More Songs About Ratings and Pools

by Robin D Laws


The GUMSHOE rules break with roleplaying tradition in several notable ways. Most obviously, its information gathering skills, here called investigative abilities, default toward automatic success, with a point-spend mechanism to allow for extraordinary successes and additional benefits.

Also, its general abilities—those governing activities where failure is as likely to lead to an interesting plot development as success—don’t much concern themselves with the simulation of a measurable reality arising from the characters’ capabilities. Instead they allow players a strong but uncertain control over when their characters succeed and fail.

This approach emulates the structure of procedural ensemble fiction, where each of the main characters gets a number of chances to shine per story. The clearest model for this appears in episodic TV. Over the course of a series, if not in every episode, key characters receive a roughly equal number of spotlight moments, in which they overcome major obstacles in a cool and compelling way. Each character does this in accordance with his or her key traits or abilities.

GUMSHOE general abilities port this narrative convention into roleplaying. You get X opportunities to shine per scenario, where X is a somewhat fuzzy and unpredictable number. Your character may shine with an atypical ability, but more often than not triumphs by employing the abilities most associated with her.

When creating your character, envision the sorts of victories you want your character taking part in, and allocate your build points to the abilities that best suit those moments.

If the mechanics seem weird to you, you are probably applying the simulative thinking of other fine rules systems to GUMSHOE, resulting in a classic expectations mismatch.

Your character does not, for example, become literally worse in her abilities as you spend points[1]. Ratings remain unchanged as you spend points. Point-spending is something players do on the fictional level, not something that happens to the characters in their reality.

If your Athletics rating is 8, you are better, overall, at performing physical tasks than a teammate with an Athletics rating of 4. When making a pound-for-pound comparison, always use ratings, not pools.

However, if you’ve already spent 4 points, and your teammate has spent none, you now have a roughly equal chance of successfully performing Athletics-related tasks until the next refresh occurs. But you already have one or two successes under your belt, most likely, while he hasn’t done anything to demonstrate his athletic prowess. You have already shown yourself to be the superior athlete by overcoming obstacles using your Athletics. All else being equal, you will be the superior athlete more often than a character with a lower rating.

Variables may muddy the waters. You might spend low and roll low, losing when you thought you would win. Obstacles you tackle might present higher Difficulties than those lower-rated fellow PCs dare to confront. But over time, you will rack up more key moments with your higher rating.

In fiction, character is action. In procedural fiction, in which the characters face obstacles external to themselves, what counts is how often you win, and how. Your characters’ bad-assedness is established not by the number still sitting in your pool column, but by your achievements so far.

GMs can assist in this perception by describing unexpected setbacks not as a failure of the character’s abilities, but as the result of external complications. Scotty doesn’t suddenly forget how to fix the Enterprise. But he may be delayed by ion interference—especially if he already got the ship out of a big jam earlier in the episode. Now it’s Kirk’s turn to solve the problem using his key abilities, or maybe Spock’s.

The die rolling component of tests, twinned with the concealment of Difficulty numbers, introduces the uncertainty, and therefore the suspense, needed to balance players’ dual roles as authors and spectators. In the mainline roleplaying tradition, you control your character to some extent, but are anxious for his success at various intervals. GUMSHOE tips the balance a little more towards the author side, by letting you pick your successes. But it maintains tension by introducing doubt to any general ability outcome.

In real life, the results of important decisions remains unknowable until we make them.  Compelling fiction works the same way. When viewpoint characters take action, we hope for their success and fear for the consequences of possible failure. This happens in most roleplaying games when a die is rolled. GUMSHOE ratchets the tension up a notch by adding a tough decision point on top of that.

Uncertainty comes, in part, from never knowing how many times you’ll need a given ability in the remainder of the scenario. Knowing that the base Difficulty is 4, you will often be right in deciding how many points to spend, should you decide to. But both decisions remain at least somewhat fraught. If it makes you a little anxious, it is doing its job.

The added anxiety suits the genres GUMSHOE chooses to address: the gritty space opera of Ashen Stars, the deglamorized super-heroics of Mutant City Blues, and the horror of The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu. If you’re playing the latter and complaining about a mechanism that confronts you, just a touch, with the essential unknowability of human existence, perhaps you need to go back and reread “Supernatural Horror In Literature.”

GUMSHOE has always adjusted its basic parameters to the needs of each game. Should we someday get the license for Care Bears Mysteries[2], we’ll surely dial down the point-spend uncertainty principle.

Until then, you can never be sure at any moment that you’re spending the absolutely right number of points on any given action. But you can ask yourself how much you want this particular triumph, and spend accordingly. Not with your calculating head, but with your storytelling gut.


[1]     It’s true that a few abilities, like Health and Stability, bend the pattern, functioning as resources that deplete over time. Hiving them off from the general abilities would add as many new confusions as it it would solve.

[2]    Disclaimer: not an actual entertainment property.

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