This week the Play on Target podcast looks at the GUMSHOE system from Pelgrane Press. As I mention in the episode we opted to do the broader GUMSHOE system first. We want to showcase what it does and debunk some myths about it. In the future we may put together GM Jams about particular iterations of the system. For this episode we gathered together four amazing GMs to talk about their experiences. They discuss what the system is, how they’ve used it at the table, and what they’ve gotten from it.
If you’re enjoying these GM Jams (or not), give us a heads up. If you have suggestions for specific games or settings we should cover, tell us in the comments. Our aim with these is to help new gamers decide if these are for them and give GMing advice to those already running the system.
WHAT INFORMATION IS
We mention this towards the end of the episode, but it’s worth stressing. GUMSHOE games aren’t necessarily about solving a mystery with a capital “M.” They’re about gathering information for a purpose. In that way they’re like most games. Players usually work towards figuring things out- about other people, about the broader situation, about a dungeon they’re going into. I suspect that happens in most games, with some stressing it more than others. GUMSHOE pulls that out and makes it a focal sub-system. As Steve mentions, it offers an interesting way to handle the flow of information and give players a connection to it.
Various GUMSHOE versions aim at different kinds of info. When I look at Ashen Stars, I see a game where the players examine problems and figure out fixes. They’re not coming to an ending accusation scene in the drawing room. Instead they have to learn about various possible solutions and figure out which works best (or causes them the least blowback). So while they might be moving towards a conflict, they’d better have found enough info to deal with that at the end. Sherri, on the other hand, believes that Mutant City Blues shows how you can investigate in an irrational world. It offers a structure to “play fair” in a setting of bizarre powers. The Quade Diagram presents an interactive tool for that. Trail of Cthulhu asks you to learn about the Mythos and the nature of the creatures you might face, The Gaean Reach slowly reveals the path to the villain, and Night’s Black Agents is about figuring out who and what your enemies actually are.
What other kinds of information could be structured this way? Imagine a Ninja or Assassin’s Creed style game where the players have to gather intelligence in order to strike at a target (a riff I’ve done with Neo Shinobi Vendetta at cons). Or a diplomatic/trader style game, where characters have to learn about local cultures or power networks? Or a version of White Wolf’s Hunter the Reckoning, with the characters uncovering the World of Darkness?
In our Apocalypse World GM Jam, the participants described the toolbox nature of that game. Apocalypse World includes many features, systems, and modules. It provides an array of mechanics. But GMs of AW don’t necessarily use everything there. And games built on it don’t either. These can focus on different elements: so some powered by AW games include Fronts, some include heavy conflict resolution, some include social moves. In the same way we can look at the various pieces of GUMSHOE. They’re rich and elaborated, but we can pull out elements to fit our game’s theme.
I’d say the two big modules are Investigative Abilities and Resource-Driven Abilities. The former, in the form of choice of abilities and application, shapes the flow of information. The latter can ratchet tension through scarcity, add dynamic bonuses (cherries, MoS), and show competency. Beyond that we have a host of other interesting sub-systems to tweak (how to structure investigations, handling unusual powers, contest-based ship fighting, corruption/ insanity). Each version of GUMSHOE reconfigures some mechanics to fit the theme (like grenades, abilities functions). They also bring new elements to the table. I think gamers and designers ought to be looking at GUMSHOE as a set of tools which they can make use of in other ways.
THE GUMSHOE SRD
In the podcast we don’t mention the existence of Open GUMSHOE. Pelgrane released both a CC and OGL version of that. We’ve seen at least one product come out under that license (Against the Unknown). As well at others are on the horizon, like Ken Hite’s Bubblegumshoe (Teen Sleuths & Drama) and Cam Banks’ “Magic Shoe” (mixing Ars Magica and GUMSHOE). I’m hoping we see more designers playing with these tools and elements. For example, mixing GUMSHOE with particular historical periods feels obvious (Tokugawa Japan, Ancient Rome, Medieval England) given the abundance of detective fiction aimed at that. Alternately something which echoes the replicant hunting of Blade Runner or the deep paranoia of 1984 could be great. I’ve talked about this last one before, mixing evidence gathering with political reputation and scapegoating.
GHOST IN THE SHILL
On a slightly related note, Play on Target has been nominated for the Golden Geeks for Best Podcast. I’m under no illusions about winning, given the excellence of the competition (K&RTAS!). But if you have a BGG/RPGGeek/VideoGame Geek account, consider going over there and voting. It would be great to get more voices and perspectives for the various RPG Items like Game of the Year and Best Supplement. There are some great choices there (and oddly some not yet released Kickstarters). Anyway take a look!
If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at www.playontarget.com.