I ran two Trail of Cthulhu sessions over the weekend (a stealth proof-of-concept of a possible upcoming setting). At a three or four hour convention game, the pressure of time means every scene has to count. There’s little time for backtracking or encounters that don’t go anywhere, and that pressure’s compounded if you’ve got a table of players who aren’t familiar with the GUMSHOE system. You want to shovel clues and benefits at them whenever you can. There need to be clues everywhere (and they all need to converge and lead onto a small number of possible next scenes, to keep the scenario on track).
Most players quickly grasp the big idea of GUMSHOE, that you always find clues instead of rolling for them, but point spends are a little more confusing. New players ask if they need to spend points for core clues, or think they need to roll like a General Ability, or have trouble even imagining what extra benefit, say, Photography might have. They worry about wasting points, and while I assure them that I’ll refund the spend if there’s no added information or benefit to be gained, I always look for ways to make a point spend seem worthwhile. I don’t like saying no to new players when they try to engage with the mechanics.
After all, one of the big reasons to have point spends is to help allocate spotlight time. Spending a point is like sending up a flare to the GM marked “pay attention to me! Give me a way to shine”). The last thing you want to do to a new player let them feel ignored. (At the same time, the other last thing you want to do is let a loud and enthusiastic new player dominate the game and crowd out everyone else – and the limited number of investigative spends available ensure that doesn’t easily happen.)
Here are my four go-to ways to make any Investigative spend, even an obscure one, pay off, in the absence of a better idea or suggestion.
Gain A Trusted Contact
Any certainty is welcome in a mystery game. Telling a player “you know this guy and can trust him” is immensely reassuring. If a player asks “do I know any X (astronomers, doctors, people who know about the swamp, people who’ll help me move a body)”, I’ll either suggest a suitable ability, or just tell the player if they pick an ability and spend from it, they’ll know someone who they can trust and rely on – ideally, someone who provides access to another Investigative Ability.
Even just the act of saying “you can trust this guy” is often enough. You might not have ever intended for that NPC to betray or deceive the players, but the players usually feel that certainty is worth the point.
- Art History: A local dealer in fine art. She’s got lots of Credit Rating and can get you an invite to the Ambassador’s party.
- Geology: Your old university lecturer is also an expert in Chemistry.
- Cop Talk: Your buddy on the force can open doors for you that would normally require Bureaucracy.
Gain a General Pool
If a player asks to do something with an investigative spend that’s really better phrased as a general ability test, then instead offer a 3-point pool of that general ability. If they make a wild spend for information when you’ve no idea what extra details or clues to give them, go for a 1 or 2-point pool of Investigative Abilities. Phrase it as a pool instead of a straight bonus to give the player more control, and to allow for the narratively satisfying possibility of callbacks.
- Can I make acid with Chemistry and melt the door? How about a 3-point Explosive Devices pool?
- I use Bargain on the shopkeeper. What does he have for sale that I can buy cheap? Take 3 points of Preparedness, and later on you can say that you bought whatever item you use here in this scene.
- I spend a point to Research everything! Um, ok. You read everything in the library related to the case. You don’t find anything that seems immediately relevant, but you can have one point that you can turn into any Academic ability later on, as long as it relates to the case you researched. So, if you find, I dunno, a magic dagger, you could examine that item with the bits of Archaeology you recall from your reading, and get clues that way.
Expand The Scope Of An Ability
Especially for more abstruse academic abilities, it’s common for players to try using them as steamrollers whenever they’re even slightly relevant. (“I have Medicine! I’m a doctor! They should tell me everything about the dead guy’s autopsy”). Interpersonal abilities get repurposed (“I flatter him, saying ‘you’re way too tough to be scared of those mushroom guys.” Is he Reassured yet?”) In such cases, charge a point spend to allow for the more generous interpretation of the ability.
If you’re totally stuck for how an investigative spend could possibly apply to the scene, but the player is adamant that they want to try, consider improvising a brief scene that relates to the spend, but gives a core clue or other information. You can also use such little scenes to drop tangentially-related but spookily Lovecraftian foreshadowing or hints.
- I spend a point of Astronomy and look out at the stars while the others are talking to the terrible old man! The stars out the window are oddly different – it must be some trick of the light, or a trick of the clouds. Maybe it’s unusually clear here, so you can see more stars. Anyway, you remember one night a few months ago when you came out to a hill near the old man’s shack to do some observations with a portable telescope. Now that you think of, you remember seeing a fire burning that night – and that fire might have been right here, in his back yard. What was he burning that night? (Hints that Evidence Collection or Archaeology might find something in the back garden.)
- I examine the plants in the garden. Do I get anything for spending a point of Biology? You recall a reference in a biology paper you read in college that talked about the occult properties of certain plants. Out of curiosity – you were a bored biology student – you looked up that second paper, and there you learned that the plants in the garden – sorghum – are associated with a tradition called the Benandanti, a 16th century occult group who claimed to be able to astrally project. (Substitutes for Occult)
- I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. What?
- I spend a point of Craft while examining the table. OK. Er. Well, you… know that the table is… ok, it’s made from a hardwood that grows locally. In a forest. And…and in that forest, there are mines running underneath parts of it, and you’ve heard stories about weird stuff there. And dead miners. Buried alive! The roots of the trees there must have fed on human marrow-fat and bones… and now they’re in this table. (There’s another scene in the scenario that points to the old mine, and you’re wildly scrabbling to find anything useful to say.)