Improvising With GUMSHOE by Steve Dempsey
This article discusses an improvised variant of the GUMSHOE rules. It can be just as easily used for Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, or any other GUMSHOE game.
Most games of GUMSHOE are played using a scenario that the GM has written. Not only does she introduce each scene and play the non player characters but she also decides in advance what the clues are. Although the GM does not dictate the path the players will take through the adventure, she has a strong hand on the tiller as the clues she chooses will determine to a rather large extent what the players do.
There are some good reasons not to always play this way. Stephen King says in On Writing, “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” When you tie this in with the GM’s creed, “No scenario ever survives contact with the players”, you will see that the improvised game has some advantages over one written by the GM.
What you might lose on intricate plotting you are likely to gain on player involvement in the creative process and character play. Players will be much freer to take the scenario in directions that seem more natural to them and their input will have a greater impact on the story.
Improvisation is nothing terribly difficult to do, the main impact of playing this variant is that the game is not planned up front by a GM but is developed in play by players and GM alike. This means no prep for GMs, other than learning the rules. I’ll be discussing the details of how to do this in three easy stages. Finally I’ll give an example that shows how this works in play.
1. The set-up
As with any improvisation, you have to have a theme. It’s an improvisation on something. If you don’t have a theme, then the players won’t know what kind of characters to make.
So start with a theme. It doesn’t really matter how you come by this as long as there is some consensus within the group. You could let the GM choose (“You’re all students at a Japanese high school, getting ready for a school trip”) or you could have a group discussion about what sounds cool (“I want things lurking in doorways”, “I want magical rituals that take years to cast”, “I want a scene in an 80s disco”). You could also choose something that relates to a moral question (“How far are you prepared to go to stop the monsters?”) or a dilemma (“Family or Job?”).
But remember that this is GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, and Mutant City Blues. It’s all about investigation. Some terrible crime has been committed, the bastions of reality are under threat, and the characters are the ones to deal with it.
For your theme you should also discuss the nature of this threat or crime, even if you don’t want to know the details at this stage. For example, the Japanese schoolgirls are a shoe-in for some kind of mad slasher and the 80’s disco idea smacks of Son of Sam or Zodiac.
You could discuss who the villain of the piece is going to be. This could be oblique (some Mythos deity) or explicit (one of the schoolgirls). It helps the game if you have some idea of what you are aiming for. It should also help with pacing. You don’t want the bad guy to be revealed to the characters in the first five minutes.
It’s a good idea, although not necessary, to write down the outcome of your discussions regarding the theme. It’s a handy resource for players and GM alike who can refer to it when making decisions about characters or plot.
Once you know what the theme is, make up some characters. In many games, this is down in utmost secrecy lest anyone steal your cool idea. In improv, we have a different way of doing things. You all do your characters together. Talk about your characters to each other and say when you like something. Give positive feedback.
Improv thrives on feedback. You are the audience as well as the actors so big yourselves up. It’s not just about getting a good vibe, this is also about riffing off each other’s characters. If you’ve gone the schoolgirl route, you’ll need to know who is the class swot, who is the cheerleader and who has psychic powers. You’re characters don’t necessarily need to know, but your players do. You need to know where conflicts will arise because that’s what makes the game interesting.
You can do this by each introducing your character once generation has been done, but that’s a short cut that misses out the links that you can forge between your characters if you do the job collaboratively.
In improv GUMSHOE, investigative skills work differently. They still allow characters to automatically find core clues or to be spent on supplementary clues. That much does not change. However, because there is no prewritten scenario, the choice of skills determines what the characters are going to encounter. If no one has Art History as a skill, the characters aren’t going to be looking at many paintings. If they all have high trivia scores, then what happened in last week’s episode of Full Metal Alchemist is going to be much more important.
Decide how long you want the game to last. This can be done by deciding on the number of core clues. One is generally not enough but you can play a decent one session game with only three or four core clues. Don’t forget that some scenes will not be about clues but for transition or colour. Whilst you might like to go for a mammoth ten core clue game, this is probably a bit much and I imagine is best broken down into smaller three or four clue episodes, each with their own internal logic but all building blocks in the greater plot arc.
2. What do we do now?
Now you play. Without any kind of pre-existing scenario this sounds a bit scary but you do have something to go on, namely all the work that you’ve put in so far to create the theme and the characters. You should all have a pretty good idea of how the general direction of the game so now what you do is ask for scenes.
Anyone can ask for a scene, player or GM, but the GM gets to decide the order in which they are played. The first scene is usually called for by the GM who will use it to introduce the game, the characters and perhaps something about the mystery that’s about to be investigated.
A scene is where a least one character will attempt some kind of action. An action is where a character finds a clue, has social interaction with a PC or NPC or uses their general skills to some end. It’s a fairly loose definition but you’ll know one when you see one. For a scene to work it has to have some kind of danger, excitement, threat or drive the plot of the game.
It’s the GM’s job to set-up scenes and to play NPCs. They can take account of player wishes but ultimately it is there responsibility to decide who and what is in the scene.
It’s also the GM’s job to make sure that transitions between scenes are handled. This is essentially narration. It’s the bits in 24 that happen during the ad breaks when Jack Bauer drives to the next action packed scene, or at the start when the voice says “Previously on Heroes”. Transitions are important because they tie everything together. They can also have bits of exposition such as when a PC talks to his critically ill wife in hospital, flashbacks to a scene in the life of the villain or even foreshadowing of future events. The extent to which you expose plot to the players in these scenes is very much up to the will of the group. Some don’t want out of character knowledge but some relish the TV show style construction that has interposed shots of the bad guy committing his latest dastardly crime, think Skylar in Heroes.
3. How to improvise
Here are some techniques that you can use to help with your improvisation. If you want more information on improvisation for roleplaying I recommend the Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley).
These techniques are not difficult to use and they have been shown in theatre sports (see Impro by Keith Johnstone) to improve stories generated through improvisation.
Don’t try to be too clever
If your character goes into a bar for the first time, they should probably order a drink, they probably wouldn’t do a back flip over the bar and shoot the pianist. If you do this kind of thing, you ruin spoil the narrative by doing things for which the other players can’t see the justification. Characters should act in character and do what’s natural for them to do. You’ll find that acting naturally helps the game along much better because the other players will come to know what to expect from your character.
This follows on from the first technique. You won’t be able to understand what the other characters are like if you try to block everything they do. So if a character proposes going into a bar, you probably shouldn’t say “It’s closed” or “I don’t go in bars”. It’s fine to say, “Well, I wouldn’t usually, but just this once”. In fact this is very good because this reveals something about your character as well as encouraging the other player’s development of the game.
Build on what’s already happened. If an NPC gets mentioned by name in an early scene, bring them back later on. If a detail is mentioned, make it appear in a later scene under a different light, make it more or less important than it was. The reason behind reincorporation is because it reinforces the narrative by drawing attention to the salient points.
Reincorporation is also known as Chekov’s Gun because he once wrote in a letter to a friend, “”If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
4. An example of play
So here’s an example. Brenda is running a game for Steve and Anya. They decide that they want to play Fear Itself set in the London in the 70s. The player characters will all be involved in the punk scene, the tone will be gritty and the game should involve some kind of parasitical infection.
Steve’s character is called Sanjit, a fanzine writer from Bromley. His writing has some influence in the small milieu but he’s not necessarily well liked, mainly because of the sarcastic tone of his writing. He’s unemployed.
Anya’s character, Ariadne, has come down to London from Birmingham, to escape from Heavy Metal. She’s a competent drummer and has got a gig with a band called Dole Kids. Ariadne and Sanjit share a grotty room in Berwick St.
Brenda thinks that the plot probably involves something to do with some chord progression carrying the infection but that’s not something she can decide. But it is her job to frame the first scene . Given the theme, there’s nowhere better to start the game that at a club. (This is Not Being Too Clever .)
It’s a Friday night and the Dive, a club in Camden pub basement, is heaving. The floor is sticky with beer, the walls and ceiling dripping with sweat. Dole Kids are just coming off having done a decent set. Sanjit is in the off-stage area having a discussion with Molly, lead singer of Kick in the Head who are due on next. Molly has taken umbrage at something Sanjit wrote in his last fanzine. Her band is on stage and waiting for her.
The scene is played out to introduce the characters and any NPCs. From what happens it’s clear that Molly will feature later in the game. On this occasion Molly storms off up the steps to the stage barging into Ariadne. This only escalates the arguments. She spits at the group and she runs up to sing. They follow her and end up being beaten up by Kick in the Head and their loyal following. Molly takes pity on the PCs and gets them back to her dressing room where they share a joint.
Next, Anya calls for a Core Clue scene. As there hasn’t been anything horrible happen yet, this scene should introduce the first elements of horror. It’s probably time for someone to die.
Anya asks for the scene to take place at the after show party. Brenda sets the scene but allows the players to place their own characters. It’s after the gig at a party in a squat next to a kebab shop. There is no electricity in the building and it’s entirely lit by candles. Someone has a grotty tape player which is blasting out the rather indistinct sounds of Iggy Pop and the Stooges.
Anya says that Ariadne is snogging some groupie in a wrecked bathroom, candles reflecting off broken bits of mirror. Steve decides that Sanjit is holding forth in a damp and grimy kitchen to a small coterie of fanzine fans.
Brenda narrates what happens next. Suddenly a scream comes from upstairs. A teenage goth staggers into a stairwell, his face contorted in horror. He collapses and falls. People run up to see what’s going on. As Anya called the scene, it’s up to her what the clue is. She can take suggestions from the other players. Ariadne comes out to see what’s going on and uses Intimidation to get everyone else to back off so she can get to the clue. Anya says that the boy has passed out, he’s got a joint tightly clenched in his hand. Ariadne checks him out and takes the joint. (This is Reincorporation of the joint.) She goes to take a puff but just before she does, notices something strange in the joint. Brenda suggests that this might be some kind of small wriggly worm, and Steve adds that perhaps as Ariadne is leaning over the boy she notices something pass across his eyeball, although it’s not clear what.
Anya decides to go with the wriggling worm in the joint. Steve also decides on a supplementary clue, spending a point of Streetwise, he decides that Sanjit knows the unconscious lad. He’s a pagan called Perdition,also from Bromley who Sanjit knows is into some “heavy magic shit”.
Brenda narrates what happens next. Perdition wakes up with a start and looks around. He smiles strangely and attempts to kiss Ariadne. He is superhumanly strong but together they manage to force him outside. He chases after someone else. Everyone else has run away at this point, except for Molly, who announces “Oh my God, I’ve got the same dealer as that monster!” She gets out her weed and it too is infected with worms.
We have a plot! Everyone has smoked the infected weed, who knows what might happen to them now? The game will continue long into the night.
You now have some tools that you can use to improvise games. If you give this a go, remember that a light touch is often needed with this kind of game, don’t go trampling all over other people’s ideas, give them space and time to come to fruition. It’s a question of mutual respect.
Finally, the improvisation may well not work at all. You might find that you’ve painted yourselves into some kind of dead-end story. But don’t worry about it. Improv, like any other game technique, doesn’t always work. The thing is not to worry to much about this and to just try again from a bit before when things started to go off the rails.
With a bit of patience, you’ll seen be off again.
Steve Dempsey, the author of this piece, has written for Armitage Files and Dreamhounds of Paris, and is our most experienced GM.
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.
(originally posted in Dec 2007 Page XX)