I’ve been reading the new Kenneth Hite game, Trail of Cthulhu. My review will be up in the Finnish roleplaying game magazine Roolipelaaja in a few weeks. I’d like to discuss the Gumshoe system as it is in the game, since it looks like it’s generating a fair bit of controversy. Gumshoe is Pelgrane Press’ investigative RPG system, created by Robin D Laws, of Feng Shui fame. (Speaking of Feng Shui, it looks like David Eber’s great fansite The Fortress Of Shadow is back.) Gumshoe is also featured in other roleplaying games published by Pelgrane Press, such as the forthcoming Mutant City Blues. (Great name, guys!)
Gumshoe is built for investigative roleplaying. It shifts the suspension in an investigation from “do I succeed in Library Use and find out something?” to “so the person we’re looking for and his great-grandfather are the one and the same… now what?”. It does more than that, but the very basic idea is that you never roll to gain clues. The investigation is not about stumbling on clues, but interpreting them. The book likens this to shows like House (or CSI, or X-Files): of course the doctors find whatever they’re looking for, but what does it mean? How do they solve it? Thus whenever you’re looking for a clue, you succeed automatically, as long as you have the required skill. There may be additional clues that require more digging to uncover and the players are supposed to think about their abilities to uncover clues – it plays just the same, but without the die rolls. Investigative abilities (library use, spot things) are thus separated from general abilities (fighting, repairing stuff and so on), in which you can fail in to provide drama.
What I especially like about the ability system is the concept of spending points from abilities to gain a bonus to a roll or to gain a special benefit from using the ability. This means that you’re constantly managing your resources and being aware of your character’s limits approaching – once you’ve spent all your ability points, there’s not a whole lot you can do anymore. I feel this is very appropriate for a horror game with impending doom right around the corner.
The second ingredient are character Drives. In a horror scenario, realistic actions result in little drama. The player characters have characteristics like “curiosity” which drive them towards the looming horror. The players are rewarded for following their Drives and punished for disregarding them. It’s nothing an experienced Call of Cthulhu group wouldn’t do automatically, but it’s nice that the game’s mechanics support this.
The third ingredient is the adventure structure. In an investigative scenario, most scenes should be about clues. The objective is to find the clue and once it’s found, you move on. All clues should point you towards the next clue and thus move you from scene to scene. It’s surprisingly easy to design scenarios around a clue tree, even though this is quite different from the usual Call of Cthulhu scenario design.
Many people have accused Gumshoe of railroading the players because the investigative abilities work automatically. I just don’t see the reasoning here. Why would being able to fail make you more free? It’s just going to frustrate everyone and add grief to the gamemaster, who then needs to think of an alternative way to deliver the clue to you. Considering that most Call of Cthulhu characters have very high statistics in the core investigative abilities, the possibility of failure is slim to begin with. The same goes for Drives – it’s a mechanical system that makes it easier to play in the spirit of the Cthulhu stories.