Read this Before Running GUMSHOE – Part Two

In Part One, I discussed the basics of running a pre-written GUMSHOE adventure. Based on a recent poll about half of you write your own adventures, or adapt ours, with a few brave souls improvising completely. This article covers the improvisation that’s required when characters go in unexpected directions or ask unexpected questions, whether in a pre-planned adventure or not.

Investigative Recap

I’ll start by reiterating a few core concepts for Investigative abilities:

  • If you have any rating in an Investigative ability at all, you are good at doing that stuff. If you run out of points, you are still good at it. If you walk into a scene, you are doing it through the lens of being a great architect, painter, researcher, or evidence collector. As the GM, you should deliver information to people with that ability anything which is obvious to a person with that ability, and if they ask questions using their ability, endeavour to provide as much information as possible through the lens of that ability.
  • Point spends should be confined to special benefits—information should be free. Benefits might speed up clue acquisition, but shouldn’t stop you from getting the information. For example, if you found a book, zero points and a few hours might extract what you need, or you could spend a point to have a flash of insight.
  • GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether the information is provided by the GM, or requested by the players. You can balance these approaches in reaction to your players’ style or even their energy on the night. But in general, it’s better for the players to interact with the scene in their imagination and suggest abilities they will use. Not only does it make the players more involved, it’s more likely to lead to fun improvised clues.
  • If a player with a suitable ability isn’t in a scene, there are three approaches for dealing with it. Either assume that everyone is kind-of, sort-of along for every scene, have the character remember a fact or technique taught to them by their absent teammates, or tweak the clue so it matches the abilities of the characters who are present.
  • Your attitude to giving out information will strongly affect the way your players act in-game. If they know they are going to extract all reasonable information in a scene, then they will stop the nasty habit of entirely tearing places apart and being too concerned they have missed something. So, my advice is, give out information, and if necessary, let them know there is nothing else to be found.
  • Finally and most importantly, Investigative abilities are not a straightjacket. Always err on the side of giving out information to players who propose plausible methods of obtaining information, and offer new ways of advancing to the next scene if they don’t get anywhere. Improvise around any blockages.

What Are Clues?

The investigative side of GUMSHOE is a way of delivering information that we call clues to the players. By a clue, I mean:

  • Information which takes you to another scene (a matchbook with a fingerprint on it)
  • Something which helps you prepare for a future encounter (you find the blackmail letter)
  • An item or information which provides a direct benefit like refreshing a pool or adding a new ability (a Mythos tome)
  • Background information which adds colour (the painting was created by famous cat artist Louis Wain)
  • Something which highlights themes of the game (a mummified foetus in a horror game)

Investigative abilities determine how the players will interact with the shared imaginary space of the game.  Sometimes these interactions provide pre-planned clues. When the adventure presents clues, it also suggests methods by which the clues can be delivered—one or more Investigative abilities. Any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario. So far, so good.

Improvised Clues

But what if the players examine something you didn’t consider or suggest great ideas in passing you want to incorporate? They really tend to glom on to things in the scene you hadn’t even considered—and that’s a great thing. For example, “Is there any correspondence around?”, “Is there a sale note for that painting?”, or “I look for scuff marks on the floor.” These are improvised clues.

The first thing to consider is what ability could plausibly interact with the clue? Encourage your players to be the ones to suggest what ability they use. Otherwise, check the ability matrix to see which abilities they have and might match (or just ask if they have an ability).

The next thing to consider is what type of improvised clue you want to deliver:

  • It can duplicate a pre-planned lead which takes you to another scene. This is easy, and very good practice as it encourages inventiveness and makes players feel clever. (Instead of the matchbook, it could be a cypher in a diary, an auction record, or some very distinctive mud marks on the floor.)
  • It can take you to another scene you hadn’t planned—an improvised lead (“We must visit cat painter Louis Wain to find out the provenance of this image.”). If you do this, you’ll need to consider how to move from the new scene back into the planned adventure, or whether it will lead to more improvised scenes. You don’t have to worry too much about when to do this—usually in a gap between scenes, and it’s easy to put another interesting breadcrumb in the way. First, for example, they might need to dig out Wain’s home address—throw it at the players how they might do this, and plan the encounter while they discuss it. If you have a scene diagram—add an arrow leading to this new scene.
  • It can provide a direct benefit. This one is easy and rewarding. In this case, it’s best to offer the benefit in conjunction with a point spend—see below. (For example, finding a case with antique guns and re-enabling the firing pin, or improvising gunpowder in a pharmacy.)
  • Background information which provides colour. If the players do you the courtesy of being fascinated by something in a scene, then add colour. (“Yes, the painting is very new, and you spot some ginger cat hairs on the antimacassars.”) These clues can easily turn into an improvised lead if players are really taken with them. If you aren’t feeling particularly inventive, or want to get things on track, make it clear that there isn’t anything special about it.
  • Something which highlights the theme of the game. If they insist on poking around in crevices in a horror game, reward them with something unpleasant. (There is a desiccated cat corpse under the bed, strangled by its own collar.)

Special Benefits

Finally, a note on special benefits. These are what players get if they spend their Investigative points. The mechanical role of Investigative pool points is to manage spotlight time, indicate to the GM how important something is to the player, and as a method for the players and GMs to signal “oncoming coolness” to each other. A player who says, “Can I spend a Bureaucracy point here?” is requesting something cool for his agent to do or discover during the scene. When the GM offers a spend she’s signaling that there’s something awesome available during this scene that she thinks the player (or players) would enjoy. This repartee will eventually become nearly seamless and automatic.

To reiterate core GUMSHOE rules, benefit spends include:

  • Giving you an advantage in a future contest of General abilities
  • Making supporting characters have a favourable impression of you
  • Giving you a flashback scene
  • Speeding up an investigation

In a more improvised game, special benefits can also be a way of players feeding the GM interesting suggestions without them explicitly having a GM role. These are usually in the form of a question: for example, “These old buildings often have priest holes, is there one around?” or “Is there another sketch concealed beneath the cat painting?” If this suits your group and play style—encourage this behaviour in your players. It will lead to more player involvement, and even take a little work for you.

Make sure that every point spend feels worthwhile, and if it’s at all possible, let them know what they are getting, and how many points it will cost before they spend.

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