Not a Significant Bullet

By Robin D. Laws


“It was not a significant bullet. I am not afraid.”

– filmmaker Werner Herzog, upon being shot by a passing assailant wielding a sniper rifle in the midst of a television interview


Hit points have remained a part of the roleplaying design lexicon since the beginning because they serve us so well as game conceits. A number that starts high and is whittled down by attrition until you fall over makes immediate sense in the abstract. If anything, GUMSHOE leans even further on the concept with its general abilities, which give you a whole range of numbers that are whittled down by attrition. (Not that you fall down, exactly, when you run out of Preparedness or Public Relations.)

As game abstractions, hit points are so useful that we’ve been willing since the days of D&D to struggle when translating them into narrative description. What does it mean to lose 30 of your 160 hit points when you fall a hundred and eighty feet to the bottom of a chasm in the perilous dungeon? Or to take twenty points of damage from a chainsaw?

Like other rules sets, GUMSHOE creates a break point at which lost Health points start to really take a toll. When you dip below 0, you’re either hurt, injured or dead. When hurt or injured, your ability to act is constrained. As to being dead, well, we all know what that means.

You could describe GUMSHOE’s Health rules (which in most iterations is mirrored in Stability) as a hybrid of a hit point and a wound track system. When you run out of hit points, you get shunted onto a (very foreshortened) wound track, with precise effects.

If I’d wanted the rules to be more explicit in this regard, I might have given characters two pools: Resilience, which counts down to 0 until you’re hurt, and Health, which then ticks down further into the three wound conditions. That added level of complexity would cause more confusion during character generation than it would remove during play, which is why I didn’t do that.

It’s easy to describe any instance of damage that takes you to or below 0 Health. If you get raked by a claw or bashed with a board or blasted by a mutant criminal’s shooting flame, you and the GM can both clearly envision how that might result in your being hurt, injured, or pushing up daisies. Many damage sources are equally easy to describe even if they leave you with a positive Health pool. Any physical strike can leave you shaken or superficially banged up without inducing any cognitive dissonance. This is true for both mundane punches in the face and imaginary attacks, whether delivered by monster, mutant power, or energy pistol.

The tricky territory lies in between, with attacks that, one thinks, should either visibly hurt you or not touch you at all. The most nagging example of these is the gunshot. If an enemy overcomes your hit threshold and does damage to you with a gun, but that damage does not reduce you to 0 or less, what happens? Are you really shrugging off gunshots?

You are not.

As with other general ability pools, your Health points above 0 measure not a quantifiable factor in the game world, but the story opportunities that define your character. Just as a highly Prepared character gets to have useful items already in the luggage a certain number of times per episode, you get to evade physical harm a certain number of times per episode. That number varies depending on whether you have chosen to define your character as exceptionally rugged (high Health) or relatively delicate (low Health.) We expect the ex-marine to wade into danger without effect more times per episode than we do the frail academic.

An enemy who misses you with a gunshot has not placed you in physical danger.

An enemy who hits you but does not reduce your Health to 0 or less has instead subjected you to a near-miss.

This might be described in various ways, depending on the situation. The GM might narrate the nature of the harrowing near-miss, or turn it around and ask you to define it.

Some of these potential descriptions literalize the Health point damage more than others. Others apply only under particular circumstances. To pick an obvious example, the reference to a bullet hitting your body armor makes sense only if you’re wearing it.

You are never dodging bullets, but you might be anticipating the enemy’s firing zone and moving out of it.

Remember also that GUMSHOE emulates genre rather than simulating reality. Look to the depiction of near-misses with firearms on TV and in the movies for more examples.

  • The bullet strikes your body armor, knocking you down and perhaps winding you.
  • You dance through a hail of bullets, to great mental and physical stress.
  • The bullet grazes you, leaving you with a superficial cut or burn.
  • The bullet lodges in an item you carry on your person. Canonical examples include the ever-popular badge, whiskey flask, or Bible.
  • You topple backwards, away from the fire.
  • You throw yourself prone as the bullet hit or hits dance around you.
  • You turn an ankle or strain a muscle while removing yourself from the zone of fire.
  • The bullet hits a nearby surface, sending stinging fragments of brick, concrete, tree bark or glass spraying into your face.
  • The flash, smoke or sound of the gunshot leave you disoriented.
  • Your body floods with stress hormones as the bullets fly around you.

In many cases you can amp up the description to explain why a character is merely hurt by a gunshot instead of injured or killed. The body armor strike might break a PC’s rib, for example.

To access these descriptive cues more readily during play, GMs can copy them onto a file formatted as a series of index cards, then print them out onto cardstock. (Or onto stickers, which you then stick onto trading cards.) Discard the ones that don’t fit your setting or genre. Then, in play, riffle through them in search of a fresh yet appropriate description.

GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.
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