Warning right from the start: I recently promised to tackle a few reviews where I would be more critical than complimentary. This is one.1
Background on the Suspect
I have talked before about using mysteries in role-playing games, and some of the challenges involved in when you want both the surprise of discovery and characters who feel competent. The GUMSHOE system was created with this in mind, to avoid the problem of pixel-bitching which happens when players are floundering, looking for an obscure clue that will unlock the next part of the story.
Although it was intended straight from the beginning to be used in several different settings, GUMSHOE was not published as a standalone game; instead, its rules are explained in a customized form for each game they are used in. GUMSHOE first appeared in The Esoterrorists (2007), then in Fear Itself (2007), Trail of Cthulhu (2008), Mutant City Blues (2009), Ashen Stars (2011), and Night’s Black Agents (2012), all published by Pelgrane Press. I have played or run all of these except Fear Itself and Ashen Stars. The publisher recently released a system reference document (SRD) for the core system for game designers who might wish to use it in their products.
The idea behind the system is simple, clever, and sound:
An investigative game is completely stalled if clues are missed altogether, and since in the genre fiction (novels, movies, etc.) we never see the heroes repeatedly poke around the same scene until they succeed in finding the elusive clue. What is interesting about such games and fiction is putting together the clues, not trying to see them. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask players to roll pass-or-fail tests in order to locate the very clues that are indispensable to having a story. If you are a capable investigator with the relevant skill, you should just find the clue and move on to building a theory of the crime.
Consequently, GUMSHOE divides character skills in two groups: investigative abilities and general abilities. If you have even one point invested in an investigative ability and it is relevant to obtaining a particular core clue, no die roll is needed, the gamemaster will just tell you what you find.
For example: If you have the investigative ability “Data Retrieval” and you look at the victim’s computer, you will find the encrypted files that someone tried to erase because that’s a core clue; without it, the game would founder.
If there is an opportunity to learn more but it’s not strictly essential to succeeding in the investigation, the GM will indicate that you can also spend a point of an appropriate investigative ability to get special benefits such as supplemental clues. These just provide interesting or useful information that may allow you to prepare better for future events in the story. However, when you run out of points on a particular ability you can’t spend from it anymore and you are limited to getting the core clues.
For example: If you have the investigative ability “Cryptography”, the GM may offer you a chance to spend one point of it in order to get an additional clue regarding the source of the obscure cipher being used in these files. However, you only have one point of Cryptography left to spend and you suspect that you will need it later, so you decline the offer. Without this supplemental clue you’ll still get to a solution but you may not be suspecting who else is involved in this mystery until later clues appear.
General abilities are the running, jumping, climbing trees kind of stuff we’re used to. You can also spend them to add to your rolls, and they have different refresh rates.
The two types of abilities are rated on different scales, with investigative abilities usually rated 0-3 points and general abilities 0-10 or even more. This is where things start going wrong.
The Prosecution’s Evidence
Having two types of abilities with different ranges and different resolution systems might be a trifle untidy, but we’ve seen it before and it’s not necessarily that big a deal. Unfortunately, there is also an awful lot of disparity among each of the two categories.
By the author and publisher’s own admission, some investigative abilities are used much more often than others. But they all cost the same to purchase at character creation and with advancement, so some of them are just a bad bargain. This is partly compensated by the fact that the GM is encouraged to think in terms of the entire party’s skills, not character by character; it’s true that this means the party as a whole should be able to get through the story, but it also means some players will feel frustrated that their abilities are so cost-ineffective.
General abilities are even more haphazard: even among the category, ratings mark vastly different levels of competence (e.g., sometimes a 4 is pretty useful, sometimes it’s pathetic), resolution can use very different rules, and refresh rates can vary wildly.
Mechanically, although sub-systems vary, the rules are quite simple. However, they lack the narrative punch that other simple systems like Apocalypse World, PDQ or Fate—or Laws’ own Heroquest—lend to equally simple mechanics. In truth, it’s hard to get excited about the action when you’re using the general abilities.
The list of abilities of both types is too long and confusing. Many of the ability descriptions turn out to mean something quite different from what one might guess from the name of the ability. To complicate matters, some general and investigative abilities have similar names and special rules allow some crossover between the two types of abilities.
Finally, it’s difficult to get a sense of whether a character is half-way decently designed until you’ve been playing for a while even when you are experienced with the system, because of the great variability in usefulness among both investigative and general abilities.
It feels like the primary problem is that at the very beginning, the question of what is an ability and how it should work was never convincingly answered, so now the basic structure goes unexamined and the adjustments from setting to setting are performed by tweaking the ability list. But is it even necessary to have two types of abilities? Couldn’t you simply have one type and give each a wide knowledge penumbra? Many systems make good use of this idea.
And why multiply the abilities when they overlap so much? I assume that the intent is to allow to customize different investigative specialists, but you could do that with much simpler and more universal means than a long list of abilities that always turns out to be missing some specialities anyway.
The Defense’s Arguments
The idea behind the system is a good one. There’s no doubt that Laws identified a crucial flaw of “traditional” role-playing games when it comes to investigative games such as murder mysteries, police procedurals, X Files-style spookiness, etc. His answer to the problem is a very valid one, as far as use of the investigative abilities go.
The system is simple. It may be inconsistent and kludged, but it’s not complicated. At its base, it’s just roll a d6 versus varying levels of difficulty and spend a few points if you want.
It would not be that hard to fix the glitches or to import the base concept into your favourite system. In fact, every time I play or read a GUMSHOE game, I’m itching to re-write its system. But it’s less work to simply borrow the core idea (i.e., “don’t make the players roll if failure means the story will stall.”)
Finally, it’s possible that all this time I’ve been doing something drastically wrong with this game; I just wrote about doing that with other games in the past. However, I feel I gave it a long fair try in several incarnations with different groups and the light bulb has not come on. Perhaps the system or explanations themselves can be improved.
What I am not saying: I’m not saying that it’s a bad system, an unworkable system, or that a good GM and players can’t have a great campaign with it. I’m also not saying that the author and publisher are not good at what they do (they are!), nor that you are wrong or stupid if you enjoy this family of games.
What I am saying: In its current form(s), I don’t think GUMSHOE can be called a good system. It’s a good idea, and it’s a workable system, but it needs an overhaul to live up to its promise. I hope this will happen because I would love to love GUMSHOE.
It is, however, something you can steal ideas from, something you can tinker with to make it better, and something that is worth paying attention to.
1 Disclosure: I’m a fan of Robin D. Laws’ work in designing role-playing games and in providing helpful advice to players and gamemasters. I keep recommending his book of advice Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering (Steve Jackson Games), I loved his games Feng Shui (Atlas Games) and Skulduggery (Pelgrane Press), his Heroquest (Moon Design Publications) is one of my go-to systems, I play-tested Og: Unearther Edition (Firefly Games) and Mutant City Blues (Pelgrane Press), I loved his work on supplemental material for Over The Edge (Atlas Games) and Glorantha/Hero Wars/Heroquest (Issaries), and I recently talked about how I’d enjoyed running his new game Hillfolk (Pelgrane Press), though it will merit a whole review some day soon. I hope I’ve established my credentials as a gushing fan, so at least I won’t be accused of being a hater. Return.