Gumshoe RPG

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.






4 responses to “Gumshoe RPG”

  1. Mikki Avatar

    I like the Gumshoe system quite a bit, but I do have something of a problem with the railroading aspect, and it’s not really a question of being able to fail — although I think that’s a bit of an issue as well. If you can’t fail — that is to say, if you’re guaranteed to succeed — that immediately makes that success that much more hollow. (I know you can fail in Gumshoe, just not when you’re investigating something, and that possibility does help. It’s a conscious design choice, obviously.)

    But I do find the railroading concern a valid one. I don’t think it’d be very hard to expand the tree or to exercise some good game mastering judgment during the game to compensate for it to a certain extent, but as written, it is essentially a pre-fabricated obstacle course the players have to make their way through. Which is okay for a certain type of an investigative game, but less so if you’re running a more open-ended game. (In any case, the quality of the play experience is largely determined by the quality of the obstacle course — not unlike in an FPS game, where being in a tightly controlled pipeline can either feel great or boring, depending solely on level design. Which is just another way of saying that badly made games suck, good ones don’t…)

    I have been trying to think of a way I could have comfortably used Gumshoe in a crime game I ran a few years back, called New Baddon, in which the players were special Department of Justice agents tasked with exposing the corruption and high-ranking criminals in a major city with ridiculously high crime statistics, pretty much the only bunch of honest cops in a really dirty place. The Untouchables, essentially. And I don’t think it’d work, even though the game’s focus was definitely on investigation, rather than on busting down bad guys’ doors. The point of the game was that the players were dropped in a fairly complex environment with lots of interconnected events and forced to deal with pressure from the criminal element, the media, the corrupt city officials, their own superiors, etc., and that they had to figure out for themselves where to go and what to do. They had a couple of pointers in the beginning, but really, they very much had to pick their own path and try and get the real job done in an environment that I did my best to simulate in a realistic (or at least very consistent and logical) manner. And it was pretty great, absolutely one of the best games I’ve ever run.

    And Gumshoe wouldn’t work very well for that type of a game, because it’s based on leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the players, which they then dutifully follow — whereas in this game the point was that they had to understand the dynamics of the situation they were in and then locate weak spots and points where they could apply leverage. I should probably add that the players didn’t succeed in their mission — not because they couldn’t find the way, but because they were trying to clean up a place that liked being dirty way too much. The deck was stacked against them from the start, and everyone knew it. But they failed in a spectacular and satisfying manner, leaving their old lives behind and going underground as fugitives from the law.

    Not that Gumshoe necessarily should work for something like this; clearly, it’s not what it is designed to do, after all. But I think there’s something to be said for allowing and encouraging the players to think outside the box, which Gumshoe doesn’t do very well. It’s great for single scenarios that need to be solved, but it doesn’t handle long-term dynamic situations very well — and at least to me, one of the great things about role-playing games is that the players can do anything they want without having to worry about bumping against the edges of the game. In Gumshoe, that can be a concern.

  2. Joonas Laakso Avatar
    Joonas Laakso

    Gumshoe is clearly geared for one type of play and it’s worth a mention that a lot of classic Call Of Cthulhu material wouldn’t actually work very well with Gumshoe. It demands that structure to picking up the clues.

    But it’s not quite as railroady as one might think. Of course you have “core clues” without which the players can’t progress, but then you have a bunch of “floating” clues which may be dropped in wherever they fit.

    Improvising with Gumshoe is not quite as straightforward as it is with games without an inherent structure, but this article discusses improvised Gumshoe:

    What I really like about the system is that once the gaming party gets the hang of it, everyone knows how it plays out (clue by clue) and it allows the players to shine. Because there is a common goal (to get that final clue), the whole group works toward it in unison. This is different from classic Call Of Cthulhu because the structure is so plainly in view.

    All that said, I haven’t had a chance to actually play with Gumshoe yet. I’m looking forward to it.

  3. Kristian Groenseth Avatar
    Kristian Groenseth

    I can understand the concern of railroading. But isn’t that true of all scenarios? A problem with both general and specific game design is the dilemma of linear scenarios: There is a clearly defined goal, and the players must achieve it. How to reach it? Well, there are after all only so many ways.

    With laying out clues that are left to the players to interpret, you can avoid them feeling prodded onto one set track. And I personally HATE it when the players miss that crucial clue not because they weren’t paying attention but because they fumbled their dice.

    Letting the players achieve something will motivate and engage them. Of course, THEY will have to figure out the dark meaning of the clues…

  4. Sunnan Avatar

    Nothing in Gumshoe says that you can only have one trail of crumbs. It only says that you can’t fail any rolls when trying to find out stuff. you can still make complex scenarios with many clues to put together or many NPCs to interact with.

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