If the SHOE fits…

by Steve Dempsey

You enjoy the investigative genre, you dig the GUMSHOE system, you’ve got Cthulhuesque horrors all lined up for Trail of Cthulhu, Super Criminals bursting out all over in Mutant City Blues or a Jungian monster from the Id for Fear Itself. There’s just one thing that’s bugging you. You don’t want to play in the given settings. Instead you want Cowboys or Cro-Magnons or Anthropomorphic Kitchen Utensils with Pasta Limbs. Well, perhaps not that. But you get the drift. You don’t want the vanilla background but you’re not quite sure how adapt the game to suit your wonder campaign. So here’s what you do.

There are four parts to the GUMSHOE rules which take system specific dispositions. These are abilities, occupations (or stereotypes) , drives (or risk factors) and benefits. We’ll consider each of these in turn, to understand how they work and how to change them to fit your new setting.

Occupations (or Stereotypes)

Your character’s job is more than just a way to get occupational ability bonuses (if you’re playing Trail of Cthulhu). Even more so in Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues, where occupations are pre-defined (elite investigator and cop respectively), it defines the kinds of thing one might expect your character to do in the setting. It’s also more than that. It defines their role in the stories you’ll tell.

So go back to the fiction that inspired this setting in the first place. What did the protagonist in the film do before he was called upon to investigate and deal with the Bad Thing? What job did the heroine do that meant she was well placed for dealing with the threat. As you can see, how characters became investigators is important.

For example, in a Western setting, if you only allow White Hat (that is Good Guy) occupations such as Sheriff, Deputy, School Ma’am, Plucky Kid, Retired Protector of the Poor and Doctor, then, it’s a strong indication that the characters will be (at least at the start) good guys. They are all also likely to be on the same side (much as in Esoterrorists). If however you go with Bandit, Landowner, Sheriff, Vigilante and Cattle Baron, then it’s clear that the waters of morality will be muddied and interparty conflict strongly on the menu.

Unless everyone agrees to start play with a bunch of all do-gooders or ne’er-do-wells, or you only want a very narrow range of characters (you’re all super-powered refuse engineers tracking down the dirt that threatens humanity) it’s best to give the players quite a wide choice, at least ten or twelve. Not only does this inspire the players and make it easier for players to find a fit for their concept but it also gives them a good idea of the kind of characters they’ll be involved with.

In Trail of Cthulhu, you need to go further than just a description and provide a list of occupational abilities (which are half-price to that character) and a special ability. We’ll come onto the list of abilities later but you should bear in mind that you need about 10 for each character and that the lists should be sufficiently different from each other to distinguish between the occupations. You also need to provide a special ability. You can take inspiration from those which already exist. Several occupations get access to special information (church or medical records, museums or newspapers), get a skill bonus (criminals, hobos or military) or refreshes (author and artists). Again, consider your sources of inspiration. Perhaps the Sheriff can Raise a Posse (giving a pool of Tracking and Shooting points, depletion indicates injury to the deputies), the School Ma’am has got just the book back in her house and the Plucky Kid has a secret den in the town where he can’t be found.



When coming up with your list of allowable occupations, consider:

  • What media inspired the background and what do people in it do?
  • What you want the characters to do?
  • How do they become investigators?


Drives (or Risk Factors)

The drive is the stick and, as Kenneth Hite puts it, the stunted, dubious carrot which tempts characters into the investigation and draws them away from getting help. Even if as a Keeper you never need invoke a character’s drive to encourage the player into a dangerous situation, you will find that an involved player’s character already embodies its drive. The Cro-Magnon Shaman approaches the Hungry Spirit out of pride, or perhaps fear of failure, the Warrior tackles the cave bear because he has nothing to live for or wants to add another painting to his wall. You should choose a list of drives which give characters justifications which fit the fictional background, not only in terms of the player justifying the character’s actions but also in terms of the setting’s cultural norms. The drives in Trail of Cthulhu are largely intellectual justifications, in Fear Itself they have a more emotional bent, is ennui a suitable drive for a Cro-Magnon, or Antiquarianism (“Don’t drop that flint scraper, it’s Neanderthal!”)? I’d go for something more primal such as hunger, rage, shame or curiosity. Again, give the players a range of choices, around ten, to allow them to differentiate between the characters and see what will be driving the others on.

Depending on the setting, you might also want to include penalties and bonuses. In Trail of Cthulhu, turning away from the horror is a strong choice for a character to make. The penalty is mechanical evidence of the inner turmoil that the character suffers. If handled well, this can be a dramatic high-point of a game and eventually the character is likely to return, drawn back in spite of their good sense, to the fight. It might be suitable, for example, to impose a health penalty on a Cro-Magnon who refused their drive, to represent the tribe’s scorn and hence the lack of food coming their way. It could, in a game based on social standing, damage a character’s credit rating. It’s worth having a think about what avoiding danger means in the background.



  • How do want the players to approach the danger?
  • What are the cultural norms of the background?
  • Do you want penalties/bonuses and how is this represented in the background?



Abilities are the nitty-gritty of what characters do in the game. Which abilities are available directly influence what actions characters take and so having the right mix is important.  As mentioned previously, you need enough to distinguish between the different occupations so you need to get the right mix of abilities and level of detail. It’s best not to multiply the abilities to the extent that the point spread is very thin, but then again, if for example your game is CSI based then you might wish to split up the different forensic specialisms. No more than 50 investigative abilities and 30 general abilities is a good rule of thumb. It’s probably easiest to start with one of the published lists and modify that to your tastes.

The naming of the ability is important. If you don’t want characters to torture people, don’t have that as an ability. Use intimidation or pressurising. It’s also important that the skill be named in such a way that the players can remember what it does. Access and Security Bypass are not clear but Hacking is. Go with what’s easy to understand, especially with new abilities.

The technology available to the characters is a big indication of what abilities they might have. There’s no point in Cro-Magnons having photography, firearms or art history. On the other hand, outdoorsman might be too broad an ability which could be better split into different terrain types such as woods, water and ice, plains, and mountains.

There are two kinds of abilities. Those which govern investigation and those which govern action.

For the former, you should also consider how characters get clues. Is it through some learned knowledge (academia), interacting with people (interpersonal) or the application of a skill (technical)? Try to get a spread between the three categories but don’t worry if one dominates. With the Cro-Magnons as much as the Cowboys, academia is unlikely to feature strongly but in a game of crime busting wizards, you’d expect book learnin’ to be right up there in the many different flavours of esoteric and historical knowledge.

For general skills consider the range of action scenes in the game. For Cro-Magnons, it’s probably about hunting, trapping, a bit of dancing and turning dead mammoths into food, clothes and weapons. Couple this with running away, taming smaller critters and signalling and that’s probably your lot. Cowboys can use pretty much the same abilities as Trail of Cthulhu with planes but adding trains and dollies to the choices for driving.

You might also wish to consider breaking down the combat abilities further introducing martial arts, or different kinds of firearms abilities. Here are some examples of tweaks to the combat system appropriate to different genres:

  • Quick Draw, make an athletics check to see who fires first in a duel. The highest score goes first but suffers a +2 to the hit threshold.
  • Called Shot, +2 damage but +2 to the hit threshold
  • Hail of Stones, a group of people throwing stones can require anyone passing through the area covered to make an athletics check with a difficulty equal to the number of throwers or take 1d-2 damage (minimum 1). This will drive off wild animals.



  • What’s the technology?
  • How do people get information (i.e. clues)?
  • What level of detail is important (Science v Physics/Chemistry/Biology v Atmospheric Physics/Nuclear Physics/… etc.)?
  • What action scenes do you envisage?
  • Any combat options needed?



In the structure of GUMSHOE, there are core clues which are free and supplementary clues which are not. Core clues are those which signpost new avenues of investigation whereas supplementary clues give some indication as to what the mystery is about. Besides those you can also spend investigative points on benefits. These are advantages a character can buy which are not direct clues, probably not even clues at all but make the characters’ live easier or more interesting. As a keeper, it’s a good idea to have some benefits prepared in reserve to suggest to players and get the ball rolling. You might pay a point of streetwise to ensure that the cattle baron’s men are off in pastures far when you go to his stead, or two points of herbalism to give the whole tribe mushroom induced visions, to prove the power of your ju-ju. One of the more common spends is to get a contact. Oral History might allow you to impress some Cro-Magnon children who will act as a look-out for you or for the Cowboys, you might spend Cop Talk on getting a contact in the Pinkertons. The rule of thumb I use is that a one point benefit spend gives two points to create a pool of another ability. This does sound like a simple way to generate lots of extra points so don’t let the players abuse it (not that that has ever happened in one of my games).



Suggested benefits:

  • What’s the culture?
  • What’s the technology?
  • What institutions are there? (In which you can get a contact)


Wrapping it up

Whilst in time honoured tradition you might think that it’s the Keeper’s job to decide all of the features  in advance and then imposing your decisions on the players, you could also consider doing this setting building work together. In my experience, the best way to get player buy-in and immediate involvement in the background is to involve them in creating the background and character design.

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