This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system seen in The Esoterrorists and upcoming follow-on games and supplements can be used for any mystery or procedural game. We’ll be presenting new settings in the future, but in the meantime, the game’s core engines are easily adaptable to whatever investigative genre you want to run. Here’s how to adapt GUMSHOE to emulate your favorite procedural, whether it be 24, Torchwood, CSI, or The X-Files.

Step One: Study Your Source

First, immerse yourself in the property you want to recreate. You may be adapting a specific procedural, or drawing from a broad subset of similar shows. It might also be fun to combine the structure and tone of a well-known TV show with the genre elements gamers love: “It’s Cracker, but with werewolves.”

For the sake of a default frame of reference, I’m assuming a TV show here, but the general principles apply equally to novel series: you could just as easily adapt Sherlock Holmes, Ellis Peters’ Cadfael, Iain Pears’ art-world mysteries, or Tony Hillerman’s Navajo-centric whodunnits.

Creating your own original property requires less homework but is tougher in some ways. You’ll have to portray your setting and narrative formula to the players without the shorthand that comes with the shared viewing experience of a popular show.

Start by identifying the structure of your source’s typical episodes. Look for standard elements that recur from one episode to the next; these will help you to construct scenarios. For a long running property with many cast changes over the years, determine if the various characters fall into distinct types.

Make a master list of the various GUMSHOE investigative abilities. When one of these abilities, or a close analogue, comes up in the course of an episode, put a tick mark next to it. If abilities appear which have no counterparts in GUMSHOE, make a note of that. Pay special attention to the interpersonal abilities, which are easy to gloss over, appearing as they do in the ebb and flow of dialogue, interrogation and interview scenes.

Take note also of what the characters are able to do during non-investigative scenes. Again, note what GUMSHOE abilities you see in action, and which other abilities you’ll have to define for your game.

Gauge how competent the protagonists are. Are the action sequences, if any, over the top and stylized, or gritty and real?

As is often the case in adaptations to the RPG format, you may have to adjust a series featuring a single protagonist (or a duo) to make an entire team of characters co-equal centers of attention.

Step Two: Investigative Abilities

Take the list of abilities you’ve compiled during your homework. Note how fine-grained the technical and academic abilities seem to be. Is a big distinction made, for example, between the various forensic disciplines? If so, you’ll likely want to use a large list of abilities, as seen in The Esoterrorists. Otherwise, a more stripped down, general list likely suits better. Such a list appears in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror book, Fear Itself.

Look at the abilities you haven’t seen in play in your source material. Can you envision them ever appearing? If so, include them. If not, leave them out.

Certain forensic techniques will be unavailable in non-contemporary settings. Forensic entomology is a very recent sub-discipline, for example. An ancient or medieval sleuth won’t be looking for fingerprints. Other disciplines might be available in more primitive form, providing less information. For example, a photographic expert in a 1940s hardboiled game will have less to go on than his contemporary, computer-equipped counterpart. In some cases, you’ll want to rename abilities: forensic psychology might become alienism.

Once you’ve assembled your final list of investigative abilities, divide the number of abilities by the number of players who you expect will regularly attend your game, then add a handful of points to this total. This gives you the number of build points the players get to buy their investigative abilities during character creation.

Step Three: General Abilities

Repeat the above process with general abilities. Most basic general abilities will apply to any setting, but there are a few that need tweaking for historical genres. Pre-industrial characters might use Riding or Carting instead of Driving, for example.

(When in doubt as to whether an ability is general or investigative, ask yourself if it can be used to gather information, or to perform some other task. If it’s the latter, it’s investigative. If the former, it’s general. If what seems to be the same talent can both gather information and perform other tasks, split it into two, making it both an investigative and general ability. The prime example of this are the Reassurance and Shrink abilities, which resemble each other thematically but have different narrative functions.)

If your setting is gritty and realistic, give the players around 5 build points for each general ability. For a more over-the-top setting, assign 8-12 points per general ability. Some general ability lists will include specialized abilities that few PCs will want; if so, omit them when tallying your total number of abilities.

In certain fantastic genres, you may want to create a subclass of special abilities, like super powers or psychic talents. Write descriptions of these so the players know how they work. It may be that some are investigative and some general; be sure to indicate which is which. Assign them a separate build point total, reflecting the degree to which you want these talents present in your game. You will probably also want to limit the number of special abilities each player can take, or allow only a restricted number of PCs to have them.

Step Four: Conceptual Aids

If characters in the setting tend to fall into definable categories, write brief descriptions of each type, to help the players fit their characters to the property.

Look at what motivates the characters in the property. If necessary, create guidelines or rules structures to assist players in acquiring the necessary mindset. For example, Fear Itself character creation requires the players to pick the worst thing their characters ever did. This provides a plot hook to use in flashbacks and scenes of character development. It also requires you to pick from a list of possible motivations to take the apparently stupid risks that get horror characters into entertaining danger. A rule then provides an incentive for reluctant players to make the choices that drive stories of this type.

Step Five: What to Leave Out

Just because a rule structure is present in current iterations of GUMSHOE doesn’t mean that it will work for your property. Stability, for example, is essential for horror-based mystery games but inappropriate for all but the most punishing and gritty crime or detective properties.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Everybody knows this ancient joke: A guy goes to the doctor. He rotates his arm a bit and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” So the doctor says, “Don’t do that.”

When designing roleplaying rules to emulate narrative sources, much of the job consists of finding places to say the same thing: “Don’t do that.”

As we all know, the roleplaying form grew out of the war-gaming scene. Its earliest incarnations focused on tactical play. This was, and remains, a fun and rewarding play style. The choice to focus on dramatic structure rather than tactical choices is not a repudiation of the older mode of play, or an evolution to a superior state of being. It’s just aimed at creating a different sort of fun.

It’s also usually a matter of emphasis, rather than of aesthetic purity. Storytelling elements can suddenly intrude into the most determinedly experience-point grubbing dungeon crawl. Moments of tactical decision-making may become appropriate in even the most experimental of narrative games.

That said, many of us tend to default to the assumptions of the tactical style when we design or play narrative-based games, because that’s where the entire roleplaying tradition stems from. It can be profoundly liberating to question these assumptions, sometimes tossing them out the window in favor of simpler choices that better model the literary or cinematic sources we’re striving to emulate. To say, “Don’t do that.”

The “don’t do that” principle can be difficult to implement when players have grown emotionally invested in particular ways of doing things during their time playing tactically-oriented games. In my narrative-based game system, HeroQuest, I keep trying to get rid of the fine differences between various sorts of weapons and armor. In the fictional source material, they provide defining gimmicks for the various characters but rarely, if ever, serve as a determining factor in success or failure. A combative character who wields a strange or unlikely weapon is so well trained in it that it’s as good in his hands as the default weapon wielded by the average character. Incremental differences between armor and weapon types belong in the detail-crunchy world of tactical play, not in an abstract system designed to mimic dramatic structure. Yet players who are otherwise on board with the general concept of story play still have that love of those crunchy differences ingrained in them from their happy formative experiences with tactical games. You’ll see, when the upcoming generic version of the HeroQuest rules come out, to what extent I managed to win the battle this time around.

The central “don’t do that,” at the heart of the GUMSHOE system concerns the mechanism whereby players in an investigative scenario gain the clues they need to solve the mystery. The tactical tradition treats this as a skill use like any other, with a chance of failure corresponding to your investment of character resources into that skill. Say you need to find out what your suspect’s grandfather was doing during World War II. You roll your Library Use skill. If you allocated enough points to Library Use during character creation and/or manage to score a lucky roll, you get the information you need. If you invested lightly in the skill, or roll poorly, you’re screwed. In theory, that is.

In reality, GMs either fudge the roll, or improvise a workaround, giving the characters repeated shots at discovering the same fact with various abilities, until one of them finally succeeds, permitting the plot to free itself from its rut and lurch onward. The standard approach borrows some of the outward aspects of a tactical game, but in fact relies on GM kludging to prevent them from operating-as it must, to serve the demands of story structure, which craves ongoing forward momentum.

GUMSHOE says, “Don’t do that.” Since the end of the process is a foregone conclusion — the characters get the info they need-why waste time, focus and creativity with a system that provides only the illusion of chance? Instead, GUMSHOE provides a character generation system which guarantees that someone in the group will have made the necessary investment in every information-gathering ability, and which then grants access to clues on that basis. It is a simpler, streamlined way of achieving what good GMs are already doing-without the pointless and annoying faffing about.

Some GMs of investigative games have responded to second-hand descriptions of GUMSHOE by saying that, because it ensures that players always get the clues they need, it does what they are already doing. In other words, they’re saying that they’re already not doing that. I wonder to what extent this assertion matches reality. When a game design provides a rule, that rule tends to get used, even when it shouldn’t. Its use occurs reflexively, even invisibly.

The crystal ball I use to peer into other peoples’ houses while they GM is in the shop for repairs, so I guess I can’t conclusively say that commenters are mis-describing their own play style. However, my bet would be that most of them are:

• putting absolutely crucial information (what in GUMSHOE are called core clues) out in plain sight, with no skill use (and therefore no roll) required

or

• employing the above-mentioned workaround, continually finding new ways to reveal the same information, until somebody finally gets the needed roll

and

• still requiring skill rolls for less essential clues

We have probably abetted this misperception by emphasizing the fact that GUMSHOE never leaves you stuck on a failed die roll. The traditional skill roll method tends not to leave you stuck in practice, because GMs have grown used to clumsily working around it. For those folks, the value of the GUMSHOE approach is not that it does something they can’t or haven’t done before, but that it does so with smooth and seamless efficiency. It’s not only what it does, but how it does it.

The result is a faster, sleeker approach to emulation of the mystery structure. When the emphasis is taken off the finding of clues and placed on their interpretation, the pacing and tenor of sessions change substantially. This is the benefit of looking at established practices and saying, “Don’t do that.”

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

For the past couple of installments we’ve been examining investigative scenario construction from a macro perspective, mostly looking at the way scenes interact with one another. This time let’s zoom in a bit and talk about a couple of other narrative devices you can use to add spice to the basic mystery format.

Red Herrings

From the investigator’s point of view, any mystery can be seen as a set of possibilities, which through probing, legwork and the occasional confrontation with interesting danger, is eventually narrowed to the truth. It is a process of elimination. In any investigative scene, the characters separate what might have happened from what did. Especially in the opening scenes of a scenario, they’ll be busily ruling out suspects, motives and methods.

From the players’ point of view, it is the various competing possibilities that make the mystery into an interesting puzzle.

To create a mystery, first decide what it is that the characters are investigating: a murder, theft, kidnapping, mysterious apparition, whatever.

GMs enjoy an advantage over mystery writers. They often don’t need to create red herrings, because the players create them for them. Players love to speculate, frequently generating wildly off-base explanations to connect what little information they have available to them. Sometimes this slows the action down, and you’ll have to remember to rein them in and suggest that they collect more facts before attempting to reconstruct events.

However, sometimes you’ll find yourself wanting to add complexity to the storyline, rather than subtracting it. There are two ways to build red herrings into your adventures.

The first is preplanned, as you create the scenario. After you work out what really happened, look at the facts that will be available to the investigators in the first scene or two. Take these and construct plausible (but wrong) alternate theories that connect these clues. Then prepare scenes in which the investigators pursue these avenues. In these scenes, the clues they gather rule out the false possibility, allowing them to move back onto the right track.

The second method of red herring generation is improvised, as a response to player speculation. Players will often seize on an alternate theory of the case that you would never have considered in a million years. Rather than see these theories as annoyances to be dispelled, capitalize on them. Invent evidence which seems on its face to support their theory, leading them into scenes in which they eventually find the counter-evidence forcing them to go back to the drawing board, and move toward the actual solution to the mystery. (Especially flexible GMs may decide that the players’ bizarre theory is more entertaining than that given in the scenario and adjust to make that retroactively true. Because it’s hard to assemble an airtight clue trail on the fly, this is recommended only for talented improvisers who breathe story logic like oxygen.)

Whether preplanned or made up as you go along, a red herring should either be extremely interesting in its own right, or so boring that it can be dispensed with quickly. In the first case, the scene makes no contribution to the actual story, and therefore justify its time in the spotlight by being entertaining and memorable in its own right. Invent a crazy character. Vividly describe a unique setting. Inject some social commentary or fun topical references. Parody absent friends or obnoxious public figures.

In a supernatural or fantastic setting, you can use a red herring scene to enhance the apparent reality of your world. Do this by taking a familiar situation or type of behavior and place it within your outlandish boundaries of your chosen reality. In a police procedural set in a superhero world, you might, for example, include an encounter with an enraged citizen wondering how to track down insurance information for the masked crusader who totaled his car while using it as a weapon against a rampaging mutant.

Red herrings can also justify themselves by shedding contrasting light on your story’s themes and images. First, you’ll need to identify your scenario’s themes and images, if you haven’t already done so. These are often inherent in the crime itself. The underlying crime behind The Esoterrorist example scenario, “Operation Slaughterhouse”, is abuse of power. The scenario in the upcoming GUMSHOE horror supplement, Fear Itself, is about madness, and the random nature of its onset.

Suitable red herring scenes should throw a different light on these themes. If abuse of power is the theme, the players might meet a witness (who turns out not to know anything) who has been the victim of shenanigans by high officials. Or he might be an apologist for government corruption.

You can also find imagistic inspiration for red herring scenes. If much of your scenario is set in a forest, a red herring encounter might be shaded with images of wilderness of vegetation. Maybe it takes the players to a hunting lodge, its walls festooned with mounted taxidermy specimens. Or inside a greenhouse, where a frail non-witness pours all of her life energy into her precious forest of rare plants.

Ticking Clocks

Although GUMSHOE ensures that the players have all of the tools at their disposal to solve the mystery-provided they look in the right places, it by no means ensures success. As mentioned last time, they can fall prey to all kinds of disruptive events, which, if they fail, keep them from crossing the finish line.

Sometimes the finish line itself can be a disruptive event. Make use of a classic trick of suspense narrative by putting a time limit on the characters. If they fail to solve the mystery in X amount of time, something horrible happens. A bomb goes off. A buried captive runs out of oxygen. An innocent man is executed.

The use of a ticking clock requires you to keep closer track of elapsed time in the game world than is typical for an investigative scenario. When the players are discussing what to do, you’ll need a clock to keep track of how much real time they’re eating up. During action sequences and cuts between scene, you’ll tabulate game world time, adding it to the total.

Ticking clock plotlines only work when the players know that they’re on a deadline. They can also create some tricky timing issues: for example, they lose steam if broken up over a number of sessions. Casual groups who prefer a relaxed pace and plenty of room to chitchat may flounder or rebel if you tighten the pressure on them in this way.

However, for a dedicated group of problem solvers, nothing gets the adrenaline flowing better than the old ever-present countdown.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Click here for part II of the “Fear of Structure”

With The Esoterrorists now available and a series of GUMSHOE products in the pipeline, it’s time to embark on a series of columns supporting the game. Even if you’re not, heaven forefend, an Esoterrorists player or reader, I hope you’ll find something in these coming columns to chew on, whether you occasionally run or play in other investigative scenarios, or are broadly interested in the theory and practice of roleplaying game design.

If there are prevailing threads through my various different RPG designs over the years, one of them would be a desire to drill through theoretical preconceptions of what the roleplaying experience ought to be, to get to what is really fun about gaming. (This is not to say that all theory is inherently wrong. If that statement were true, it would itself be a theory, and would be wrong, thus opening up a rift in the space-time continuum that cause the universe to devour itself. And who wants that, really?)

My governing observation here is that there is often a gulf between what we think we want, or ought to want, and what really entertains us. We gamers are a cerebral lot and tend to construct theoretical frameworks, which we lean on heavily when articulating our tastes. Sure, sometimes these theories are reliable markers to enjoyable game play. But it’s always worthwhile to question them, and often liberating to chuck them out the window.

To take an example from an earlier design, Feng Shui questions the then-prevailing assumption that the GM should be entirely in charge of determining what is present in the characters’ environment. Its play advice section instructs players to help imagine what stunt-worthy props might be available for use during fight scenes. They don’t ask the GM if there happens to be an aquarium present, they simply assume it: “I leap over the table, using it as a springboard to land on his back and knock Mr. Po headfirst into the fish tank!” Though they retain veto power over completely implausible or abusive choices, GMs are urged to encourage this player collaboration. The game does this to further its goal of evoking the feeling of being inside a fast and furious Hong Kong-style action movie. Some GMs incorporated this trick into all of their subsequent gaming, Feng Shui or not, which I find incredibly gratifying.

In the case of the GUMSHOE system, my hope is that the people who adopt its core technique-which guarantees that players who look in the right place will find the clues they need to advance the storyline-will find it a powerful tool to increase the fun to frustration ratio of their investigative scenarios. This puts us into conflict with another long-standing assumption about good gaming-that scenario structure is a thing to regard with suspicion, as a sign of that dreaded phenomenon, railroading.

Most gamers have been burned by dictatorial so-called storytelling GMs whose heavy-handed, anti-collaborative techniques discredit all narrative-based play. We all know the kind-the guy who has an “epic” story to tell and wants the players to follow pre-assigned roles as he reveals to them, sequence by sequence, the script he has written in his head. When many players think of an adventure having structure, they think of this guy, and want to run as fast they can in the other direction. Even when, to painfully exceed my daily metaphor quota, they’re throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

This is unfortunate, because to emulate certain fictional genres in a satisfying way, the GM needs to be able to create a sense of structure, with an opening that leads to a series of interconnected scenes, and finally to a climax that wraps up the various plot threads dangled in the previous action.

No story format is more rigorously demanding of structure than the mystery, from which any investigative scenario must, by definition, draw inspiration. Its opening scene sets up a question. The intervening scenes move the protagonists toward an answer to that question, though often in a meandering or indirect way that enriches the puzzle with various tangents and red herrings.

This classic structure allows for some common variations. Sometimes the original mystery the protagonist investigates turns out to be a mere lead-in for a much more important problem. The modern mystery novel often weaves together two apparently unrelated mysteries-one serious, one of less seeming consequence-which the protagonist discovers to be connected. Also common in modern mysteries is a thread of tangentially related character development, which develops the protagonist from book to book. A more classical structure treats the detective as an essentially unchanging iconic character, who resists the efforts of the world to change him, instead altering the world by solving mysteries and imposing order on it.

If you’re not using some variation of the above structure, you’re simply not telling a mystery story.

The problem this genre choice presents us with, then, is that certain players, seeing the theory and not the practice of roleplaying, are overly fearful of a linear or so-called “bread crumb” plot structure, which they equate with egregious railroading.

I’d argue, first of all, that these fears are misplaced, and arise from a fundamental misperception. The trail of clues, or bread crumb plot, is not the story, and does not constitute a pre-scripted experience. What the PCs choose to do, and how they interact with each other as they solve the mystery, is the story. As mentioned in The Esoterrorist rules, we saw this at work during playtest, as all of the groups had very different experiences of the sample scenario, as each GM and player combo riffed in their own unique ways off the situations it suggested.

In fact, every RPG session (or series of connected sessions) remotely partaking of a narrative winds up being linear in retrospect. One scene leads to another and finally comes to a resolution. Every choice the players make precludes other choices. There is only one story in the end, made from a wider range of possible branches. It is the sum total of what happens in play.

The scenario, on the other hand, is a series of notes on what might happen when actual play occurs. Published scenarios, except where written by incompetents and/or designers who don’t play much anymore, are invariably presented as a series of possibilities. Game sessions are always linear. Scenarios are always multi-linear.

It would be convenient if players could be relieved of their fear of structure by mere exposure to this argument. However, it’s hard to dislodge one theory with another. In a battle of theory versus practice, you have to show players that their preconceptions are getting in the way of their fun, in actual play.

In the next installment of Page XX, we’ll look at ways to do just that.

by Joshua Kronengold and Catherine Ramen

One of the most interesting features of GUMSHOE is that failure is frequently not an important part of the gameplay. Whether by finding a clue with an Investigative Ability, or spending enough points on a General Ability test to ensure success, GUMSHOE games focus more on the what (which Ability do you use, what do you do to invoke it, what you do with information after finding it) the why (Drives, at minimum), and how much (do you spend points now or hold them in reserve for a future effort? How many?)

The thing is, as much as automatic successes make PCs seem (and players feel) like badasses, in games where the characters have broad ranges of skills and large amounts of points to spend, the die rolls on General Ability tests become less interesting. Varying the difficulty can add some drama to rolls, but it has to be done carefully, especially if the Difficulty is not revealed to the players. Unknown Difficulties that run higher than the expected 4 can discourage point spends as players become conservative, or cause frustration as too many tests fail because of underspends or running out of points. Keeping Difficulties to a narrower and more predictable range lets players make more strategic choices about when to spend points–but also tends to make any rolls a foregone conclusion and the die roll a pro forma task. In this article, we look at several ways to give die rolls drama and keep the results interesting. At their best, dice do more than moderate between players; they provide interesting and surprising results that nobody in the session would have chosen, while still staying within the bounds of what people consider an acceptable result.

So, then, how do we open up die rolls?

The first method, which appears in a rough form in Night’s Black Agents and TimeWatch, is to add another possible result to the roll: you get a Critical success if you roll a 6 and beat the Difficulty by 5. (Note that this will encourage some overspending by players, but both TimeWatch and NBA make it relatively easy to refresh pools or find extra points when needed, and that mathematically it encourages what we consider optimal play–usually spending just enough to guarantee success) However, this tends to still produce only two possible results for a roll. If you didn’t spend enough to guarantee success, the possibilities are failure and success. If you did, it’s success and critical. But either way, it’s a pure binary result: yes or no; crit or normal. There are three possibilities, but only two of them are possible on any given roll.

Catherine has designed a system that opens the results even more, by creating a system of “Benefits” that can be accessed with a high enough roll. In her system, for every four points that you exceed a Test’s Difficulty by, you can choose a Benefit (you can choose the same benefit more than once). In her last campaign, the list looked like this:

  • Terrible Harm: + 4 damage
  • Armor Piercing: you negate the target’s armor
  • Speed: You succeed very quickly
  • Unnoticed: No one sees what you do
  • No Traces: No obvious signs of what you did
  • Safe: You don’t expose yourself to danger
  • Disable: You break or damage an object
  • Disarm: You knock a weapon (or other held object) free
  • Suppress: You stun, force under cover, or otherwise prevent someone from acting
  • Opportunity: The PC may immediately take a second, related task
  • Missing Materials: You can succeed even without the proper tools

The system also allows you to take a Benefit if you are willing to take a consequence; one of the implicit Benefits is “You Succeed,” and several skills (like Intrusion or Filch in NBA) include Unnoticed or some other benefit by default) so a player willing to let their character suffer a consequence or lose one of the benefits of success could succeed even on a failed roll. When deciding on a consequence, often the easiest thing to do is simply reverse one of the Benefits: so instead of being safe, a character might take damage; their effort might take a great deal of time, or be unable to conceal. Note that the Benefits list can also function as a quick way to reward an Investigative spend, for example a Library Use spend that finds the results in only a half a day’s search. A GM might even allow a player to purchase a Benefit using an appropriate Investigative spend if it fit the situation–using Intimidate during a fight to keep other characters from joining the fight, for example (using the Suppress Benefit).

This “Margin of Success” method makes the rolls more interesting, since any roll might result in a valuable Benefit, as well as rewarding players who overspend on a Test since they will probably receive a Benefit rather that effectively wasting any points beyond the amount needed to guarantee success. (This is the reason why the margin to receive a benefit was set at 4–it gives a 50% chance of receiving a Benefit on most tasks, provided the player spends at least 3 points. For a grittier feel you could raise the required margin to 5 points or even 6; lowering the margin will tend to produce very competent characters.)

The Benefits list has to be customized for the GUMSHOE game you’re using, the particular style of your group, and the skills that are available.

That said, there are limits to this approach. While the variable benefits allow for players to make many more choices about how to customize successes and failures, die results have gone from being binary to sometimes-ternary–depending on how much someone spent. At best, the possibilities are failure or success, or success with a benefit — or success, success with a benefit, or success with two benefits (etc). While player choices can customize this result after the roll, the results are still going to be strictly bounded.

To really make sure we don’t know what will happen, we have to make die rolls truly open ended. That way, you’ll never know exactly what result you’re going to get–and can let yourselves get a little excited every time the dice hit the table. There’s a simple and well tested way to do this — use the same system that quite a number of other games have used and have a 6 or 1 result in another die getting rolled (repeating this as necessary). The problem with that is that most of us (and the authors are certainly in this set) are attached to the way that GUMSHOE’s results are more predictable than those in most others, while the “exploding six and one” system is incredibly, unalterably random.

So Josh suggests that we tone it down a bit. Whenever you roll a 6, it explodes, but to keep it slightly flatter, use a d3 instead of a d6 (if, like us, you don’t have a d3, just halve the results on a d6 and round up). And if you roll a 3, keep going.

Similarly, we can have rolls of 1 implode (if you like surprise failures–If you don’t like it as GM, or the group doesn’t want it, don’t use it). If you’re using this rule, you should also allow players to “take one,” setting the die to 1 (and not risking it imploding) rather than rolling if they want; this means that, if they’ve successfully gauged the difficulty, they get an automatic success. As an optional rule, only allow taking 1 if they did, in fact, spend enough to guarantee success; if they declare this and it’s not enough, tell them to roll anyway, but only after they’re committed. This avoids players being unfairly punished for “taking 1” in a situation where the difficulty is unknown. Imploding is less fun for players than exploding, so add one to the d6 roll before subtracting, but otherwise it’s the same in reverse–roll a d3 and subtract the result, but keep going if a 3 is rolled.

We’d be fine with stopping there, but we know some people are going to want a fumble system (and some people are going to really, really, really NOT want a fumble system). One option is to invert the Benefits system so that for every 4 points you fail the test’s Difficulty by, the GM assigns a consequence which is the reverse of one of the Benefits. If you want fumbles to be more rare, you should make them only happen if a 1 was rolled — and that should probably be the default for defensive rolls, particularly when target numbers are unknown, so that players don’t roll flat against a difficulty of, say, 15 and suddenly — surprise! — they take multiple consequences just for playing. After all, it should generally be better to roll than not to roll, even if the odds are long. Even if you don’t want to lock yourself into a fumble system, this can be a good guide to estimating the consequences of failing a high stakes active roll. The PC doesn’t get the benefits of a success, and may (particularly if they miss the difficulty by 4 or more) end up exposed to danger or notice, drop or damage something important, or an opponent might gain an opportunity. Gumshoe is often about pretty competent protagonists, so you can do all of this without having to make the PCs look incompetent or foolish.

And that’s it — several modular, open-ended, still very GUMSHOE-Y systems that should add a bit of anticipation to every roll you make — and provide a few entertaining surprises. Try it out, and let us know what you think!

Postscript (by Joshua Kronengold):
Since we drafted this article, Robin published an article talking about how one can embrace failure in Gumshoe general tests (as well as another on automatic successes).  Our article, on embracing and shaping exceptional success and softening failures, could be seen to act as a complement to Robin’s thoughts on the subject.

On the one hand, we have automatic successes (or failures).  Those are the points where you don’t a particular result as interesting — so you don’t allow for it at all, instead simply ruling success to be automatic or impossible.

Then we have rolls where failure is acceptable.  There (as with the addition of my highly caveated fumble system), Catherine’s system allows for a  failure to be a negotiation, not a catastrophe, shaping the narrative rather than cutting it off.  Perhaps you fail at your overall goal, but salvage one particular element from it that was more important than the goal itself.  Or perhaps you succeed at that goal, but at the cost of excessive time, damage, or some other mischance–either way, the dice steer you into a result that falls short of your character’s goal–and instead steers you into a different avenue that might end up being more narratively satisfying rather than a wall that you feel compelled to
bang against until it falls.

 


Catherine Ramen has been playing role-playing games for almost four decades. She is the designer of the upcoming Red Carnations on a Black Grave, a story game about the Paris Commune, Rovers, a customizable space-opera rpg about loveable anti-heroes, and edited the English edition of Nerves of Steel, a film noir story game.

Joshua Kronengold lives in Queens, New York with Lisa Padol, surrounded by books, games, and musical instruments.  He is a decades-long contributor to Alarums & Excursions, and has contributed to Over the Edge (in Edgeworks #3), Reign, and Unknown Armies.

Game Moderators seeing the Push rules in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game and now second edition Mutant City Blues sometimes ask how to import them into previous GUMSHOE games.

To recap how Pushes work, players get two of them per scenario. They can spend Pushes to gain non-informational benefits from their investigative abilities. For example:

  • A Painting Push lets you say that you had a work accepted to the group show at the haunted gallery.
  • A Reassurance Push allows you to calm a terrified witness, so that he follows your instructions and stays out of harm’s way.
  • With a Chemistry Push, you can synthesize an antidote to the venom of the snake that just bit your comrade.

Previous GUMSHOE games have you allocate a number of points to each ability. This gives you a pool of points, which you can spend to gain the same sorts of benefits. The GM decides whether a benefit costs 1, 2, or sometimes even 3 points.

To use Pushes in a GUMSHOE iteration with investigative points, convert scenarios as follows:

  • Some scenarios charge you for non-core clues—information that doesn’t lead you directly to another scene. Never require a Push for this. (In fact, I’d personally drop this entirely in any version of GUMSHOE, and always provide all information for free.)
  • When a benefit costs 1 point, provide it at no cost if the player suggests it unprompted.
  • Otherwise, when you see a 1-point spend listed in any scenario, and you think it would be useful or cool or otherwise gratifying enough to suggest to the player as a possibility, it costs 1 Push. If it seems marginally useful and not worth a Push, ignore it entirely.
  • Any benefits costing more than 1 point cost 1 Push.
  • If you think your players will find the benefit of a 2+ point spend overpriced, provide it for free (if asked) or let it go unmentioned.

A very small number of abilities in the crunchier GUMSHOE games, such as Ashen Stars, call for point spends to power particular effects. These probably require case-by-case design work to adapt to the Push rules. As a rule of thumb, a clearly useful special benefit either costs a Push or can be used at no cost, but only once per session.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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.

When asked to explain GUMSHOE, a key part of my standard spiel goes like this:

“GUMSHOE says that it is never interesting to fail to get information. When you use an Investigative ability, you never have to roll a die. If you have the right ability and use it in the right way, you simply get the clue. However, in the case of other abilities, it is interesting, if sometimes horrible to fail—you slip and fall when the vampire is chasing you, or get caught sneaking into the installation, or are thrown from your horse while trying to impress the empress and her sneering courtiers. These are the general abilities, which you do have to roll for.”

By definition I only present this pitch to people unfamiliar with the game.

Old hands, like the people reading this blog, might have a question, though.

How interesting is it, really, to fail at certain classic GUMSHOE general abilities?

Most general abilities lead to clear positive outcomes on failure and negative consequences on failure.

With the various fighting skills, you win a fight or land a blow. Sneaking / Infiltration gets you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Riding, Driving and Piloting avert disaster during chases and other dangerous transportation situations. Stability / Composure maintains mental self-control in weird or pressuring situations. In all cases, success gives the players a triumphant moment, while failure ratchets up the tension.

But what about the resource-related general abilities, you might ask. This list starts with Preparedness, the general ability every other member of the Pelgrane team were mad at me for picking first when we did the “My Favorite Ability” video series. Other examples include Network from Night’s Black Agents and Scrounging from Yellow King Roleplaying Game: The Wars.

On the surface, failing a test with these abilities leads a character nowhere.

  • A Preparedness failure means you don’t have the ingredients for an improvised explosive.
  • A Network failure indicates that your favorite Sevastopol gun dealer can’t sell you a Dragunov SVD because she just got bagged by the GRU.
  • A Scrounging failure establishes that you’ll don’t find a cache of stored rations to feed those starving villagers.

A less astute reader than yourself might consider these uninteresting failures. It is true that they don’t move the plot forward. Still, they carry an emotional resonance, because they allow the players to specifically envision what success looks like.

When you ask if you have explosives ingredients, know a gun dealer in Sevastopol or can locate a nearby food cache, you’re imaginatively envisioning a possible event. This gives you a moment of hope. Readers of Hamlet’s Hit Points will recognize this as an Anticipation beat. Should you succeed, you get a second emotional up moment. (HHP beat analysis calls this a Procedural up beat.) Should you fail, you instead feel disappointment, as the prospect of the explosion, gun buy, or relief operation you were picturing melts away on you. Either way, the failed test carries emotional content — or, you might say, interest.

If you always succeeded with resource-style general abilities, you wouldn’t get that. The possibility of failure, even when it requires you to scrap one idea and find another, is what makes these abilities exciting in play.


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.

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

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system focuses primarily on investigation and by default assumes that moments of interpersonal conflict will be handled through roleplaying. As such it lacks an equivalent of the Persuasion/Rebuff system that lies, for example, at the heart of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. However, if you’re seeking a more mechanically robust way to adjudicate the outcomes of arguments, negotiations, debates and seductions, there are plenty of options to choose from.

When contemplating a new rule or technique, the GUMSHOE way is to look at the source material, see what techniques it typically uses, and find the simplest possible means of implementing it, consistent with the rest of the system.

Scenes of interpersonal conflict in mystery novels and TV procedurals are usually handled as in any other dramatic genre, although usually in a more compressed and decisive way.

In resolving a character conflict in fiction, an author ideally finds a plausible and organic way to portray a plot development he deems to be necessary to his story. This necessity may arise from, among other reasons, a desire to illuminate character, jolt the audience, or move a story toward its inevitable conclusion. In a roleplaying game, the outcome is not preplanned. The PC may or may not bring about a plot turn that moves the group toward a successful resolution. Two elements must be in place: the player has to devise a believable plan, and then the character must have the wherewithal, and perhaps luck, to implement it.

In the case of interpersonal conflicts, what is plausible and organic depends on the motivations of the character being persuaded. What the GM does determine in advance are the motivations and intentions of the NPC with whom the PC enters into the verbal exchange.

The motivation is what the character wants. This goal can be specific or general. The more proactive the NPC, the more specific the goal will be.

Specific goals might include:

  • gaining the Botticelli secret
  • killing Carson Gersh
  • selling the Winston house
  • getting the suitcase full of money

General motivations are more inchoate and psychological:

  • earning approval
  • hiding sense of insecurity
  • destroying father figures
  • pursuing affection

If you want to get fancy about it, a specific goal might be rooted in a general goal. Ernest Combs may want to gain the Botticelli Secret to destroy a father figure, his hated former mentor Elias Thwaite.

Greater complexity can be added in the form of multiple or even contradictory motivations. Mrs. Spooner may want to rent the downstairs apartment, earn the flirtatious attention of handsome men, while still proving that she is a respectable citizen.

GUMSHOE is player-facing, meaning that it treats PCs and NPCs differently. PCs are the protagonists, who act. NPCs exist only in relation to them and tend not to make rolls on their own. So if an NPC sneaks up on a PC, the action is resolved not by the GM rolling for the NPC, but by the player rolling against his Surveillance or Sense Trouble ability to see if he notices.

The implication of this principle in interpersonal conflicts is that the PCs are not open to being persuaded or bamboozled, as they are in Dying Earth, by a rules resolution. Only when the players decide it’s in character to be deceived or inveigled do they act against their better judgment. This is in keeping with the procedural genre, which can be described as a romance of competence.

In a scene of personal conflict, then, a PC must overcome the NPC’s resistance, rooted in his motivation, and pivot him so that he becomes open to an action he is at first unwilling to embark upon.

We already have this in the system with Interpersonal Investigative abilities. NPCs are often resistant to giving out information until the players figure out what ability (Bargain, Flattery, Seduction, Streetwise, et al) can best be used to overcome their objections.

Interpersonal abilities can also be used to overcome resistance in other areas. To do so, the player must specify a tactic. The tactic is an approach, offer, or argument made to overcome another person’s resistance. This might or might not cite an interpersonal ability. Let’s say that Ernest Combs has taken a hostage, who the PC wants to him to release.

If the player comes up with a tactic, which, given Combs’ motivations, will make his capitulation seem plausible, the conflict is resolved in his favor:

  • “Through Intimidation, I make myself seem like a forbidding father figure, then offer to swap places with the hostage.”
  • “Through Flattery, I tell him he’s better than this—if he hurts a hostage, Elias Thwaite will be elated by his moral failure.”
  • “I Bargain with him, promising him a photocopy of the map room if he lets her go.”

Sometimes non-Interpersonal abilities might apply:

  • “I use Theology to remind him that these are not the actions of a man of faith.”

A prepared GM can designate one or more possible successful tactics ahead of time, but should also be ready to accept unexpected yet equally plausible suggestions from the players.

This system not only emulates the source literature, but gives investigators a reason to learn more about the NPCs in any scenario—you never know when you’ll need to persuade them of something later on in the story.

The extent to which ability ratings influence outcomes is a matter of taste.

The minimalist approach is the triggered result—here, resistance is overcome simply by citing an ability plus a plausible tactic (or even a plausible tactic to which no ability applies.) The triggered result is congruent with the clue-gathering mechanic.

You may wish to have players pay a toll to succeed in interactions which yield non-informational advantages. In this case, require an interpersonal spend. The player succeeds after paying 1 or 2 points from the cited ability. Combs releases the hostage on a 2-point spend of Intimidation, Flattery, or Bargain, depending on which tactic the player selects. Add complexity by assessing different spend levels reflecting the relative aptness of the various tactics: the Bargain might cost 1 point, whereas the Flattery, which is a bit of a stretch given the investigator’s previously expressed antipathy for Combs, costs 3.

Finally, you might prefer, even with a plausible tactic, an uncertain or chancy outcome. In an interpersonal contest, the GM assigns a Difficulty to the persuasion attempt, based on the aptness of the tactic. A Difficulty of 4 is standard; higher than that represents an especially tough challenge. The player can add to the die result by spending points from the relevant investigative ability, gaining a +2 result bonus for each ability point spent. This approach is in keeping with traditional roleplaying approaches to the problem, and introduces an element of suspense, and, therefore, uncertainty. On the downside, it is less like the source material, and therefore less GUMSHOE-y.

You may always find that one of the three techniques—the triggered result, interpersonal spend, or interpersonal contest—is best suited to your style of play. However, you may find that certain situations call for the automatic certitude of the triggered result, while others cry out for the plot-branching potential of the interpersonal contest. Creators of fiction vary their techniques to achieve a range of effects, and GMs should do likewise.


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.

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

by Graham Walmsley

At first sight, Gumshoe would make a perfect LARP. There’s little die-rolling, so it suits a game played standing up; and, as an investigative game, it’s about talking to people. It sounds ideal. Would it work?

In this article, I’ll attempt to create a Gumshoe LARP. For the setting, I’ll use an English murder mystery: a staple of investigative LARPs.

For the ruleset, I’ll use Fear Itself. So it’ll be a horrific murder mystery: think Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

This LARP will have little combat and much talking. There’ll be about 20 players, in costume, and pregenerated characters. The game will last about four hours, at the end of which the players will find, amongst themselves, a murderer.

The Characters

As with all Fear Itself characters, the PCs will have a Worst Thing They Ever Did and Sources Of Stability. These are superb roleplaying tools, especially for a LARP.

The characters will also have a Risk Factor: the reason they don’t just call the police and lock themselves in the bathroom.

In addition, there’ll be Affinities and Enmities. These will create alliances and factions, which are golden in LARPs: they instantly let players know who they’re with and who they’re against; who to talk to and who to avoid.

Finally, each character will have something They Want. Let’s take this a step further: we’ll fix the pregenerated characters so that every character’s want could be granted by another character. That gives everyone a goal: something to work for, which they might achieve.

Let’s call this new characteristic “What I Can Give”. It might, for example, be Money, Forgiveness, Property or Healing. For game purposes, each character has an infinite amount of this quality to give: if a character can give Money, they have an infinite amount of money to give, to whom they choose.

Investigative Skills

When you’re walking around, playing your character, complex character sheets get in the way. Instead, let’s put the skills on cards: instead of having two Streetwise points, you’ll have two Streetwise cards. Rather than spending a point, you discard a card.

We’ll let players choose skills as follows: there’s a central pile of cards, from which each player takes 10. This also means skills will be distributed between the players: if there are only three Architecture cards, a maximum of three people may have that skill.

Clues

Some clues will work exactly as in Fear Itself: the GM holds them and players spend points – or, rather, discard cards – to get them.

For example, you’d discard an Investigative Procedure card to get the following clue:

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There are scratches surrounding the lock, as if it has been picked.

If a player told the GM he was closely examining the lock, he’d also get that clue.

There will be Core Clues, too.

Core Clue: Streetwise

A street kid tells you that Father Morgan was attempting to wash blood from his hands in the gutter.

And some clues might have time limits.

Core Clue: Architecture

There is a false wall behind this bookcase. (Do not reveal until after the second murder).

But we can be cleverer. LARPS work best when players talk to each other, not the GM. So let’s put clues in the hands of the players.

Player Clues

Each player will hold a number of clues: say, three or four. These will be allocated to each pregenerated character before the game.

Clue: Flirting or Intimidation

You know Dr Brown intended to change his will.

If you hold this clue, and someone uses Flirting or Intimidation on you, you must reveal it.

Players will hold Core Clues, too. Again, some of these might have time limits attached.

Core Clue: Cop Talk

You know damn well Father Morgan killed Sir Ralph and you’ve got photographs to prove it. Do not reveal this until after the second murder.

Murders

Best of all, the murders themselves will be Core Clues. Here’s an example:

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die.

Also, each murder will have associated Clues, some of which would be Core Clues, and some not:

Core Clue: Medicine or Investigative Ability

From a blue tinge to the lips, you can tell the victim has been poisoned with cyanide, ingested in the last ten minutes.

Clue: Investigative Ability

The glass from which the victim was drinking has been wiped clean of prints, save for the victim’s fingerprints.

The murder victim would hold these clues and, after they die (giving the “Murder” clue), they’d give out other clues to players who used an appropriate ability.

Stability

How can we work Stability into this?

Since we’re using cards already, let’s have Stability Cards instead of Stability Points. However, you can’t hold negative cards, so we’ll have to tweak the rules.

Let’s move the scale upwards: on 5 Stability Cards or less, you’re shaken; on 2 or less, you’re mentally ill; when you’ve no cards, you’re incurable. You start with around 10 cards.

Note that we’ve halved the length of the scale, so we must halve the Stability Losses:

  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to do serious harm: 1 Stability Card
  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to kill: 2 Stability Cards
  • Witnessing a grisly murder: 2 Stability Cards
  • Discovering the corpse of a friend or loved one: 3 Stability Cards
  • Seeing a friend or loved one killed: 4 Cards

However, in Gumshoe, you roll dice to check Stability. Dice work badly in LARPs: because everyone’s walking around, it’s hard to roll them.

Instead, let’s try this. On the wall, we’ll have a clock. Then, on each Stability card, we’ll print 6 random numbers, from 1 to 12.

To do a Stability check, look at the clock and note the number the minute hand points to (if there’s doubt, ask someone else and agree). Then draw one of your Stability cards, at random. If that number is on the card, you’re fine; if not, discard an appropriate number of Stability cards.

As in the original Gumshoe rules, you may spend Stability to increase the chance of succeeding. Simply draw any number of extra Stability Cards. You must discard these extra cards whether or not you succeed: but, if the number is on them, you succeed the Stability check.

The chances of succeeding, using this system, are slightly different from those in the original rules. In the original rules, the probabilities of succeeding would be:

  • With no points: 50%
  • With one point: 66%
  • With two points: 83%
  • With three points: 100%

In our revised LARP rules, the probabilities are:

  • With no cards: 50%
  • With one card: 75%
  • With two cards: 87%
  • With three cards: 93%

and, with more cards, the probability of success increases gradually towards 100%. Nevertheless, it’s a good approximation to the original rules.

I’ve chosen a clock because it seems appropriate to a murder mystery: I imagine grandfather clocks and meals served at specific times. However, there are various options: we might use occult symbols instead of clock numbers. The symbol to match against could be on another Stability card.

Mental Illness

If you get a mental illness, how do you communicate that to the other players? In a tabletop, it’s easy; but, in a LARP, you don’t want to stop the game to accommodate it.

Instead, let’s use sticky notes. When you get a mental illness, you collect a sticky note from the GM, and place it on your forehead.

You won’t know what it says, but other players will read it and react: “Talk about me behind my back”, perhaps, or “I am talking at twice the normal speed” or “I am covered in blood”.

What Would Cause a Stability Check?

Firstly, the GM might have pre-arranged Stability checks written into clues.

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There is an ancient skeleton lying under the floorboards (Stability Check: 1 Card).

Then, prospective murder victims would have stability checks written into their Murder Clues. The gorier the murder, the greater the Stability check.

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die. (Stability Check: 1 Card fpr witnessing the murder )

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the third murder victim. You die by being mauled, by an unseen assailant, perhaps a huge dog. (Stability Check: 2 Cards fpr witnessing the murder )

Of course, you lose more Stability Cards if the victim is a friend or loved one.

Finally, of course, a player can cause another character to check their Stability, by attacking them.

Health

How should we handle combat and Health levels? We could do it in a similar way to Stability: have Health cards, perhaps, with clock numbers printed on them.

However, combat plays little part in murder mysteries. Sure, there are murders, but they’ll be pre-planned. Also, in a short LARP, it seems unfair to allow players to remove each other from the game by killing each other.

So let’s make a bold decision: there won’t be Health levels. You can attack someone and force them to make a Stability check. You can even decide, together, that the attack caused a wound. But you can’t kill anyone.

To me, this makes for a more interesting game. Attacking someone won’t hurt them: but it might send them mad.

Denouement

So, that’s the backbone of Gumshoe as a murder mystery LARP. Taking a step back, how does it seem?

There are issues. What happens if a player wants to imprison another? What if they want to break through a door?

Also note that, because there’s only one location, there’s effectively only one scene in the game. This is a problem: Gumshoe games use scenes as a pacing device: for example, the final clue will rarely be available in the first scene, only in a later scene. This game needs a similar pacing mechanism: perhaps the clue giving the identity of the murderer is unavailable until after the final murder.

Despite these, I like the idea. It seems playable and fun. I’d happily wander round, investigating murders, and, if I needed a change, attack someone to drive them mad.

So, that done, the only thing left to do is play it and see if it works.

Sample Characters

Lord Bristol
Concept: Vain landowner
Risk Factor: Dismissive
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Disinherit my son, Alfred when I found out he was about to marry Sarah, the maid
What I Want: Absolution for my part in the war
What I Can Give: Property
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Mrs Warpole
Enmities: Alfred Bristol, Jack Brass

Jack Brass
Concept: Cunning Master of the Stables
Risk Factor: Thrill-seeking
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Shoot Lord Bristol’s best stallion in a drunken rage
What I Want: A small townhouse
What I Can Give: My hand in marriage
Affinities: Sarah Devizes, Alfred Bristol
Enmities: Lord Bristol, Father Nigel

Sarah Devizes
Concept: Religious maid
Risk Factor: Horny
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Throw a pan of boiling water over Emma, my sister
What I Want: A good husband
What I Can Give: Forgiveness
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Father Nigel
Enmities: Jack Brass, Lord Bristol

Sample clues

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Lord Bristol
After one hour, you are trampled to death by a horse in the stables.

Core Clue: Natural History
Held by: GM
Found in: Stables
The horses have been drugged with extreme doses of a stimulant.

Clue: Reassurance
Held by: Sarah Devizes
Alfred used to beat you. You were glad when he called the engagement off.

Clue: Streetwise
Held by: Jack Brass
You’ve seen Bristol drinking very, very heavily. He has a secret whisky bottle concealed under the study floorboards.

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Sir James Degby
The first time you are served food or drink after the first murder, you are poisoned.

Clue: Investigative Procedure or declared search
Held by: GM
Found in: Study
Under the study floorboards is a whisky bottle, half empty.

Core Clue: Intimidation or Reassurance
Held by: Father Nigel
After three hours, reveal that Sarah confessed to you that she was planning to kill her father-in-law.


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.

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