How I Prep Adventures in GUMSHOE

by Lisa Padol

Ever since GUMSHOE came out, there’s been a lot of focus on the investigation skills. But it seems to me that the emphasis in discussion is on the wrong thing.

The key thing is not that the PCs will always find the core clues (if they are looking in the right place with the right skill — as Robin Laws said, if the person with the skill in examining corpses refuses to examine the corpse, there’s nothing any system can do to help). If that’s all there were to GUMSHOE, it could be replaced by a post-it note saying “Don’t make the players roll to find the plot!”

No, the key thing is that GUMSHOE reminds us that a clue is not a person, place, or thing, but rather, the raw information. What do the PCs need to know to get to a satisfying climax — not necessarily one that means they succeed or survive, but one that satisfies the players (including the GM)?

I run commercial scenarios rather than making up my own, and I have converted two Call of Cthulhu scenarios to Trail of Cthulhu, as the folks I ran Eternal Lies for vastly prefer Trail. So, two related questions for me are:

  • How do I make sure that the players and the characters get the clues when they go in directions the authors of the scenarios and campaigns I run did not anticipate?
  • What do I do when the characters lack skills the authors assume they have?

As a fellow gamer noted, one doesn’t want to have to prep clues for every single skill in whatever GUMSHOE game one might be running, but one also doesn’t necessarily want to wing it. How does one prepare for tailoring a scenario to a specific group of players and their PCs?

What I do is diagram everything. What are the core clues in this scene? What do they point to? What skills does the author assume will be used to find them? (Side note: This makes sure you know what the core clues are, and also helps you do damage control if the author’s screwed up.)

So, now I’ve got a bunch of scribbled notes. Next, I ask who am I running this for, and who are they playing? Odds are you’re going to know that in advance. If it’s a convention game, you may not know the who, but you’re likely to go with pre-gens. If you don’t go with pre-gens, I highly recommend what Mel White did with Night’s Black Agents, which is fairly similar to Brian Rogers’s Sticks Improv and I think drawn from Skulduggery. That is, you make up different piles with various skill mixes.

Brian Rogers explained Sticks Improv as follows:

Sticks Improv works by having 5-6 stacks of 10 cards. 4 stacks
represent attributes, the key components of the characters in
the setting (for d20 fantasy it’s flavors of fighter, rogue,
mage and cleric, for other settings they are attributes like
Charm, Physique or Erudition, and in GUMSHOE it would be some
combination of the most important investigation or procedural
skills); each of these stacks is identical so the players will
have some combination of the settings key characters elements,
and they are ranked as Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Least so
players can prioritize what they consider most important. In
GUMSHOE this prioritization would determine pool size.

The other two stacks are color elements – magical gifts, special
powers, additional resources – that are keyed to the settings
chrome. Each of these is unique. These are all of equal utility,
and add to the attributes. In GUMSHOE this would be
investigating or procedural skills that are less common to the
setting, MOS or the special traits of certain templates in
GUMSHOE like sensing vamps.

Ultimately these 6 cards make up the whole character. Players
select a card from one stack and pass the remaining cards in the
stack to the right. Eventually everyone has 1 card from each
stack. The limited number of certain cards gives niche
protection, and each set of 6 cards will make a viable unique

(Jason Walters gave it a shout out here:

Mel White described what we were doing in one of his Night’s Black Agents games as creating characters using an improvised Click and Lock system. This may or may not have borrowed from The Dying Earth RPG, The Gaean Reach RPG, and Tony Lower-Basch’s Capes ( I believe we drew at random 3 Professions cards, 1 Drive card, and 1 General skills card. All of these cards had skills, and if two or more cards had the same skill, then the points on each card were added together, and that was how many points the character had in that skill.

So, you know what PCs are in the mix and what skills they have. You can make yourself a spreadsheet, just remember, or have printouts of their character sheets close to hand. (Sidenote: I do a strictly alphabetical spreadsheet of all the skills, generic and investigative combined, possibly using bold for the latter.)

Now, look at the core clues again. Are there any clues where it’s not obvious to you how the PCs might (not “will”, of course — players are perverse) get these? If not, great! You’re done. Sure, things will go weird in play, but you probably can’t anticipate how, so don’t sweat it. (Okay, I don’t follow my own advice here, and I do try to figure out what is likely to go weird, how, and how to cover for it, but that’s not what we’re focusing on.)

If there are clues where the listed skills are not those any of the PCs possess — or if you’re thinking, “Okay, now when the party splits and the one person with Art History just isn’t where the clue is” — this is where you focus your attention. If there’s a Whole Lot of core clues like this, well, either the author’s screwed up or you’ve got a very idiosyncratic group. (I certainly do!) This doesn’t make your job easier, of course, but best you know the facts on the ground now.

Here are some suggestions for how to make sure the PCs pick up the clues you want:

* Change the PCs’ Abilities.

  • The players can move points around in the middle of a session, and if they have unspent points, they can spend them during a session. Can they spend points buying appropriate Abilities to solve the problem?

* Check if there’s an obviously related skill the players can use. Fr’ex…

  • No one has Art History. Okay, what is the clue? Some of these holy icons are older than five centuries, let’s say. Holy icons? Does anyone have Theology or the equivalent? Are you playing Night’s Black Agents? Could someone create an NPC with Art History? The Network skill is your friend. Is it at all plausible that the PCs knew they’d be looking at holy icons or otherwise have a need for Art History? If so, would you accept a roll of Preparedness? “I knew we were going to look at a bunch of icons, so I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and boned up on this.”
  • No one has Cop Talk. Will Law do? Is the officer in charge susceptible to Flattery? While you might not believe that the PC can directly Intimidate the police per se, could how about a sort of indirect use of Intimidate, where the officer is worried about looking foolish or weak and wants to impress upon the PC that the opposite is the case?

* Review what the stubborn core clues are supposed to do.

  • The cop won’t talk? Okay, who else might know about the case? Is there a perpetrator who might talk if a PC uses Reassurance? A night clerk who might be bribed with Bargain to let the PC look at the report? A lawyer or reporter convinced there’s been an injustice? A witness that didn’t come forth, but who might appear in a newspaper photograph? Even if none of these are mentioned, could there be one? What does the cop know that the PCs need to know?
  • One of the old icons is the one sought after by Dracula, and the PCs need to narrow it down to the ones older than five centuries? Okay, do any of these have unusual histories that could be found via Library Use? Were any of them a source of recent theft? Law or Cop Talk. Did one or two of them develop a recent history of being cursed? Were strangers offering absurdly high prices for certain icons? Oral History.

* Look at the non-core clues.

Are there any of these you want to make sure might come out? If so, go through the same steps. This is a matter of taste; I find that many non-core clues make a scenario so much more meaningful that I want to make sure there’s a really high chance of them coming out. The difference here is that you charge for the information. One point is the default. It has to be very useful if it costs two points, and beyond that? Well, generally, in my opinion, the author’s wrong if they’re charging more than two points, but there are rare exceptions.

Hopefully, you’ve nailed it as well as you can by now. If not, and you’ve time, talk to your fellow GMs. I have had help from gamers all over the world, thanks to the wonders of the internet, and I have tried to reciprocate. There are GUMSHOE groups, groups specific to each flavor of GUMSHOE, groups specific to individual campaigns, and forums like the ones on I am deeply indebted to numerous, generous people all trying to help each other out here. (Seriously, look at the Eternal Lies Google+ group and the forum topics dealing with that campaign — we all hit a lot of the same issues at about the same time, as we all fell in love with this campaign and inflicted it upon, er, ran it for our local groups.)

Lisa Padol has been running roleplaying games since 1991, reviewing them as long, and editing them for about a decade. She has been running GUMSHOE since Eternal Lies came out and still has to remind herself that she doesn’t have time to playtest everything for Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

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