See Page XX: Mixing and Matching with GUMSHOE

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 


A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Mixing and Matching With GUMSHOE

In addition to its primary goal of rethinking the way we run investigative scenarios, GUMSHOE is also an ongoing experiment in rules modularity. Along with whatever plain, ordinary rules are needed to evoke a particular setting or sub-genre, each new iteration of the game introduces new tools and techniques which can be mixed and matched to create your own investigative games. Many can also be applied to other roleplaying games and genres.

The Esoterrorists presents a simple, introductory version of the core GUMSHOE rules. It sets forth a simple, accessible setting, along with the very basic components you need to run occult investigation: Stability rules, a stripped-down approach to weapons, and so on.

Fear Itself reproduces horror stories in which ordinary people come face to face with things that go bump in the night. It removes a few of the complexities of The Esoterrorists, which assumes that all of the players are professional investigators. For example, the many technical abilities of the first game are collapsed into a catch-all, as are many of its academic skills. To preserve the ordinariness of the characters, it encourages a maximum of one PC from any sort of law enforcement or military background.

These are rare examples of modular adjustments to GUMSHOE rules that can’t be fed back into an Esoterrorists game. It is not so much a rules addition as a necessary rules subtraction, again to evoke a specific sub-genre. These changes can, however, suit another game concept featuring non-specialist investigators.

Other new facets of Fear Itself can be added to The Esoterrorists, or used in elements in other investigative settings. To start with a small example, Fear Itself introduces a new general ability, Fleeing. This is a necessary component of any undiluted horror game, reflecting that genre’s many characters who are not all-around athletes but nonetheless turn out to be highly capable at screaming and running away. This narrow ability can be imported to The Esoterrorists or other settings.

When you depart from the horror genre, Fleeing remains useful when giving game statistics to supporting characters that the PCs might be trying to either chase or rescue. They may not be able to perform feats of strength or put up a struggle when caught, but they can get away from pursuers, at least for a while.

Fear Itself includes a number of psychic abilities, including Aura Reading, Remote Viewing, and Premonitions, granting PCs access to minor occult powers. These could easily be made available to Esoterrorists characters. Most GMs will want to do as Fear Itself does, and allow only one character per group to have a psychic ability. Add too many psychics into the mix, and you start to drift from the realm of horror into contemporary fantasy.

On the other hand, you could embrace this tendency, creating an all-psychic detachment of the Ordo Veritatis to which the PCs belong. This might be a sort of suicide squad within the organization, sent in to tackle tough, psi-oriented assignments that ordinary agents can’t handle. If so, they’re probably followed by a monitoring team composed entirely of supporting characters, who keep them under surveillance and watch for signs that they’ve lost their already-tentative hold on sanity. As the psychic Ordo members go crazy, their minders swoop in, spiriting them off to permanent incarceration in a Veritatis-approved mental institution. In extreme cases, they may need to efficiently take out freshly-crazed psychic operatives with well-placed sniper bullets.

Be cautious when populating your world with psychics. Superhuman powers which work in unpredictable or undocumented ways throw a wrench into players’ efforts to reconstruct the events they’re investigating. They have to be able to incorporate the existence of such abilities into their theories of the case. Let’s say they find out that a supporting character lets slip a fact she could only know if she was present at the crime scene. If she is capable of Remote Viewing, that’s a second possibility, which the investigators must now be able to take into account. This difficulty is in large part the subject matter of Mutant City Blues, the upcoming GUMSHOE game of police procedural investigation in a world of widespread super-powers. There, the operations of the various superhuman powers are well-known and incorporated into forensic science. The investigators must take them into account, but unquestionably know how they work, and what their various limitations are.

Also appearing in Fear Itself are a number of techniques to flesh out characterization. They belong in a pure horror version of the game because, by enabling us to relate more acutely to these ordinary people before they’re plunged into deadly jeopardy, they intensify the terror. They include the directed scenes, in which the players are given personal goals for their characters, as they would be in a scene of improvised theater. Directed scenes prove especially useful to play out flashbacks. These scenes from the past bring the character’s backstory, which usually languishes unrevealed in each player’s personal notes, vividly onstage, for the entire group to see. They also enable the players to sharpen their character-portrayal skills, as they’re called on to act out minor roles in each others’ directed scenes and flashbacks.

Though initially designed for horror, these techniques work in any genre. You could employ them to introduce dramatic elements to the otherwise highly mission-focused Esoterrorists structure. For that matter, as they’re unconnected to GUMSHOE’s other rules structures, you could just as easily insert them in nearly any other RPG, from D&D to Vampire. With the exception of certain rigidly constructed indie-style games, or comedy games that require relatively facile characters, like Dying Earth or Og, they fit almost any gaming experience.

Mutant City Blues offers a different, but related, mechanism. It creates a structure resembling many police procedural TV shows, giving the players partial control of it. Players are encouraged to submit possible Sub-Plots, story threads of personal drama involving their characters when they’re not solving the main cases. This technique could equally well be added to any ongoing Esoterrorists or Fear Itself series, or any other GUMSHOE game of your own devising, so long as it features continuing characters and cares about their personal development. Like directed scenes and flashbacks, this element can be completely uncoupled from GUMSHOE and welded onto most other normative RPG games.

Another feature of Fear Itself requires players to select Risk Factors for their characters, explaining why they head toward trouble when other ordinary people would flee from it. This is a necessary component of any horror game, answering the question: why do they go down into that basement? Given the risk-aversion characteristic of some players, it’s also one requiring some reinforcement in play. Risk Factors include Gung Ho, Skeptical, Horny, and Oblivious. Though the descriptions of the various factors are keyed to horror, they could easily be adapted to any other genre requiring selfless, proactive protagonists.

We’ll continue to search for similarly useful modular elements for future GUMSHOE products. If we’re really lucky, we’ll start to see GUMSHOE gamers designing their own add-ons, and sharing them with the rest of us, via their blogs or on the Pelgrane forums.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Leave a Reply