staple.

Pretty much any mystery you read features a scene in which the detective makes a deal to get information. She might offer to intercede with a prosecutor on behalf of an arrested crook. Or promise a reporter that he’ll get the scoop when she closes the case. Most commonly, the offer comes in the form of just plain cash.

That last choice, the carefully folded, era-appropriate denomination of paper money, requires no creativity on the part of the player.

Once you get to more complicated tit-for-tats, however, you may struggle to come up with the roleplaying side of a negotiation. What offer do you make, and how do you make it?

This becomes more difficult still when you’re trying to wring something worth more than words from the character. Maybe you want the GMC to lay off your group while you enter her territory. Or to make peace with the clan across the river. Or to pretend she don’t know it was you who blew up the abandoned warehouse with all the vampires in it.

Start by giving some thought to your offer before you commence the scene. Players most often get stuck when the enter into a negotiation without an offer in mind. The GM might expect you to learn more about a character you’re talking to, so that you can figure out what they want. Mostly though he’ll be glad to see you take the initiative and show that you understand that you have to give something to get something.

Consider the scale of the request you’re making. A big ask calls for a big payout. When preparing to approach a character, ask not only what they want but how much they might want it. A favor that costs your negotiating partner little is easier than one requiring a major sacrifice of property, status, or ambition.

Players most often fail at negotiation when they realize, to their shock and horror, that the other party expects a concession of roughly equal value. “Wait, I want unfiltered access to the Necronomicon from Henry Armitage, and he wants me to go all the way to Machu Picchu and drop this amulet in a well? How dare he?”

A GM who portrays negotiations realistically may start out with a bigger request than the character hopes to receive. You may be tempted to break off talks when you hear the scope of an initial demand. Instead, try offering less and see where the point of resistance really lies. Professor Armitage might accept a lesser favor than the Machu Picchu trip, but isn’t going to loan you that book for nothing. Every time it leaves the library, the university’s liability insurance goes up!

In general, your GM wants you to move the story forward by succeeding at a negotiation. Make the offer credibly tempting and you’ll likely get what you want. That might entail a side quest that leads you into another fun scene of challenge and trouble, but that after all is what you came to the table for.

This doesn’t mean that the GM will let you negotiate successfully with every GMC you encounter. Negotiation will overcome small or intermediate obstacles, not the central scheme of the primary villain. Expect to be shut down when trying to bypass all of a scenario’s conflict and danger. When you get stonewalled, indulge in a bit of metagaming and ask yourself how anticlimactic it would be to actually get what you’re asking for. If the answer is “very much so,” you know that there’s no way your GM is going to let you away with that. Look for other, more thrilling and hazardous ways to resolve the central dilemma. As with any fruitless path you choose, the GM is probably signaling you to try a different approach. Your main enemy may refuse to talk altogether, send an emissary to insult you, or waste your time while setting up an ambush, or to quickly dismiss your offer. Any of these choices give you a chance to push the story forward, even if you don’t get everything you want exactly as you want it. The GM is using a “yes, but” technique, making something fun happen, even if it isn’t the successful bargaining session you were hoping for.

To sum up, the following list of questions may help you to formulate your position as you go in to negotiate for information, a favor, or other benefit.

“What does this person want?”

“Is that at all compatible with what we want?”

“If not, what do I have, or what can I do, to get them closer to what they want?”

When the answer to question 1, is “beats me,” you might consider doing some more investigation before opening talks. A third party could supply a more straightforward and revealing account of the character’s position than she will express directly.

When the answer to question 2 is no, you can shift footing to some other approach. In GUMSHOE, that might mean Intimidation or some other aggressive means.

Questions 1 and 3 prime you to expect to give a quo to get your quid. In most RPG situations, the readiness to yield a bit is most of the battle.

Don’t let pride sink you. Be ready to occasionally lose a bit to eventually win a lot.

You can tell Negotiation is a crucial part of roleplaying because we made a shirt about it at the Ken and Robin merch store. Unlike much in life, wearing it is a win-win proposition.


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.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system seen in The Esoterrorists and upcoming follow-on games and supplements can be used for any mystery or procedural game. We’ll be presenting new settings in the future, but in the meantime, the game’s core engines are easily adaptable to whatever investigative genre you want to run. Here’s how to adapt GUMSHOE to emulate your favorite procedural, whether it be 24, Torchwood, CSI, or The X-Files.

Step One: Study Your Source

First, immerse yourself in the property you want to recreate. You may be adapting a specific procedural, or drawing from a broad subset of similar shows. It might also be fun to combine the structure and tone of a well-known TV show with the genre elements gamers love: “It’s Cracker, but with werewolves.”

For the sake of a default frame of reference, I’m assuming a TV show here, but the general principles apply equally to novel series: you could just as easily adapt Sherlock Holmes, Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, Iain Pears’ art-world mysteries, or Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-centric whodunnits.

Creating your own original property requires less homework but is tougher in some ways. You’ll have to portray your setting and narrative formula to the players without the shorthand that comes with the shared viewing experience of a popular show.

Start by identifying the structure of your source’s typical episodes. Look for standard elements that recur from one episode to the next; these will help you to construct scenarios. For a long running property with many cast changes over the years, determine if the various characters fall into distinct types.

Make a master list of the various GUMSHOE investigative abilities. When one of these abilities, or a close analogue, comes up in the course of an episode, put a tick mark next to it. If abilities appear which have no counterparts in GUMSHOE, make a note of that. Pay special attention to the interpersonal abilities, which are easy to gloss over, appearing as they do in the ebb and flow of dialogue, interrogation and interview scenes.

Take note also of what the characters are able to do during non-investigative scenes. Again, note what GUMSHOE abilities you see in action, and which other abilities you’ll have to define for your game.

Gauge how competent the protagonists are. Are the action sequences, if any, over the top and stylized, or gritty and real?

As is often the case in adaptations to the RPG format, you may have to adjust a series featuring a single protagonist (or a duo) to make an entire team of characters co-equal centers of attention.

Step Two: Investigative Abilities

Take the list of abilities you’ve compiled during your homework. Note how fine-grained the technical and academic abilities seem to be. Is a big distinction made, for example, between the various forensic disciplines? If so, you’ll likely want to use a large list of abilities, as seen in The Esoterrorists. Otherwise, a more stripped down, general list likely suits better. Such a list appears in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror book, Fear Itself.

Look at the abilities you haven’t seen in play in your source material. Can you envision them ever appearing? If so, include them. If not, leave them out.

Certain forensic techniques will be unavailable in non-contemporary settings. Forensic entomology is a very recent sub-discipline, for example. An ancient or medieval sleuth won’t be looking for fingerprints. Other disciplines might be available in more primitive form, providing less information. For example, a photographic expert in a 1940s hardboiled game will have less to go on than his contemporary, computer-equipped counterpart. In some cases, you’ll want to rename abilities: forensic psychology might become alienism.

Once you’ve assembled your final list of investigative abilities, divide the number of abilities by the number of players who you expect will regularly attend your game, then add a handful of points to this total. This gives you the number of build points the players get to buy their investigative abilities during character creation.

Step Three: General Abilities

Repeat the above process with general abilities. Most basic general abilities will apply to any setting, but there are a few that need tweaking for historical genres. Pre-industrial characters might use Riding or Carting instead of Driving, for example.

(When in doubt as to whether an ability is general or investigative, ask yourself if it can be used to gather information, or to perform some other task. If it’s the latter, it’s investigative. If the former, it’s general. If what seems to be the same talent can both gather information and perform other tasks, split it into two, making it both an investigative and general ability. The prime example of this are the Reassurance and Shrink abilities, which resemble each other thematically but have different narrative functions.)

If your setting is gritty and realistic, give the players around 5 build points for each general ability. For a more over-the-top setting, assign 8-12 points per general ability. Some general ability lists will include specialized abilities that few PCs will want; if so, omit them when tallying your total number of abilities.

In certain fantastic genres, you may want to create a subclass of special abilities, like super powers or psychic talents. Write descriptions of these so the players know how they work. It may be that some are investigative and some general; be sure to indicate which is which. Assign them a separate build point total, reflecting the degree to which you want these talents present in your game. You will probably also want to limit the number of special abilities each player can take, or allow only a restricted number of PCs to have them.

Step Four: Conceptual Aids

If characters in the setting tend to fall into definable categories, write brief descriptions of each type, to help the players fit their characters to the property.

Look at what motivates the characters in the property. If necessary, create guidelines or rules structures to assist players in acquiring the necessary mindset. For example, Fear Itself character creation requires the players to pick the worst thing their characters ever did. This provides a plot hook to use in flashbacks and scenes of character development. It also requires you to pick from a list of possible motivations to take the apparently stupid risks that get horror characters into entertaining danger. A rule then provides an incentive for reluctant players to make the choices that drive stories of this type.

Step Five: What to Leave Out

Just because a rule structure is present in current iterations of GUMSHOE doesn’t mean that it will work for your property. Stability, for example, is essential for horror-based mystery games but inappropriate for all but the most punishing and gritty crime or detective properties.

by Joshua Kronengold and Catherine Ramen

One of the most interesting features of GUMSHOE is that failure is frequently not an important part of the gameplay. Whether by finding a clue with an Investigative Ability, or spending enough points on a General Ability test to ensure success, GUMSHOE games focus more on the what (which Ability do you use, what do you do to invoke it, what you do with information after finding it) the why (Drives, at minimum), and how much (do you spend points now or hold them in reserve for a future effort? How many?)

The thing is, as much as automatic successes make PCs seem (and players feel) like badasses, in games where the characters have broad ranges of skills and large amounts of points to spend, the die rolls on General Ability tests become less interesting. Varying the difficulty can add some drama to rolls, but it has to be done carefully, especially if the Difficulty is not revealed to the players. Unknown Difficulties that run higher than the expected 4 can discourage point spends as players become conservative, or cause frustration as too many tests fail because of underspends or running out of points. Keeping Difficulties to a narrower and more predictable range lets players make more strategic choices about when to spend points–but also tends to make any rolls a foregone conclusion and the die roll a pro forma task. In this article, we look at several ways to give die rolls drama and keep the results interesting. At their best, dice do more than moderate between players; they provide interesting and surprising results that nobody in the session would have chosen, while still staying within the bounds of what people consider an acceptable result.

So, then, how do we open up die rolls?

The first method, which appears in a rough form in Night’s Black Agents and TimeWatch, is to add another possible result to the roll: you get a Critical success if you roll a 6 and beat the Difficulty by 5. (Note that this will encourage some overspending by players, but both TimeWatch and NBA make it relatively easy to refresh pools or find extra points when needed, and that mathematically it encourages what we consider optimal play–usually spending just enough to guarantee success) However, this tends to still produce only two possible results for a roll. If you didn’t spend enough to guarantee success, the possibilities are failure and success. If you did, it’s success and critical. But either way, it’s a pure binary result: yes or no; crit or normal. There are three possibilities, but only two of them are possible on any given roll.

Catherine has designed a system that opens the results even more, by creating a system of “Benefits” that can be accessed with a high enough roll. In her system, for every four points that you exceed a Test’s Difficulty by, you can choose a Benefit (you can choose the same benefit more than once). In her last campaign, the list looked like this:

  • Terrible Harm: + 4 damage
  • Armor Piercing: you negate the target’s armor
  • Speed: You succeed very quickly
  • Unnoticed: No one sees what you do
  • No Traces: No obvious signs of what you did
  • Safe: You don’t expose yourself to danger
  • Disable: You break or damage an object
  • Disarm: You knock a weapon (or other held object) free
  • Suppress: You stun, force under cover, or otherwise prevent someone from acting
  • Opportunity: The PC may immediately take a second, related task
  • Missing Materials: You can succeed even without the proper tools

The system also allows you to take a Benefit if you are willing to take a consequence; one of the implicit Benefits is “You Succeed,” and several skills (like Intrusion or Filch in NBA) include Unnoticed or some other benefit by default) so a player willing to let their character suffer a consequence or lose one of the benefits of success could succeed even on a failed roll. When deciding on a consequence, often the easiest thing to do is simply reverse one of the Benefits: so instead of being safe, a character might take damage; their effort might take a great deal of time, or be unable to conceal. Note that the Benefits list can also function as a quick way to reward an Investigative spend, for example a Library Use spend that finds the results in only a half a day’s search. A GM might even allow a player to purchase a Benefit using an appropriate Investigative spend if it fit the situation–using Intimidate during a fight to keep other characters from joining the fight, for example (using the Suppress Benefit).

This “Margin of Success” method makes the rolls more interesting, since any roll might result in a valuable Benefit, as well as rewarding players who overspend on a Test since they will probably receive a Benefit rather that effectively wasting any points beyond the amount needed to guarantee success. (This is the reason why the margin to receive a benefit was set at 4–it gives a 50% chance of receiving a Benefit on most tasks, provided the player spends at least 3 points. For a grittier feel you could raise the required margin to 5 points or even 6; lowering the margin will tend to produce very competent characters.)

The Benefits list has to be customized for the GUMSHOE game you’re using, the particular style of your group, and the skills that are available.

That said, there are limits to this approach. While the variable benefits allow for players to make many more choices about how to customize successes and failures, die results have gone from being binary to sometimes-ternary–depending on how much someone spent. At best, the possibilities are failure or success, or success with a benefit — or success, success with a benefit, or success with two benefits (etc). While player choices can customize this result after the roll, the results are still going to be strictly bounded.

To really make sure we don’t know what will happen, we have to make die rolls truly open ended. That way, you’ll never know exactly what result you’re going to get–and can let yourselves get a little excited every time the dice hit the table. There’s a simple and well tested way to do this — use the same system that quite a number of other games have used and have a 6 or 1 result in another die getting rolled (repeating this as necessary). The problem with that is that most of us (and the authors are certainly in this set) are attached to the way that GUMSHOE’s results are more predictable than those in most others, while the “exploding six and one” system is incredibly, unalterably random.

So Josh suggests that we tone it down a bit. Whenever you roll a 6, it explodes, but to keep it slightly flatter, use a d3 instead of a d6 (if, like us, you don’t have a d3, just halve the results on a d6 and round up). And if you roll a 3, keep going.

Similarly, we can have rolls of 1 implode (if you like surprise failures–If you don’t like it as GM, or the group doesn’t want it, don’t use it). If you’re using this rule, you should also allow players to “take one,” setting the die to 1 (and not risking it imploding) rather than rolling if they want; this means that, if they’ve successfully gauged the difficulty, they get an automatic success. As an optional rule, only allow taking 1 if they did, in fact, spend enough to guarantee success; if they declare this and it’s not enough, tell them to roll anyway, but only after they’re committed. This avoids players being unfairly punished for “taking 1” in a situation where the difficulty is unknown. Imploding is less fun for players than exploding, so add one to the d6 roll before subtracting, but otherwise it’s the same in reverse–roll a d3 and subtract the result, but keep going if a 3 is rolled.

We’d be fine with stopping there, but we know some people are going to want a fumble system (and some people are going to really, really, really NOT want a fumble system). One option is to invert the Benefits system so that for every 4 points you fail the test’s Difficulty by, the GM assigns a consequence which is the reverse of one of the Benefits. If you want fumbles to be more rare, you should make them only happen if a 1 was rolled — and that should probably be the default for defensive rolls, particularly when target numbers are unknown, so that players don’t roll flat against a difficulty of, say, 15 and suddenly — surprise! — they take multiple consequences just for playing. After all, it should generally be better to roll than not to roll, even if the odds are long. Even if you don’t want to lock yourself into a fumble system, this can be a good guide to estimating the consequences of failing a high stakes active roll. The PC doesn’t get the benefits of a success, and may (particularly if they miss the difficulty by 4 or more) end up exposed to danger or notice, drop or damage something important, or an opponent might gain an opportunity. Gumshoe is often about pretty competent protagonists, so you can do all of this without having to make the PCs look incompetent or foolish.

And that’s it — several modular, open-ended, still very GUMSHOE-Y systems that should add a bit of anticipation to every roll you make — and provide a few entertaining surprises. Try it out, and let us know what you think!

Postscript (by Joshua Kronengold):
Since we drafted this article, Robin published an article talking about how one can embrace failure in Gumshoe general tests (as well as another on automatic successes).  Our article, on embracing and shaping exceptional success and softening failures, could be seen to act as a complement to Robin’s thoughts on the subject.

On the one hand, we have automatic successes (or failures).  Those are the points where you don’t a particular result as interesting — so you don’t allow for it at all, instead simply ruling success to be automatic or impossible.

Then we have rolls where failure is acceptable.  There (as with the addition of my highly caveated fumble system), Catherine’s system allows for a  failure to be a negotiation, not a catastrophe, shaping the narrative rather than cutting it off.  Perhaps you fail at your overall goal, but salvage one particular element from it that was more important than the goal itself.  Or perhaps you succeed at that goal, but at the cost of excessive time, damage, or some other mischance–either way, the dice steer you into a result that falls short of your character’s goal–and instead steers you into a different avenue that might end up being more narratively satisfying rather than a wall that you feel compelled to
bang against until it falls.

 


Catherine Ramen has been playing role-playing games for almost four decades. She is the designer of the upcoming Red Carnations on a Black Grave, a story game about the Paris Commune, Rovers, a customizable space-opera rpg about loveable anti-heroes, and edited the English edition of Nerves of Steel, a film noir story game.

Joshua Kronengold lives in Queens, New York with Lisa Padol, surrounded by books, games, and musical instruments.  He is a decades-long contributor to Alarums & Excursions, and has contributed to Over the Edge (in Edgeworks #3), Reign, and Unknown Armies.

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 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.

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