The Plain People of Gaming: Core Competencies

The number one critique of GUMSHOE among those who have little or no experience of the system is that the investigative rules turn the scenario into a railroad, where the players blindly follow a predetermined series of clues – which, being an erudite regular reader of Page XX, you know is not true. Hot on its heels, though, is another complaint you may encounter with new players – that the point-spending aspect of general abilities means that there’s little difference between a supremely skilled character and an amateur over an extended fight.

If I’m a super-lethal spy, the best sniper in the world with a mighty 15 in Firearms, then that probably gives me at most five guaranteed hits (spending 3 points per attack, plus my die roll against a Hit Threshold of 4) – possibly fewer if the bad guys have cover or other advantages. After I spend all my points, I’m rolling a plain d6 for my attacks, just like the schlub next to me who has only a single point of Firearms.

Three arguments for the current rules:

  • You Don’t Need That Many Successes: In most general abilities, you rarely need to succeed multiple times in an adventure. One or two guaranteed successes in Stealth, Mechanics, Preparedness or Driving is often more than enough to overcome any challenge. Most General Abilities only get called once per session at most. This argument does fall down a little when it comes to combat abilities, but for most abilities, a higher pool does model the effect of higher competence.
  • You Can Refresh: Especially in games that allow refreshes in the middle of the action (Night’s Black Agents and moves like Technothriller Monologue, Timewatch and Stitches), a player can take action to get points back. Having the sniper have to spend a round describing how they move to get to a better firing position is more fun than yet another round of “I shoot, I hit”. Forcing the characters to rest and refresh to get their abilities back pushes the game towards a nice rhythm and gives a sense of time passing.
  • It’s More Interesting: Players tend to have higher pools than most of their opponents, so switching to a different ability is often an option. Out of Firearms? Grab a knife and start swinging with Weapons. Out of Driving in a chase scene? Then ditch the car and start parkouring with Athletics. Out of Preparedness? Start improvising with Mechanics.

However, if a prospective player remains obstinate, one compromise is to give a flat +1 bonus to all tests involving a general ability if a character has a rating of 8 or more in that ability. So, if you’ve got Firearms 8 or more, you get a +1 bonus to all Firearms rolls. That gives the super-experienced, super-competent gunman a permanent edge over the barely trained goon, but doesn’t distort the regular GUMSHOE point-spending mechanic too much, so the characters will still need to make spends, seek out refreshes and so on.

This added rule can be added straight into most GUMSHOE games; for games that already offer 8-rating cherries like Night’s Black Agents, offer the flat bonus as an alternative cherry.

Leave a Reply