This post originally appeared on 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


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


• 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.”