A column about roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Over the years I’ve occasionally been asked, most often by Simon, how GUMSHOE and player narrative control might work together.
My answer has always been the same—uh, they kinda mostly don’t.
GUMSHOE assumes that the solution to the mysteries the PCs investigate remains fixed once established in the GM’s mind. You and your fellow players aren’t trying to hit a moving target, but instead pursue the answer to a puzzle that makes sense and won’t change on you in mid-stream. Players recognize that some details surrounding the mystery might be indeterminate until they hit the gaming table, but not the mystery itself.
For example, no one’s going to much object if an Antagonist Reaction does or doesn’t occur based on how well the group has been doing and how far away the end of the session is.
But if you play half the scenario with the GM thinking that Mrs. Hatch was carried off by Deep Ones but then she decides to rearrange everything so that it was degenerate man-apes of the Everglades, and you find that out, you’ll feel cheated.
Allowing players to narrate details in scenes frustrates the investigation process of a fixed mystery. If you say, “and then I find an envelope with a blurry photo of degenerate man-apes in it” when your character searches the boat house, you’ve forced the GM to alter the mystery. Assuming she can even keep up with all of the player-inserted details and weave them into an internally consistent story on the fly, it’s still not the puzzle you were all working on before you brought that detail in.
If everyone at the table instead wants to play out a fungible mystery that becomes fixed only when the story reaches its conclusion, the apparatus of GUMSHOE’s investigative abilities and scene structures isn’t just unnecessary but counter to your needs. Instead, seek out Jared Sorensen’s Inspectres, which is all about creating the mystery collaboratively. Unlike GUMSHOE, it’s built to do that.
It might be tempting to say that players can add details to scenes that don’t relate to the central mystery. But those scenes can be hard to identify and wall off from the clue-gathering part of the game.
Even an Antagonist Reaction scene in which the investigators battle mercenaries or vampires or backwoods cannibals can contain info that could muddy the mystery.
With sufficient definition of who gets to describe what, you could let the players narrate simple elements of their environment during fight and action scenes, as is par for the course in Feng Shui. (Though you probably want to tone down the craziness in anything other than TimeWatch.)
If you say that there’s a garbage can nearby you can throw at the oncoming motorbike, or describe a rocky outcrop that ought to give you a decent vantage over activities down in the gravel quarry, the GM can probably roll with that—especially if she takes care to stage the actiony bits away from clue-bearing locations.
However, if the backstory driving the mystery’s logic depends on there not being a way to observe the quarry from above, the GM finds herself in a spot. By vetoing this detail, she may be pointing you to an avenue of investigation the characters didn’t earn.
Maybe that’s not such a big deal. While disallowing your proposed description of the landscape, the GM could charge an investigative spend, asking you to describe the sudden hunch that led your character to realize that lines of sight around the quarry matter to the case in some way.
It feels to me that this calls for a lot of fine meta-fictional hair-splitting that isn’t worth the effort. Declaring GUMSHOE a trad game when it comes to player narration remains the simpler and therefore clearer way to go.
That said, in certain games the solution of the mystery doesn’t end the story. In Night’s Black Agents you may learn who assassinated your contact at The Guardian, and then decide what to do with them. Ashen Stars mysteries often lead to a science fictional moral quandary the crew must then resolve for good or ill. The GM could declare that certain scenes freely permit player narration, including all post-mystery sequences. The Veil-Out at the end of an Esoterrorists run works more or less this way already.
GMs might look for other roped-off areas of a scenario in which player narrative can run and play without impinging on the central mystery. The collaborative process by which Gaean Reach players define Quandos Vorn, the interstellar arch-villain all the characters have sworn vengeance against, already fits that mold. Some similar elements will find their way into Yellow King. These happen at the outset of play but you could just as easily ask players to narrate interlude scenes between cases.
Maybe someday we’ll come up with a GUMSHOE game premise that requires a solution to this issue I’m not currently seeing. When we do that we’ll have to check to make sure that we haven’t merely stapled a Fear Itself cover around a copy of Inspectres.