Are you a new GM looking to dip your toes into the horror genre? Are you hoping to nudge someone into running a scary game for you? As part of their Adventure Goddess program, which encourages women to take the GM’s chair, Carolyn Noe of Superheroines Etc organized this virtual panel featuring Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, and Ruth Tillman. Join them as they share their most chillingly useful Game Moderating tips.

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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Harness the power of the seemingly inconsequential with Wade Rockett as he reveals his favorite GUMSHOE ability.


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In our latest Pelgrane Video dispatch, Ruth Tillman (Cthulhu Confidential, Black Star Magic) shows us how much fun her favorite GUMSHOE ability can be.

You won’t guess Rob Heinsoo’s favorite GUMSHOE ability, but you will find it deeply Heinsovian.


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

With most of us stuck at home, either all day or after returning from a day’s work of essential service, we at Pelgrane figured it would be a good time to get plans for video content off the backburner. The contents of my own YouTube subscription list are looking pretty sparse these days, with mainstream producers off-line and scrambling to create their own work-from-home alternatives.

We hope to get some longer-form pieces out to you eventually. As con season rolls around we’ll all be hungering for the panels and events we’d otherwise be enjoying at in-person events.

First though we’re getting our feet wet with a series of Pelgrane Video Dispatches, starting with various members of the team revealing their favorite GUMSHOE abilities.

Once we’re done with that question we’ll tackle others. Feel free to pitch us suggestions to add to our list!

Collect every installment by subscribing to the Pelgrane Channel on YouTube.


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

I’ve been running impromptu games for my two boys since they were four or five (they’re now seven), and I’ve been thinking about a GUMSHOE Kids framework that I’m going to develop as a priority now. In the meantime, though, I’m aware that there are suddenly a lot of people working from home with kids who can’t go to school, so here’s the benefit of my experience.

Use A Focus

Especially for younger kids, it’s good to have something physical they can focus their attention on and remind them that they’re actually playing a game with rules and structure as opposed to “let’s pretend”. When I ran No Thank You Evil, I hardly used the rules, but I more than got my money out of the cloth map. A sketch map, a wargame using toys – any bit of ritual to catch their attention and remind them to concentrate.

A character sheet isn’t as important as a physical representation (“this is my guy”) on the map.

Run Short Games

Young kids have short attention spans. Most games won’t last more than 30-45 minutes at most. Look to tell simple stories, and try to work the kids’ ideas and discoveries into the conclusion as much as possible. If the kid decides that they befriend a random frog you mentioned as set dressing, then – lo! – the bad guy’s secret weakness is frogs! How did you know!

Take Turns

Especially if you’ve got multiple kids playing, you’ll need to enforce turn order very strictly. Once kids get excited, they’ll start shouting and demanding attention. Make sure everyone gets a chance to talk and act – and, where possible, make sure everyone has an equal impact on the story, especially its conclusion.

Oh – one kids get going, they tend to seize control of the narration. (“I punch the bad guy, and his head explodes, and then and then and then”). You’ll need to balance wonderful exuberance with keeping the game from descending into chaos.

You’re In Their World Now

Kids don’t have the same set of cultural touchstones that adult gamers do. Expect to see a lot of elements crossing over from whatever cartoons, computer games or other entertainment they’re into. Creepers and Pigmen from Minecraft mean more than orcs and goblins to them, and all pop culture is one big shared universe – I’ve run a bunch of dungeon crawls where the player characters are youtubers and characters from computer games. Work with whatever they throw at you, even if that means Batman and Buzz Lightyear fighting Sauron.

Give Clear Options

Provide a bit more guidance to new players than you would to experienced gamers. Present them with a clear menu of options – you can go down the corridor, or try the door. You can talk to the goblin, or try to scare him. GUMSHOE really comes into its own here – the investigative abilities work as a clear list of ‘questions I can ask’. Then, ask them to describe how they take that action. You have to give a clear structure for the shared imaginative space, or things will spiral out of control.

Sneaky Teaching

The content of your adventure can have some educational elements, without going overboard – just running a game set in, say, ancient Egypt lets you talk about mummies and pyramids and hieroglyphics or the importance of irrigation. Running a game in space lets you drop in a little science. Mechanics, too, teach basic math – if you spent four points from that general ability, and you rolled a 3, does that beat the Difficulty of 6? Rolling dice is always fun; for younger kids, it may be useful to give them tokens to track ability pools.

Have Fun!

The most important thing of all, of course. Think of it as a chance to spend quality time with the kids, while also ensuring you’ll have a gaming group on tap in the months to come…

One of the Things I Always Say is that a GUMSHOE investigative ability list is basically a list of questions the players can ask the GM – but it’s also a useful list of questions to ask yourself when writing an adventure. Certainly, when I initially conceive of an adventure, I’ll come up with three or four cool scenes or concepts, and I’ll link them together with a few clues.

For example, if I’m writing a Mutant City Blues case about a scheme to harvest mutant organs for transplant in the hopes of transferring mutant powers to criminals, I might go vanished mutant -> seedy fixer -> secret lab in hospital -> criminal mastermind, and then link the scenes with a core clue each. So, Data Retrieval connects the vanished mutant to the seedy fixer, Interrogation gets him to flip on the organ harvesters and point the agents at the hospital, and Forensic Accounting lets them connect the hospital lab to the main criminal. That’s a perfectly workable spine.

Now, with that central chain of clues in place, I need to flesh out the scenes, and one way to do that is to look at the list of investigative abilities and consider what information that can be gleaned by each of them. Some are obvious – what can Streetwise reveal about the seedy fixer? What about Fingerprinting? If the players look around the vanished mutant’s apartment with Art History, what do they find? What about Chemistry?

Obviously, only a fraction of the abilities are going to yield any information at all, and there’s no guarantee any of this information is going to be useful, but it’s still a useful prompt to fill out a scene.

This technique really comes into its own in occult investigation, as it’s deliciously weird to explore the side effects of the supernatural. A Deep One attack in Trail of Cthulhu obviously leaves clues to be discovered with Evidence Collection or Reassurance, but what about Theology? Might the traumatised victim couch their description in biblical terms, and babble about Leviathan and Behemoth? What about Astronomy or Geology? Might the Deep One have dragged up a carved stone that’s millions of years old, or maybe they only rise when Fomalhaut is in the sky…


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

The core concept of GUMSHOE can be simply stated (or shouted from the rooftops) as “it’s always more fun when the players get the clue”. One could argue, though, that it’s sometimes more accurate to say that the players always get the lead.

A lead is a clue that leads in to another scene. Leads are usually (but not always) core clues, and core clues are usually (but not always) leads, so it’s easy to get the two confused. It’s worth disambiguating the two in your thinking.

So – a lead is a clue that points to another scene. It can be something that the players uncover (Evidence Collection: you find a matchbook with the name of a bar written on it), or something the characters know (Bureaucracy: the victim was a student at the local university; it might be worth checking college records, interviewing his associates and lecturers there). Follow the lead, and you get to another scene.

A core clue is something the players must find for the scenario to progress. While most core clues are leads pointing to the next core scene, you can also have core clues that foreshadow weirdness or lay pipe for future plot developments. (Biology: My god, it’s like this student is growing gills! That doesn’t immediately lead anywhere, but it’s important for the players to later discover the mad ichthyologist in the university).

You could even disambiguate further, splitting things-gained-through-investigative-abilities into four buckets:

Core Leads: points to a core scene. The players must find this lead for the scenario to work.

Leads: points to a non-core scene (alternate, hazard, subplot, etc)

Core Clues: a piece of vital information needed for the scenario to make sense. The players must get this clue.

Clues: Any other piece of information.

Note #1:  In general, every scene should have a lead (or multiple leads) that lead-in to it. The exceptions are scenes like antagonist reactions, which are triggered by the GM, or fuzzy “stuff to do in town” catch-all scenes that usually occur when the players are gathering information early in the game.

Note #2: There’s a subtle distinction between a core clue and an important clue. A core clue might tell you that the bad guy is a vampire and that he’s hiding in that castle over there, because that information is vital to your progress through the mystery. A clue that says “oh, this particular sort of vampire can only be slain by a silver bullet” isn’t core, as you don’t need it to make progress. You do need it to survive, but GUMSHOE is agnostic about whether the player characters live or die – as we said, getting the clues is always more interesting, which isn’t the same thing as safe…

A spooky child’s drawing depicts a cryptic staircase that goes “to the bottom of the universe”, a blood-drenched skeleton, and a shadowy monster. What might it signify (other than “these parents are so neglectful they not only produce children who make such drawings, but also exploit them when they’re in need of a quick Page XX article)?

Four scenario seeds for four different games:

Ashen Stars: The child is somehow partially immune to the memory-dampening effect of the Bogey Conundrum, and can recall events during the Mohilar war that no-one else can remember. A careful analysis of the ‘staircase’ shows it’s actually a map of warp corridors, leading to an unknown system. Might that system be the homeworld of the fabled Mohilar, or some other relic of the war? That skeleton looks human – is it a warning, or a sign that humans once visited there? And if the Mohilar are still out there, the Combine needs to know…

The Esoterrorists: One Esoterrorist cell is playing a long game. They’ve spend years implanting monstrous hypnotic suggestions in children, subliminally exposing them to the Outer Dark. These psychic seeds take years to germinate – this particular child is in no immediate danger, but in twenty years time, he might be a gateway for the Outer Dark. The real threat, though, are past pupils of the same teacher, any of whom might be about to tear through the Veil.

Fear Itself: The monster lurks at the bottom of the staircase – any staircase. Any flight of steps can suddenly elongate,dropping down and down and down forever. Think of it like a Hound of Tindalos, only with stairs instead of sharp corners. Can the player characters find a way to banish the monster from the city when they’ve got to avoid going down any stairs ever?

Trail of Cthulhu: The stairs lead to the Dreamlands. The skeleton is a talented human dreamer, who descended too far into the labyrinths beneath the sunlit lands of slumber, and was captured by some eldritch horror. However, he’s able to send his mind back to the waking world in search of aid, and has latched onto the child.

Meditating on the drawing allows the investigators to enter the Dreamlands near his prison. What they don’t know, though, is that the horror knows about the escape attempt and intends to possess the child and use him to erase the drawing, trapping the investigators in dreams forever at the bottom of the stairs…

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

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

Three arguments for the current rules:

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

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

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

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