GUMSHOE

GUMSHOE is a system for designing and playing investigative roleplaying games and adventures, emulating stories where investigators uncover a series of clues, and interpret them to solve a mystery.

In a GUMSHOE game, the player characters discover something which triggers their investigation, and then the Game Moderator (GM) narrates them through a number of scenes, during which they use their Investigative Abilities to gather the core clues they need to move the narrative forward. They must then put the clues together to uncover the secrets behind the mystery.

GUMSHOE One-2-One

This is a new iteration of GUMSHOE, designed for one player, and one GM. You can find out more about it here.

GUMSHOE links and resources

GUMSHOE Games

Any RPG which uses the GUMSHOE system redefines it for that setting, and so there is no “GUMSHOE book”. Each of the RPGs below contains the full GUMSHOE rules for creating characters and playing in that world, as well as guidance on designing your own investigations for that particular setting.

Follow the links below to find out about our GUMSHOE games:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes a couple of design innovations that first appeared in Cthulhu Confidential and imports them back into multi-player GUMSHOE. Most notably, its QuickShock sub-system uses cards to represent the specific ongoing consequences of mental and physical harm. Importing them into previous GUMSHOE games isn’t a simple matter, and at any rate QuickShock’s speedy one-and-done fight resolution doesn’t fit the vibe of every setting.

Another change, on the other hand, could easily apply to any GUMSHOE game. In fact, we’re already building it into the recently announced new edition of Mutant City Blues.

This change drops the ratings and pools associated with investigative abilities. Instead of having a varying number of points to spend on non-informational benefits, each character starts play with 2 Pushes. You can spend a Push to gain a benefit from any of your investigative abilities. (Or in some edge cases, a benefit untethered from any of them.)

Here’s the relevant section from YKRPG:

Pushes

Characters can spend Pushes to gain benefits tied to their Investigative abilities. They never have to spend Pushes to get information, especially not information vital to moving forward through the story to solve its main mystery.

For example, you could spend an Art History Push to:

  • acquire a painting you covet at a bargain price
  • establish a friendly prior relationship with a famous artist appearing in the current scenario
  • deflate a bullying sculptor by exposing the technical flaws in his work
  • impress a snob with your fine taste, winning her confidence

You never use Pushes on General abilities.

Some Shock and Injury cards can be discarded by spending a Push.

On occasion the GM may allow players to gain benefits not connected to any ability in the game, in exchange for a Push. For example, a player might ask if a flammable haystack happens to be situated conveniently close to a farmhouse she wants to burn down. That isn’t under the character’s control in any way, but for the cost of a Push can be put within the player’s.

Your character starts each scenario with 2 Pushes.

Unspent Pushes do not roll over from one scenario to the next.


A few specific effects may in rare cases give you an additional Push. Mostly though you don’t refresh them until the current case ends and a new one begins.

Pushes simplify and speed up the introduction of extra benefits into a session. They encourage you to go for a benefit only in key story moments. Also they skip a lot of head-scratching over what might or might not be a useful and appropriate expenditure of points for each separate ability.

We’ve also heard about a few GMs who assume, never mind what the rules say, that PCs can no longer gather information with an investigative ability after spending its pool to 0. Removing the numbers next to the investigative abilities on the character sheet should eliminate stop folks from reaching this mistaken conclusion.

Adding Pushes to an existing GUMSHOE game, or your own adaptation of the core rules to another setting, involves a few simple steps:

  • Drop the current text regarding investigative points. This includes references to the costs of specific spends in ability descriptions, scenarios, and so forth. You may decide that less than spectacular 1-point benefits can be had for the asking, and do not cost a Push.
  • Add the above text, changing examples as needed.
  • Adjust the number of investigative build points. It now becomes the number of investigative abilities in the game, divided by the number of players in your group. You may want to tack on an extra 2-4 points for a large group with unpredictable attendance, or for groups who prefer to have the workhouse abilities like Bullshit Detector and Reassurance duplicated within the group.

Alternatively, you could drop investigative build points altogether, either:

  1. dividing the abilities into 6-8 kits inspired by the setting’s basic character archetypes
  2. distribute abilities between members of the group by going around the room at the first session, allowing each player to pick one ability at a time until all of them have been allocated to at least one PC

Choice 1 reinforces the genre of your game, and works even if all of your players fail to make it for the first session.

Choice 2 allows more freedom of character concept and may thus appeal more strongly to experienced GUMSHOE hands. But you’ve got to get everyone in the same room (or online channel) to make it happen.

In the first case, abilities from unchosen kits are distributed during play, so that the first player who needs a given ability gets it. The player supplies a snippet of background detail explaining how they picked this up. Characters aren’t suddenly flash-learning the discipline, but rather mentioning for the first thing something they’ve been able to do all along. Make sure that these abilities wind up being distributed roughly equally between players.

Sample kits for The Esoterrorists might look like this:

Professor

Archaeology

Architecture

Art History

Astronomy

History

Linguistics

Federal Law Enforcement Agent

Bureaucracy

Forensic Accounting

Forensic Psychology

Interrogation

Law

Research

Homicide Cop

Bullshit Detector

Cop Talk

Evidence Collection

Interrogation

Intimidation

Local Knowledge

Medical Examiner

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic Entomology

Natural History

Pathology

Photography

Reassurance

Debunker / Stage Magician

Anthropology

Chemistry

Cryptography

Explosive Devices

Flattery

Occult Studies

Techie

Ballistics

Data Retrieval

Document Analysis

Electronic Surveillance

Fingerprinting

Textual Analysis

Con Artist

Flirting

Impersonate

Languages

Negotiation

Streetwise

Trivia

(Were I designing The Esoterrorists from the ground up to support kits, I might collapse some abilities into one another, and throw in some additional Interpersonal abilities so every kit can have at least one. But that covers the existing abilities.)

The upcoming new iteration of the GUMSHOE SRD, promised as part of the Yellow King Kickstarter, will include Pushes, along with all other elements designers will need to release their own QuickShock games.


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

GUMSHOE

GUMSHOE is a system for designing and playing investigative roleplaying games and adventures, emulating stories where investigators uncover a series of clues, and interpret them to solve a mystery.

In a GUMSHOE game, the player characters discover something which triggers their investigation, and then the Game Moderator (GM) narrates them through a number of scenes, during which they use their Investigative Abilities to gather the core clues they need to move the narrative forward. They must then put the clues together to uncover the secrets behind the mystery.

GUMSHOE One-2-One

This is a new iteration of GUMSHOE, designed for one player, and one GM. You can find out more about it here.

GUMSHOE links and resources

GUMSHOE Games

Any RPG which uses the GUMSHOE system redefines it for that setting, and so there is no “GUMSHOE book”. Each of the RPGs below contains the full GUMSHOE rules for creating characters and playing in that world, as well as guidance on designing your own investigations for that particular setting.

Follow the links below to find out about our GUMSHOE games:

Some players find damage dealing  in baseline GUMSHOE emotionally unsatisfying. This becomes an issue especially when they’ve spent a lot of points, or gotten a high die roll, only to roll low on the damage die, plinking the opponent for a miserable 1 or 2 points of Health.

Rolling high to hit and then minimum damage is the longstanding plight of RPG characters. But spending lots of a resource to do next to nothing heightens the sting. And in GUMSHOE an opponent with an Armor value knocks that off your damage, worsening the plink effect. If your group feels that pain, give them the following option.

After rolling for damage, a player may choose to substitute the margin from the successful attack for the damage die result. The margin is the difference between the test result (spend plus roll) and its Hit Threshold.

Professor Wingate swings her katana at the ghoul. Her player, Maia, spends 4 points of Wingate’s Weapons ability and rolls a 5. The final result, 9, beats the ghoul’s Hit Threshold of 3. Maia then rolls for damage but gets 1. Combined with the katana’s damage of 1, this would result in a miserable 2 points of damage. The ghoul’s rubbery flesh Armor of 1 would decrease that even further, to 1. Maia calculates the margin: the result of 9 minus the Hit Threshold of 3 equals 6. She swaps the margin of 6 for the die roll of 1. The katana damage bonus and the ghoul’s Armor cancel out, and its Health drops by 6 points, from 8 to 2. It meeps in furious dismay.

Possible drawbacks of implementing this variant rule:

  • This introduces another decision point for the player on each successful hit, probably slowing combat slightly. It won’t happen every time though–just when great hit results are followed up by lousy damage rolls.
  • It gives the players power to mow through opposition quicker by upping their attack spends. If you find that this weakens creature stats too severely, increase enemy Health ratings by 20% across the board.

For obvious reasons, this rule applies only to iterations of GUMSHOE that include damage rolls. It does not affect GUMSHOE One-2-One or the new quickshock combat system found in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

You used to be a spy. You were part of the clandestine world, backed up by the full strength of the shadow state. Then you asked the wrong questions, discovered things you shouldn’t know about who really rules the world. You found the truth. You found the vampires – and got burned. You’re all alone against them. One player. One Gamemaster. The odds are against you. You’ll have to use every edge you can muster, every contact you can blackmail, every weapon you can find just to survive. But maybe, just maybe, you can fight back against the monsters. Create your own Agent, or take on the role of Leyla Khan – an ex-MI6 officer who must confront her own half-remembered past as a thrall of the vampires! Use the GUMSHOE One-2-One rules, designed for the thrilling intensity of head-to-head play. Navigate complex mysteries with investigative abilities! Overcome challenges with luck and mastery edges! And if you fail, pick up Injury, Heat and Shadow problems that’ll cause trouble later on. Play through three complete adventures for Leyla Khan, or use them as templates to create your own mysteries: Never Say Dead: Leyla wakes up in a hospital with only fragmentary […]

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GUMSHOE Rules Summary

GUMSHOE is a system for designing investigative roleplaying games and adventures, emulating stories where investigators uncover a series of clues, and interpret them to solve a mystery. In GUMSHOE, the players always get the clues they need to move the narrative forward.

Character Creation

In a GUMSHOE game, you create player characters (PCs) by choosing your character concept – the sort of mystery-solving character you want to play – and then spending build points to buy ratings in Investigative Abilities and General Abilities.

Investigative Abilities allow you to find the core clues your character needs to move forward in a mystery-solving narrative, and give occasional additional benefits.
General Abilities help you survive while you’re gathering information and solving problems.

Mystery Structure

Every GUMSHOE scenario begins with a crime, conspiracy, or other act of disorder committed by a group of antagonists. The PCs must figure out who did it and why, and put a stop to their activities. Game Masters (GMs) design a GUMSHOE adventure by creating the following:

  • An investigation trigger. This is the event that attracts the attention of investigators.
  • A sinister conspiracy. This sets out who the antagonists are, what they’ve done so far, what they’re trying to do, and how the investigation trigger fits into the overall scheme.
  • A trail of clues. Working backwards from the sinister conspiracy and their plans, the GM designs a trail of clues leading from the investigation trigger to an understanding of the sinister plot and its players, sufficient for the players to get to work destroying it.

Game Mechanics

In a GUMSHOE game, the PCs progress from scene to scene, interviewing people and using their Investigative Abilities to find core clues, which advance the story and help the players solve the mystery. If a scene contains a core clue and a player character uses an Investigative Ability relating to that clue, the character will find it.

Investigative Ability ratings also function as pools, from which players can spend 1 to 3 points to get additional clues, providing more information or other benefits about the situation. Investigative Ability pool points are refreshed between scenarios.

General Abilities are used when the outcome of an ability use is in doubt, like at dramatically important points in the story, or for tasks of exceptional difficulty. For these tests, GUMSHOE uses a six-sided die, which is rolled against a Difficulty – usually 4, although it can be modified from 2 to 8 depending on how hard the GM thinks the task is. If the die roll is equal to or higher than the Difficulty, the PC has succeeded in her action.

A player can spend as much of their General Ability pool on a die roll as they want – each point spent adds 1 to the roll. General Abilities pools are refreshed between scenarios, and sometimes during play.

GenCon’s come and gone, and we picked up a pleasing number of new GUMSHOE customers. Some of them came to the booth with something in mind (“do you guys do that Dracula game?” or “hey, is that the two-player Cthulhu game?” or even “hey, is this the Green Ronin booth?”), but others wanted to try GUMSHOE, but didn’t know which was the right game for them. Here, then, is a breakdown of all the GUMSHOE games currently available.

(Some caveats. I’m only covering core available GUMSHOE games in this article; forthcoming releases like The Yellow King, Swords of the Serpentine or Tales of the Quaesitors may get added later, along with edge cases like Lorefinder or GUMSHOE One2One games. In cases where there are multiple editions, I’m only covering the most recent iteration.)

 

The number of investigative and general abilities is a good shorthand for how complex the game tends to be. A lot of investigative abilities indicates a granular, technical approach to gathering clues and solving mysteries; a smaller number of abilities suggests a looser style of play. As a rough guide:

Simpler GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Timewatch

Average GUMSHOE: Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Fall of Delta Green

Detailed GUMSHOE: Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents

(Bearing in mind that even a complex GUMSHOE game is still rules-light by most standards. Oh, and Fall of Delta Green’s rules are a hybrid of Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, so it’s on the crunchy side of average.)

 

To break things down by genre, the correlation between horror and investigative games is evident:

Horror Games: Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Fall of Delta Green

Sci-Fi: Ashen Stars, Timewatch

Superhero Cops: Mutant City Blues

 

Another way to subdivide GUMSHOE games is to look at what an investigative spend gets you; some GUMSHOE iterations are more generous to the players, letting them add story elements, create non-player characters, and empowering them to come up with unexpected solutions to problems. Other GUMSHOE games seek to preserve the challenge of investigation, and so only give added information or limited fringe benefits when a player makes a spend. To put them on a spectrum…

Constrained Spends: Esoterrorists, Fear itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues

Empowered Spends: Night’s Black Agents, Ashen Stars, Timewatch, Fall of Delta Green

 

Some GUMSHOE settings emphasise individual mysteries, resolved in a single game night or two. Others are all about the long game. If you often have players dropping in and out of your game nights, or if you’re committed to an in-depth campaign like The Dracula Dossier, pick your GUMSHOE flavour to suit. (Of course, any GUMSHOE game works for either a one-shot or a long campaign. You can play a Night’s Black Agents one-shot, or a long Esoterrorists campaign like Worldbreaker.)

Mystery-of-the-Week: Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Timewatch, Mutant City Blues

Either Works: Trail of Cthulhu, Fear itself, Fall of Delta Green

Long Campaigns Preferred: Night’s Black Agents

 

Esoterrorists

You are elite investigators combating the plots of the Esoterrorists, a loose affiliation of occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world.

Who are the player characters? You play members of the Ordo Veritatis, a secret organisation with the tacit background of the authorities that counters the machinations of the occult terrorists and their inhuman masters beyond the walls of reality.

What do they do in play? Investigate mysteries and thwart the Esoterrorists, then cover up the aftermath. The Esoterrorists use human suffering, surreal horror, engineered paranoia, and summoned monsters to attack humanity’s collective hold on order and sanity. There’s an emphasis on forensics, psychology, monsters born of urban horror and social decay, and chaos. You can rip Esoterror plots right from the headlines, especially these days – Esoterrorists got killer clowns, fake news, bizarre conspiracies and a sense that the world’s spinning out of control.

Quick Pitch: The X-Files if the aliens are the darkest parts of the human psyche

Mechanics: 40 Investigative, (16 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 13 Technical), 13 General. The optional Esoterrorist Factbook supplement adds expanded combat rules.

It’s set in the same horrific cosmology as Fear Itself; both games are threatened by the Outer Dark, a dimension of horrors who seek to break through into our reality.

Play Esoterrorists if:

  • You want modern day horror, but want to avoid the familiar tropes of the Cthulhu Mythos or vampires
  • You want an episodic, mystery-of-the-week game that’s focussed on the investigations, not the investigators
  • You want the cleanest, purest GUMSHOE experience

Find out more about the Esoterrorists

Fear Itself

Fear itself plunges ordinary people into a disturbing contemporary world of madness and violence —and inexorably draws them into confrontation with creatures of the Outer Dark, a realm of alien menace. GMs can re-create all the shudders and shocks of the horror genre at their table, whether they use the game’s distinctive mythology or one of their own choosing.

Who are the player characters? Ordinary people; in a one-shot, you might play horror-movie stereotypes and cliches. In a longer game, the characters can be more rounded and connected to the setting.

What do they do in play? Try to survive when they run into horrible monsters. Investigate to find a way to kill or escape the monsters, or to find out why they’re being targeted by these horrors. The 2nd edition’s designed to use different rules and assumptions for one-shots, short campaigns and long campaigns, reflecting the different approaches needed for keeping a group of ordinary people involved in ongoing mysteries.

Quick Pitch: The biggest mystery isn’t “what’s going on”, it’s “how do we get out of here alive!?”

Mechanics: 26 Investigative, (8 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 7 Technical), 15 General

Play Fear Itself if:

  • You want to play ordinary people, or to emulate slasher horror movies
  • You think running away and hiding is as much fun as shooting and fighting
  • You specifically want a one-shot or short campaign
  • You want to tinker under the hood and customise the rules to the players

Find out more about Fear Itself

 

Trail of Cthulhu

You have to keep the doors to the Outside from swinging open – no matter what the cost in life or sanity. You have to piece together clues from books bound in human skin, from eviscerated corpses covered in ichor, and from inscriptions carved on walls built before humanity evolved. You have to go wherever the answers are, and do what needs to be done to protect humanity. But do you dare to follow … the trail of Cthulhu?

Who are the player characters? Lovecraftian investigators, delving into the mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos.

What do they do in play? The investigators uncover cosmic horrors and try not to go insane. Trail of Cthulhu’s become known for its innovative campaigns, like Eternal Lies, Bookhounds of London, Dreamhounds of Paris, Cthulhu Apocalypse and The Armitage Files. 

Quick Pitch: Ken Hite’s Call of Cthulhu using GUMSHOE

Mechanics: 38 Investiga(17 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 10 Technical), 24 General

Play Trail of Cthulhu if:

  • You want the Lovecraftian investigator experience filtered through GUMSHOE
  • You want to play in the dark decade of the 1930s
  • You want lots of support material and prewritten adventures

Find out more about Trail of Cthulhu

 

Mutant City Blues

Ever since the Sudden Mutation Event, people have been able to fly. Phase through walls. Read minds. Shoot bolts of energy from their fingertips. Walk into dreams. As members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit, you and your fellow detectives solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. When a mutant power is used to kill, you catch the case. When it’s a mutant victim in the chalk outline, you get the call. And when it comes time for a fight, you deploy your own extraordinary abilities to even the odds.

Who are the player characters? Police officers assigned to the city’s mutant desk. You can either play super-powered cops, or baseline officers who make up for their lack of mutant powers with their investigative abilities and elite training.

What do they do in play? Solve crimes that involve mutant powers. A key element of investigations is the Quade diagram, a forensic tool that lets the investigators predict what powers a suspect might possess, and the personality quirks associated with those powers. Many adventures involve defusing or deflecting tensions between mutants and non-mutants.

Quick Pitch: Procedural cop show with superpowers!

Mechanics: 40 Investigative, (14 Academic, 12 Interpersonal, 14 Technical), 13 General. In addition, player characters may have mutant powers; there are 15 Investigative powers and nearly 100 General powers, but no player character will have more than a handful of these.

Play Mutant City Blues if:

  • You want to play police officers in the modern day
  • You want to build and explore your own urban setting
  • You want super-powers!

Find out more about Mutant City Blues

 

Ashen Stars

Out here in the Bleed, you’re the closest thing there is to a higher authority. You’re Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators —”lasers” for short. You’re the seasoned freelancers that local leaders call whenever a situation is too tough, too baffling, or simply too weird for them to handle. It’s a dirty job, but it pays. And sometimes, you get to make a difference.

Who are the player characters? You play Lasers – freelance space cops – hired to keep the peace after the interstellar government was forced to retreat in the wake of a catastrophic war.

What do they do in play? Each mission begins with a contract to solve some problem or investigate some crime. Your crew of Lasers has to use their investigative abilities and high-tech gadgets to navigate the dangers and save the day.

Quick Pitch: Imagine an earnest, slightly goofy, post-Star Trek 1970s space cops show – this is the gritty nuBattlestar Galactica reboot of it set in the same universe.

Mechanics: 46 Investigative, (18 Academic, 13 Interpersonal, 15 Technical), 21 General (plus some species-specific abilities). In addition, Ashen Stars has a wealth of special equipment (cyberware, biotech, gadgets), as well as rules for spaceships and naval combat.

Play Ashen Stars if:

  • You want to play in a planet-of-the-week investigative space opera campaign set in a universe that’s both new and reminiscent of classic sci-fi tropes
  • You want spaceships, alien bugs, psychic powers and mysterious ancient civilisation

Find out more about Ashen Stars

 

Night’s Black Agents

You were a shadowy soldier in those fights, trained to move through the secret world: deniable and deadly.

Then you got out, or you got shut out, or you got burned out. You didn’t come in from the cold. Instead, you found your own entrances into Europe’s clandestine networks of power and crime. You did a few ops, and you asked even fewer questions. Who gave you that job in Prague? Who paid for your silence in that Swiss account? You told yourself it didn’t matter.

It turned out to matter a lot. Because it turned out you were working for vampires.

Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.

Or worse.

Who are the player characters? Burned spies, former criminals, and other high-skilled denizens of the clandestine world

What do they do in play? Investigate criminal conspiracies run by vampires and their minions; hunt down monsters and beat up bad guys until clues fall out.

Quick Pitch: Jason Bourne vs Dracula

Mechanics: 39 Investigative abilities, (14 Academic, 12 Interpersonal, 13 Technical), 21 General abilities. In addition, Night’s Black Agents has expanded combat and action rules for car chases and other spy thriller elements, and rules for building vampires, mapping conspiracies, tracking the bad guys’ responses to the players’ actions, and more!

Play Night’s Black Agents if:

  • You want a game built around taking down a whole network of bad guys – you fight your way up the Conspyramid, from low-level street goons to the vampire overlords who run the world from behind the scenes
  • You want to play bad-ass burned spies with the skills to match
  • You want to play in the modern day and fight more traditional monsters than the weird urban horrors of the Outer Dark

Find out more about Night’s Black Agents

 

Timewatch

Your band of TimeWatch agents defend the timestream from radioactive cockroaches, psychic velociraptors, and human meddlers. Go back in time to help yourself in a fight, thwart your foes by targeting their ancestors, or gain a vital clue by checking a scroll out from the Library of Alexandria. But watch out for paradoxes that may erase you from existence… or worse.

Who are the player characters? Timewatch agents – individuals plucked from across all of history (and a few alternate timelines) by the mysterious Timewatch organisation. You defend history from meddling and paradoxes.

What do they do in play? Cope with thoroughly weird foes and situations, and overcome challenges with lateral thinking and time travel.

Quick Pitch: History is written by the people with the time machines!

Mechanics: 26 Investigative Abilities, (9 Academic, 9 Interpersonal, 8 Technical), 13 General Abilities.

Play Timewatch if:

  • You want a fast-moving, improv-friendly game that’s a playground for player creativity
  • You want a weird, mismatched, entertaining group of player characters drawn from across time and space
  • You can’t decide which historical period you want to play in, so you’ve gone for ‘all of them’.

Find out more about Timewatch

 

Fall of Delta Green

As part of the Top Secret DELTA GREEN program within the United States national security apparatus, your Agents fight the horrors of the Mythos. Set in the 1960s, this game traces the history of DELTA GREEN’s original incarnation – before its disastrous fall from grace in the jungles of Vietnam. 

Who are the player characters? DELTA GREEN recruits its Agents primary from the military, law enforcement and intelligence communities. Most characters are former or serving military, and must balance their official duties, their secret work for DELTA GREEN, and their own personal lives to stay sane.

What do they do in play? Investigate and destroy unimaginable alien threats  – by any means necessary, and at any cost.

Quick Pitch: Apocalypse Now meets the Mythos or True Detective in 1968.

Mechanics: 39 Investigative Abilities, (13 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 14 Technical), 19 General Abilities.

Play Fall of Delta Green if:

  • You want games that draw on the wealth of historical resources and weirdness associated with the turbulent ’60s.
  • You want a Cthulhu Mythos game where the player characters are part of an organisation
  • You want to watch your characters to spiral down into despair, madness or self-destruction.

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Since the first outbreak in 1905, the city of Great Arkham has struggled to contain the spread of an unusually virulent and dangerous form of typhoid. All vehicles leaving the city must be inspected by the transport police. These officers wear heavy gas masks and protective clothing to minimise their exposure to the toxic disinfectant sprays they use; they have the authority to detain anyone they deem to show symptoms of infection. Take a train to Boston, and you’ll see those masked figures swarming outside the carriage, spraying the underside and searching for vagrants who try to hop the train. Drive out of the city, and you’ll find every road blocked by transport police inspection points.

More and more, the transport police can be seen in the city proper, too. They appear suddenly, as if materialising, cordoning off buildings or neighbourhoods and marking them as infected by painting a yellow warning sign on a wall. They’re also used to put down riots and disturbances, spraying crowds with caustic chemicals to disperse gangs of troublemakers.

Obviously, all this is a transparent tissue of lies. Whatever the mysterious disease is (assuming it exists), it bears no resemblance to actual salmonella enterica infection, the ‘symptoms’ are justification for the police to arrest anyone they wish (like your investigators), and they use the excuse of ‘quarantine’ to section off parts of the city that the authorities wish to temporarily remove.

So, how best to use these sinister enforcers in your Cthulhu City games?

No Escape

The transport police aren’t the only way to stop the investigators leaving the city, but they’re the most blatant and mundane expression of the city’s desire to keep its prisoners trapped. The transport police can shut down railways (“sorry, madam, tonight’s express to Boston is cancelled. Come back tomorrow… or maybe the day after…”), block roads, arrest hitchhikers, and hunt runaways across the countryside with masked dog-things and flashlights if the investigators try fleeing through Billington’s Woods or the marshes south of the city.

Investigators trying to escape the city’s clutches need to find ways to evade the police. They must identify the neighbours and so-called friends who are informing on them to the authorities; they must find ways to move across the city without being spotted by transport police surveillance; they need to cultivate contacts and spies of their own who can warn them about police activity.

It’s possible to get past the transport police. They’re not infallible; they’re just the first set of jailers. Beyond them are other, stranger prison walls.

No Evidence

The transport police swoop in to erase evidence of the Mythos. If a mindless god-thing lazily reaches out a tentacle and scoops up a tenement block in the middle of the night, then the transport police will be there by dawn, telling people to stay away from the ‘typhoid outbreak’ and ordering journalists to report on the tragic gas main explosion. Investigators trying to plumb the mysteries of Cthulhu City and discover what’s really going on need to act quickly to find clues before the transport police disinfect them away.

Similarly, if they wait too long, the transport police intimidate (or disappear) vital witnesses. (The transport police rarely speak, but they loom very effectively in the background while a regular Arkham Police officer or other emissary of the authorities explains why it’s a bad idea to talk openly about what happened…)

No Place To Hide

Several powerful Mythos cults vie for control of the city; they have their agents and minions conspiring in the corridors of power, and have carved up Great Arkham between them. Other cults and factions are on the outside, and get suppressed and attacked by the transport police. The Armitage Inquiry was shut down when the transport police raided Miskatonic. Similarly, the Yithian-worshipping Pnakothic cult is treated as a criminal group. Transport police raid the homes and businesses of Yithian agents; they erase any Yithian technology or relics they find.

The transport police, therefore, are a very visible barometer of which cults are in the ascendance and which are losing influence in Great Arkham. When the Gilman House political machine collapsed, the transport police suddenly showed up in Innsmouth in huge numbers, impounding ships and quarantining buildings near the river. So, if the investigators see the transport police sweeping the wooded isle and the old Witch House, they might guess that the Witch Coven has fallen from grace. On the other hand, if the police raid Miskatonic’s medical department and St. Mary’s hospital, then they might discover that the city’s cracking down on the Halsey Fraternity.

Of course, if the investigators become powerful and influential enough to warrant it, they’ll be targeted by the city’s secret police too.

No Truth

What if there really is an epidemic? What if the transport police really are trying to contain a threat – not typhoid, but something far more bizarre and alien? If the investigators bring down the transport police (say, by blowing up the Chemical Works at Salamander Fields, or police headquarters in Fort Hutchison), what new horror might they set free? A mi-go fungal infestation that consumes the whole city in alien growths? Primal tissue of Ubbo-Sathla, swelling up from the sewers? The Black Blood of Yibb-Tstll?

Or maybe the disinfectant spray is actually a hallucinogen that creates visions of the ‘real’ world? Perhaps Boston and Salem and all the world outside Great Arkham is born of visions breathed into the nostrils of would-be travellers, who only dreamt they left the city…

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Cthulhu Confidential and other upcoming One-2-One games recommend using physical cards (or the digital equivalent) in play. Giving a player something to hold onto has several benefits.

  • It’s a reminder. In a multiplayer game, key plot elements get discussed endlessly at the game as players speculate about what’s going on, how they rid themselves of troubles, and how they can take advantage of items or favour acquired. In a solo game, especially a plot-heavily Confidential scenario, it’s good to give the player plenty of reminders of important discoveries and ongoing problems.
  • It’s a call to action. Having “Bleeding Internally” or “Mickey Don’t Like You” weighing down your hand motivates you to look for ways to counter those pesky problems. Similarly, if you’ve got “Charlie Chaplin Owes You” or a “Spare Bomb”, then you’ll itch for ways to play them to your advantage.
  • It’s satisfying. There’s something undeniable fun about handling physical cards, as opposed to scribbling notes on a character sheet. And as there’s only one player, it’s viable to have lots of highly specific cards.

Every published One-2-One scenario includes plenty of Problem and Edge cards, covering every likely eventually – but what about unlikely ones, when the player goes “off-piste”? How to improvise cards on the fly?

Have a bunch of blank cards (index cards are fine) to hand. When you need to write a card on the fly, quickly think about ways to connect it to future events in the scenario. A problem like “Fear of the Dark” is only interesting if there’s a scene later on where the player has to go into a dark place. An Edge like “Colt .45” is only relevant if there’s a good chance of a shootout.

The best Problems are the ones that push the player in interesting directions in the story, or anticipate future dangers. A “Bleeding Neck Wound” that gives the player a penalty is fun, but “Vampire Bite” that doesn’t give a penalty, but hints at a psychic threat can be much more interesting. At the same time, you want a few cards with clear mechanical benefits or penalties for variety, to avoid overloading the player with possibilities.

Edges without a defined benefit leave things open to player input. “Colt .45” obviously benefits Fighting, but “Got The Drop On Them” could be construed as a bonus to anything from Stealth to Shadowing to Fighting, or a Push to Streetwise or Intimidation, to a story benefit where the player gets to arrive at just the right moment to put the bad guys at a disadvantage. Working out what a card actually does when it’s played keeps options open – just stay away from Edges that give the player too much leverage over key figures in the adventure. “Charlie Chaplin owes you” is great; “The Cult Leader owes you” risks derailing your plot again. (And if you’re running a game where Chaplin’s the cult leader, I want to play).  

As a quick list of options:

 Edges

  • A bonus (say, +1 or +2) to a single Challenge
  • A bonus to multiple Challenges, either when a particular condition is met (+2 when sneaking around Budapest) or for a limited time (+2 to your next two Fighting challenges)
  • A bonus to an entire category of General Abilities (Physical, Mental, Manual)
  • A free die on a Challenge (and remember, if the player has any dice left over, he gets a free Push)
  • A free Push in a particular situation (“You know this city like the back of your hand. Discard this Edge for a free Push of Architecture, Cop Talk, or Streetwise while in Prague.”)
  • A free Push when dealing with a particular character or faction
  • A free Push for a particular type of Investigative Ability, usually Interpersonal
  • The ability to Counter a type of Problem
  • A general description of some advantage, giving the player scope for creativity (“The priest blessed you.)

Problems

Injuries: Injuries are a special category of Problem, so include the Injury keyword on any Injury cards. Some abilities (like Medic) give the ability to counter Injuries quickly.

Most injuries give a -1 or -2 penalty to Physical tests; injuries that specifically impede hand-eye Co-ordination might penalise Manual tasks instead.

In GUMSHOE One-2-one, the player doesn’t have ‘hit points’ or a Health score. The penalties from injury cards may stack, but a player may hold any number of injury cards and keep going. Injury only threatens death if the injury card specifically says this (see Dooms, below.).

Light injuries might only last for a scene, or for a few scenes (usually, three scenes, or three Challenges of a particular type), or be automatically Countered when the player Takes Time. More serious injuries might explicitly require the player to Take Time to Counter them, require medical treatment, or both.

Penalties: Penalties make it harder for the player to succeed in tests. Penalties are usually -1 or -2; go to -3 or -4 if you really want to emphasise the adversity and give the player little hope of success without Countering the problem. Penalties apply to one (or more!) of the categories of General Ability:

    • Physical: Most injuries penalise physical abilities; it’s hard to run, climb or fight when you’re been hurt. Drugs or restraints (manacles) also impair physical ability tests.
    • Manual: Injuries to the hands or eyes are the usual cause of manual ability penalties.
    • Mental: Shock, mental trauma, emotional distress or exhaustion can hit mental abilities

Levies: Levies require the player to spend an extra Push in a particular situation. Usually, this refers to Interpersonal pushes and applies to a particular individual or group – if Dr. Tollen doesn’t trust you, you might have to spend an extra Push when trying to persuade her with Reassurance to let you see her notes on blood diseases. Levies can apply to any investigative ability, though – for example, if Cryptography is needed to decode an ancient book, then if the book gets damaged, it could impose a Cryptography levy to get the information.

Blocks: Blocking Problems prevent the player from taking a particular action until the Problem’s resolved. They can be nuisances that prevent the player from tackling bigger issues, like an Injury card (“Blood in your eyes”) that gives no penalty to tests, but has to be Countered before any other injuries can be removed. They can be more serious complications that restrict the player’s actions – for example, if the player’s been disarmed, then she can’t make Shooting tests until she obtains a gun.

Dooms: Doom Problems shape the ending of the story, usually in a negative way. If the player’s still holding the card at the end of the operation, bad things happen. Dooms can result in death (“you’ve been poisoned – if you haven’t found a cure by the end of the adventure, you’re dead”) or other terrible consequences (“The cult has kidnapped Lenny, and will sacrifice him to Cthulhu unless you stop them”). Dooms should always describe how to Counter them.

 

 

 

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