System Tinkering: GUMSHOE

The GUMSHOE system is used in The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu, and the upcoming Mutant City Blues. It has me itching to tinker with it, and apparently it has a similar effect on at least one other GM at the club (Manu), since he ran Trail of Cthulhu with several interesting house rules. For those who played, ran, or read one of these games, what do you think of the basic system as-is, what do you like and dislike, and what changes or options do you think it needs?

Refresher: the GUMSHOE system is intended for investigative games, to allow the players to find and put together the clues rather than spend their time on pixelbitching, trying repeatedly to find the clue and missing. The underlying assumption is that the fun is in assembling the puzzle pieces, not in rolling “Notice” or “Search” until you get a success. Consequently, abilities are divided between two types: Investigative, for which players never roll but simply spend points to “buy” clues, and General, where players roll and may spend points to add to the roll. Investigative abilities typically rate 0-4, and General abilities rate about 0-20.

I’m all in favour of not making the players roll if the scenario is dependant on them actually succeeding at finding the clue. But it’s really easy to make the players feel like they’re just aboard for the ride (“Here’s your clue for showing up!”) or to turn this into a resource-hoarding game (“I’d better not spend a point of Streetwise yet, I have a lot of scenes to get through.”)

I for one liked Manu’s house rules. He allowed players to use ability points to create clues, not just buy them. He calls it his “lazy GM approach”, where he starts without a predetermined plot and we build the adventure at the table, story game-style. It took adventure-running off the rails and into shared story creation, and I had a great time playing in his game.

My own experience with running investigative games where players can create clues on the fly is that they are easier on GM prep and running than ready-made plots where the players can only pick up pre-generated clues. You only need a few notes about setting and characters, instead of having to memorize how the various detailed scenes interconnect. Ideally, I like having a mix of general pre-gen plot and buy-in player-created clues which the GM can veto if they would make the case too hard to wrap up. That’s what I used when I ran my Top 10 game, and it worked well; players would throw in completely new ideas, I would catch them and spin them back so they’d fit with my outline. It was a lot of fun.

Another thing that bugs me about the GUMSHOE system is the size and unevenness of the list of abilities, particularly investigative abilities. There are a lot of abilities that can overlap; and some are vastly more useful than others: Interrogation, Intimidation, or Assess Honesty/Detect Bullshit will probably be a lot more useful than Art History or Architecture in any adventure. Some are classified as Investigative abilities but really seem General abilities to me, or vice versa. For example, I can see both investigative and general (action) use of abilities such as Outdoorsman, Medicine, Hypnosis, etc.

Instead, I’d like to see a unified skill system where you can spend for either investigation or action, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. It seems pretty easy to say: “Spend a point of Surveillance to find the clue,” just like any investigative ability. Or why not let players spend a point of Mechanical Repair to determine that an engine has been tampered with.

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