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.

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.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007, but could prove useful for the many subsequent GUMSHOE systems.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

On a fundamental structural level, RPG sessions are their own beast, and are unlike movies, TV, and books. However, these related storytelling forms are always worth looking at for inspiration. Many of their surface techniques remain unplundered by GMs. Most notably, the tricks they use to compress time and make proceedings less boring demand further study, if not slavish emulation.

For example, let’s look at the differences between a story of investigation as it plays out in a TV cop show as opposed to the way they usually unfold in an RPG.

In a cop show, each encounter or interrogation generally a few important points of information. Then the script quickly moves onto a new scene in which another character provides more information.

Often, though not always, the investigators must score a win by overcoming the informant’s reluctance to spill the crucial beans. The informants’ reasons for reluctance, and the means necessary to overcome them, will vary enough to disguise the formula and keep the proceedings entertaining.

You can’t break it down to a formula, but often the informant:

A) provides one clue

B) rules out one possibility

and concludes by

C) supplying a third nugget of information pointing the investigators to the next encounter.

RPG interrogations tend to unfold in actual time. In that, they’re like real police interviews: given the chance, the PCs will ask every question under the sun, looping around, repeating themselves, and amassing great reams of information from each informant, which they’ll then try to sift for the crucial point.

This poses a challenge to you as GM, because you want a sense of forward movement, to build excitement and stave off boredom and paralysis. Players become easily confused in investigative scenarios. Unlike real cops, they’re picturing their nonexistent people talking to your nonexistent people. As they go, they’re filling in the imaginative blanks, often mistakenly. The more editing and pre-sifting of information you can do for them, the happier they’ll be, and the more satisfying the episode’s pacing will seem.

By imitating a cop show trick, you can keep each interview quick and to the point. No one in a cop show has time to talk to the cops. (Maybe this is why most of the best cop shows are set in New York City, where no one has time for anyone.) The random group of eccentrics and semi-outlaws who compose the average adventuring group will earn even less time from the basic NPC civilian.

Here’s a form you can use for each interviewee in an investigative adventure:

  • Reason for Reluctance:
  • Overcoming Reluctance:
  • Clue supplied:
  • Possibility Ruled Out:
  • Next contact:
  • Cut-Off:

Just like a cop show screenwriter, you’ll want to create as many different reasons for brushing off the PCs as possible, for variety’s sake. Informants crucial to your storyline will require reasons directly related to the motivations you’ve preset for them. For walk-on characters, you can choose reasons at random — or start with the reason and build the character from that starting point.

Examples can include:

Complicity: Informant peripherally involved in the crime.

Confusion: Informant is cooperative, but his perceptions are muddled.

Greed: Informant seeks payoff before talking, and drives a hard bargain.

Guilt: Informant has done something bad, but unrelated to the mystery, and fears that this is what the PCs are investigating.

Hostility: Informant has good reason to hate adventurers as a group.

Ideology: Informant belongs to a group or class politically opposed to the PCs or their patrons.

Loyalty: Informant wants to protect someone she (rightly or wrongly) assumes to be the target of their investigation.

Paranoia: Informant assumes PCs are his (real or imagined) enemies.

Preoccupation: Informant more concerned with his own pressing business or agenda than with helping the PCs.

Snobbery: Informant considers himself social better of PCs; recoils at the thought of associating with them.

The manner in which the PCs must overcome the informant’s reluctance arises from the nature of that reluctance.

Complicity: PCs must convince informant they know what he did and can arrange for worse treatment if he doesn’t talk.

Confusion: PCs must sort through informant’s scattered recollections for the important fact.

Greed: PCs must pay him off, or convince him he’ll be worse off if he doesn’t talk.

Guilt: Must assure informant that her particular misdeeds are not their concern.

Hostility: PCs must mollify the informant, or use leverage his grudge against him with intimidation tactics.

Ideology: Informant must be shown how cooperation benefits his faction.

Loyalty: Convince informant cooperation will lead to a better outcome for the person she’s protecting.

Paranoia: Either reassure or terrify the informant.

Preoccupation: Show how lack of cooperation will hurt the informant’s business or cause.

Snobbery: Show how cooperation will lead to the PCs’ speedy departure.

Alternate methods of persuasion should always be possible. Otherwise you risk falling into a variant of the classic plot bottleneck, in which there’s only one way to get a particular piece of information on which all forward development depends. PCs should be able to intimidate snobs or bribe paranoids. For variety’s sake, ensure that no single tactic works on all informants.

Structurally, any investigative adventure consists of a trail of clues leading like bread crumbs from one encounter to the next, so the nature of the clue is up to you.

The next contact positions the encounter within that structure, telling you which new scene the character will point the PCs toward. In a cop show, the leads find the clues in a particular order. If you can prepare several different orders in which the clues can be assembled, you face less chance that a dead end point will arise in mid-scenario. (Putting the encounters on index cards helps if you intend to shuffle them as you go.)

Finally, under the entry labeled cut-off, slot in the reason for the NPC to conclude the encounter after the PCs have squeezed it for all of its information and entertainment value. It’s easier to get NPCs out of scenes in a modern setting with busy schedules and ringing cellphones, but self-respecting supporting characters in any era or genre should be anxious to get on with their own lives as your sense of expediency dictates. Cut-offs may refer back to the character’s original reluctance to talk. A snob wants to shoo uncouth PCs out of his manor as quickly as possible. A paranoid wishes to escape an imagined threat. If the PCs haven’t slapped the cuffs on a complicit character, he will want to leave the jurisdiction as soon as possible.

Unrelated cut-offs work just as well, and provide an added sense of reality to your world. Mundane details like crying babies, overflowing sinks, cookpots in need of tending, escaping horses, or goods in need of protection from the rain all provide otherwise helpful NPCs excuses to bring their discussions with the heroes to an end.

I’d stick around and elaborate, but you have all the clues to piece it together. I have an owl to feed. Or something! Good luck with that investigation, now!