Improvising With GUMSHOE by Steve Dempsey
This article discusses an improvised variant of the GUMSHOE rules. It can be just as easily used for Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, or any other GUMSHOE game.
Most games of GUMSHOE are played using a scenario that the GM has written. Not only does she introduce each scene and play the non player characters but she also decides in advance what the clues are. Although the GM does not dictate the path the players will take through the adventure, she has a strong hand on the tiller as the clues she chooses will determine to a rather large extent what the players do.
There are some good reasons not to always play this way. Stephen King says in On Writing, “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” When you tie this in with the GM’s creed, “No scenario ever survives contact with the players”, you will see that the improvised game has some advantages over one written by the GM.
What you might lose on intricate plotting you are likely to gain on player involvement in the creative process and character play. Players will be much freer to take the scenario in directions that seem more natural to them and their input will have a greater impact on the story.
Improvisation is nothing terribly difficult to do, the main impact of playing this variant is that the game is not planned up front by a GM but is developed in play by players and GM alike. This means no prep for GMs, other than learning the rules. I’ll be discussing the details of how to do this in three easy stages. Finally I’ll give an example that shows how this works in play.
1. The set-up
As with any improvisation, you have to have a theme. It’s an improvisation on something. If you don’t have a theme, then the players won’t know what kind of characters to make.
So start with a theme. It doesn’t really matter how you come by this as long as there is some consensus within the group. You could let the GM choose (“You’re all students at a Japanese high school, getting ready for a school trip”) or you could have a group discussion about what sounds cool (“I want things lurking in doorways”, “I want magical rituals that take years to cast”, “I want a scene in an 80s disco”). You could also choose something that relates to a moral question (“How far are you prepared to go to stop the monsters?”) or a dilemma (“Family or Job?”).
But remember that this is GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, and Mutant City Blues. It’s all about investigation. Some terrible crime has been committed, the bastions of reality are under threat, and the characters are the ones to deal with it.
For your theme you should also discuss the nature of this threat or crime, even if you don’t want to know the details at this stage. For example, the Japanese schoolgirls are a shoe-in for some kind of mad slasher and the 80’s disco idea smacks of Son of Sam or Zodiac.
You could discuss who the villain of the piece is going to be. This could be oblique (some Mythos deity) or explicit (one of the schoolgirls). It helps the game if you have some idea of what you are aiming for. It should also help with pacing. You don’t want the bad guy to be revealed to the characters in the first five minutes.
It’s a good idea, although not necessary, to write down the outcome of your discussions regarding the theme. It’s a handy resource for players and GM alike who can refer to it when making decisions about characters or plot.
Once you know what the theme is, make up some characters. In many games, this is down in utmost secrecy lest anyone steal your cool idea. In improv, we have a different way of doing things. You all do your characters together. Talk about your characters to each other and say when you like something. Give positive feedback.
Improv thrives on feedback. You are the audience as well as the actors so big yourselves up. It’s not just about getting a good vibe, this is also about riffing off each other’s characters. If you’ve gone the schoolgirl route, you’ll need to know who is the class swot, who is the cheerleader and who has psychic powers. You’re characters don’t necessarily need to know, but your players do. You need to know where conflicts will arise because that’s what makes the game interesting.
You can do this by each introducing your character once generation has been done, but that’s a short cut that misses out the links that you can forge between your characters if you do the job collaboratively.
In improv GUMSHOE, investigative skills work differently. They still allow characters to automatically find core clues or to be spent on supplementary clues. That much does not change. However, because there is no prewritten scenario, the choice of skills determines what the characters are going to encounter. If no one has Art History as a skill, the characters aren’t going to be looking at many paintings. If they all have high trivia scores, then what happened in last week’s episode of Full Metal Alchemist is going to be much more important.
Decide how long you want the game to last. This can be done by deciding on the number of core clues. One is generally not enough but you can play a decent one session game with only three or four core clues. Don’t forget that some scenes will not be about clues but for transition or colour. Whilst you might like to go for a mammoth ten core clue game, this is probably a bit much and I imagine is best broken down into smaller three or four clue episodes, each with their own internal logic but all building blocks in the greater plot arc.
2. What do we do now?
Now you play. Without any kind of pre-existing scenario this sounds a bit scary but you do have something to go on, namely all the work that you’ve put in so far to create the theme and the characters. You should all have a pretty good idea of how the general direction of the game so now what you do is ask for scenes.
Anyone can ask for a scene, player or GM, but the GM gets to decide the order in which they are played. The first scene is usually called for by the GM who will use it to introduce the game, the characters and perhaps something about the mystery that’s about to be investigated.
A scene is where a least one character will attempt some kind of action. An action is where a character finds a clue, has social interaction with a PC or NPC or uses their general skills to some end. It’s a fairly loose definition but you’ll know one when you see one. For a scene to work it has to have some kind of danger, excitement, threat or drive the plot of the game.
It’s the GM’s job to set-up scenes and to play NPCs. They can take account of player wishes but ultimately it is there responsibility to decide who and what is in the scene.
It’s also the GM’s job to make sure that transitions between scenes are handled. This is essentially narration. It’s the bits in 24 that happen during the ad breaks when Jack Bauer drives to the next action packed scene, or at the start when the voice says “Previously on Heroes”. Transitions are important because they tie everything together. They can also have bits of exposition such as when a PC talks to his critically ill wife in hospital, flashbacks to a scene in the life of the villain or even foreshadowing of future events. The extent to which you expose plot to the players in these scenes is very much up to the will of the group. Some don’t want out of character knowledge but some relish the TV show style construction that has interposed shots of the bad guy committing his latest dastardly crime, think Skylar in Heroes.
3. How to improvise
Here are some techniques that you can use to help with your improvisation. If you want more information on improvisation for roleplaying I recommend the Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley).
These techniques are not difficult to use and they have been shown in theatre sports (see Impro by Keith Johnstone) to improve stories generated through improvisation.
Don’t try to be too clever
If your character goes into a bar for the first time, they should probably order a drink, they probably wouldn’t do a back flip over the bar and shoot the pianist. If you do this kind of thing, you ruin spoil the narrative by doing things for which the other players can’t see the justification. Characters should act in character and do what’s natural for them to do. You’ll find that acting naturally helps the game along much better because the other players will come to know what to expect from your character.
This follows on from the first technique. You won’t be able to understand what the other characters are like if you try to block everything they do. So if a character proposes going into a bar, you probably shouldn’t say “It’s closed” or “I don’t go in bars”. It’s fine to say, “Well, I wouldn’t usually, but just this once”. In fact this is very good because this reveals something about your character as well as encouraging the other player’s development of the game.
Build on what’s already happened. If an NPC gets mentioned by name in an early scene, bring them back later on. If a detail is mentioned, make it appear in a later scene under a different light, make it more or less important than it was. The reason behind reincorporation is because it reinforces the narrative by drawing attention to the salient points.
Reincorporation is also known as Chekov’s Gun because he once wrote in a letter to a friend, “”If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
4. An example of play
So here’s an example. Brenda is running a game for Steve and Anya. They decide that they want to play Fear Itself set in the London in the 70s. The player characters will all be involved in the punk scene, the tone will be gritty and the game should involve some kind of parasitical infection.
Steve’s character is called Sanjit, a fanzine writer from Bromley. His writing has some influence in the small milieu but he’s not necessarily well liked, mainly because of the sarcastic tone of his writing. He’s unemployed.
Anya’s character, Ariadne, has come down to London from Birmingham, to escape from Heavy Metal. She’s a competent drummer and has got a gig with a band called Dole Kids. Ariadne and Sanjit share a grotty room in Berwick St.
Brenda thinks that the plot probably involves something to do with some chord progression carrying the infection but that’s not something she can decide. But it is her job to frame the first scene . Given the theme, there’s nowhere better to start the game that at a club. (This is Not Being Too Clever .)
It’s a Friday night and the Dive, a club in Camden pub basement, is heaving. The floor is sticky with beer, the walls and ceiling dripping with sweat. Dole Kids are just coming off having done a decent set. Sanjit is in the off-stage area having a discussion with Molly, lead singer of Kick in the Head who are due on next. Molly has taken umbrage at something Sanjit wrote in his last fanzine. Her band is on stage and waiting for her.
The scene is played out to introduce the characters and any NPCs. From what happens it’s clear that Molly will feature later in the game. On this occasion Molly storms off up the steps to the stage barging into Ariadne. This only escalates the arguments. She spits at the group and she runs up to sing. They follow her and end up being beaten up by Kick in the Head and their loyal following. Molly takes pity on the PCs and gets them back to her dressing room where they share a joint.
Next, Anya calls for a Core Clue scene. As there hasn’t been anything horrible happen yet, this scene should introduce the first elements of horror. It’s probably time for someone to die.
Anya asks for the scene to take place at the after show party. Brenda sets the scene but allows the players to place their own characters. It’s after the gig at a party in a squat next to a kebab shop. There is no electricity in the building and it’s entirely lit by candles. Someone has a grotty tape player which is blasting out the rather indistinct sounds of Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Anya says that Ariadne is snogging some groupie in a wrecked bathroom, candles reflecting off broken bits of mirror. Steve decides that Sanjit is holding forth in a damp and grimy kitchen to a small coterie of fanzine fans.
Brenda narrates what happens next. Suddenly a scream comes from upstairs. A teenage goth staggers into a stairwell, his face contorted in horror. He collapses and falls. People run up to see what’s going on. As Anya called the scene, it’s up to her what the clue is. She can take suggestions from the other players. Ariadne comes out to see what’s going on and uses Intimidation to get everyone else to back off so she can get to the clue. Anya says that the boy has passed out, he’s got a joint tightly clenched in his hand. Ariadne checks him out and takes the joint. (This is Reincorporation of the joint.) She goes to take a puff but just before she does, notices something strange in the joint. Brenda suggests that this might be some kind of small wriggly worm, and Steve adds that perhaps as Ariadne is leaning over the boy she notices something pass across his eyeball, although it’s not clear what.
Anya decides to go with the wriggling worm in the joint. Steve also decides on a supplementary clue, spending a point of Streetwise, he decides that Sanjit knows the unconscious lad. He’s a pagan called Perdition,also from Bromley who Sanjit knows is into some “heavy magic shit”.
Brenda narrates what happens next. Perdition wakes up with a start and looks around. He smiles strangely and attempts to kiss Ariadne. He is superhumanly strong but together they manage to force him outside. He chases after someone else. Everyone else has run away at this point, except for Molly, who announces “Oh my God, I’ve got the same dealer as that monster!” She gets out her weed and it too is infected with worms.
We have a plot! Everyone has smoked the infected weed, who knows what might happen to them now? The game will continue long into the night.
You now have some tools that you can use to improvise games. If you give this a go, remember that a light touch is often needed with this kind of game, don’t go trampling all over other people’s ideas, give them space and time to come to fruition. It’s a question of mutual respect.
Finally, the improvisation may well not work at all. You might find that you’ve painted yourselves into some kind of dead-end story. But don’t worry about it. Improv, like any other game technique, doesn’t always work. The thing is not to worry to much about this and to just try again from a bit before when things started to go off the rails.
With a bit of patience, you’ll seen be off again.
Steve Dempsey, the author of this piece, has written for Armitage Files and Dreamhounds of Paris, and is our most experienced GM.
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 Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.
(originally posted in Dec 2007 Page XX)
This toy version of GUMSHOE introduces you to the basic concepts of the system which powers Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists and Night’s Black Agents. Note, I’m not a game designer (whatever wikipedia says), and this version of GUMSHOE really is just for demonstration purposes.
GUMSHOE was designed to power games which feature some investigative elements. The GUMSHOE system itself is very simple and each GUMSHOE game adds system elements to support the gameplay the designer of that iteration intends, which adds complexity to the base. This version strips GUMSHOE down so you can see how it works, a bit like a model suspension bridge made from string and card does for, well, suspension bridges.
The most current version of a GUMSHOE game, with the most up-to-date advice, is Esoterrorists 2nd Edition.
We’ll learn the game and you can create a character as we go along.
Every character has investigative abilities, rated from 1 to 4. Even one point in an ability means you are highly proficient in that ability.
Investigative abilities have three functions.
- First, they allow your character interact with a game scene and extract essential information in play, information which points you to other game scenes. This information (called a core clue) can be a location, a person, an item – anything that points you at a future game scene. You do not spend from your pool to get a core clue.
- Second, you can extract any information your character would reasonably know without effort, also at zero cost.
- Third, you can use the ability to gain special benefits related to those abilities. These benefits can offer information which allows you to overcome or avoid danger, a bonus on a General Ability test, they can make you look cool, or form a connection with and NPC. Special benefits cost points from the ability pool.
It’s possible to gain certain kinds of information from a scene, obvious to anyone, without having an ability. This is called a simple search. A simple search might get you a matchbook, whereas an investigative ability might get you the fingerprints and then the identity of the last person to touch it.
Using Investigative Abilities In Play
To use an ability in a scene, you either describe what a character with that ability would do in that scene, or describe what you’d do in the scene and the GM will suggest an ability. You can seek information actively, for example, “I use Art to determine the provenance of that painting.” Sometimes the GM will provide information a character with your abilities would know without asking, for example, “With Science you can see the particles’ motion defies known laws.” Likewise, in a scene, you can suggest special benefits or they can offered by the GM. In general, GMs do not need to mention in play that a piece of information is a core clue or distinguish it from a zero-point clue.
Any ability which could reasonably get information can be used to get that information. The ability can be predetermined or improvised by the GM or emerge from roleplaying in game scenes.
If you are used to playing games where you use abilities for which you roll dice to determine success, roleplay exactly as you would do in those games.
Assign Your Investigative Abilities
The investigative abilities in Toy GUMSHOE are Who You Are, Science, Art, Technical and Interpersonal. Who You Are is an adjective -noun combination describing your character. You get 2 points in Who You Are. Pick any of the following combination of numbers, and assign them to the other four abilities.
Game Design Aside: What Abilities do
Investigative abilities offer niche protection, so that each player has a chance to interact with scenes in a way specific to their character; and spotlight management, so players get an equal chance to shine through the special benefits they use. Special benefit spends deplete abilties, so they also encourage more interesting And varied choices, and add a frisson to the end game as those choices become constrained.
General Abilities cover any action you want to do which doesn’t acquire information, and for which an element of randomness is fun, and has an important consequence. In toy GUMSHOE, there are Body, Mind, Moves, Fighting and Senses.
- Body is your current level of resistance to a potentially damaging event doing you harm.
- Mind is your level current resilience to the the effects of mental stress.
- Moves are anything physical you attempt to do, except fighting.
- Fighting is used to restrain or harm an opponent.
- Senses make you aware of danger, of being watched or potentially ambushed.
Testing General Abilities
If you face an important challenge in play not related to gathering information, you make a test. The GM determines a Difficulty, a number ranging from 3 to 8, with 4 as a standard. Spend points from the appropriate general ability pool, then roll a d6. Add the number of points you’ve spent to the die roll. If the total matches or beats the Difficulty number, you succeed. If not you fail. In most GUMSHOE games the GM does not tell you the Difficulty number before you make the choice.
Assign Your General Abilities
You get 4 points free in each of Body and Mind, and an additional 24 points to split between the five abilities. No ability may be higher than 10. (You could add a “What you do” skill to General abilities as the General equivalent of “Who you are”)
Game Design Aside: Abilities and Setting
Most GUMSHOE games have ten or more abilities fine-tuned and flavoured to the setting, with just the right amount of granularity. GMs work to provide information and benefits which match the investigative abilities and challenges which match the general ones. So in Mutant City Blues there are a multitude of specialist abilities to investigate a crime scene; in Fear Itself, just one. Toy GUMSHOE is generic, but you can add any abilities you want to the list, or subdivide the abilities to match your match the setting.
Next Up: Interpersonal Interaction, Fighting and Chasing
Here is an example of Trail of Cthulhu combat, in which three plucky adventures confront a crypt-dwelling corpse-eater.
The consumptive Professor Oberon Lankwiller
Health 5, [no rating in Firearms], Scuffling 4
Weapon: Webley revolver +0
Hit Threshold: 3
The brash Tag Hunter
Health 13, Firearms 10, Weapons 8, Scuffling 2
Weapons: Remington M32 double barreled shotgun +1 (+2 point blank, +1 when fired both barrels), machette +0
Hit Threshold: 4 (Athletics is greater than eight)
The trigger-happy Anabelle Swift
Health 10, Firearms 8, Scuffling 6, Weapons 4
Weapons: Twin Colt Revolvers +0 (You can fire two revolvers in a Pulp game if your Firearms is 5+), hat pin (-1).
Athletics 9, Health 7, Scuffling 9
Hit Threshold: 4 (5 underground)
Weapon: two claws +1 and a bite +0. Two bites in a row means it latches on. Ghouls take half damage (round up) from firearms.
The Investigators are cautiously exploring a tunnel which runs under the Arkham municipal burial ground. They disturb a ghoul, partially concealed behind a stone slab, which is sucking the marrow from some cracked bones, .
They must all make a 4-point Stability roll when they see the ghoul (you see a supernatural creature up close). After Stability rolls, a combat ensues.
The order of action is determined at the beginning of combat, just once, according to the characters’ current pool in their chosen method of combat. This gives us:
- The Ghoul
- The Prof*
The Prof has no Firearms skill so goes last, and Larry has to decide in advance what to do. He chooses “shoot the Ghoul”
Tag gives the ghoul both barrels at point-blank range. It has partial cover, so the ghoul’s Hit Threshold is unchanged at 5. Tina spends four points from the Firearms pool to ensure a hit. She rolls a 2 for damage, +4 for the double barreled shotgun fired at point-blank range gives six, halved because of Ghoul Armor. The Ghoul’s Health tumbles to 4.
The Ghoul launches itself at Tag, and makes its three attacks.
The Keeper spends 2 points from Scuffling on the first claw and rolls a 3 making 5, a hit for 4 damage. He spends 2 on the second claw, rolls a 5, another hit for 5 damage. Then it’s a bite (2-point spend and 5 damage). The Ghoul’s Scuffling is now 3. Tag’s Health is now -1 – Hurt. (In theory, Tag must make a Conciousness roll but the Difficulty is 1 – an automatic success.)
Annabelle wants to distract the creature from its feast, so she jabs it with her hat pin, spending all of her 4 Weapons points to ensure a hit. She rolls a 3, causing 1 point of damage (you can effectively miss or do no damage with lesser weapons and fists). The Ghoul has 3 Health points left.
The Professor closes his eyes and squeezes the trigger of the unfamiliar Webley. He has no Firearms skill (see p. 60 sidebar), and unfortunately rolls a 1. The Keeper decides that he shoots himself in the foot. He rolls a 3 – minus 2 because of his unfamiliarity – knocking his Health down to 4.
Tag frantically wrestles with the ghoul, trying to hold its festering mouth away from his face. That’s Scuffling. He spends his remaining 2 points on his roll. The Difficulty is the ghoul’s Hit Threshold (5) plus 1 because Tag is Hurt. He needs a 6. He rolls a 2 plus the 2 for his Scuffling, a 4 – not enough. It’s not looking good for Tag
The Keeper decides to spend 2 on a ghoul claw roll to finish off Tag. He rolls a 1 – making 3, a miss. He spends 0 on the next roll and gets another 1. He spends the final point on the bite, rolling a 6. As this is is second succesful bite attack, he does double damage. He rolls a 3, for the bite for a total of 6. Tag’s Health tumbles to -7. Tina opts not to make a Conciousness roll for Tag (which would require Health expenditure) and Tag falls into merciful oblivion. He is Seriously Wounded, and requires First Aid and hospitalisation if he survives.
Annabelle opts to fire both pistols at the creature (a Pulp-only option). She spends a Firearms point to do this. She spends 3 points on the each roll (as they are simulataneous Andrea needs to decide before rolling both dice), and she rolls 6 and 6 doing 2 (3 halved and rounded up) points and 1 point of damage. The ghoul only had 3 points of Health, so it is down.
Larry opt to spends two points of the Professor’s First Aid to stabilise Tag. If they can get him out of the crypt, Tag needs to spend a week in hospital recuperating.
In the shadows, creatures drawn by Tag’s pooling blood gather and watch for weakness.
A GUMSHOE core clue can be seen as a key, giving the PCs access to a door, behind which more of the story waits. With the key, they can interact with, change, master, and adjust that story.
Sometimes a core clue can be a literal key. Literal for the characters, that is, and imagined by the players and GM. The appearance of a mysterious key is all the premise you need for any GUMSHOE scenario, whatever the game.
To make this work you need two elements:
- a reason to think of the key as mysterious
- information allowing the investigators to find the door or box the key opens
The key might be mysterious because:
- The investigators know who sent it to them, and mystery already surrounds that person. The sender of the key could be dead or missing. Alternately, the sender might be an antagonist figure the heroes don’t expect to do them any favors. It comes from a mutant serial killer, a lackey of the hated Quandos Vorn, or Nyarlathotep himself.
- Something about the arrival of the key signals sinister purpose. Blood dots the envelope it arrived in. Or ichor. It comes with some other document or object of interest to the investigators: a compromising photo, a scrap from an arcane manuscript. Somebody tried to mug the mailman before he could deliver it.
The simplest way to move the investigators from the discovery of the key to the lock it opens is to have whoever sent it helpfully supply the address. In that case you should open the scenario with the investigators already there, with key in hand.
To make the transition interesting, give them a reason to gather additional information before going to the site. For example, if they know Quandos Vorn wants them to go there, they might want to scout for traps and evidence of his current crimes before arriving.
Alternately, the key becomes a pipe clue, to pay off later. Here the investigators are already on another case, and the key arrives without explanation or a means of finding its corresponding lock. Later their inquiries lead them to a locked door or box, and voila, they know what the key is for.
The big trick, and the exercise we leave to you, the GM, is to make sure that whatever they find when they turn that key justifies the build-up.
New creature for The Esoterrorists
The membrane between this world and the Outer Dark is everywhere. Even inside your computer. That’s where seepers break through. They sense the particular stink of paranoia and latent aggression stoked on the Internet’s blackest shoals. When you drink in conspiracy theory or wallow in mythologies of victimhood, they wriggle from the swirling chaos into your CPU, out through your motherboard, and into your keyboard cable. Using a wireless keyboard? A seeper is fine with that; it can transmit itself along your wi-fi connection. As you spiral down the rabbit hole of electronic disinformation, as you type your screeds against the government and You Know Which Ethnic Group, the seeper works its way under your fingernails and into your bloodstream. 9/11 was an inside job!
Once it infests you, the seeper doesn’t turn you into a rampaging maniac. Instead you become a vector for madness. You take that extra step from posting and commenting on conspiracy theories and start to network in person with fellow believers. When you meet an especially unstable hanger-on in the world of fringe politics, the seeper floods your brain with endorphins. Unconsciously seeking that biochemical reward, you befriend damaged, repellent people you’d normally shun. The seeper uses you as a broadcast beacon, intensifying the fragility of its secondary target. It might even require you to do things behind your new friend’s back to worsen his life and drive him further to the edge. Maybe you “accidentally” let his boss find out about his white supremacist views. Or you tell a story on him that gets him kicked out of his responsible gun club, or pushes him away from the one family member who still keeps tabs on him.
That way, when the secondary target embarks on his kill spree and shoots himself in the heart when cornered, or takes a sniper shot to the head, the seeper remains alive and in this world. You go on television to decry the way the media is exploiting this tragedy to score cheap political points. You mourn your friend and cultivate your sense of martyrdom.
Eventually the seeper impels you to move to another city, where it draws you to its next secondary victim. It teaches you to be careful, so no one ever puts it together, IDing you as the common factor connecting two, three or even four spree killers. Meanwhile, the seeper grows psychically fat on the grief and carnage it causes, sending its energy back through the membrane to grow offspring, which wait for their own chance to stoke the spree-kill epidemic.
The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.’
In the latest episode of their ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and Robin talk holy ashes, Mary Sues, a GUMSHOE fallacy and Immanuel Velikovsky.
Continuing Ken’s theme of looting 13th Age for GUMSHOE twists, let’s talk about monsters. In 13th Age, monsters have a sort of rudimentary AI – instead of the GM deciding to use their special abilities in advance, they’re triggered by the result of the attack roll. So, for example, if a ghoul gets a natural even hit, it gets to make its target vulnerable. If a frost giant rolls a 16 or higher when attacking, it also gets to freeze its foe.
For example, here’s a basic human thug:
13th Age Human Thug
1st Level troop [Humanoid]
Heavy Mace +5 vs AC – 4 damage
Natural even hit or miss: The thug deals +6 damage with its next attack this battle. (GM, be sure to let the PCs know this is coming; it’s not a secret.)
PD14 HP 27
Automating monsters like that makes the GM’s life easier. Instead of having to make decisions before rolling the dice, the GM can just attack and let the triggered abilities make the fight more interesting and complex. The thugs, for example, encourage the player characters to focus their fire or dodge away from the ones who have extra damage lined up for next round. Some of the work of making the monster cool gets shifted from the actual play part of the game to pre-game preparation, leaving the GM free to concentrate on evocative descriptions. tactics and other immediate concerns. (Triggered powers can also surprise the GM, which is always fun.)
GUMSHOE monsters and foes have a limited number of points to spend on their attacks, possibly mediated by an attack pattern. While the attack pattern does take some of the heavy lifting away, the GM still has to make decisions about when to spend the bad guy’s ability pools. Let’s try taking away as much resource management as possible from the GM. For general abilities, for every 4 points a creature has in its pool, give it a +1 bonus, to a maximum of +3, and modelling special abilities as special-case rules or powers triggered by a dice roll instead of the GM having to make a choice. Health, obviously, is unchanged.
Obviously, GUMSHOE’s smaller range of random results means that you’ll have to be a little more restrained when it comes to special powers – there’s a big difference between a power that triggers on a natural 20 in 13th Age and a natural 6 in GUMSHOE. Possible triggers for powers include:
- Natural even or odd rolls – good for alternate attacks or special effects
- Natural 1s or 6s
- 5s & 6s – generically ‘good rolls’, useful for foes that have a chance of doing extra damage or inflicting some special condition, like stunning or knocking prone
- Health reaches a certain threshold – perfect for countdown mechanics, where the fie gets nastier towards the end of the fight
- The attacking player character has no points left in a pool – if you’re out of Shooting, the alien monster breaks from cover and rushes towards yo
You can also have a power be limited to a certain number of uses – a ghoul in Night’s Black Agents might get an extra attack on the first three times it rolls a natural 6, but no more.
All these rules are just for monsters and NPCs – player characters still get to juggle points and manage their resources as per the standard GUMSHOE rules.
Esoterrorist Security Guard
General Abilities: Scuffling +1, Shooting +2,
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +1
Stealth Modifier: +0
Damage Modifier: +0 (Pistol), -1 (nightstick)
Freeze!: +2 bonus to Shooting in the first round of combat if the security guard isn’t surprised.
Natural 1: The guard calls for backup. If help’s available, it’ll arrive in the next few minutes. The guard misses his next attack. Treat further natural 1s as simple misses.
Night’s Black Agents Thug (pg. 70)
General abilities: Athletics +2, Driving +1, Hand to Hand +2, Shooting +1, Weapons +2
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +0
Stealth Modifier: -1
Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), +0 (club), +1 (9mm pistol)
Wall of Fire: If three or more thugs shoot at the same target, the last thug gets +1 Shooting
Gang Assault: If three or more thugs attack the same target with Hand to Hand or Weapons, they all get +1 damage.
Night’s Black Agents Bodyguard (pg. 69)
General abilities: Athletics +3, Driving +2, Hand to Hand +3, Medic +1, Shooting +2, Weapons +2
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +2
Stealth Modifier: -0
Damage Modifier: -2 (fist), -1 (flexible baton), +1 (9mm pistol)
Armor: -1 vs bullets
Protect the Principal: On a natural 5 or 6 when making an Athletics, Driving or Shooting test, the Hit Threshold of whoever the bodyguard’s guarding increases by +2 for the rest of the round.
Stunning Blow: On a natural 6 when making a Hand to Hand attack, the target loses their next action unless they spend 3 Health or Athletics.
Ashen Stars All-Shredder Klorn
General abilities: Athletics +3, Scuffling +3
Hit Threshold: 3
Alertness Modifier: +2
Stealth Modifier: -3
Damage Modifier: +6
Natural Even Roll: +2 bonus to Scuffling
Natural Odd Roll: Smash! The klorn destroys some obstacle or object nearby – it breaks through a wall, kicks over a computer console, smashes its spiked tail through the engine coolant tanks, knocks over a nearby ground car or something equally cinematic.
Natural 6: The klorn’s target is impaled on its spear-teeth; +4 bonus damage
Frenzy: When the klorn’s reduced to 10 or less Health, it immediately makes a free Scuffling attack on the nearest foe.
Special: Refreshes health pool when struck by non-lethal disruption fire
See P. XX
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
As a general rule, writers learn to avoid repetition. In the immortal words of David Byrne, say something once, why say it again?
When writing roleplaying material I have to keep reminding myself to strategically violate that general rule.
If there’s one thing playtesting has taught me, it’s that you can write a rule or piece of guidance once, twice, or even three times and still have readers miss it. And roleplayers belong to a pretty elevated class of readers.
But roleplaying texts are dense, and are often read in a non-linear order.
Also, some best practices, even ones we all think we know deep down in our gaming bones, remain elusive in the heat of the moment. Basic common sense they may be, but playtest comments remind us that they need constant hammering home.
One of them is that, although scenarios link clues to a specific ability or abilities, the players can always get the clue if they present you with a credible alternate method. This means credible for the genre, not for our prosaic reality.
Another point you might consider basic to the hobby but nonetheless frequently requires reinforcement is that the GM may have to improvise new material, from minor details to whole scenes and branches, in response to unexpected player choices.
Along with these, here are two more things I often find myself writing into GUMSHOE scenarios, wondering if I should prune them back in favor of a general word in the introduction. In the end I wind up putting each reference back in. Because they can’t, it turns out, be repeated quite enough.
In Response to Specific Questions
A block of scenario text will often provide a set of bullet points a particular witness, suspect or other target of Interpersonal abilities might provide. For example:
After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou says:
- He was down at the docks to collect a debt from a guy. You know, the kind of debt you collect at 2 am on a lonely pier.
- He found the mope he was looking for and was in the middle of applying persuasive means to his sensitive parts when a strange glowing figure flew overhead.
- It had arms and legs and a head, like a person, but was real long and stretched out, with a set of what looked like freaking moth wings.
- The glow reminded him of a firefly, except it was all over and not just coming from one place.
- He was so distracted he let the guy go to chase after it.
- It looked like it landed between the warehouse and the propane depot over there, but by the time Lou got to the spot it was gone already.
I always wind up inserting a phrase into that intro line, so it goes like this:
After enough Streetwise to convince him you won’t rat him to the cops, Lou answers specific questions as follows:
This serves several purposes.
One, it encourages you as GM to break up the information into bite-sized pieces. The scene becomes a back-and-forth between you and the players and not a pause to paraphrase or read text from the scenario.
Two, it requires the players to do more than name the Interpersonal ability they’re using and sit back for a flood of exposition. They still have to ask the right questions to get the info they need.
I’d like to treat this as a given but the lure of text on paper makes it all to easy to forget to keep it interactive.
No Need to Squeeze the Rind
The basic area-clearing adventure many of us cut our teeth on instilled certain expectations about the amount of scenario text that actually comes into play at the gaming table.
In a dungeon crawl, the PCs might miss out on entering particular rooms. But once in a chamber, you expect most of the stuff listed in its entry to happen: the heroes fight the monsters, encounter the traps, and strip the room for loot. Later innovations, like “taking 20” in D&D 3E and its heirs, go further to ensure that everything that can happen in a room, does.
In an investigative scenario, the writer needs to cover more material than any one group will ever uncover. GUMSHOE gives players lots of information, requiring them to sort out the incidental and flavor facts from the core clues required to move to the next layer of the mystery. It must anticipate the most common questions a group will ask.
But that doesn’t mean that any one group will ask all the questions the scenario answers. Some may efficiently ask only the one or two germane questions and move on. Others will pose every query they can think of. No two groups will come up with same list of queries. In a well-designed scenario the logic of the situation leads the players to ask the question that prompts the witness to mention the core clue.
By its very nature, any adventure genre scenario that allows for plot branching has to include text for more scenes than any one run of that scenario will touch on. If it gives you the option to form a bond with the vicar over your mutual interest in pagan sculptures, but no one in the group chooses to pursue that, that’s the price of true choice. Even if the scenario writer included some really cool stuff featuring the vicar.
The players haven’t failed to engage in all possible interactions. They’ve made the choice to interact with other things—the family who live near the graveyard, or the folklorist staying with them at the inn, or whatever.
Nor has the scenario failed to force them to do everything. If an adventure eventually requires you to exhaust every alternative, they’re not really alternatives.
A scenario that provides freedom and choices must include more material than any single group could possibly activate. If that means you as GM see the potential for cool scenes that your players never touch, that’s not just acceptable. That’s a non-linear scenario working as designed.
From the planet Sumter the call goes out: the wargames are on. Before the Mohilar War, Sumter existed as a synthculture planet. It appealed to both permanent and transient populations wishing to relive the period of the US Civil War, including its major battles. Those reenactments took place with fake weapons and robust technological safeguards.
Sumpter’s new martial sports unfold in a hail of live, lethal fire. They attract damaged and discontented veterans of the past war who feel they fit in only when fighting for their lives. Remaining 19th-century trappings include uniforms and energy beam rifles shaped like muskets. Most combatants regard these as irrelevant curiosities. The war they’re here to relive isn’t ancient history, but is torn from their own biographies.
Your laser crew has been hired to find an enlistee in the upcoming wargames. Former atmospheric paratrooper Xino Voss intends to fight until she dies. Haunted by the wartime loss of her comrades, for which she blames herself, she aims to go down in a blaze of glory.
Her rich and terminally ill mother has other ideas. She wants the lasers to find her daughter, administer her anti-trauma meds (forcibly if necessary) and extract her before she achieves her death wish. That requires them to wade onto the games’ vast playing field, half a continent of live fire zone. There the green and purple teams fight to the death as pieces in a brutal struggle devoid of strategic goals or political meaning. Once the lasers step into the playing space, they become targets for both sides. If they’re there, they’re worth points, even if they wear the armbands of neither side.
Investigation involves finding the target, identifying a safe way to approach her, figuring out how to get her out against her will, and then escaping intact. Along the way, they might also discover the formless energy parasite who is stoking the wargames in order to nourish itself on the agony of death and the adrenaline of combat. Neutralizing the parasite ends the wargame, as the vast majority of players realizes they’ve been acting not out of their own desires, but due to the siren psychic call of an alien intelligence.
Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.
As vengeful space effectuators of the Gaean Reach, you know what the interplanetary war criminal Quandos Vorn did to you—and what you must do in return to him, when you catch him.
That part remains more easily said than done.
Rejoice, then, in these latest intercepted transmissions. They detail some of the identities Quandos Vorn has recently traveled under in his never-ending quest for greater acts of barbarity. As is well documented, the chameleonic Vorn gains and sheds disguises with frustrating ease. Some of these people might be real individuals he has impersonated; others, his entirely fictional creations.
Elbin Throm, collector of rare militaria. The stooped, shaggy-haired Throm walks with the aid of a cane. Demanding and quick to take offense, Throm uses his wealth and expertise to bully finders, brokers and auctioneers of antique armaments. The tip of his cane contains a paralyzing toxin that dissolves its victims from the inside out, leaving the brain and screaming nerve endings as the last portions of the body to die.
Gascade, poet and troubadour. Famed for his quatrains in praise of Quandos Vorn. Of willowy frame and limpid blue eyes, he exerts a powerful sexual magnetism on women and men alike. His bright purple goatee precedes him into art festivals and bacchanals throughout the Reach. Dogged by accusations that he drugs his famous paramours in order to sell their organs to collectors. Evidence has yet to substantiate these rumors. May be a henchman of Vorn’s who occasionally lends him his identity.
Jebbas Mrin, hero of the rebellion on the planet Quane against starmenter (pirate) usurpers. Bald, broad-shouldered, with a musical baritone speaking voice. Never goes anywhere without the halberd he used to behead the starmenter Brerum Sosk. Though revered by the people of Quane, the taint of corruption surrounds his administration as its World President.
Castrel Flogg. A shadowy identity known chiefly as a set of signatures on documents claiming ownership over the platinum mines of Vesro.
The Ebbast, champion fencer and high priest of the religious order of Kolf. Won the tournament of Vosto by applying a neurotoxin to his epee. Described as possessing a skull-like countenance with deep-set eyes and a grinning, scarred mouth. By becoming a criminal and fugitive he invalidated the Kolf credo, leading to dozens of devout suicides. A schism among the surviving Kolfites centers around the question of whether the crimes were committed by the true Ebbast, or an impostor.
The Gaean Reach, the Roleplaying Game of Interstellar Vengeance, brings to your tabletop the legendary cycle of science fiction classics by the great Jack Vance. An ingenious hybrid, it fuses the investigative clarity of the GUMSHOE system with the lethal wit of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. Purchase The Gaean Reach in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.