The Plain People of Gaming: Building an Investigative Ability list

When creating your own game with the GUMSHOE rules – or when hacking an existing game – one key early step is deciding which investigative abilities you’re going to include. Different games use radically different numbers and lists of abilities – compare the sprawling list of abilities in The Esoterrorists to the much more compact list in Fear Itself.

Investigative abilities fulfil four key functions:

Obviously, they let the investigators find clues, especially core clues that point the way to the next scene. I always think of investigative abilities as how the players interrogate the game world – they’re a list of prompts for questions the players can ask. Investigative abilities don’t need to cover every possible approach – a game about pulp archaeologists doesn’t need to differentiate, say, Chemistry and Physics. A detective game inspired by Poirot is going to have a lot more abilities relating to observation, psychology, and social interaction than one inspired by CSI.

This is taken to an extreme in the Yellow King rules – take a look at the Paris-era investigative abilities, which compel the players to see the mystery through a lens of art.

Choose abilities that reflect the sort of mystery you want them to solve.

Related to this, investigative abilities inform the players about their characters and the setting. You can put important information about the setting right on the character sheet. Night’s Black Agents, for example, drips with technothriller jargon, stuffing its character sheet full of Traffic Analysis, Tradecraft, Urban Survival and Human Terrain. Esoterrorists has a clinical, literally forensic list of abilities that clearly conveys that this game is about information gathering. Timewatch has a much slimmer, more casual list of abilities (Science!) while still telling players what’s important (three different flavours of history).

Interpersonal abilities are especially suited for this – if your game includes Etiquette and Gossip, it’s clearly a game of mannered protagonists. If it includes Social Media and Street Gangs, it’s probably a cyberpunk game.

You can highlight key facets of your setting by turning it into an investigative ability. Cthulhu City, for instance, emphasises the urban environment by adding District Knowledge.

Evoke setting through evocative ability names and choices.

Investigative abilities also provide benefits when spent (or Pushed). Depending on the game, this may simply be more information, reduce difficulties/give pools of General Ability points, or give the players a degree of control over the story. The interaction of investigative spends to the wider game is beyond the scope of this article, but when picking investigative abilities, try to think of associated benefits. If none spring to mind immediately, the ability may be drawn too narrowly.

Think about suitable benefits for each ability.

Investigative abilities let players distinguish their characters from one another. In some games, this isn’t an issue – in Timewatch, for example, it doesn’t matter if the psychic velociraptor and the cyborg ninja have a lot of overlap in their investigative abilities, as no-one’s going to mistake one for the other in play, while in Ashen Stars, characters have species and roles to give them a unique hat to wear. However, when your Fall of Delta Green group consists of six Federal Agents from an alphabet soup of agencies, or everyone’s a mutant cop, having a long enough ability list to give everyone a field of expertise is a good idea. That means you may need to identify a set of core abilities that everyone needs to have, and then add some more abilities as possible niches.

It’s permissible to include abilities that every player character in a setting would reasonably possess (all Night’s Black Agents characters have Tradecraft, for instance). Give such abilities for free.

Using packages or templates can also help guide players.

Have enough abilities on the list to avoid identical player characters.

That said, some abilities are close to universal. The core cluster of Interpersonal Abilities (Reassurance, Intimidation, Bargain/Negotiation, and Bullshit Detector/Assess Honesty) are valid investigative routes in almost any conceivable game. Architecture is surprisingly useful, as many adventures involve, well, places. A quick “you find this out through background reading” Research/Library Use ability is extremely handy to have.

Consider starting with an existing list and pruning it down, or starting with an incredibly bare-bones list and adding more as you playtest.

Different gaming groups (and, for that matter, different GUMSHOE writers!) have different tastes, and you likely need to experiment to find the sort of investigative ability list best works for your group. Experiment – or perhaps investigate – to find your own ideal mix…

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