Murder by Checklist

One of the Things I Always Say is that a GUMSHOE investigative 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 abd 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 Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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