The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in April 2008. 

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Give a Clue

The heart of the GUMSHOE system is its method of ensuring that players always gather the clues essential to the solution of a mystery and lots of other supplementary information as well provided that they have the right investigative abilities, and describe their characters look in the right place and/or perform the right actions. Some potential players have of the game have concluded is that the removal of random determination from the clue dispensation process must render it dry and mechanical. The reality of the play experience is that it is just as fluid as in any other mystery game.

The reason for this fluidity lies in the freedom granted the GM to dispense clues in various ways. These keep the investigative scenes spontaneous and interactive.

Until now, these methods have been implicit in the scenario text. I’m confident that GMs instinctively get them in play and in a way am reluctant to pin them down too much, for fear of overriding good on-the-spot judgment for what appears to be a heavily prescribed set of techniques.

With that caveat, here are some terms to codify the methods GMs use to provide clues in GUMSHOE:

Immediately Apparent

An immediately apparent clue is supplied to the player without action on the character’s part. All an investigator with the governing ability has to do to spot the clue is to enter the scene. Ideally, the GM scans his master list of investigative abilities, on which the ratings of the various PCs are marked, picks the most likely investigator with the ability, and announces the clue:

[indicating a particular player]: “You can tell right away that the hieroglyphics on the statue are phony modern gibberish.”

Here the GM is responding to a passage in the scenario that says:

Archaeology shows that the hieroglyphics on the statue are phony modern gibberish.

There are two reasons to treat a clue as immediately apparent: believability and playability. Believability holds that clues where anyone acquainted with the ability in question would logically spot something on a cursory inspection should be provided without prompting. On the other hand, playability dictates that essential clues which even good players are unlikely to look for should also be made immediately apparent.

Certain clues are immediately apparent without abilities. If there’s a gun hidden under a bed, and a player asks, “What’s under the bed?” they don’t need Evidence Collection to find it. All they need is a pair of functioning eyes.

Action-Dependent

Most clues are action-dependent, meaning that the players must specify that they’re doing something before the GM provides the clue. The action taken can be very basic: searching the room, looking for fingerprints, taking a closer look at that painting in the corner. Or it can be quite specific: gathering fibers, performing a centrifuge test, smelling the air for the distinctive tang of werewolf.

GM: Jenkins hands you a photograph, of what appears to be a sasquatch standing in a stand of bullrushes.

Player: As an experienced photographer, I want to know if the image of the monster has been faked.

[The GM refers to the scenario notes, which read:

A check for fakery with Photography shows that it is a composite image.]

GM: It’s a composite; the shadows in the figure don’t match the direction of light in the background.

Shifting Clue Types

The wording of GUMSHOE scenarios suggests which of these two categories the clues fall into, without being absolutely explicit about it. I toyed with the idea of making these more definite, by marking them with icons. Ultimately I decided against this, because the most important thing about clue dispensation is to pay attention to the progress players are making and adjust on the fly. Most immediate clues can be turned into action-dependent clues as needed, and vice versa.

If your players are slogging their way through a mystery whose basic backstory just isn’t registering, you may want to supply suggested actions, effectively turning an action-dependent clue into an immediate clue: “Your Forensics experience leads you to check inside her mouth, where you find a strange parasitic infestation.”

On other occasions it is more satisfying for the players if you strongly hint at a suitable action, rather than providing the clue outright:

GM: Jenkins hands you a photograph, of what appears to be a sasquatch standing in a stand of bullrushes.

It strikes you as off, somehow.

Player: I check it for signs of fakery!

Although you might expect the players to regard this as an unsubtle shove in the right direction, many players are not only content to receive hints like this, but still feel a sense of accomplishment simply for going on to fill in the obvious next action. The more frustrated a group becomes, the greater the emotional reward for pouncing on a hint.

Always allow the players plenty of time to take actual active measures before you start hinting them in a fruitful direction.

This idea can be spun in the opposite direction. If your players are especially proactive, you can reward their initiative by converting immediately apparent clues into action-dependent ones.

GM: The wall inside the burial chamber is covered in old hieroglyphics.

Player: Aha! Are they phonetic or logographic?

GM: Neither. They’re gibberish — modern forgeries.

Players are more able to show off their characters’ brilliance in areas they are themselves acquainted with.

All in all, the degree of effort players must go through to accumulate clues is a matter for constant and sensitive adjustment, based on factors including session pacing, the group’s concentration level, and players’ personal knowledge of character abilities. The defaults suggested by the scenario wording are no substitute for a GM’s judgment and attention. Knowing when to push and when to let the players push you is an essential component of the GM’s craft. You are probably already doing it, unconsciously, but by paying more active attention to it, you can further sharpen your presentation.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.