In GUMSHOE,when your character needs to do something tricky and where randomness adds tension, you roll a d6, add points you spend from an Ability pool, and if you make the Difficulty number, you succeed.
The number of points you spend on a test can represent the effort a character is making, but usually they reflect the player’s judgement on whether a success on a particular test is important. You might not care as much if your punch connects in a brawl, than if you have the master vampire in your sights. When these points run out, players look to other abilities which still have points in them. This encourages players to use more than one method to deal with problems. For GMs, ability pools are a method of managing spotlight time. Play naturally passes to the character with the points left in an ability which can be used for the particular problem the players face.
The archetypal example of this kind of character resource is hit points, – Health in GUMSHOE games. In many games, until you hit zero hit points, there is no effect on your character’s performance. So a character might take no measurable harm from the first gun shot, and yet the player knows that now they are on low hit points, the next bullet with most likely kill their character. It’s not that the first bullet didn’t have the same potential to kill as the second, it’s just not narratively satisfying or plausible for a protagonist to drop dead on the first hit.
So, I think of Health as a measure of the narrative plausibility of you not being damaged by a particular attack. As your Health gets lower, the chance of the next bullet not harming you decreases. That’s pretty abstract.. However, while almost all players accept that these abstract hit points can affect your chance of being wounded by an identical attack, there are a few who don’t like the idea that a Shooting resource affects your chance of wounding someone. GUMSHOE aficionados look at the characters’ success and failure across the entire game – picking and choosing which attempts to shoot are important – objectors look at the probability of individual rolls and see a sudden decrease when the points are gone. The resources management of hit points feels OK for them, but for shooting, not so much.It’s too “meta.” I entirely accept this is a matter of taste, and I’d like to offer an option to people who have an issue with this.
The argument goes like this. When my character uses Firearms, I can spend points to be sure to hit, or increase my chance of hitting. So, when I have run out of points being sure to hit, it feels like my character is bad at shooting. It feels strange to “decide” when a character is successful.
The first thing to say is that characters in most GUMSHOE are pretty good at what they do. If you have any Firearms at all, under normal combat circumstances you’ll hit half the time. So, spending all your points doesn’t make you “bad” at shooting just worse! However, that’s an aside. Here is the solution.
GUMSHOE doesn’t care about a lot of things – and here is another thing GUMSHOE doesn’t care about.
GUMSHOE doesn’t care when you spend your points. It’s entirely in your hands. If you don’t like the idea of sometimes being sure to hit, then don’t spend the points to do it! Spend a fixed number of points every time. Spend one each time if your pool is less than 8; two if it’s more. The chance of you running out of points is pretty low and your chance to hit will still be good. You can sit beside spendthrift, probability-manipulating meta-loving players, knowing that your character is obeying the laws of probability on a shot-by-shot basis. (The option to spend more is always open – and I hope you are tempted – but it’s not necessary).
Another option to consider which give a similar feel – but enforcing this restriction on all players – is capping spends. This deals entirely with the auto-success issue by making it impossible for high levels of difficulty.
On an aside, it’s a joy to watch Annie Oakley blowing things away in this early movie shot at Edison’s studios.