At its core, the GUMSHOE system makes an adjustment to the way we have traditionally run investigative scenarios. Although dramatic in effect, it is actually a small change in practice. Ironically, it’s this very simplicity that can sometimes make the transition from the traditional model to the GUMSHOE approach a tricky one. Some GMs and players expect it to be more radical in practice than it actually is, and have get themselves tangled up in the process.
Many of the groups reporting challenges in making the shift are longtime Call Of Cthulhu-ites now checking out Trail Of Cthulhu. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s harder to go from Call to Trail than it is to play any other GUMSHOE game after being steeped in the traditional investigative model. It may just be that there are more CoC partisans trying ToC, because Trail is, unsurprisingly, the best-selling game in the line to date.
Nonetheless, it’s useful to look at ways to transition a group who have Sandy Petersen’s brilliant and classic game encoded in their DNA to the different take offered by GUMSHOE.
Here’s the basic point to takeaway from these two articles: GUMSHOE is a small change with a large effect.
Help your players make the transition by reinforcing it as you introduce them to the game, and again during play.
Start by asking yourself how resistant your group is likely to be to a change in technique.
Some players are frequent adopters—they like to try all of the new RPGs that come down the pike. They keep up with news of upcoming releases. These days, your frequent adopter is probably a fan of the indie movement. Frequent adopters enjoy learning new rules. Since they do it all the time, they’re quick to figure out how rules work, and to work out their implications in play.
Many other players are system agnostics. They want to play, and don’t care what rules you use. System agnostics may express skepticism about the influence of rules on play. They believe, rightly, the main factor in the success of a session is the quality of the participants. Their disinterest in rules per se leads them to discount the degree to which differing rules sets impact play, given the same GM and players. It makes them reluctant to learn new rules, period.
Others are system loyalists—they’ve been playing the same game since they discovered that it was their favorite. Often they have several faves, each in a different genre. Loyalists may identify culturally with their game of choice, the way they might with a sports team or favorite band. When they participate in online forums, it’s often to defend their chosen game from comments made by its detractors. Whatever their game, their passion and commitment demands respect. In the case of Cal, they also deserve props for their great taste. (Did we mention already that CoC rocks?)
It is natural to expect resistance from Call loyalists when trying to move them to Trail. It’s like asking a Yankees fan to suddenly start rooting for a some goofy new expansion team! Loyalists may be open to learning new rules for completely unrelated settings, but may see a switch to Trail as representing unnecessary effort.
With both agnostics and loyalists, convincing them to give Trail a shot requires a sales job on your part. For both groups, point out the simplicity of GUMSHOE. They may be expecting the usual detailed, complicated system, with tons of new stuff to remember. Explain that learning GUMSHOE doesn’t require that level of commitment.
In the case of loyalists, show that you respect their affection for Call. Sell Trail without seeming to attack or critique the game they love. Describe ToC not as an improvement on, or replacement for, CoC, but a new approach that yields different results.
Finally, accept that your group’s most fervent loyalist will still be resistant even after you say all of this.
Maybe there are hypothetical frequent adopters out there who all buy the book, learn the rules independently and come to the session with rules learned and characters ready to go. We all know that this isn’t how it usually works. Take advantage of the customary first session in which you introduce the rules and guide the players through character generation to teach the rules in a way that emphasizes their simplicity and continuity with existing practice.
You may face your toughest challenge from players who are resistant for whatever reason and have already read the rules. Resistant readers sometimes make incorrect assumptions about what actually happens in a game of Trail. The most common of these is that in GUMSHOE you enter an environment, look at your character sheet, and robotically list all of your abilities, to which the Keeper responds by reading off clues in response to each relevant ability recited. This is best addressed with a quickie demo, which we’ll provide in the next installment of See P. XX.
It may also be worth your while to recap some of the rules that players, especially resistant or reluctant ones, tend to misread. By reminding them of the rules as written, you can head off common misunderstandings.
Some players trip themselves up on the concept of Investigative ability points, forgetting that you’re never penalized for not having points to spend. Point spends add fun but tangential clues, make your character seem especially impressive, or secure side benefits unrelated to the investigation. The text explains this, but some players assume that the existence of a resource to manage means that the points must be critical to success. Present describe investigative points as icing on the cake. Remind them that they can successfully complete cases without ever using them.
It also helps to explain to your players that GUMSHOE emulates genre sources and does not simulate reality. For example, general points buy your character time in the spotlight. Use the metaphor of an ensemble procedural show on TV. Each main cast character typically gets a moment to shine in each episode, in a way that reinforces his skill set. When choosing general abilities, players are deciding what sorts of successes will most often define their characters.
Although you can often describe a character who has run out of general points in an ability and fails as a result as being exhausted or distracted, the points aren’t really a measure of literal fatigue. Instead they operate as a literary device. Dramatic logic underlies the entire system.