In Part One, I discussed the basics of running a pre-written GUMSHOE adventure. Based on a recent poll about half of you write your own adventures, or adapt ours, with a few brave souls improvising completely. This article covers the improvisation that’s required when characters go in unexpected directions or ask unexpected questions, whether in a pre-planned adventure or not.

Investigative Recap

I’ll start by reiterating a few core concepts for Investigative abilities:

  • If you have any rating in an Investigative ability at all, you are good at doing that stuff. If you run out of points, you are still good at it. If you walk into a scene, you are doing it through the lens of being a great architect, painter, researcher, or evidence collector. As the GM, you should deliver information to people with that ability anything which is obvious to a person with that ability, and if they ask questions using their ability, endeavour to provide as much information as possible through the lens of that ability.
  • Point spends should be confined to special benefits—information should be free. Benefits might speed up clue acquisition, but shouldn’t stop you from getting the information. For example, if you found a book, zero points and a few hours might extract what you need, or you could spend a point to have a flash of insight.
  • GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether the information is provided by the GM, or requested by the players. You can balance these approaches in reaction to your players’ style or even their energy on the night. But in general, it’s better for the players to interact with the scene in their imagination and suggest abilities they will use. Not only does it make the players more involved, it’s more likely to lead to fun improvised clues.
  • If a player with a suitable ability isn’t in a scene, there are three approaches for dealing with it. Either assume that everyone is kind-of, sort-of along for every scene, have the character remember a fact or technique taught to them by their absent teammates, or tweak the clue so it matches the abilities of the characters who are present.
  • Your attitude to giving out information will strongly affect the way your players act in-game. If they know they are going to extract all reasonable information in a scene, then they will stop the nasty habit of entirely tearing places apart and being too concerned they have missed something. So, my advice is, give out information, and if necessary, let them know there is nothing else to be found.
  • Finally and most importantly, Investigative abilities are not a straightjacket. Always err on the side of giving out information to players who propose plausible methods of obtaining information, and offer new ways of advancing to the next scene if they don’t get anywhere. Improvise around any blockages.

What Are Clues?

The investigative side of GUMSHOE is a way of delivering information that we call clues to the players. By a clue, I mean:

  • Information which takes you to another scene (a matchbook with a fingerprint on it)
  • Something which helps you prepare for a future encounter (you find the blackmail letter)
  • An item or information which provides a direct benefit like refreshing a pool or adding a new ability (a Mythos tome)
  • Background information which adds colour (the painting was created by famous cat artist Louis Wain)
  • Something which highlights themes of the game (a mummified foetus in a horror game)

Investigative abilities determine how the players will interact with the shared imaginary space of the game.  Sometimes these interactions provide pre-planned clues. When the adventure presents clues, it also suggests methods by which the clues can be delivered—one or more Investigative abilities. Any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario. So far, so good.

Improvised Clues

But what if the players examine something you didn’t consider or suggest great ideas in passing you want to incorporate? They really tend to glom on to things in the scene you hadn’t even considered—and that’s a great thing. For example, “Is there any correspondence around?”, “Is there a sale note for that painting?”, or “I look for scuff marks on the floor.” These are improvised clues.

The first thing to consider is what ability could plausibly interact with the clue? Encourage your players to be the ones to suggest what ability they use. Otherwise, check the ability matrix to see which abilities they have and might match (or just ask if they have an ability).

The next thing to consider is what type of improvised clue you want to deliver:

  • It can duplicate a pre-planned lead which takes you to another scene. This is easy, and very good practice as it encourages inventiveness and makes players feel clever. (Instead of the matchbook, it could be a cypher in a diary, an auction record, or some very distinctive mud marks on the floor.)
  • It can take you to another scene you hadn’t planned—an improvised lead (“We must visit cat painter Louis Wain to find out the provenance of this image.”). If you do this, you’ll need to consider how to move from the new scene back into the planned adventure, or whether it will lead to more improvised scenes. You don’t have to worry too much about when to do this—usually in a gap between scenes, and it’s easy to put another interesting breadcrumb in the way. First, for example, they might need to dig out Wain’s home address—throw it at the players how they might do this, and plan the encounter while they discuss it. If you have a scene diagram—add an arrow leading to this new scene.
  • It can provide a direct benefit. This one is easy and rewarding. In this case, it’s best to offer the benefit in conjunction with a point spend—see below. (For example, finding a case with antique guns and re-enabling the firing pin, or improvising gunpowder in a pharmacy.)
  • Background information which provides colour. If the players do you the courtesy of being fascinated by something in a scene, then add colour. (“Yes, the painting is very new, and you spot some ginger cat hairs on the antimacassars.”) These clues can easily turn into an improvised lead if players are really taken with them. If you aren’t feeling particularly inventive, or want to get things on track, make it clear that there isn’t anything special about it.
  • Something which highlights the theme of the game. If they insist on poking around in crevices in a horror game, reward them with something unpleasant. (There is a desiccated cat corpse under the bed, strangled by its own collar.)

Special Benefits

Finally, a note on special benefits. These are what players get if they spend their Investigative points. The mechanical role of Investigative pool points is to manage spotlight time, indicate to the GM how important something is to the player, and as a method for the players and GMs to signal “oncoming coolness” to each other. A player who says, “Can I spend a Bureaucracy point here?” is requesting something cool for his agent to do or discover during the scene. When the GM offers a spend she’s signaling that there’s something awesome available during this scene that she thinks the player (or players) would enjoy. This repartee will eventually become nearly seamless and automatic.

To reiterate core GUMSHOE rules, benefit spends include:

  • Giving you an advantage in a future contest of General abilities
  • Making supporting characters have a favourable impression of you
  • Giving you a flashback scene
  • Speeding up an investigation

In a more improvised game, special benefits can also be a way of players feeding the GM interesting suggestions without them explicitly having a GM role. These are usually in the form of a question: for example, “These old buildings often have priest holes, is there one around?” or “Is there another sketch concealed beneath the cat painting?” If this suits your group and play style—encourage this behaviour in your players. It will lead to more player involvement, and even take a little work for you.

Make sure that every point spend feels worthwhile, and if it’s at all possible, let them know what they are getting, and how many points it will cost before they spend.

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.




[Author Roland Rogers is a 13-year-old 13th Age player whose One Unique Thing is that he Knows All the Monsters. ]

Do you want to annoy your GM?

Do you want to never be hit by any attack?

Do you want to always get the most out of your most useful spells?

Do you want your teammates to always get the most out of their attacks?

Do you want to never miss?

Look no further.

Use these abilities that cause or force rerolls or allow another attack. The page references are in brackets.

Core Book

Lethal – Half-orc racial power (65)

Once per battle, reroll a melee attack and choose the preferred roll


Evasive – Halfling racial power (70)

Once per battle, force an enemy that hits you with an attack to reroll the attack with a -2 penalty


Justice or Vengeance – Cleric domain (95)

When an enemy scores a critical hit on you or one of your allies, you gain an attack reroll blessing to give to a nearby ally. They can use it to reroll an attack this battle.


Trickery or Illusion – Cleric domain (97)

Once per battle as a quick action roll a d20. This is your trick die. You can change an ally or enemy’s natural attack roll to the result of the trick die


Hammer of faith – Cleric spell (98)

Once during the battle when this spell is active, reroll a basic melee attack and keep the result


Prayer for readiness – Cleric spell (101)

5 nearby allies gain a blessing. Later during the battle, any targeted ally can use the blessing to reroll a missed attack


Comeback strike – Fighter talent (105)

Once per battle when you miss a fighter attack, make another attack with a -2 penalty


Hack & Slash – Fighter Maneuver (108)

When you get a natural even roll, and the escalation die is 2+, make a second melee weapon attack against a second target.


Spinning charge – Fighter Maneuver (109)

When you move before you attack and roll a natural even hit, then after dealing damage you can pop free from the target, move to a different enemy and make a basic melee attack against that enemy


Swift dodge – Rogue power (130)

Requires momentum – if you are hit by an attack against AC you can make the attacker reroll the attack


Assassin’s gambit – Rogue power (131)

Make a melee attack dealing half damage, and if you kill the enemy then you can make another attack


13 True Ways

Try again – Commander command (36)

Let an ally reroll an attack, but they must keep the reroll

Timely mistake – Occultist spell (108)

When an enemy hits you or one of your allies with a natural roll, you can make them reroll the attack and take the lower result











[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the forthcoming TimeWatch GM Screen and Resource Book by Kevin Kulp]

When you’re trying to figure out where your antagonists have come from, things can get confusing fast. Foes can be from the core or a parallel timeline, humans from Earth or aliens from another planet (or even entities who fit neither of those two descriptions), and either time travelers or contemporaries who are in their native time. It’s good to keep in mind who the antagonists are.

Core timeline origin

Creatures from the core timeline are ones from Earth’s unaltered history. That includes all the people and animals who have lived in the real world. Depending on your game, this may include “real world” alien incursions such as Area 51 or the existence of reptoids. Dinosaurs exist in the core timeline, but hyper-intelligent dinosaurs do not—unless you, as GM, decide to make that a secret part of your game history.

Creatures from the core timeline seldom have specific temporal powers linked to their origin, and usually lack the Tempus ability unless they’ve acquired time travel. Someone from our core timeline isn’t susceptible to chronal instability while they’re in their own native time, and they are unlikely to have any abilities that a regular person from that time wouldn’t have. For instance, psychic abilities are possible if the GM has decided that people develop psychic abilities in the future, but not otherwise.

In early 18th century London, Skegg throws a chronal destabilization grenade at Isaac Newton, who turns out to have secretly been an evil genius that TimeWatch needs to stop. Newton is in his own natural era and is unaffected by the blast, which only affects time travelers (people with Tempus or Chronal Stability).

Parallel Timeline Origin

In comparison, parallel timeline or parallel universe creatures are a hugely varied lot. They range from the stereotypically evil exact duplicate with a goatee, to individuals raised in an utterly different society (such as one where Carthage won the Punic Wars instead of Rome), to non-humans coming from a world that is mostly water, mostly ice, or an insect-controlled radioactive wasteland. As a reminder, creatures from parallel timelines tend to be more sensitive to chronal instability than usual, suffering from a 1 point penalty to the Difficulty and Loss of most Paradox tests until they adjust to our reality. That adjustment occurs solely at the GM’s discretion.

Skegg is from a parallel timeline that TimeWatch destroyed when they made sure an extinction-level meteor hit the Earth. Every time the rest of her team makes a D4/L4 Paradox test, Skegg has to make one that’s D5/L5. If her team somehow finds its way to Skegg’s fading home parallel, she’ll lose that penalty even as the rest of her team gains it. Around the point that both Skegg’s player and the GM keep forgetting about the penalty, the GM decides that Skegg has been in our reality long enough to have fully adapted. The penalty no longer applies to her.

Parallel timelines open up any tragic, ludicrous, imaginative, horrific or deadly possibility you can think of. You just need to be able to rationalize how it is possible. A world where neanderthals triumph over cro-magnon man? A world where the dinosaurs are not killed by a meteorite? A world where Tesla’s designs triumphed over Edison’s? All possible. Not only can supporting characters and antagonists come from these parallel timelines, with the GM’s permission player characters can come from them as well.

Such timelines are not always possible, and they’re not always self-sustaining. A parallel timeline created artificially when true history is altered exists for as long as that history stays changed. Timelines that are sufficiently well established (or that the GM finds interesting) may survive or slowly fade despite their separation from the main time stream.

Creatures from parallel timelines usually have a wide array of chronal powers that are powered by their Tempus general ability.

Human Origin

The type of foes will vary by campaign frame. A Conspiracy-style game, for instance, will feature more human antagonists (many likely employed by TimeWatch itself) alongside shape-shifting alien species who masquerade as human. Many TimeWatch games may never feature any non-human antagonists at all; let’s face it, if you look at human history, we make pretty good villains all on our own.

Just because you prefer to use human antagonists, however, there’s no reason you can’t use a variety of Tempus-powered chronal abilities. Pick and choose appropriate ones from the list later in this chapter.

Alien Origin

If it evolved on a planet other than Earth and it isn’t human, it’s most likely an alien. There are any number of different types of creatures this category could cover; innumerable TV shows, movies, role-playing games and science fiction novels are brimming with ideas to steal. For easy adaptation, borrow aliens such as the Kch-Thk and Vas Mal from the GUMSHOE game Ashen Stars. Humans from the future who were born on a planet other than Earth don’t usually qualify as aliens, unless there’s been significant changes in their physiology or psychology.

While space-faring aliens likely won’t possess chronal powers unless they’re also time travelers, there are plenty of Tempus-powered abilities or technology that your alien antagonists can wield. If you like, select chronal powers and simply explain them off as stolen technology.

Reptoids are shape-shifting reptilian aliens who have infiltrated human society, but they aren’t time travelers. Perhaps they’re waging a secret war against other aliens or time travelers here on Earth, a war that most humans never even notice. They possess the Tempus ability, which powers their unique capabilities.


We use “entity” to designate an intelligent creature that originated on Earth but is non-human. Hyper-evolved porpoises, radioactive giant cockroaches such as the Ezeru, and genetically altered intelligent dinosaurs all fall under this category. So do mysterious post-human beings from the end of time who have evolved into something far greater than our minds can comprehend. An entity could be an unnaturally intelligent dog, a sentient meme surrounded by a cloud of nanobots, an ephemeral time-ghost that possesses its prey, or a self-aware hologram projected from a distant corner of alt-history.ezeru

Entities have access to a wide array of Tempus-powered abilities.

Contemporary Origin

An antagonist with a contemporary origin is either a villain who has never time traveled, or one who has access to time travel but is not displaced in time at the moment. For instance, a TimeWatch agent who has returned to his native era to visit his family technically has a contemporary origin despite also possessing an autochron. This is an important distinction, because anyone with a contemporary origin cannot suffer from chronal instability.

Native era, in this case, is defined as “during an individual’s natural life span, so long as he is not overlapping himself.”

The GM decides that Mace Hunter was destined to die of disease five years after being recruited by TimeWatch in 1843. If he returns to the years 1843 – 1848 on a mission, he’s safe from additional chronal instability until he leaves, until he overlaps himself with another future or past Mace who is also visiting, or until he overstays his natural lifespan.

When someone with a Contemporary origin creates a time-related paradox, they don’t (and can’t) lose Chronal Stability. That paradox has to go somewhere, however, and local time and space are likely to do something unexpected; the GM is encouraged to be particularly clever and diabolical with the result.

Contemporary antagonists may still have access to a wide array of Tempus-powered abilities, and are arguably more dangerous than ever, because they don’t generally lose Tempus to chronal instability.

Time Travelers

If you’re existing in a time that you shouldn’t normally be alive in, or you’re overlapping yourself by existing in two or more places at once, you’re a time traveler. Congratulations! Hostile time travelers may target earth in the far future and far past and use their time travel to bedevil or influence events at different points in time.

Depending on GM fiat and the technology they’re using, time travelers vary in their access to the time stream. Some only have access to a very small sliver of history, while some have unfettered paths to all of time and the parallel universes that flow nearby.

It’s worth noting that not all time travelers have access to TimeWatch-agent levels of technology and science. They may use anachronistic weapons, suffer from no translator, and catch (or spread!) unexpected diseases; or they may bring weapons and technology to bear that even TimeWatch hasn’t encountered before.

As you would expect, time traveling antagonists likely have access to a wide array of technology and Tempus-powered abilities.