Player-Facing Combat in GUMSHOE

by Simon Rogers

In most cases, GUMSHOE puts the dice in the hands of the players. Instead of the GM making a Stealth test for a creature to sneak up on a character, players make a Sense Trouble test to avoid being surprised. When the roles are reversed, it’s the players who make a Stealth test to get the drop on their opponent. We call this approach “player-facing.” The only time GMs make die rolls is in combat and in other, longer contests.  This article suggests how we can tear the dice from the GM’s warm and clammy hands during combat and put them in the warm clammy hands of the players.

How It Works

In standard GUMSHOE, when a GMC opponent makes an attack, the GM makes a test against the PC’s Hit Threshold, adds some points from the creature’s combat pool, then rolls damage if the test is successful.

In this new player-facing combat, the player makes a test to resist the attack and takes consequences if they fail. Conceptually, with this approach, it’s easier if the players think of their Health pool as Defense or Endurance rather than a measure of how much actual damage their character is taking. If this better for your group, simply rename Health as Defense.

Calculate the Difficulty of the Health Test

The base Difficulty for the player’s Health test is 3. This is increased by any points the GM spends from the creature’s Attack pool. We call this number the Attack Difficulty.

Instead of adding points from the Attack pool, another, quicker approach, is that the GM just adds a fixed amount to the Attack Difficulty equal to the creature’s Attack pool divide by three and rounded down.

Attack Pool Modifier
0-2 +0
3-5 +1
6-8 +2
9-11 +3

In most GUMSHOE settings, the GM will state the Attack Difficulty, unless the PC has no combat training, or the PCs are entirely unfamiliar with the creature.

Make the Health Test

The player makes the Health test against the creature’s Attack Difficulty. The player adds their Hit Threshold minus three to the roll plus any Health points they want to spend. Usually Hit Threshold is 3, meaning you add nothing, or 4, so you add +1.

Take the Consequences of Failure

If the player fails the test, they take damage equal to the creature’s Damage Modifier, with a minimum of one, and will take a Condition. The Conditions are Staggered, Hurt, Seriously Wounded, and Dead. Staggered is new to GUMSHOE, the others, you know already.

The first time a PC is hit in a combat (whether they take damage or not), they are Staggered. Being Staggered increases the Difficulty of Health tests by 1, and means the next time you are hit you are Hurt, regardless of your Health pool, the time after that Seriously Wounded, and then, you guessed it, Dead. After combat, any Staggered PCs can lose this status simply by resting for a few minutes. If you are Hurt by an attack, your Heath falls to zero. If you are Seriously Wounded by an attack your Health falls to -6.

If the PC is not yet Hurt and hits zero Health through spends on Health tests and damage, then the standard wound rules apply, but if a PC is already Hurt, they become Seriously Wounded (and their Health falls to -5),  and if Seriously Wounded, Dead.

Regardless of how they end up Hurt or Seriously Wounded, the PC must make the usual Consciousness test to stay on their feet.


You can use armour to avoid taking a Condition, but only once per battle, for each +1 the armour provides. So, for example, light armour (+1) will give you one chance to avoid being Staggered, Hurt, or even Dead on a failed Health test. Heavy Armour (+2) gives you two chances.

An Example of Player-Facing Combat

Bertha Wiseman is facing off against a thug armed with a knife. She is wielding an épée. Her Health is 10, and her Hit Threshold is 4 (she has 8 in Athletics). Her Attack pool is 5.

The thug has 7 Health, a Hit Threshold of 3, and an Attack pool of 8. Using the quick approach, the thug’s Attack bonus is +2 (his Attack pool divided by 3, rounded down). A knife has a-1 Damage Modifier. The minimum damage is 1, so that -1 becomes 1.

  • Bertha goes first as she has the highest Attack rating, spends two points from her Attack pool to ensure her blade strikes and rolls 3 points of damage.
  • Now it’s the thug’s turn. The GM announces the Difficulty of Bertha’s Health test. It’s 3 plus the thug’s Attack bonus of 2, so 5.
  • Bertha makes a Difficulty 5 Health test against the thug’s attack, choosing to spend zero points of Health. She has a Hit Threshold of 4, so she adds one to her roll and luckily rolls a 4, so she takes no damage.
  • She makes her attack, again spending 2 points, and rolling 4 damage. The thug’s Health is now 3.
  • The thug attacks. Once again Bertha makes her test against her foe, spending 4 points of Health to ensure she isn’t hit. Her Health is now 6.
  • She attacks again, but she has no Attack points to spend, and rolls a 2—a miss.
  • Bertha makes her Health test against the attacking thug, spending no points, and fails to make the test. She takes 1 point of damage and her Health is 5. She is now Staggered. If she gets hit again, she will be Hurt.
  • Bertha lashes out at the thug with her poker. She needs to roll a 4 or higher rather than a 3, because she is Staggered. She rolls a 4, and does 2 points of damage to the thug. He is at 1 Health.
  • Bertha spends 4 points of Health to avoid being hit, leaving her with just 2 points left, but ensuring that she doesn’t get Hurt.

Now it’s Bertha’s turn…

We will leave the Staggered Bertha facing the thug, and wish her the best.

An alternative approach which was an inspiration for this article can be found in Diceless GMing in GUMSHOE by MP Duxbury.

For a more abstracted, quicker, and entirely placing-facing alternative to this suggestion, take a look at The Yellow King RPG.




14 Responses to “Player-Facing Combat in GUMSHOE”

  1. ruemere says:

    Question #1: Under this system, how NPC’s exhaustion of their pools is handled? Let’s supposed that Bertha’s using her fencing skills to withdraw and parry, minimizing effort on her side and seeking our to tire out her attackers. How is the GM to decide when an NPC is tired enough to lose their fixed bonus to attacks?

    Question #2: Is the player aware of the fixed bonus value? In other words, are the players aware of how competent is the opposition? DO they have any idea as to how much should they spend to stay reasonably safe?

    • Simon Rogers says:

      Thanks for the questions!

      Exhaustion is handled by having no more more points in the monster pool, as in mormal GUMSHOE. As you suggest, the short cut method doesn’t do this job, though. An alternative is to use Attack Patterns (pre-determined spends) as introduced in the Esoterror Fact Book.

      As it mentioned, the GM reveals the Attack Difficulty, so in general the players know how much to spend to be safe. The Difficulty could also be increased or decreased in the usual way for cover and darkness.

  2. I love this. Spending from health is so much better than my first idea, which was to add a new skill, dodge. Adding dodge just adds a second pool of points to spend into to avoid death.

    Unless I’m missing something, your table is off by one. You are rounding up in the table, and rounding down in the text and the example.

    It seems on the third bullet point, Bertha is taking 1 point of damage even if she succeeds, why is that?

    I would always use the quick method and forget all about NPCs exhausting their pools. My GUMSHOE fight rarely go 3+ rounds anyway, and who needs the bookkeeping?

  3. committed hero says:

    How would a PC get hit and not take damage (assuming that failing the Health roll means they’re hit & minimum damage is 1)?

    Consciousness rolls should have difficulties based on the Attack or Damage modifier, and not the absolute value of a PC’s Health – otherwise the higher your Health when you take a Hurt condition, the greater the likelihood of failure!

    • Simon Rogers says:

      I am not sure I understand your first question. Being hit always results in a minimum of 1 damage.

      You are absolutely right about Consciousness tests. I’ve updated the text so that the Health value matches in the condition.

  4. Tony Williams says:

    In the worked example:

    1) Why does Bertha take damage in the first defense test if she passes it ?

    2) In her second attack why does she spend 3 attack points if the Thug’s Hit Threshold is only 3 ?

  5. Tony Williams says:

    You’ve now said no matter how you end up Seriously Wounded your Health points fall to -5 but Seriously Wounded is -6!

  6. Thanks for the mention! Thought this sounded familiar :P

    I really like having Health as a combined dodge/hit point stat – it reflects Gumshoe’s effect-focused approach to character abilities (Gumshoe doesn’t care HOW you get a clue with Flattery, and it doesn’t care HOW you avoid being stabbed to death). And it saves the game from having ANOTHER Athletics roll, which is what it was in my version.

    I also like the way you’ve preserved existing NPC profiles with their ability pools and damage ratings, most ingenious.

    Looking forward to seeing the new version in Yellow King!

  7. James says:

    This idea is really cool, and I intend to use it. I have a question, based on the Fall of Delta Green stuff.

    Some weapons and monsters have a lethality metric, where their damage could straight up kill the target. It’s statted up with damage = L1 (if the damage die comes up with a 1, then it’s fatal damage. Otherwise, it does extra damage).

    How would you reflect this lethality in this metric?

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