GenCon’s come and gone, and we picked up a pleasing number of new GUMSHOE customers. Some of them came to the booth with something in mind (“do you guys do that Dracula game?” or “hey, is that the two-player Cthulhu game?” or even “hey, is this the Green Ronin booth?”), but others wanted to try GUMSHOE, but didn’t know which was the right game for them. Here, then, is a breakdown of all the GUMSHOE games currently available.
(Some caveats. I’m only covering core available GUMSHOE games in this article; forthcoming releases like The Yellow King, Swords of the Serpentine or Tales of the Quaesitors may get added later, along with edge cases like Lorefinder or GUMSHOE One2One games. In cases where there are multiple editions, I’m only covering the most recent iteration.)
The number of investigative and general abilities is a good shorthand for how complex the game tends to be. A lot of investigative abilities indicates a granular, technical approach to gathering clues and solving mysteries; a smaller number of abilities suggests a looser style of play. As a rough guide:
Simpler GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Timewatch
Average GUMSHOE: Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Fall of Delta Green
Detailed GUMSHOE: Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, Night’s Black Agents
(Bearing in mind that even a complex GUMSHOE game is still rules-light by most standards. Oh, and Fall of Delta Green’s rules are a hybrid of Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, so it’s on the crunchy side of average.)
To break things down by genre, the correlation between horror and investigative games is evident:
Horror Games: Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Fall of Delta Green
Sci-Fi: Ashen Stars, Timewatch
Superhero Cops: Mutant City Blues
Another way to subdivide GUMSHOE games is to look at what an investigative spend gets you; some GUMSHOE iterations are more generous to the players, letting them add story elements, create non-player characters, and empowering them to come up with unexpected solutions to problems. Other GUMSHOE games seek to preserve the challenge of investigation, and so only give added information or limited fringe benefits when a player makes a spend. To put them on a spectrum…
Constrained Spends: Esoterrorists, Fear itself, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues
Empowered Spends: Night’s Black Agents, Ashen Stars, Timewatch, Fall of Delta Green
Some GUMSHOE settings emphasise individual mysteries, resolved in a single game night or two. Others are all about the long game. If you often have players dropping in and out of your game nights, or if you’re committed to an in-depth campaign like The Dracula Dossier, pick your GUMSHOE flavour to suit. (Of course, any GUMSHOE game works for either a one-shot or a long campaign. You can play a Night’s Black Agents one-shot, or a long Esoterrorists campaign like Worldbreaker.)
Mystery-of-the-Week: Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Timewatch, Mutant City Blues
Either Works: Trail of Cthulhu, Fear itself, Fall of Delta Green
Long Campaigns Preferred: Night’s Black Agents
You are elite investigators combating the plots of the Esoterrorists, a loose affiliation of occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world.
Who are the player characters? You play members of the Ordo Veritatis, a secret organisation with the tacit background of the authorities that counters the machinations of the occult terrorists and their inhuman masters beyond the walls of reality.
What do they do in play? Investigate mysteries and thwart the Esoterrorists, then cover up the aftermath. The Esoterrorists use human suffering, surreal horror, engineered paranoia, and summoned monsters to attack humanity’s collective hold on order and sanity. There’s an emphasis on forensics, psychology, monsters born of urban horror and social decay, and chaos. You can rip Esoterror plots right from the headlines, especially these days – Esoterrorists got killer clowns, fake news, bizarre conspiracies and a sense that the world’s spinning out of control.
Quick Pitch: The X-Files if the aliens are the darkest parts of the human psyche
Mechanics: 40 Investigative, (16 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 13 Technical), 13 General. The optional Esoterrorist Factbook supplement adds expanded combat rules.
It’s set in the same horrific cosmology as Fear Itself; both games are threatened by the Outer Dark, a dimension of horrors who seek to break through into our reality.
Play Esoterrorists if:
- You want modern day horror, but want to avoid the familiar tropes of the Cthulhu Mythos or vampires
- You want an episodic, mystery-of-the-week game that’s focussed on the investigations, not the investigators
- You want the cleanest, purest GUMSHOE experience
Fear itself plunges ordinary people into a disturbing contemporary world of madness and violence —and inexorably draws them into confrontation with creatures of the Outer Dark, a realm of alien menace. GMs can re-create all the shudders and shocks of the horror genre at their table, whether they use the game’s distinctive mythology or one of their own choosing.
Who are the player characters? Ordinary people; in a one-shot, you might play horror-movie stereotypes and cliches. In a longer game, the characters can be more rounded and connected to the setting.
What do they do in play? Try to survive when they run into horrible monsters. Investigate to find a way to kill or escape the monsters, or to find out why they’re being targeted by these horrors. The 2nd edition’s designed to use different rules and assumptions for one-shots, short campaigns and long campaigns, reflecting the different approaches needed for keeping a group of ordinary people involved in ongoing mysteries.
Quick Pitch: The biggest mystery isn’t “what’s going on”, it’s “how do we get out of here alive!?”
Mechanics: 26 Investigative, (8 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 7 Technical), 15 General
Play Fear Itself if:
- You want to play ordinary people, or to emulate slasher horror movies
- You think running away and hiding is as much fun as shooting and fighting
- You specifically want a one-shot or short campaign
- You want to tinker under the hood and customise the rules to the players
Trail of Cthulhu
You have to keep the doors to the Outside from swinging open – no matter what the cost in life or sanity. You have to piece together clues from books bound in human skin, from eviscerated corpses covered in ichor, and from inscriptions carved on walls built before humanity evolved. You have to go wherever the answers are, and do what needs to be done to protect humanity. But do you dare to follow … the trail of Cthulhu?
Who are the player characters? Lovecraftian investigators, delving into the mysteries of the Cthulhu Mythos.
What do they do in play? The investigators uncover cosmic horrors and try not to go insane. Trail of Cthulhu’s become known for its innovative campaigns, like Eternal Lies, Bookhounds of London, Dreamhounds of Paris, Cthulhu Apocalypse and The Armitage Files.
Quick Pitch: Ken Hite’s Call of Cthulhu using GUMSHOE
Mechanics: 38 Investiga(17 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 10 Technical), 24 General
Play Trail of Cthulhu if:
- You want the Lovecraftian investigator experience filtered through GUMSHOE
- You want to play in the dark decade of the 1930s
- You want lots of support material and prewritten adventures
Mutant City Blues
Ever since the Sudden Mutation Event, people have been able to fly. Phase through walls. Read minds. Shoot bolts of energy from their fingertips. Walk into dreams. As members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit, you and your fellow detectives solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. When a mutant power is used to kill, you catch the case. When it’s a mutant victim in the chalk outline, you get the call. And when it comes time for a fight, you deploy your own extraordinary abilities to even the odds.
Who are the player characters? Police officers assigned to the city’s mutant desk. You can either play super-powered cops, or baseline officers who make up for their lack of mutant powers with their investigative abilities and elite training.
What do they do in play? Solve crimes that involve mutant powers. A key element of investigations is the Quade diagram, a forensic tool that lets the investigators predict what powers a suspect might possess, and the personality quirks associated with those powers. Many adventures involve defusing or deflecting tensions between mutants and non-mutants.
Quick Pitch: Procedural cop show with superpowers!
Mechanics: 40 Investigative, (14 Academic, 12 Interpersonal, 14 Technical), 13 General. In addition, player characters may have mutant powers; there are 15 Investigative powers and nearly 100 General powers, but no player character will have more than a handful of these.
Play Mutant City Blues if:
- You want to play police officers in the modern day
- You want to build and explore your own urban setting
- You want super-powers!
Out here in the Bleed, you’re the closest thing there is to a higher authority. You’re Licensed Autonomous Zone Effectuators —”lasers” for short. You’re the seasoned freelancers that local leaders call whenever a situation is too tough, too baffling, or simply too weird for them to handle. It’s a dirty job, but it pays. And sometimes, you get to make a difference.
Who are the player characters? You play Lasers – freelance space cops – hired to keep the peace after the interstellar government was forced to retreat in the wake of a catastrophic war.
What do they do in play? Each mission begins with a contract to solve some problem or investigate some crime. Your crew of Lasers has to use their investigative abilities and high-tech gadgets to navigate the dangers and save the day.
Quick Pitch: Imagine an earnest, slightly goofy, post-Star Trek 1970s space cops show – this is the gritty nuBattlestar Galactica reboot of it set in the same universe.
Mechanics: 46 Investigative, (18 Academic, 13 Interpersonal, 15 Technical), 21 General (plus some species-specific abilities). In addition, Ashen Stars has a wealth of special equipment (cyberware, biotech, gadgets), as well as rules for spaceships and naval combat.
Play Ashen Stars if:
- You want to play in a planet-of-the-week investigative space opera campaign set in a universe that’s both new and reminiscent of classic sci-fi tropes
- You want spaceships, alien bugs, psychic powers and mysterious ancient civilisation
Night’s Black Agents
You were a shadowy soldier in those fights, trained to move through the secret world: deniable and deadly.
Then you got out, or you got shut out, or you got burned out. You didn’t come in from the cold. Instead, you found your own entrances into Europe’s clandestine networks of power and crime. You did a few ops, and you asked even fewer questions. Who gave you that job in Prague? Who paid for your silence in that Swiss account? You told yourself it didn’t matter.
It turned out to matter a lot. Because it turned out you were working for vampires.
Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.
Who are the player characters? Burned spies, former criminals, and other high-skilled denizens of the clandestine world
What do they do in play? Investigate criminal conspiracies run by vampires and their minions; hunt down monsters and beat up bad guys until clues fall out.
Quick Pitch: Jason Bourne vs Dracula
Mechanics: 39 Investigative abilities, (14 Academic, 12 Interpersonal, 13 Technical), 21 General abilities. In addition, Night’s Black Agents has expanded combat and action rules for car chases and other spy thriller elements, and rules for building vampires, mapping conspiracies, tracking the bad guys’ responses to the players’ actions, and more!
Play Night’s Black Agents if:
- You want a game built around taking down a whole network of bad guys – you fight your way up the Conspyramid, from low-level street goons to the vampire overlords who run the world from behind the scenes
- You want to play bad-ass burned spies with the skills to match
- You want to play in the modern day and fight more traditional monsters than the weird urban horrors of the Outer Dark
Your band of TimeWatch agents defend the timestream from radioactive cockroaches, psychic velociraptors, and human meddlers. Go back in time to help yourself in a fight, thwart your foes by targeting their ancestors, or gain a vital clue by checking a scroll out from the Library of Alexandria. But watch out for paradoxes that may erase you from existence… or worse.
Who are the player characters? Timewatch agents – individuals plucked from across all of history (and a few alternate timelines) by the mysterious Timewatch organisation. You defend history from meddling and paradoxes.
What do they do in play? Cope with thoroughly weird foes and situations, and overcome challenges with lateral thinking and time travel.
Quick Pitch: History is written by the people with the time machines!
Mechanics: 26 Investigative Abilities, (9 Academic, 9 Interpersonal, 8 Technical), 13 General Abilities.
Play Timewatch if:
- You want a fast-moving, improv-friendly game that’s a playground for player creativity
- You want a weird, mismatched, entertaining group of player characters drawn from across time and space
- You can’t decide which historical period you want to play in, so you’ve gone for ‘all of them’.
Fall of Delta Green
As part of the Top Secret DELTA GREEN program within the United States national security apparatus, your Agents fight the horrors of the Mythos. Set in the 1960s, this game traces the history of DELTA GREEN’s original incarnation – before its disastrous fall from grace in the jungles of Vietnam.
Who are the player characters? DELTA GREEN recruits its Agents primary from the military, law enforcement and intelligence communities. Most characters are former or serving military, and must balance their official duties, their secret work for DELTA GREEN, and their own personal lives to stay sane.
What do they do in play? Investigate and destroy unimaginable alien threats – by any means necessary, and at any cost.
Quick Pitch: Apocalypse Now meets the Mythos or True Detective in 1968.
Mechanics: 39 Investigative Abilities, (13 Academic, 11 Interpersonal, 14 Technical), 19 General Abilities.
Play Fall of Delta Green if:
- You want games that draw on the wealth of historical resources and weirdness associated with the turbulent ’60s.
- You want a Cthulhu Mythos game where the player characters are part of an organisation
- You want to watch your characters to spiral down into despair, madness or self-destruction.