Tuesday, December 6, 2011

WhineSHOE: Rethinking GUMSHOE

I'm a big fan of GUMSHOE, I have all of the core system books, and even have the limited editions of Bookhounds of London and Ashen Stars. I think there's dynamite stuff there- and the recent pre-order of Ken Hite's Night's Black Agents really caught my attention. I've been going through that pdf and I hope to have a couple of other posts on that this week- a sample conspiracy and an overview of what NBA brings to the GUMSHOE system. That being said, I'm a also a wuss apparently.

I've expressed some reservations about GUMSHOE's system for contests, for rolled resolution. That primarily uses one side of the system, general abilities. Last week, I happened to listen to the Pelgrane Press forum which took place at the Dragonmeet convention, a panel including Simon Rogers, Ken Hite and Robin Laws. You can find the hour-long audio here. The panel's especially interesting in that they give some insight into upcoming projects- including the possibility of a Trail of Cthulhu China sourcebook.

They also touch on some areas close to my interests. Robin Laws shoots down the idea of a GUMSHOE Companion or Compendium. And he does so quite rightly- as he defines it. He describes a compendium bringing together the variant rules and options from the different GUMSHOE books into a single resource. I agree that's a bad idea- it isn't particularly useful, undercuts the market for the different game lines, and establishes a "canon" for GUMSHOE rules. GS isn't a generic rules system in the way that Hero or GURPS is- instead it is a game engine which means that while the different flavors share some basic mechanics, there's no call for uniformity or established baselines between the games. I talked about that factor in generic systems a while back.

On the other hand, I don't think that completely invalidates my desire for a GUMSHOE Compendium. I imagine it more as a factbook or a collection of new ideas and options. Perhaps something done purely electronically, pdf rather than print. I talked about my wishlist for that kind of project in this post- which included (among other ideas) brief articles on historical period mysteries, new versions of the Quade diagrams for other settings, and Nancy Drew style games. This last one, it turns out, will be among the versions of GUMSHOE which Evil Hat will be doing- using relationship mapping as an element. I'm really looking forward to that.


But of course, one thing I'd like to see are some alternate rules approaches, some serious retooling of the system- hacks and options. Ken Hite takes up that question in the panel- suggesting that what might be useful would be an approved wiki or webspace where GUMSHOE people could offer their own system flavors and options...

...which he calls Whiny-Baby GUMSHOE, or later, WhineSHOE. I shouldn't be too surprised by that, since Robin Laws specifically calls players and GMs who want to state difficulties ahead of rolls wusses (page 68, Ashen Stars).

So here's the thing- I'm willing to accept that label, to take that dismissal. I really love GUMSHOE, and you can see that in the many positive reviews I've written of the products. (GUMSHOE, Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Mutant City Blues, Ashen Stars, Bookhounds of London, The Armitage Files, etc.). And my goal is to have a game, a system that my group will enjoy playing. Because they didn't over the several different campaigns we played it with, across two GMs and distinct casts of players.

And mean to to use some of the elements I really love about the game, I have to run a WhineSHOE campaign. And I'm fine with that. I have to hack the parts my players didn't enjoy. And I shared their reaction when I played. I suspect our group's developed in a different direction- we've been playing together for many years, the longest of us together since the mid-1980's. Even the newest members of the group have been with us for at least five years. That means that we've developed habits of play, likes and dislikes, and have tried many different systems. All of the group's have a remarkable level of trust and they're generally willing to try anything, any genre, any system. We have a few exceptions- my wife would cringe if I ran HERO and a couple of people would flee if I suggested Rolemaster. But we have a solid level of fun- and that's the group I want to run for.

I think we have tailor the game to the group, not the other way around.

Again, I don't want to suggest GUMSHOE is bad or broken. If I were doing conventional horror, I would stick with the GUMSHOE. Esoterrorists, Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu all pretty much work for me. The uncertainty and feeling of stress and powerlessness works there. That's why I think highly variable "The dice screwed me" systems like All Flesh Must Be Eaten and Cyberpunk 2020 work to model their respective genres. The die represents the fickle middle digit of fate. If I were going to do a longer horror campaign, however, I'd probably make changes because I've found the resource tracking wearisome for more than a few sessions. And for games like Ashen Stars and Mutant City Blues I would significantly retool because I don't want the same tension as I want in a horror game. Just as I wouldn't use Dread to do a classic high romance fantasy game or FATE to do a terror scenario, I wouldn't use GUMSHOE as it is for certain genres with my group.

So let's consider the dimensions of the problem, based on the reactions I had from our group. I should also point to to responses Simon Rogers had to a couple of the issues I mention here- with some interesting approaches to the system.

1. Range
GUMSHOE uses a single d6 for action resolution. That means a fairly narrow range of results, with any modifier positive or negative, offering significant shift. This means that certain elements, such as weapons fall end up grouped together, with only a few options. I'm not opposed to that, though some may not care for it. But the flat line of the d6 bothers some players- especially those who prefer a curve or at least some granularity to the results. I think some of this is more an emotional reaction to the sparseness of the results, but that's still a legitimate response.

2. Spends and Uncertainty
In our groups players often felt a lack of control in the general ability system, despite the spend system. Not knowing the difficulty obscured judgement. The narrow range of the system made spends feel like guesswork, rather than a strategic or tactical decision. As a result, they viewed their characters as completely buffeted by fate or incompetent. A good roll could be just as wasteful as a bad roll depending on the amount spent.

3. Tracking
As the years have gone on, we've moved to less reference and less tracking of details in our games. Fringe systems such as fatigue, exhaustion, reaction rolls and the like have fallen to the wayside. General abilities (and to a lesser and more manageable extent investigative abilities) require tracking, marking and revising. Some abilities refresh at different rates.

There are a couple of other problems which could be considered, but I think they're secondary-

4. Can GUMSHOE Model Action?.
The blog Nerdtropolis has discussed this. I'm not sure I entirely agree with him, but he has a point- especially if that's the experience his group had with the system. I'd suggest looking at the new tools Night's Black Agents offers. Many of them make chases, combat and action more interesting and more dynamic. Beyond that, I'm not sure any of the options I suggest below address this problem, especially since our games have been moving towards more and more abstract combat/action sequences.

5. Excessive Number of Abilities
This is a personal preference. I come out of years of playing games with lots of detailed skill lists and options. What I've learned is that the more skills you have, the fewer opportunities for use most of them will get, and the more weight will fall on a handful of really useful ones. My preference these days is for "create your own" skill lists. But GUMSHOE, by its nature, requires a set list. Given that we want to make each ability cool and have the power to generate its own story, I'd like to see fewer abilities.

Option One: Changing General Spends
A somewhat unsatisfying option would be to allow spends after the die is rolled. That breaks suspense, but gives absolute control. On the other hand, it does beg the question as to why you'd need a resource system then. A better alternative would be to follow the standard procedure- declare action, declare spends, check success and then allow an alternate, stop-gap spend. In this case, players could spend from another source to make up the difference: Stability or Health, to represent their pushing themselves to their limits to succeed at a particular roll. The stakes on future rolls become pressing when players gamble with their "hit points."

Option Two: Overspends
In GUMSHOE situations, players overspend easily, so that a 6 with a high spend feels like a waste of resources. Some test situations have a compared margins of success, but many don't. When the player makes a spend and rolls a 6 they could perhaps be allowed a one or two point pool refresh, in another ability. This could be a related ability which has been tapped out, or perhaps Stability or Health. This is more a device for the GM to keep players from feeling frustrated with the system.

Those two options are minor tweaks, intended to keep most of the GUMSHOE engine intact. The next two are more draconian.

Option Three: FATESHOE
I've mentioned before my idea for using FATE as the engine for certain GUMSHOE genres. The excellent skalchemist suggested a few modifications. Essentially players would have a set of Investigative Abilities with no rank. They would also have a set of General Abilities, but these would have a rating. If the GM wanted, he could also have a set of stats to pair with those abilities, or else stick with success rolls based on the ability ratings. Players would also have a set of aspects, with one of them representing their investigative drive. You'd have two stress tracks, Stability and Health. In most other respects, the system would operate like FATE. However investigative abilities would not require rolls, but FATE points could be spend on them to gather extra information.

I like this one, as our group's really embraced some of the ideas from FATE. I can imagine trading off negative elements and scenes- being tailed, running into enemies, being captured- for FATE points. It also fits in well with the improvisational structure of something like the Armitage Files. It does put power into the hands of the players- reducing tension potentially but offering greater buy in.

Option Four: WhineSHOE Lite
A more elaborate approach to retooling GUMSHOE would start by knocking down the barrier between 'investigative' and 'general' abilities. In the chain of development, by the time we've gotten to Night's Black Agents, with have general uses for many investigative abilities and vice-versa. Certainly many abilities will be more often used one direction or the other, but the premise holds. So first we reduce the number of abilities down to a more manageable number- collapsing certain ones together. Let's say that we want to end up with something like thirty abilities.

Each ability would have a Rating and a Spend. When used in a contest (opposed or unopposed) players would roll and add their rating. The numbers for rating would vary, depending on whether you wanted the flat of a d10 or d20 or the curve of 2d10 or 3d6. In any case, we would balance the rating and the difficulties to the dice in that system. When used for information gathering, no roll is necessary.

The Spend for an particular ability is rated from 1-3. Spends are purchased independently from rating, and have a rising cost. I'm imaging each ability line will have three boxes to show and mark spends. If a player uses an ability for investigation, they may spend from that pool (if any) to gain additional information. For the most part this operates the same as investigative abilities in GUMSHOE. But players may also spend points from that pool to gain a general benefit. This could be either a bonus to a roll, with declaration made beforehand, or a special option- taking a cue from Ken Hite's new system of "cherries" for high level skills in Night's Black Agents. This would be kept simple but interesting, with no more than one of two non-investigative spend benefits. A more elaborate system might have addition epic picks for investment, but that's really more chrome than anything else.

This approach serves as a kind of "quick-start" GUMSHOE- it keeps the important elements of investigative skills. But it also has a much reduced and easier to handle tracking system and resource management. It works to reduce the barrier the rules offer between a player and their narrative. And it takes out most of the problems our groups had with the system.

Several of the campaigns I have on my agenda are GUMSHOE settings or variations on those. I think the system remains among the most interesting out there. The trick I have to work out now is crafting a hack that I like and that my players will enjoy.


  1. Lowell -- this is exactly the sort of rules hack that any proposed Pelgrane online resource should include. I'm especially fond of your overspend clawback -- I could see that working well in, say, a magical GUMSHOE in which PCs somehow embody or channel mystical forces.

    On a personal note: Thanks for taking my jocular terminology in stride, btw -- I realize that it could seem mean-spirited, and I'm glad you didn't take it in that fashion.

  2. Lowell - I'm very much looking forward to reading your thoughts about NBA and how the system has been modified to cater for a higher degree of action. Your posts will go some to way to making up my mind about whether or not to pick up this game.
    I like some of your thoughts on hacking the system and think they would work well, especially the overspend mechanic. However, I tend towards the view that if a system requires substantial hacking, it probably isn't the right system for me.

  3. Ken- absolutely. especially because GUMSHOE's so opened ended- I think able to be tailored for the group that wants the high tension and for the group that wants something a little more comfortable, even cozy, in their mysteries. And our group plays often enough that the players tend to make their own tensions- something that might vary from group to group.

  4. Sacha- I agree with you on the hacking point- there's certain a limit when the benefits you get from hacking outweigh the costs in time and effort. I'm really fond of a lot of what GUMSHOE offers on the mystery side of things so I'm open to finding some other paths. And our group's one that mostly plays homebrews so I'm used to tuning things to fit with the kinds of games and styles of games we like to play.

    I posted a brief look at what NBA brings to the GUMSHOE table. I think Ken Hite's done an amazing job adding some articulation and detail to the combat system, and some additional details and options to the general abilities. It might be enough to overcome some of the hesitation you had about the mechanics. I can see where a lot of it could be lifted into a grittier version of Ashen Stars. Plus it is just a really fun book to read.

  5. Not knowing the difficulty obscured judgement. The narrow range of the system made spends feel like guesswork, rather than a strategic or tactical decision.

    Your group doesn't use Investigative abilities to look for a hint on the difficulty level? How swingy are the difficulties in your game?

  6. That's an interesting idea- and I can see in certain situations where that would allow the investigative abilities to have additional uses. That's an interesting hack. Regarding the difficulties, I don't think they were particularly swingy across the campaigns, but we did have two different GMs (myself and another person). I think luck probably played a significant role in some players perceptions of the system- with strings of 1's and/or 6's leading to a feeling of frustration or waste. It made be, at least in part, a reaction driven by the rolls at those sessions.

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  8. I really agree with you re Gumshoe. The production quality of the games far out weighs the _playability_ of the more outre settings. Like you I own all the books in special editions. The Core three Gumshoe Essos, Fear, and Trail are a fit to Gumshoe. The others not so mush in my opinion and experience at the game table.

    Ashen Stars had great potential but ultimately fails to deliver.

    My major problem with Gumshoe is the two different skill "scales" Investigative skills vs General skills they work too differently.

    The old James Bond 007 game from Victory Games had "Fields of Experience" which essentially worked very much like Investigative skills, only IMHO better. So they are not the revolution they are proposed to be. YMMV. I really respect Robins designs but some of the justifications in Gumshoe seem more like conceits.

    I find the Cortex+ system as implemented in Leverage rpg to be very close to the perfect system for my group. Much better then FATE which is _not_ transparent enough during play its very system heavy even though its rules are straight forward. Whereas Cortex+ offers many of the same technology in a more effective overall framework.

    I also think the Ubiquity system is superior to Gumshoe.Its core mechanic achieves very similar results, with a higher fidelity to "the-way-it-aught-to-work", have a look.

  9. @Eponymous: That's an interesting point you make about the investigative skills, but not something that came out as a reaction in our group. I can see where the equating of the two sets- by calling them both abilities does encourage a confusion. At least for the earlier versions of GS, I wonder if they might more productively be thought of as talents, merits or advantages. It is worth noting that in NBA and from Simon Rogers' comments they use Investigative skills for broader, almost definitional or aspect applying purposes. But our group has liked the IA structure and I've enjoyed the treatment of mysteries throughout the games- at least for our group they haven't felt like a conceit.

    The problem is on the other side of the fence- but I haven't yet had a chance to sit down and play NBA which adds a lot to those dynamics. I'll have to see how much that addresses the problems.

    I've been curious about the design of Cortex in Leverage, but put off a little given how much I disliked the system in Serenity and Smallville. I assume Leverage is fairly different from those. I think I get what you mean about the FATE system- in the sense that these a fairly visible mechanic operating and potentially intruding on a scene. The bits we've borrowed over from FATE (primarily aspects, spin, tags, etc) have proven remarkably successful in our group. I haven't read Ubiquity, but All for One is certainly on my radar.

  10. Just wanted to thank you for this post -- I belatedly came upon it from your recent post about Night's Black Agents. This is excellent.

    1. Thanks- glad you like it. Still figuring out how to make the system work for my particular groups.

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