A Column about Roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Clue-gathering in GUMSHOE differs from previous investigative games in one very minor way. Its central tweak isn’t even an extra step to the process players may already be familiar with. GUMSHOE removes a step from the standard approach. Anyone who’s played nearly any trad RPG expects to:
- identify the skill or ability required to gain a piece of information
- roll a die to see if they succeed or fail
- in the case of a success, listen to the GM narrate that information to them.
All GUMSHOE does is eliminate step 2. You:
- identify a suitable ability
- listen as the GM provides the information
For all it does to open up possibilities for richer, more elaborate mysteries, this tweak can prove almost too simple, at least where learning curve is concerned. The brain doesn’t like it when we make it learn new ways of doing things, especially when they’re fractional variations on an established pattern. This balk response sometimes manifests itself as a complaint that GUMSHOE is too mechanistic or intrusive, even though its core mechanic does less than the method people are used to.
People typically don’t find it persuasive to be told that their responses are objectively wrong. Even when they are.
So even though GUMSHOE is by definition less mechanistic than the three-step method of gaining information, the false perception that it is more so can be countered by means other than direct logic.
You can do this applying a basic, already commonly used GM technique that, ironically enough, you could also easily use with the three-step method. Wherever possible, describe the fictional reality instead of the rules that mediate its outcomes.
Here’s an exchange that does sound mechanistic, because it pulls the player out of the character’s perspective by directly referencing rules terms:
Player: Does he seem to be lying?
GM: What ability do you use to determine that?
Player: Assess Honesty.
GM: Using Assess Honesty, you get the sense that he’s trying to put one over on you.
If you use the GM reference sheet you’ve compiled listing the various characters’ abilities, you can skip the step where the player is called upon to explicitly reference a particular rules bit.
Player: Does he seem to be lying?
GM: [looks at reference sheet, see that player’s character has Assess Honesty] His eyes dart wildly as he speaks, so yeah, you get the feeling he’s trying to put one over on you.
Some players might complain that this is too spoonfeedy, depriving them of the mental work required to apply the correct ability to the situation. The obvious solution is to use seamless narration for players seeking an immersive experience, and continue to call for ability selections from those who don’t want you to conceal the gears and levers.
You can still ask for clarification on the ability being used without calling for a direct cite.
Player: I ask the old geezer sitting by the well whether he’s seen anything suspicious.
GM: [in character, playing him as anxious, craning his neck around to see who’s watching] “Why you don’t seem to be from around these parts, young feller.”
Player: “Listen, you old bag of bones. I ain’t got the patience for any nonsense from you. Cough up what you know or you’ll wish you had.”
You don’t need to ask whether this player is using Intimidation, because she’s doing what any strong storyteller does, showing instead of telling. Assuming the character has the ability, you then proceed to cough up what the old man knows:
GM: “Things ain’t been the same around these parts since the Whateleys reclaimed their ancestral manor. But I don’t aim to cross them, no sirree bub!”
If you check the ref sheet and see that the player doesn’t have the ability, the fiction-breaking way to say that is:
GM: You’re using Intimidate but Professor Haskins doesn’t actually have the ability. Stephanie’s character does, though.
To keep the rules behind the curtain, you might instead say:
GM: The geezer laughs to see you, all five foot six of you, in your tweedy jacket and your reedy New England accent, trying to pull a tough guy act. You look over at McCracken and figure leaning on witnesses is maybe more his department.
Vague requests for information can also transform into moments that flesh out a character’s backstory.
Player: How old does this rock carving look?
GM: What is your prior experience with rock carvings?
Player: I studied petroglyphs with the Robertson Expedition of 1927, in the deepest woods of Algonquin Park.
Here you’re prompting the player for an in-world description more memorable than “I have 1 point in Archaeology.”
One drawback of this trick is that it can induce prolix players to wax digressive, slowing down the action. Be careful who you use it with.
Though richer and more descriptive—or rather, because it is richer and more descriptive—constantly coming up with phrasings that hide the rules can be mentally taxing. When we reference rules constructs, it is not just because we need them to determine what happens. They also function as a short-hand to collapse our communications, getting to the meat of a scene faster.
In most groups, you’ll find yourself, and the players, seamlessly dropping in and out of direct rules reference without paying attention to the ongoing micro-shifts in perspective this entails. If your games are going fine already, don’t mess them up by thinking too hard about this. Just keep on doing what you’re doing.