Dex and Diversity: The Lone Hero in GUMSHOE One-2-One

CClogoOur brief for GUMSHOE One-2-One was very simple – create a system and setting tailored for two people to roleplay an investgative game together. It’s not always easy to get a game group together and GUMSHOE One-2-One gives people the opportunity to play without that barrier. In particular, it also provides a useful way for people who are the partners of roleplayers to try out roleplaying for the first time without any for the baggage and potential social embarassment. So, one goal was to tailor the game to experienced GMs and inexperienced players. GUMSHOE One-2-One also allows us to explore the huge untapped range of fiction which features lone protagonists. While Lovecraft, for example occasionally features an ensemble of characters which resembles a typical game group, a lone protagonist is the archetypal Mythos protagonist.

Our intial idea was just to adapt the existing GUMSHOE rules a little, but when we passed these design goals onto Robin D Laws, he said “this strikes me as an actual design task best expressed as a product with playtesting window.  Some design elements could wind up being quite different from core GUMSHOE.”  This is why Robin is the designer! As a result, we commissioned a complete new game. We’ve always wanted to do a 30s hardboiled setting, and the hardboiled detective is an absolute exemplar of the lone protagonist. We also wanted to feature Lovecraftian tropes, and so Cthulhu Confidential and Dexter Raymond were born.

GUMSHOE One-2-One adventures are by their nature tied to their sole protagonists, and so the Cthulhu Confidential adventure Robin wrote was tailored for Dex –  a traditional noir detective in 30s Los Angeles. Not only that, the rules section features Dex exclusively as the example character – he  is completely baked-in. This leads to a big problem. In games where you generate your own characters, or pick from a well-thought-out set of pregens, you get to create or choose from characters with diverse backgrounds. While Robin covers the options for playing Dex as something other than a white, straight cis man, in his default form he is the archetypal traditional character. There is nothing wrong with playing Dex exactly as he is, but we realised pretty quickly, we needed to give our customers other choices. In addition to this, one very specific thing about our expected demographic of One-2-One gamers was that the GM and partner were pretty likely to be a man and a woman respectively. It would truly do our new players a diservice not to offer someone like them to play.

Cthulhu Confidential cover smallWe’d planned to release a supplement featuring more Dex, but also two other characters with very different backgrounds.We commissioned Ruth Tillman and Chris Spivey to create their own noir characters; Vivian Sinclair, a New York reporter, and Langston Wright, an African-American war veteran and scientist in world war two Washington DC

Cat and I each played individual games with Robin over hangouts, and the games were intense and great fun, but really made the issue of diversity more stark. We realised that, while we were giving players other options with the supplement, Dex as the default character in the main books was always going to be the Cthulhu Confidential poster boy, and however good the other characters were, they were always going to be in his long, backlit, shadow.  We weighed up the cost – a book pretty much ready to go –  against the time it takes to develop two new writers and the cost of delaying a new release for many months. In the end, despite that cost, it was an unavoidable choice on which we both agreed.The core book had to feature three characters, with equal prominence, inside and out.

At this stage, we’d already sent out the playtest documents as they were, with just Dex to give the system and adventure a good playtest. The very next day after our descision, we received this feedback:

“I know I am violating your first rule of playtesting with this comment, but I wanted to immediately relate to you how, upon reading just the first few pages of Cthulhu Confidential, I felt immediately put off by your decision to make the default protagonist of your game a white man. I understand the conventions of the hardboiled and Lovecraftian genres; however, I feel confident that this game would be much more attractive to players to all genders and ethnicities if you made the trivial effort of not alienating most of us.”

This was exactly what we’d feared, and confirmed our choice. We emailed the entire playtest group to let them know our decision; that Langston and Viv would appear in the core book with equal prominence with Dexter, both in the rules and in the adventures.

We have had great feedback with Dex, and now we need to playtest Viv and Langston. We’ll be offering this to our existing playtest group, but we also need new playtesters for exactly the same reasons – we don’t want Dexter to be the first character all of our playtesters experience. Watch out for playtesting opportunites very soon!


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