A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
As you probably know, Pelgrane Press is not named after the general species of pelgrane, but a particular pelgrane, which dwells in a bronze steeple atop Spectrum House, the company’s Clapham headquarters. And if you recall that, you are surely also aware that a pelgrane, as seen in Jack Vance’s classic fantasy stories of The Dying Earth, is a highly erudite and determinedly carnivorous being roughly cognate to a pterodactyl.
You’d think that the pelgrane, who shyly declines to have his name revealed for publication in this or any other forum, would be content with the imminent arrival of The Dying Earth Revivification Folio. This book will make playing The Dying Earth roleplaying game easier and faster than ever, and thus expand the repute of his kind.
Instead, however, the pelgrane has been fussing again, pestering Simon about yet another GUMSHOE misconception. Safely over on the other side of the Atlantic, I keep telling it not to worry. A mistaken impression about gameplay fuels discussion and serves as free advertising. Having to brave the creature’s spearing beak on a daily basis, Simon finds it difficult to share my airy dismissal of its frettings, and has asked me to respond.
In its most recent email, the pelgrane says: “Some people out there assume that GUMSHOE makes it too easy to solve mysteries! Unless you correct their misapprehensions, I’ll be forced to swoop down upon them, or perhaps random passersby, and deprive them of their delicious internal organs!”
At this point I begin to suspect that the pelgrane’s concern is but a pretext for some other agenda, but still I persist…
Yes, pelgrane, it’s true that some folks who haven’t played GUMSHOE think that by making key clues (or core clues as we call them) available to players without having to roll to acquire them, we’ve somehow created a completely flawed game in which mysteries are instantly solved, spreading mild disappointment throughout the land.
As always, the best way to figure out how GUMSHOE plays is to actually play it. Here’s what those too worried to try it would discover if they did so.
Traditional investigative roleplaying games have had to construct very simple mysteries, to compensate for the likelihood that players will fail rolls and miss core clues. A scene will typically include a single key piece of information. It often functions like a secret door in a dungeon-bashing game. In order to proceed to the next scene/room, one must find the clue/door. According to this model, the clue functions as a gate, and the die roll as gatekeeper.
When we created GUMSHOE, we followed up on the implications of its central innovation. The game provides a scenario structure that takes advantages of its strengths. GUMSHOE scenes can and should and do contain way more clues than the mystery adventure you have to design assuming players will miss a sizable percentage of their information-gathering rolls.
In part, these added clues productively exploit the session time that is no longer spent by the GM frantically trying to improvise a new way to get you the core clue you need to move on, after you’ve failed your roll. If someone fails the next roll, she then improvises a third way to get the information, and so on and so forth. The time not wasted on this circular pursuit of the same clue, which when you think about it, is as railroady as anything in gaming, can then be devoted to something else.
That something else: additional information, which the players must sort through to get to the truth. As real-life investigators will tell you, the trick in solving a crime is to assemble the real picture from a huge mess of information, some contradictory, and most completely irrelevant.
GUMSHOE is not about the characters rolling to get a few pieces of key information, but about the players cutting through a great mass of evidence to the real story it conceals. Even though the flow of play seems faster, because you’re eliminating the circular faffing-about sequences when you keep trying to make a roll for the same clue, the actual mystery part is more challenging. The mysteries are richer, more robust.
The sense of accomplishment comes when the players have an epiphany and work out what’s going on, not from finally rolling well. When they get stuck, the solution is always to go out and find more information, which they can assume is available.
This addresses another concern that has reached the pelgrane’s auditory organs and rendered him querulous: that if GUMSHOE gives the characters the information they seek without rolling, it must be impossible to add red herrings.
Again, the opposite is true. The larger number of clues appearing in any scene can contain red herrings galore. These might be actively misleading clues, intended as such by the scenario designer or improvising GM. Others might be interesting but irrelevant facts that need to be set by the wayside. Players always work from a murkier picture of events than the GM. They can easily turn incidental facts into red herrings by constructing a surprising (and wrong) reconstruction of the events they’re looking into, and then acting on those false assumptions.
The improvising GM might even pivot to make the entertainingly wrong reconstruction the correct answer to the mystery. Depending on her group’s attitude toward editing on the fly, she may later reveal that she’s done this, or carefully preserve the illusion that the players pursued a fixed target all along.
Always finding the clue you need to move forward does not mean that you won’t also find a bunch of other false leads and irrelevancies. Uncertainty remains. Again, though, the uncertainty is generated by player choices, and not the randomness of a die roll.
Anyway, that ought to mollify the pelgrane for now. Just in case, though, if you happen to be crossing Clapham Common, be sure to look up. Especially if you’ve just eaten and you happened to get brown sauce on you.