A Taxonomy of Investigations

GUMSHOE, as we always say, is the game system where you always find a clue. If you’ve got the right Investigative Ability, you get the information. When designing scenarios, however, it’s useful to divide those pieces of information into different categories. My usual mental breakdown (building on the Clue vs Lead division)

  • Leads: A piece of information that points to a scene. The investigators often don’t know how a lead connects to the larger mystery when they find it, but they do know that they’ll need to follow this lead to learn more. The classic lead is the dropped matchbook from a bar: the investigators don’t know who dropped the matchbook – was it the murderer? The victim? A witness? Go to the bar and start asking questions!

GUMSHOE scenarios are structured around leads. Leads connect the scenes where the investigators find clues.

  • Core Leads are leads the players must follow for the scenario to progress. The investigators get these leads for free, and the Gamemaster ensure they always find them.
  • 0-point Leads: Optional leads to other scenes – either subplots, alternate routes through the scenario, or interesting dead ends.
  • 1+-point Leads: Be careful when charging a cost for a lead – a lead points to a whole scene, not just a little bit of info, so you’re potentially blocking the players from accessing a chunk of your scenario. Only charge for a lead if the scene it brings the players to contains some big benefit, lets them shortcut some of the scenario, or you want to impress upon them that uncovering this lead takes effort (which can make them value the lead more).
  • Clues: Clues ensure the players understand the story. They’re context, means, motive. They tell the investigators what’s going on – and what will happen if they don’t stop it. A clue might be that the groundskeeper saw no-one coming or going all day, so the murderer must be one of the six people in the mansion.
    • Core Clues are clues that are so fundamental to the mystery that the players must find them to understand the basics of what’s going on.
    • 0-point Clues are often the meat-and-potatoes bits of investigation, letting the players figure out what’s going on.
    • 1+ point Clues give more context and details, usually coupled with a benefit later on.
  • Hints: Hints give the players additional information, but in a more disparate, fragmented fashion than a clue. Often, hints only make sense in retrospect, when you find the clues that unlock their meaning. Finding, say, a whiskey bottle, a strange piece of golden jewellery and a cellar that stinks of some weird chemical are all hints that only fall into place when the investigators learn they’re up against bootleggers from Innsmouth who have a pet shoggoth.
    • Hints often foreshadow later horrors.
    • If there’s a specific way to defeat a foe, then categorise it as a hint. If you tell the players “here’s the way to kill the monster” through prominent clues, you run the risk of railroading a ‘correct’ solution to a scenario. It’s better to drop hints suggesting a method for dispatching the foe, while still leaving space for the players to try other approaches.
    • The essential difference between a clue and a hint: a clue immediately gives the players more information, but a hint opens up more questions than it answers when found. That said, there isn’t a hard division between the two – a piece of information can be clue-y and hint-y at the same time. For example, finding water in the victim’s lungs is a clue that they drowned – but if the water’s weirdly luminescent, then that’s a hint that pays off when the investigators blunder through a portal to the Lake of Hali.
    • There’s no such thing as a core hint. No hint should be necessary to the story.
    • That said, scatter 0-point Hints around like candy. Use investigative abilities like prompts, refracting your mystery through many angles. What does Art History discover in this scene? What might Pharmacy turn up? (You don’t need to provide a hint for every ability, but I always find I stumble across some interesting ideas when I make the effort to include lots of hints).
    • 1+ point Hints should give a benefit to the players that pays off later on. Maybe a 1-point Chemistry spend lets the players discover that the Hali-water glows under ultraviolet light, which hints that they should build a UV-lamp to detect beings from Hali.
  • Details are deep background, where the GM shows off the depth of their research – and, when passed onto the players, let the characters demonstrate their competence. Details aren’t always relevant to the immediate situation, but serve to embed the story in history or give the impression of realism or complexity. For example, in a Night’s Black Agents scenario, it doesn’t strictly matter that you’ve tied the vampires to an obscure real-world Romanian sect, but it adds weight to the story – it feels more satisfying to defeat some horror out of myth than something the GM just made up. Similarly, it’s one thing to say the victim was poisoned, but it’s way cooler to say they fell victim to a complex alkaloid, a mycotoxin derived from Claviceps purpurea aka ergot.
    • There are no core details – they’re always background detail. ‘Lore’, so to speak.
    • 0-point Details should be obvious to someone with the right obscure investigative ability (usually an academic or technical ability), but opaque to those without it.
      • Photography: The photographs were taken using an old polaroid camera – they’re not digital printouts.
    • 1+point Details are a chance for the player to show off their character’s competence by revealing expertise on a particular topic. Detail spends can open up unexpected routes of investigation. For example:
      • 1-point Photography spend: Looking at the photographs, you can tell that the camera’s damaged – there’s the same distorted area on all the prints. And you know there’s only one place in town that stills sells polaroid film or repairs cameras. It might be worth asking there…

GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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