Giving Out Clues
This is an excerpt from the most recent version of GUMSHOE – The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition. It is GM-facing advice on the most central element of the game – how the characters interact with the scene in the game’s fiction, and how the players and GM use GUMSHOE to handle the delivery of information in as seamless and flexible a way as possible.
Just as in games where you roll for clues, players always have to describe a logical course of action that might lead to their getting information, directly or indirectly suggesting the ability they use to get it. In the traditional model, there’s a roll; you supply the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped — but it’s the only step skipped.
PLAYER: I examine the body looking for a cause of death.
GM: Roll Forensic Anthropology.
PLAYER: I succeed.
GM: It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.
PLAYER: I examine the body looking for a cause of death.
GM: [Checks worksheet and sees that the player’s character has Forensic Anthropology] It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.
In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out, “Anthropology! Archaeology! Art History! Evidence Collection!” They don’t do this because it would be weird, boring, and stupid — and because in neither case does it fill all the requirements necessary to get information from a scene.
The only difference between GUMSHOE and those systems is the lack of a die roll. You know your group. Give out information in the same way you would usually give out information: actively, passively — GUMSHOE doesn’t care. Your players will solicit it, or you will give it out, just as you always do. There will be a strong effect on your gaming, but from a subtle change.
Giving Out Clues
The rules say “To get information, the rules say the PC needs to be in the right place, with the right ability, and use that ability.”
This section deals with each of these preconditions. In short, though, whatever you’ve done in other games, you should always err on the side of giving out information, not holding it back.
The rules offer a number of ways to call on abilities, depending on the situation. Choosing the right way to call on an ability is crucial to the forward momentum of your investigative plot. Make this choice according to the consequences of failure.
If the consequence of failure is that a character fails to get a piece of crucial information, success should be automatic, provided that the character has the ability in question, and the player thinks to ask for it. However, any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario.
(Even at that, you may need to improvise during play if no player steps up to claim the needed clue, bending the details of the scenario so that the same information can be garnered with a different ability, possibly by another player.)
You can give out clues both actively and passively.
By default, though, GUMSHOE assumes that the use of interpersonal abilities is active; the players have to correctly choose an appropriate ability and describe how they’re using it to open a contact up to questioning. When you see that players are hesitant, tell the player with the relevant ability that his experienced character can sense that it will work here:
- “You get the feeling that this guy will crack if you lean on him a little.” (Intimidation)
- “He seems kind of smitten by you.” (Flattery)
- “The squeal of a police scanner tells you that you’ve got a wannabe cop on your hands.” (Cop Talk)
GUMSHOE procedural series require their own conceits in order to keep the story moving in an entertaining manner. They require the audience’s complicity in looking the other way. Here GM and players handwave certain elements that break the rules of realism in order to keep the game running smoothly, just as TV scriptwriters do. For example, the conceit of primacy in shows such as Law and Order ensures that the lead characters get the juiciest cases and more action than any cop is likely to experience in a lifetime. Just as the aforementioned devices arise from the requirements of TV drama, GUMSHOE’s conceits grapple with the limitations of a roleplaying session.
The major device you’ll want to adopt, needed for all but the smallest groups, is the conceit of elastic participation:
Use the concept of elastic participation to ensure that there is always a PC in the right place.
Roleplaying is traditionally a group effort like shows which focus on small teams of investigators. When an ensemble cast tackles a big case together, they split into partnerships to split up necessary tasks. The scriptwriters make sure that obstacles are always matched to the capabilities of the characters in a given scene. In a roleplaying game, where responsibility for the obstacles lies with the GM and task splitting is determined by the players, some additional fudging is required to match the two elements.
GUMSHOE works best when you assume that everyone is kind-of sort-of along for every scene — without squinting too hard at any resulting logic or staging absurdities. That way, the group continues to enjoy collective access to all of the investigative abilities needed to gather clues. Perhaps even more importantly, the concerted minds of four to six untrained roleplayers are often needed to replicate the deductive skill of a single professional investigator. Often, the easiest method is just to specify characters are on the scene when they are needed.
Most of the time, you can just let the group sort through the clues without constantly justifying the use of the elastic participation conceit. That’s what a conceit does: it says, “Let’s not worry about this annoying bit of realism.”
You can collaborate with the group to come up with ways to conceal the breaking of the fourth wall that occurs when six people pile into an interrogation room or examine the same piece of physical evidence. Two-person teams can be dispatched to perform particular tasks while keeping seamlessly in touch with the rest of the team. Assume, for example, that suggestions given by players whose characters aren’t present in a scene represent cell-phone conversations, head-up displays, or other high-tech transmission equipment which is appropriate to the genre. A technical expert can lend his ability to another PC by watching a video feed on his laptop. When necessary, you can establish that an absent character with a specialized ability briefed the PC on the scene, telling him what to look for. In many cases, one agent can bag evidence and let the technician look at it later
Try to guide the group so that the splitting into teams trope occurs during non-investigative sequences. A stakeout that leads into a chase scene needn’t occur under the assumption that everyone is “sort of there.” By finding ways to break it every so often, you hide the conceit.
Enlist your players in maintaining it.
(Elastic participation is not unique to investigative games. Most groups playing a classic dungeon-delve campaign allow characters of absent players to be present to use minor, exotic abilities. At the same time, the characters are typically not treated as present when a big fight breaks out.)
Rolling above a number on a die can be immensely satisfying, because of the potential for failure and the relief of tension if you succeed. In GUMSHOE, we leave that tension for general ability tests. This has led some commentators to suggest that gathering information in GUMSHOE is “too easy,” as if rolling dice were a skill. But GUMSHOE doesn’t care how difficult your clues are once you’ve obtained them — it’s all about getting the clues. We recommend that core clues are straightforward, so that adventures don’t get bogged down, but if you want more difficult clues, even ciphers, cryptic images, or complex documents — help yourself. Certainly, if anyone in your group claims “it’s too easy,” you’ll be ready to hit them with something brain twisting.