Read this Before Running GUMSHOE – Running Adventures

[I’d like to thank the GUMSHOE community for their suggestions on this topic.]

This article assumes you are running a pre-written adventure, for any GUMSHOE game – though much of the advice applies to adventures you’ve outlined yourself, or even if you are improvising. It also assumes you’ve read the rules of the game you are running, but it doesn’t require in-depth knowledge.

We’ll start with an aside: earlier GUMSHOE adventures sometimes offer point spends in scenes for information. I recommend that you give any such information out without a point spend, and reserve point spends for the benefits discussed in Part Two.

The Adventures Structure Meets the Gamers

First, read the adventure and get the structure of it – the way scenes link together. These are usually a collection of connected scenes. Like a battle plan, this structure does not always survive contact with the enemy. (Though that’s perhaps not the best way to think of the players!) The adventure is there to hold your hand and guide you – it’s not a straightjacket.

Here are some tips on giving players that sense of freedom and openness.

  • All adventures are linear in retrospect. If the players are having fun, they won’t notice the structure. The only time they’ll notice a structure is if you rigidly stick to it. Only say “You can’t do that,” if it’s based on what the characters are capable of, not what the adventure demands.
  • Expect to improvise scenes, and clues within scenes, just as you would in any game with a pre-planned adventure.
  • You can bring characters back into the adventure structure by improvising clues which draw them back into it – either NPC or physical evidence. You can also move clues from planned scenes to your improvised ones.
  • The list of abilities we suggest in each scene to acquire clues is just a suggestion. If a player suggests an ability or method which might plausibly get the clue, let them use it.
  • The clue is the way in which the information is delivered, and matches the ability. You can change the clue (and hence the ability) to provide the same information. For example, a Research clue can be converted to an Interpersonal one if you speak to the librarian.
  • If no character in a scene has the right ability, they can use their floating pool of points to assign to an ability or remember what an absent character can do.

Running the Game – Investigation

The first and most important thing to note is that actual game play in GUMSHOE is pretty much the same as in, say, Call of Cthulhu or other investigative games. Players describe what their characters are doing, just as they would in any other game, and use abilities in the same way. The difference only comes when they gain information – if they have the ability, have roleplayed their use of it, they get the clue.

In all investigative games, players forget clues, get side-tracked and talk, talk, rather than walk, walk. Here are tips to keep things going:

  • It’s fine, in your GM voice, to periodically restate and summarize known clues. The characters are competent and know what’s going on. Your players are easily distracted and can’t be expected to encompass that knowledge.
  • Let the players plan as long as they are having fun with it –probably for longer than you will! If they get bogged down, remind them that they have the Preparedness and that you won’t punish them for a lack of prep.
  • GMs know the mystery, the players really don’t. Be free with explanations, and give more information in the form a new clues if they get bogged down.
  • If the players won’t leave a scene, let them know that they have gathered all the information available, and that if they search, they’ll find stuff.
  • Read the list of benefits available for point spends for the system you are running – offer spends, but encourage your players to suggest them, too, Ensure every one of their spends is worthwhile.


Running the Game – Antagonist Reactions

Almost every investigation features a fight or a chase. It ramps up the tension and imperils the characters. Here is some advice on running fights.

Almost all of GUMSHOE is player-facing, that is, the players roll the dice. Fights are an exception – both you and the players roll a die and add points to attack their foes. However, you are running your creatures to give the players the best experience, not to use the most effective approach when imperilling the characters.

Standard GUMSHOE gives you antagonists a pool of points which works just like the players’ pools. In general, don’t spend enough points for an auto-success. The only exception might be the first attack from an expert sniper, a super-powerful Mythos foe, or the big bad vampire in Night’s Black Agents. Some versions of GUMSHOE even offer an Attack Pattern, which suggests point spends on each round of combat.

There is a full example of Trail of Cthulhu combat to get you started.

Other Resources:





8 Responses to “Read this Before Running GUMSHOE – Running Adventures”

  1. Lisa Padol says:

    Using an Interpersonal skill instead of a research skill: I did something like that years ago, helping a player create a PC. In Call of Cthulhu terms, the character had Library Use 30% and Find Helpful Librarian 90%. I think in Gumshoe terms, that would be Research 1, Flirting 6.

  2. Martijn Faassen says:

    The handy table to convert attack ratings to bonuses interests me greatly as I am averse to bookkeeping, but I think the link is missing.

  3. Martijn Faassen says:

    I take it the handy table to convert attack ratings to bonuses doesn’t exist, as I see the article now reads differently. I will need to read up on attack patterns.

  4. Geoffrey Nelson says:

    This is really helpful. I’m surprised at the admonition to not spend points on clues, but withholding them because the players had already spent up their points was painful anyway. Is the suggestion to give the clues if the characters have any points, or to give the clues if the characters have the requisite points in their pool? frx, the fusion of Gothic and Art Neuveax architecture is a signature style of an architect known for his use of sacred Geometry (written as a 2 point spend). Does the character get the clue if he has a 2 point pool or just if he has Architecture? (I’m tempted to say the latter; it’s not much fun to withhold clues.)

    • Simon Rogers says:

      The admonition is that if a person with that ability and that rating would reasonable know it, you give them the information, regardless of their pool and reserve the spends for special benefits. In this instance, you might offer a spend to personally know the architect, or have a book of his in your collection.

  5. Geoffrey Nelson says:

    “We’ll start with an aside: earlier GUMSHOE adventures sometimes offer point spends in scenes for information. I recommend that you give any such information out without a point spend, and reserve point spends for the benefits discussed in Part Two.”

    Part two of what? This article? I’ve been eagerly anticipating such a thing because I’m eager to use a new point-spend mechanic that rewards players with abundance rather than punishing them with scarcity. Did I miss the second part of the article, or is it forthcoming? Thank you for answering my previous question, btw. That was helpful.

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