The Call of Chicago: Exploding, Experimenting, Expediting

Pop quiz, hotshot: a mysterious figure tosses a grenade at you. How much damage do you take? In GUMSHOE, it depends on who’s throwing the grenade.

A cultist of Hastur? Point-blank grenade damage in Trail of Cthulhu is +3. Right there, one table, look it up, bang. Or rather, boom.

A vampiric henchman, or a mutant criminal? Point-blank grenade damage in Night’s Black Agents (within 2m in Mutant City Blues) is +0, plus 6 more points (three times the grenade’s explosive class of 2) for a net of +6. A little more figgering, but still, boom. (The table should probably have the rule in it, so you don’t have to flip any pages. Notes for future second editions.)

An Esoterrorist? A grenade near enough to do damage in the Esoterror Fact Book does +2 damage, rolled three times. You can spend 4 points of Athletics to dive away from one roll, and 6 points of athletics to dodge two rolls. It’s your choice, but someone has to remember the rule.

A giggling slasher, or a sentient locust? In Fear Itself and Ashen Stars, the GM is just gonna roll something and decide how hosed you should be.

Pete’s Dad? You’ve gotta ask the other guy, but it don’t look good.

You probably want to get grenaded by an Esoterrorist, if you’re the spry type.

Why so many different versions? Isn’t a grenade just a grenade? (Yes, GURPS fans, I know. Put your hands down.) Part of the reason is that Robin and I keep coming up with new (and, one hopes, often better) ideas for game mechanics. One of the really great joys of GUMSHOE development is the ability to tag-team design this way. (Or at least it is for those of us tag-teamed with Robin; he may see it differently. On an unrelated note, the 18th-century strongman Belzoni did a stunt in which he carried a ton of dwarves on his back.)

But a bigger reason is this: GUMSHOE games are first and foremost about building a game experience that models a specific narrative style, a specific genre. In Trail of Cthulhu, maintaining a mood of horror is key, so we don’t want to get down in the rules weeds. Damage should be fast, simple, and (with Purist mode Health levels anyway) unpleasant. In both Night’s Black Agents and Mutant City Blues, those genres (spy thriller and police procedural) feed off the bling of surface details. The rules should be crunchier to reflect that, and they should cover more types of explosives and scale higher than the relatively simple Trail of Cthulhu chart. Also, the damage can be higher, because the heroes are badass spies or genuine superheroes. The Esoterror Fact Book thing isn’t really a grenade rule, although it’s presented as one. It’s actually a Thriller Combat Maneuver because it models cinematic badassery. I could easily have lifted it as an option for Night’s Black Agents, probably calling it “Thrown Clear of the Blast.” (It’s going in Double Tap, never you fear.) In lo-fi horror and space adventure serial, you almost never see grenades, so they’re not even present in the Fear Itself or Ashen Stars rules text. If grenades are so important to the specific story that the GM needs to add them, she’ll have a much better idea of how much damage they should do to her heroes or their foes. (Hint: It may not even be the same amount of damage.)

This little grenade workshop exemplifies the kind of thing that makes developing the eventual Open GUMSHOE (a stretch goal secured by your generous support for Hillfolk) a mite tricky. But it’s also what makes GUMSHOE so powerful: you can swap out grenade rules as easily as you can port byakhee into the Bleed, or send Toronto super-cops after dhampirs.

And it’s not all grenades. You can change up really fundamental rules for the game, like how the dice work, with almost as little effort. During the Dragonmeet GUMSHOE panel in 2011, I teased a questioner who said his players were made nervous by the finality of GUMSHOE spends, calling a “take-backs” version (you can spend after the roll, maybe at double the cost) WhineSHOE. I meant it, of course, with love tempered only very little by the frustration of the chef who sees a diner enthusiastically pouring balsamic vinegar on the Dover sole. Staunch and valued friend of GUMSHOE Lowell Francis took it in good spirit, proposing a couple of changes he’d like to see in his own “WhineSHOE” post. In his LiveJournal, gameratus Joshua Kronengold proposed another very interesting variant:

Instead of “1 spend = +1 [to the die],” replace this with “1 spend = +1 or roll +1 die, keeping the highest”. The nice thing about this is that +1 die is actually strictly worse than a straight +1 (adding a die and dropping the lowest increases the likely result by +35/36). But Gumshoe isn’t about your maximum total; it’s about your chance of failure, and there the first +1 die (but not so much the rest; extra dice have a steep diminishing return) drastically drops your worst cases — changing the chance of a 1 from 1/6 to 1/36 (although there you’d rather go from 1/6 to 0/6), a 2 or worse from 2/3 to 1/9, and a 3 or worse from 1/2 to 1/4.

I thought this was such a good, neat, elegant hack that I shot it off to Simon and Robin, and found out that Simon has been doing much the same thing as a house rule for “Mastery” skills in his homebrewed GUMSHOE Fantasy game. It definitely could fit in the default cinematic “competence porn” world of Night’s Black Agents, and probably as a Pulp rule for Trail of Cthulhu. I wouldn’t use it in Purist mode for Trail, or Dust mode NBA. If your Bleed is more Star Trek than Blake’s 7, maybe it goes in Ashen Stars, too. I’d also probably limit it to “only one extra die,” for simplicity’s sake.

Anyhow, my point is this. Because of the nature of the GUMSHOE lines, and the nature of GUMSHOE itself, there are a lot of GUMSHOE variants floating around out there. Some of them might not be best practices, and even some best practices might not be for everyone. Lowell wants to integrate FATE more closely with GUMSHOE, while R.B. Bergstrom summed up the real secret core of GUMSHOE better than I think almost anyone has in a recent post in his blog Transitive Property of Gaming. (If it helps, mentally swap Bennies, the Savage Worlds term he uses below, for Fate points from FATE when you read this)

The GUMSHOE system, in a nutshell, is a game where your entire character sheet is nothing but Bennies. It’s like starting every session with about 80 Bennies per player, and I find that to be awesome.

So obviously, there’s no one right answer, but there are way too many great answers than we can easily track. Some of them apparently being quietly implemented by the publisher without telling his designers. (On an unrelated note, Belzoni eventually left the strongman business to blow holes in priceless antiquities.)

So I’d like to propose that we set up shop somewhere on the Pelgrane site to keep a bunch of best practices, hacks, tweaks, and horrible ideas. Until we get the GUMSHOE Lab clean and sparkly, we can use the comments section on this post. Or post more hacks to the Pelgrane forums under the “GUMSHOE General Discussion” category. But I swear we’re going to get the GUMSHOE Lab up and running, and stock it with all the hacks we can scrounge up, probably once Robin gets the Open GUMSHOE draft to a stage he likes.

Having said all that, I should note that we are trying out a unified system of Expeditions rules for GUMSHOE in Mythos Expeditions. Once we’ve seen how seven or eight good designers who aren’t me hit those rules, I’ll know if they should only be the Trail of Cthulhu Expeditions rules by the time the project is through. I tried a first cut at “the journey is the danger” rules in the “Lord of the Jungle” adventure in Shadows Over Filmland, but those were way too finicky to backdrop everything from the Mountains of Madness to a gulag prison break. So I went back to basics, came up with a single metric for testing Survival (an Expedition’s Health rating, basically) and hung some mechanics off that. It’s certainly simpler to write, and I suspect it’s geometrically simpler to run.

Right now, though, we’re at the exciting stage where I’ve sent out the Expeditions rules, an outline, and a sample expedition (to romantic Paraguay! O magical land of brush warfare and vampire bats!) to a whole caravan of super-neat authors, and I’m getting their pitches back. We’ll release a table of contents once we have it, mostly as a brag. I’d like to say Mythos Expeditions will be a spring playtest (or rather eight or so spring playtests) and a summer release, but we haven’t made all our Survival tests on this one yet. I should probably pack some grenades, come to think of it.

One Response to “The Call of Chicago: Exploding, Experimenting, Expediting”

  1. Very thoughtful essay, and thanks for the complement on my hack! One correction (already made in my post on the labcats blogjournal): Where I say “a 2 or worse from 2/3 to 1/9,” I naturally meant from 1/3 to 1/9″.

    I agree that it makes sense to cap the extra die to 1 — as I mention, except in rare cases (it has to be a sufficent portion of the spend to make sense; I’ve yet to crawl the number space to find an example where it exists but wouldn’t be suprised if one could construct one), more than one extra die doesn’t make any sense as another +1 is just better, so taking a bad option off the table is probably a good idea.

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