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A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

During a session GUMSHOE players sometimes wonder if they can use their interpersonal investigative abilities on each others’ characters. I’m not sure this special case needs to be heavily featured in any of our core rule sets but here’s how you might handle it if it comes up.

This most often comes up in the case of Bullshit Detector— or Assess Honesty, for the genteel antiquarians among us.

In that case you can definitely indicate that one investigator’s untruthful statements trigger suspicion in others who have the ability. Players tend to volunteer to pay a point for the privilege but that’s unnecessary in almost any case you care to name. Often, the player with the ability already knows the other is lying and is merely asking game permission to proceed as if the character realizes it too. A point spend might be appropriate if the player of the lying character hasn’t made clear that she’s being deceptive. In that case, a point spend requires the target player to state whether she’s lying. As usual, Bullshit Detector never reveals the real truth, just that the character isn’t on the level.

On a more cooperative note, you might use Reassurance to assist another character. Let’s say you’re playing mythos-busting hobo Princess Sadie, with Marcel taking the role of Xavier Paradis, a reluctant new recruit to the cosmic horror scene. Xavier just lost some Stability after seeing the mangled victim of a Deep One attack. Accordingly, Marcel plays him as panicked and momentarily unwilling to let his Curiosity drive draw him further into an underground grotto. No one doubts that Marcel will eventually play Xavier as recovering his composure enough to keep the story moving forward; he’s just having fun getting to that moment. This gives you an opening to spend Reassurance points. Princess Sadie dispenses folksy hobo wisdom, showing why Xavier decides to get a grip. Instead of an interior moment in which Marcel takes one position and then switches, you have an interactive dialogue that gets him to the same place. For each point you spend, Marcel gets a +1 bonus on any general ability test called for during the ensuing action. This might be Xavier’s next Stability test, or any other situation requiring confidence.

You may decide that certain cases require too much of a logic stretch to qualify. For example, it’s hard to explain how a boost of confidence could have helped Marcel already have a needed item on hand. So Preparedness doesn’t make sense as a place to use that bonus.

You might likewise use Inspiration, in those GUMSHOE games that include that ability, to justify why a character overcomes his selfish motivations to undertake an action. Let’s say you’re Ashen Stars freelance law enforcement official Fodi Jones, and Marcel is playing gruff fellow crewman Uvuk. You’ve been hired to rescue a kidnapped industrialist. After poking around on the asteroid where she’s being held, you discover that her captors also run a gladiatorial combat operation featuring mind-controlled fighters. Marcel knows that the scenario has taken a turn from the original premise, but to remain consistent with his hard-bitten character, argues that the crew lacks sufficient profit motive to help the gladiators. As Fodi, you perform an extemporaneous monologue appealing to Uvuk’s carefully-hidden higher ideals. Marcel can now have fun playing his expected, grumbling foray into altruism. As with the Reassurance example, Marcel gains a bonus equal to the number of Inspiration points you spent on an ensuing general test of his choice.

You might repeat this pattern with Flattery, persuading a fellow PC to do something by boosting his ego, then allowing the player to convert the Flattery points you spend to a general test bonus.

To do this with Negotiation, you offer the other investigator a deal of some kind. To stick with the Ashen Stars example, you might agree to visit Uvuk’s home planet to assist him in a war ritual if he first helps save the gladiators.

Intimidation and Flirting present tougher cases.

Threatening another PC into taking action makes your character unsympathetic. The group’s acceptance of your bullying undermines suspension of disbelief. It might work if the target of the Intimidation has been set up as a skeevy, not-quite-trusted member of the group who has to be kept on the straight and narrow by the others. If one of you plays his character like Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or Quark from “Deep Space Nine”, the odd comic scene in which a more respectable member of the team puts the squeeze on him adds fun to the proceedings without breaking emotional logic.

Flirting could work if you’ve already established a will-they won’t-they romantic undertone to the relationship between the two characters. Although this sort of thing happens all the time in movies and TV shows, gamers usually steer clear of it. It requires two players with the panache to pull it off without coming aground on the shoals of awkwardness. Be 100% certain the other player is as down with this as you are before trying this.

Interpersonal abilities keyed to win the cooperation of GMCs from particular walks of life don’t much fit this pattern. Examples include Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Streetwise and Trail of Cthulhu’s various Credit Rating levels. I suppose you could get it to work if the target PC is a bureaucrat, former cop, or crook, but then they’d also have to have the same ability. So the chances of a practical example ever occurring remain rare enough that we don’t need to furrow our brows about it.

And Interrogation get us to the edge case of all edge cases. You can justify that only when you have the target PC under the duress of official (or quasi-official) detainment. If things between you and another character have gone that far, and you can both then lift that trainwreck back onto the narrative tracks, congratulations! But if you do make that happen, the target could well spend your Interrogation points on a later general test.