by Robin D. Laws
The great thing about designing tabletop roleplaying games is that people steal your ideas.
You might think I’m being sarcastic, but no. I mean that as a completely straight-faced statement. In addition to the simple, straightforward goal of bringing fun to the people who play and read it, a secondary objective of any roleplaying game design is (or ought to be) to advance the form. That means finding fresh ways to make RPG play more enjoyable.
Eventually, some bright designer will adopt the GUMSHOE approach of automatically ensuring that players get, at minimum, the information they need to advance the storyline. I’d be happy to see a lot of them do it, because it speeds, simplifies and streamlines any game with an investigative element to it.
In the case of GUMSHOE, you might be excused for thinking that this is the only new idea the system brings to the gaming table. To successfully make people aware of a new product, you have to emphasize a single, unique selling point. Then you re-emphasize it, and when you’re finished re-emphasizing it, you go back and emphasize it again. In this regard a roleplaying game weirdly resembles a toothpaste or floor wax. (Though removing plaque with your copy of Skulduggery is not recommended.)
This feels repetitive if you’ve already got the message. Fortunately, gamers who need to sell their own groups on a new RPG, whether it be Trail of Cthulhu or Mutant City Blues or whatever, tend to be forgiving of this single-mindedness. They need marketing hooks as much as we do. It helps them to have a single simple message to convey about the game system they hope to rope their friends into.
If as a designer or publisher you get a little pushback from people who aren’t interested in your game and are skeptical of its selling point, that’s cool, too. Debate is good for the profile, provided you’re offering a rewarding game that can withstand a bit of Internet friction.
Once a product of any kind has found its core community of customers, it can then branch out and start to promote its other selling points. We’re lucky enough, thanks in particular to the success of Trail, to now have that loyal core in our corner.
If we envision a future where every game provides unimpeded access to information for characters who have the right ability and look in the right place, what then will GUMSHOE have left to offer?
First of all, it will still be appreciated for that animating concept. The arrival of other point-build systems didn’t exactly scour Champions from the face of the earth. My Life With Master has hardly been rendered obsolete by the oodles of chapbook-format indie games that took up its cues.
However, there is more to GUMSHOE than information flow. It has to be said, though, that its additional points of distinction flow as a natural consequence from that first idea. The two biggies are Mystery Structure and Success Control.
Most GUMSHOE scenarios give out more than just the central information. They provide easy access to all sorts of other clues. We do this because we came to realize that, as a general rule, giving information to the characters is more interesting than not. Knowledge is not only power in a roleplaying game: it’s choice. The more the PCs know, the more options they have in deciding how to move forward.
The focus of our mysteries shifted from finding the information to piecing it together. To make this challenging, GUMSHOE often provides a mass of information to the group, and requires them to sort it out. This allows for the red herrings, side revelations and brainstorming sequences that act as the bedrock of any compelling mystery story.
This shift toward more information required us to develop a consistent, workable, easily recognizable structure to allow GMs to sort it out. The structure lets them quickly figure out our scenarios, and to easily prepare or improvise their own. Thus we break our scenes down into categories like Core Clues, Optional Clues, and Antagonist Reactions.
Doing this provides other unexpected benefits. The structure strongly encourages a player-driven story style. Often when we get proposals in from freelancers getting their GUMSHOE feet wet, we find that they’re not sufficiently relying on the established scenario structure system. The omission often leads to unfocused narratives in which the players act as spectators while the NPCs run around take interesting action. When writers adjust and follow the structure, they see their inert, passive narratives suddenly blossom into active stories about investigators who look under rocks, find stuff out, and make the story happen. Originally created as a way to consistently present information, the structure became an insurance policy against weak plotting. Even within the comparatively prep-heavy mystery format, with its focus on reaching a well-established goal, it favors collective storymaking over GM-imposed storytelling.
Success Control comes into play when the PCs use their general abilities—the ones that don’t impact their solution of the mystery, but determine outcomes in such minor issues as whether they get eaten by ghouls or pull their starship from a black hole’s gravity well. Players have a set of pool points to draw from to add to d6 rolls, which usually aim for a Difficulty of 4 but may go higher. The more points in your pool, the more your character is identified by the ability in question. Players quickly discover that by spending wisely they can decide how important any given action or situation is to them. This gives them covert control over the narrative, without throwing suspense out the window. Like the heroes of the genre source material that inspires our various games, they rarely fail when it counts. And they get to decide when it counts. Failures that lead to new and unexpected situations occur, but not in ways that undercut the fundamentals that define the character. If you play by the option I personally prefer, in which players have a rough idea of the Difficulty but are never sure of the exact number, you still get uncertainty, without the threat of frequent, credibility-shattering or plot-derailing failures on the part of supposedly competent heroes.
Because we haven’t promoted Success Control as much as we have access to clues, it hasn’t received as much attention as the idea that got GUMSHOE rolling. I’m not the one who gets to decide this stuff, but it may well be that, when all is said and all the dice are rolled, that it turns out to be the more profound addition to the tabletop toolbox. Yeah, that toolbox.
The one we’re all encouraged to borrow from, provided we promise to make something new and great with them.