Thursday, October 27, 2016

World of Thrones: Opening the Skunkworks

Back in September I started sketching this game hack, but I haven't come back at it for a few weeks. I'm posting what I have, in hopes of jumpstarting my thinking. I wholesale steal the "game design skunkworks" phrase from Nathan D. Paoletta and his excellent Patreon project.  

This game offers a way to run parallel families in a kingdom using PbtA. It could also cover other institutions (magic schools, corporations, colonies). I have a big idea and I need to figure out if it works. Each family has access to basic moves as you'd expect. They also have their non-basic moves from a playbook; we'll call these family moves. You pick these to tailor your family. Each family move is also a character, with a name and some details. These characters can carry out basic moves or their own family move. If that character becomes wounded or killed, you lose access to that move until you fix things.

Wounding in this case isn't necessarily physical harm. It can be emotional distress, curses, loss of reputation, exile, etc. Each family also has a head of house and a second. These characters can carry out basic moves. Below you'll see further discussion, some filler moves built from other games, general ideas, and junk. It's not complete, but it has a shape right now. I need to figure out how to make it playable and then decide if its worth playing. I've patched the basics from Legacy, Urban Shadows, Green Law and others. 

There's a lot to figure out but here are the design tasks & questions in my head:
  1. Too many basic moves? Can I cut down that list, maybe collapse some together? Should some instead be family moves? Does it make or more or less complex to make some of these sub-variants of others? Do these basic moves cover all the bases?
  2. What do the family playbooks look like? I've sketched out what they contain, but now I need to develop a couple of them and figure out their moves. That seems like the hardest part right now. 
  3. I have several tracked resources. Are they all necessary? Can I collapse some together? I think they all do different and important things, but is that enough? I don't like tracking more than a few things in play.
  4. Does the idea of contending make sense? I want to make sure that doesn't cause a series of moves to trigger.  
  5. Are there other, structural systems which could make shifting play smooth? Ideally I want interaction between characters from different families within scenes to be fun, evocative, incentivized, and not a mechanical slog. 
So the main idea is to create a PbtA-based game where players control whole families. Characters within those families act as traits and moves, rather than having an individual character sheet. You can build head-canon, use the characters to play out interactions, and even advance these persons, but they’re tools for your family’s stories. Play takes place on the higher, more sweeping level, with time and space being even fuzzier than in other games.

So what are you doing in this: playing out the stories of rival families in a kingdom (developed in the cc process). PvP ala Urban Shadows. Families have agendas and motivations, as well as some concrete goals. They work to complete those and deal with the various threats facing the land as a whole

Ideally: build a rough, rough version quickly to see if this actually works. Cut from other sources to build patchwork game.

Play Objectives: As we established when playing Legacy players enjoyed scenes with other players: the chance to riff and play off of them. Legacy has the problem of pulling in a two directions based on the playbooks. Individual scenes with NPCs can be fun, but less so online. They work better f2f (the isolation problem).

So the system has to permit/support scenes with multiple players. But more than that, it has to incentivize them. Below I talk about scene interactions with other PCs as the only way to get XP. But I think even more, you can’t really move the ball forward unless you have another player contending or allied.

Start each session establishing a serious threat everyone has to deal with.
Another Powerful Faction Summons Evil
Exiles Return
Mad Mages
Natural Disaster
Death of a King

Kinds of Families

Kinds of Threats
Ancient Cults
Foreign Raids
Political Movements
Mystical rebellion
Death of a God
Natural Disaster

A Game of Thrones: Classic Political Power
Rokugan from Legend of the Five Rings: Seven factions- clear goals and events. Codes of honor.
Alpha Centauri: Colony world with tech tree development.

Play Sequence
World books/frame book. Sets basic details and adds questions to answer. Shouldn’t take that long. Something like a city book. Collaborative Development.
  1. Players pick Family Playbooks.
  2. Set stats
  3. Start with three family moves
  4. Name Head of Household and Second
  5. Name characters for each of the three family moves
  6. Answer Thematic Questions (lands, places, beliefs, etc)
  7. Establish Debts
  8. Pick Assets
  9. Establish Needs & Agenda: This should set things up for play: enough established to act.
  10. GM sets out the Threat for the session. Collectively the players have to deal with the threat facing the kingdom while carrying out their agenda. Players mark experience for fulfilling agenda. Dealing with the threat just keeps the kingdom from being destroyed.
Building Your Family
Each family has a playbook. These offer broad archetypes. Each player should choose a different family playbook.
Families have four basic stats (subject to change):
  • Honor: Represents face, perception of integrity, and family bond. A high honor isn’t a necessarily a positive thing. They may be awful people but stick solidly together. Others accept that the family follows its strictures.
  • Influence: Pull, reach, networks of association. Influence means wealth, it means contacts, it means the ability to call on others to aid you.
  • Force: Military strength and presence. You may be able to seize control through arms or simply via intimidation.
  • Subterfuge: Intrigue, blackmail, spy rings, networks of thieves and beyond. Not necessarily underworld. Your family may be above board but have access to secret ways and means. 
Players assign a +2, +1, 0, and -1 to these.

Each playbook has a set of unique family moves. Players choose three of these at the start.

Each family has a Head of Household and a Second. Name each of these and pick from the list of relevant characteristics. These two can be used as the actor for any of the basic moves.

Each unique family move is a character. Assign a name and write a descriptive sentence about each one. These characters give a bonus, add an ability, or allow for a new move. If they add to a move or roll their own move, then that character must carry out that particular move. For example, if you have a move like “Gain +1 when you Move a Pawn” or “Deal +1 Harm when you Go to War” you have to use those characters. Other family members may not make these rolls or gain these benefits. Straight stat bonuses, on the other hand, apply globally. Family Move Characters can also carry out Basic Moves.

Why is this important? Because when a family suffers harm, a character is Wounded for each point of harm. This means you lose any benefit associated with them and they may not carry out moves. Characters may die, meaning that you lose the move until another notable rises up from among the ranks of your family. That requires the Threat to be dealt with or a special move (Play the Game or Invoke Ancient Lore).

Each family begins with some Assets- things they’re known for, surpluses, treasures, lands, etc. These can be traded in the fiction to gain favors or win deals between players. Mechanically they may be a cost for certain moves. Players may also burn a surplus for +1 to a roll. These surpluses are simple: Justice, Magic Sword, Loyalty, Grain, Arms, Smithies, Great Forests, a Steadfast Bastion.

Families also begin with Need. In the fiction, you want to get these taken care of. After a Threat has been dealt with you can mark experience for each Need you fulfilled. You’ll add new needs between threats. If a family has three more Needs than surpluses, then they take a hit and must make a Suffer Adversity move.  

Each playbook has a set of definitional questions. If also has a list of possible agendas; players pick two agendas at the start. You mark experience for fulfilling your agenda.

Finally each playbook has a set of “Debt” questions. These show us the web of obligations among the kingdom. You may gain debt on other PC families or NPC factions. This means they owe you something. You may also be in debt to someone, meaning they can call in favors. Only the person who can call in the debt needs to write this down.

Families’ may also gain Enmity with another family or group. That means a grudge with someone. Having Enmity with a group means you can’t work with them, but you can also spend your Enmity to gain a bonus when you act against that family.



Working Stats:

When you act to claim something as yours, say what it is you want. Then choose an approach:
If you speak of your rights, stewardship, or sincerity, roll +Honor
If you call in allies, bargain, and negotiate, roll +Influence
If you trick, blackmail, or use shady tactics, roll +Subterfuge
If you threaten and intimidate, roll +Force

If the opposition is an NPC…
On a hit you succeed in taking it. On a 10+ you do so maneuver such that no one can dispute you.
On a 7-9 there’s a cost to your action. Pick one:
Your hold on it is tenuous, and more effort will be needed to secure it.
Someone important comes away marked. Wound one of your characters.
You make enemies; gain an Enmity with a NPC group of the GM’s choosing.
It costs you, spend a Debt or Surplus to finalize control.  

IF CONTENDED: If what you’re claiming is currently under control of a PC, they will always be the one in contention with you. If you declare you’re using +Force, they may opt to GO TO WAR. The contender marks experience if you succeed. If you roll a 7-9, they may choose to take a debt with you or an involved faction, mark an enmity with you, or gain what you spent. If you fail, you mark experience and they gain a +1 Forward in dealing with the situation.

When you seek access to a person, place, or thing you do not control roll +Honor. On a
10+ you get what you want – an audience, an expert, a toy to play with. If relevant you gain a +1 Forward on applicable uses. On a 7-9, you had to back that up with a reward. Erase a Surplus, Debt, Enmity, or Treasure. Alternately gain a Need.

IF CONTENDED: The contender marks experience if you succeed. If you roll a 7-9, they may also choose to gain what you spent, take a debt with you, or take an enmity with you. If you fail, you mark experience and they gain a +1 Forward in dealing with the situation.

When you open your ears and pocketbooks to collect information, roll +Influence. On a hit, gain two Hold. You may spend one Hold to to ask a question from the list below. Take +1 Forward when acting on the answers.  On a 10+, you may ask a follow-up question.
  • What moves is __________ making?
  • What opportunities can we find in ____________?
  • What should we be on the lookout for?
  • Who could offer us ______________?
  • What ancient secrets are hidden here?

When you use spies, agents, and open ears to discern the strengths and weaknesses of someone, roll +Subterfuge. On a hit, gain two Hold. You may spend one Hold to ask a question from the list below. Take +1 Forward  when acting on the answers.  On a 10+, you may ask a follow-up question.
  • Where are they vulnerable?
  • How could we best shore up our position against them?
  • What is their greatest strength?
  • What valuable resources do they have?
  • How could we get them to ________?
On a miss, your spies give away more information than they bring in, and your target learn something dangerous about you.

When you try to mitigate or exacerbate a dangerous situation, choose an approach
Call to history, morality, or the law, roll +Honor
Network, use flattery, or bring allies in, roll +Influence
Muddy the waters, misdirect, or deceive, roll +Subterfuge

If you’re trying to sustain something, On a 10+ the situation is safe unless dramatically disrupted. On a 7-9, you’ve succeeded, but choose one:
Your agent suffers backlash on the measure. Mark a character as wounded.
It’s only a temporary measure, and manipulation will unravel in time.
The effort costs you and you must spend something to finish things (erase a debt or surplus).

If you’re trying to break something apart, on a 10+ the situation is shattered and cannot be fixed without time and effort. On a 7-9, you’ve succeeded, but choose one from above.

IF CONTENDED: The contender marks experience if you succeed. If you roll a 7-9, they may also choose to gain what you spent, take a debt with you, or take an enmity with yo. If you fail, you mark experience and they gain a +1 Forward in dealing with the situation.

When you want to operate behind the scenes, spend a Debt with a NPC or erase an NPC’s enmity with the PC faction they’re moving against. Roll +Subterfuge. On a 10+ they succeed. On a 7-9 they partially succeed and your intervention is discovered. You may not use this move on an NPC you have enmity with.

When politics fails and you want something, you may move your forces to engage. Roll +Force. On a 10+ you gain what you want and you may choose three from the list below.
  • Your success does not raise other’s ire
  • You do not suffer harm
  • You deal harm
  • You destroy a faction
  • You deal a setback to a threat
  • You mark experience
On a 7-9 you succeed, but want you want is imperfectly done or held. Choose to finish the job or choose one from the list above.

IF CONTENDED: Before you roll, your opponent may choose to yield the field. If so they mark experience and take no harm. You roll as above. If they hold the field, on a 10+ you gain what you want and may choose three from the list. Your opponent marks experience and suffers harm. On a 7-9 you both suffer harm and each may choose one from the list. On a 6-, you mark experience and suffer harm. The Contender has control of what you want.

IF THE THREAT: As above, but on a 7-9 the GM throws a soft Threat Move against you. On a 6- they throw a hard Threat Move.

When you act to aid a fellow family, roll +Influence. On a 10+ they gain +1 Forward to their roll. On a 7-9, they gain +1 Forward, but you make your family vulnerable to the same consequences should they fail. You may not aid a family you have Enmity with. When you act to obstruct a fellow family you’re not contending with, roll +Influence. On a 10+ they suffer -2 Forward to their roll. On a 7-9, they suffer -2 Forward, but gain an enmity with you.

When you try to perform a powerful magics, call on ancient pacts, or summon forces from the beyond, you must first gather the necessary components; the GM will tell you what is needed. Then roll. No one can assist you with this check and you only have two options for raising the roll. For each asset you burn or character you wound, you gain +1 to the roll. On a 10+, it works and all hell breaks lose. On a 7-9, it works, but you must either burn more assets, mark off debts, or wound more characters. Alternately the ritual goes wrong in an unexpected way. On a miss, the ritual goes terribly awry, and has effects you never could have predicted.

Situational Basic Moves
When your family suffers a major assault, stands in the face of corruption, or deals with a setback, roll +Harm. On a 12+ your family loses something of moderate value. As well, one of your wounded characters dies. Mark Experience. Another member will have to step up to take their place. On a 9-11, your family loses something of moderate value. On a 8- you survive and regroup.  

When you do someone a favor, they owe you a Debt. They must know about the action. If this is someone who has enmity with you, immediately spend the Debt to remove one Enmity from them.

When you wish to heal a wounded character or raise a new character up to replace a dead one, you must engage in the great game. Frame a scene between one of your characters (you may choose and name the new one) and a character from a rival family. Roll +Honor.
  • On a 10+, describe the back and forth between you two. Each of you must reveal one important detail about your characters. You may heal a wounded character or assign a new one to an empty move. 
  • On a 7-9, you must answer a question about your family or intentions. Then you may heal a wounded character or assign a new one to an empty move. 
  • On a 6-, you give the player a debt and must answer a question about your family or intentions. Any wounded character nominated dies. You may assign a new character to an empty move, but not with the same name. That person has done badly. Mark experience.
When you cash in a debt, remind your debtor why they owe you in order to…
…make a PC:
  • Do you a favor at moderate cost
  • Lend a hand to your efforts
  • Get in the way of someone else
  • Answer a question honestly
  • Erase a Debt they hold on someone
  •  Give you a Debt they hold on someone else
  • Give you an Asset
…make an NPC:
  • Answer a question honestly about their Faction
  • Introduce you to a powerful member of their Faction
  • Give you a worthy and useful gift without cost
  • Erase a Debt they hold on someone
  • Erase an Enmity they hold on someone
  • Give you a Debt they have on someone else
  • Give you an Asset
  • Give you +3 to Move Them as a Pawn (choose before rolling)
When you refuse to honor a debt, roll with +Honor. On a hit, you weasel out of the current deal, but still owe the Debt. On a 7-9, you choose 1:
  • You owe them an additional Debt
  • You lose face with their faction. Reduce your Honor by 1 untl this Threat has been dealt with. They gain an Enmity with you
  • You wound a character
On a miss, you can’t avoid the noose. You either honor your Debt or face the consequences: they pick two from the list above or force you to lose all the Debts owed to you. Mark experience.

On a recent Gauntlet episode, Rich mentioned his affection for the Cramped Quarters move from Uncharted Worlds. It’s a kind of enforced socialization move. Here’s the text of it:

When you’ve been trapped in cramped quarters with the same people for a significant amount of time (a leg of an interstellar journey, etc), choose a character trapped here with you and Roll 2d6.
On a 10+, describe how the two of you bonded over the past few days.
On a 7-9, reveal/discover the answer to their question about an aspect of yourself or your past.
On a 6-, describe what caused the newest hurt feelings or bad blood between you.

That’s gave me an idea for another way to incentivize interaction. Adding exp and stakes to contending moves is one way. But we can make an interaction move, like “Crossing Paths” or “The Great Game” representing all of those character interaction moments with less stakes. In order to “Heal” a player needs to make a “Great Game” move, representing time, the gathering of general information, and/or building up of resentment and ambition against other houses. The damaged player chooses another house. Each player puts forward a character and plays out a scene. There’s a roll to see what happens, both sides gain in this. Healing damage is one option from this.

Note from Rich’s Comments: Preference for moves with picks. Tough choices- you want everything but you can’t have it.

PbtA Choice Forms:
Pick but you want everything; bad options implied by what you leave on the table.
Pick and then the GM picks from a list
Pick from good and bad
Get what you want and then pick bad options, complications, or cost
Other versions?
Kinds of choices as a measure of autonomy. Designing for bad players? Boring choices.

HEAT MECHANISM? TOO MUCH STUFF?? Is the Enmity idea enough?

Spendables, Resources, and Economies
We don’t want to track too much. But there needs to be an economy and method of handling resources. Here’s my first through. Some of these may not be necessary or it may be possible to collapse two or more of them together.
  • Reputation/Stability: The HP for the family. I’m not sure yet what to call it. There’s losing face for failing to live up to one’s obligations, which suggests rep, but we’ll be handling some of that with the debt/enmity mechanics. So Stability may be a better way to think of it: the pressures from outside, internal dissension, the tightening of resources.
  • Assets: Tags representing surpluses, resources, and wealth. Per se we’re not going to have a wealth/coin tracking system (ala Green Law or Blades in the Dark). Everyone has the finances they require, though a family might have an asset: Wealth. In general I’m imagining you can generate assets as an effect pick of some moves. They might be a cost for other moves. They can be spent to add a bonus to some moves. I’m imagining if they’re fictionally appropriate, they’d give a +1. So they’re a concrete representation of Hold or +1 Forward.
  • Needs: What your family needs, as represented by assets at the start of the game. Having more needs can impact your Stability. Perhaps when you make a Hold Together check, you roll +Needs. Alternately it acts as a cap or check. You can take additional needs as a requirement or consequence of certain moves. Players should know each family’s needs so they can other surpluses to assist. If we don’t what a full mechanical effect, then needs might just be a fictional trigger for GM moves.
  • Debts: I’m using this term to represent both payback for assistance, the web of networks, and formal alliances. Perhaps there’s a better term that encompasses all of that. Debts function as they do in Urban Shadows. There’s a move to call in and avoid the calling in of debts. Avoiding debts has a cost much like in US. Here it also gains you Enmity.
  • Enmity: When you cross a family or faction, they may gain enmity on you. This is bad blood or hatred. In the case of NPCs, enmity makes it harder to deal with or even work against that group in the future. Until you find a way to clear it, you would have a -1 to those interactions. PC families which have enmity can spend that for a benefit when they act against that family.
  • Treasure: A special kind of asset. A great work, an item quested for, or something with significant fictional weight. Necessary?
Original General Thoughts
  • Calling on Debts like Urban Shadows
  • Head of Household
  • Moves can be injured or even lost
  • Have to handle flow in some way
  • Is a Move a conclusion to a scene- what’s the back and forth.
  • New rolled moves and bonuses are characters.
  • If a character has a rolled move that’s what they’re trained to do.
  • You can also assign them to do any of the basic moves.
  • You can also send a Faceless: great success advances that character and makes them a new person.
  • Keep Basic Moves tight: Rich’s comments on “too many moves.”
  • OOH the meta-level we’re considering here probably won’t appeal to some folks. Possible to keep flow to these stories?
  • Factions and groups created like NPCs
  • Wizards?
  • Drafting agendas and desires?
  • Trade is less important here. Scarcity as a threat?
  • We assume each house is wealthy, unless they take that as a need. Assets abstractly represent this.
  • I like the idea that sometimes characters get cut off from their family. They essentially become free agents which other families can recruit. Do they offer the move they originally had, a bonus against their original house, or both?
Advancement: When players make some moves, they can nominate and/or other players can request to have their family as the opposition. If the Active Player does well, the Responding player might have to pay a modest price, but gains XP. If the Active Player does less well, the Responding Player gains something, but the Active Player gains XP. You don’t gain XP (or gain less XP) for contending with NPC families or factions.

Other Moves
Moves to pick from when creating house
Suppress/Bring Order
Recover Lore
Discover Weakness/Secrets
Create Art
Invoke Ancient Powers (maybe a Basic Move ala Big Magic)
Use Faith/Speak to the Gods
Incite Rebellion
The Enemy of My Enemy
Ease Tensions (specific defuse): perhaps something more like “Offer Services” as a defuse where the family gains something from their action.

I know there are some other PbtA games which have approached this (Legacy obviously). I've got that need-to-do list at the top. Does this seem workable? worth following up on?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Running City of Mist: Noir Supers

City of Mist does supers with a noir twist and a PbtA backbone. Son of Oak Game Studio released a really nice free quickstart package several weeks back. At the same time I’ve begun running Thursday night games for The Gauntlet Hangouts. I’ve set myself the goal of working through a backlog of QS games and core books with sample adventures. City of Mist had one of the nicest intro game packages I’ve seen, rivaling anything from a major publisher so it went to the top.

In City of Mist you play people granted strange powers by connection with the mythic. They’re supers but the kind of crew they pick to run can shape the game heavily (conspiracy busters, vigilante, etc). It’s a neat concept and there’s elements of Scion, Edge of Midnight, and Marvel Noir mixed in there. I love superhero rpgs, especially those with a distinct setting or unusual premise.

I ran two sessions, the first using the sample case (“V for Viral”) and the second my own, built with quickstart’s suggested framework. We recorded both and I’ve posted those below. We also talked about the first session on this week’s The Gauntlet Podcast. I should note that I made some rules errors I corrected at the start of session two. Also if you’re interested I scanned my prep notes for both episodes. Page 1 covers the sample adventures; the rest contain the scenario I put together.

As a nice bit of timing, the City of Mist Kickstarter dropped (and funded last week). I opted to back it, though I still had some uncertainties about the system. We talk a little about that at the end of the session two video. I’m curious about the setting more than anything. Add to that the Fate-ish elements injected into PbtA and I took the leap. If you’re curious about City of Mist, check out the free Starter Set. Brie Sheldon also did an interview with the designer, Amit Moshe, well worth reading.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

GUMSHOE: A System Guide for New Gamers (2016 Update)

Friday October 21st marks the 10th Anniversary of Pelgrane's GUMSHOE rpg. To celebrate that I’ve updated my overview of the system, originally put together Jan 2012. I’ve included some new games, shifted some editions, and added major supporting product releases.

Below is a guide to the various lines of GUMSHOE products, arranged by date of initial publication. I've provided a brief description of the premise and what new ideas each iteration brings. As well, you'll find a link to the core book for the system, reviews for that core book, and links to other products in that line. In the case of Trail of Cthulhu, I've provided a link to the Gamer's Guide to that RPG.

Pelgrane Press has used their GUMSHOE rpg engine across a number of game lines. The mechanics of that system uniquely focuses on mysteries and problem solving. Not a generic system, GUMSHOE instead has a set of base mechanics and ideas tweaked, shifted and added to for each version- aiming to offer the best genre emulation.

In GUMSHOE abilities define characters. Some versions offer templates, but there’s no class system. Characters have two types of abilities: investigative and general.

Investigative abilities include fields of knowledge such as Ballistics, Forensic Anthropology, and Streetwise. These have a rating which serves as a pool for use of that ability. Possessing at least a one rating shows the character has expertise. When a player uses that ability to examine a scene, they do not have to roll. Instead, if there are core clues present which can be found by that means, they locate them. Core clues are those which move investigators to another location or major plot element. Points may be spent from an investigative ability to gain additional or extra information, at the GM or player's suggestion. These help fill in the picture and give that investigator the spotlight for play.

So for example, the core clue is the location of a shady doctor. The GM might present the clue via a couple of abilities. A player with pharmacy might note a pattern to the prescription drugs. One with accounting might be able to quickly go through nearby papers. Another with electronics might be able to pull up GPS details on a cell phone. Any of these can suggest another avenue. There may be more in a location. A spend can add to the overall picture. Foe example a Pharmacy spend might give the group a better sense of what the doctor’s dealing in, what their reputation is, or how their overall operation might work.

General abilities cover areas where players can risk failure- Athletics, Health and Shooting for example. Use of these abilities is uncertain and success or failure can have a dramatic impact on the story.  In this cases screwing up offers a spotlight moment, asks for player choices, and shifts play. General abilities also have a rating which represents a pool. To make a test, players roll 1d6. If they wish they may spend from the relevant ability's pool and add that to the roll. Players must meet or beat a difficulty set but not revealed by the GM. General ability pools require special circumstances to refresh (end of a story, time in a hospital, etc).

GUMSHOE now has an SRD for gamers and designers. It is available as both an OGL and a CC license product. For more details on this, see this post on the Pelgrane forums. So far we’ve only seen a couple of products take advantage of that: Against the Unknown, The Derelict, Just a Game and Spookshow.

On Horror: Several of the GUMSHOE games offer straight horror or at least horror-tinged mysteries. Go with Esoterrorists if you want an organization battling against an occult foe. Go with Fear Itself if you want unprepared innocents trapped in a horrific situation. Go with Trail of Cthulhu if, well, want Cthulhu.

Premise: Players take the role of agents for the Ordo Veritas, a benevolent conspiracy. They battle against the Esoterrorists, a network of radicals and maniacs dedicated to breaking down the membrane between this world and the supernatural outside. They do this by crafting terror and manifesting otherworldly creatures. They operate like a terror network, with a focus on fear and publicity.

System Additions: This book sets up the basic GUMSHOE rules, with expert agents operating in a modern setting. The second edition significantly expands that material. On the rules side it cleans up the presentation and clarifies points. It adds a few new innovations, but keeps things simple and direct. On the campaign side, it massively expands the background, explains the concepts more fully, offers more developed campaign set up, and presents several fully-fleshed scenarios. Everything's very well-done and presented. I would recommend this as a first Gumshoe game if you're working with a group unfamiliar with Call of Cthulhu (otherwise Trail of Cthulhu might be better).

Premise: Players take the role of characters, perhaps victims, in a modern horror setting of slashers, creatures and maniacs. Fear Itself aims to simulate modern pop horror, especially cinematic horror of movies like The Ring, Pulse, and House of Wax.

System Additions: The list of abilities has been modified to reflect the lower relative skills of characters in this setting. The rules also include very basic psychic powers- with dangers associated with those. Characters can start from a list of stereotypes, and/or choose special Risk Factors- drives which explain why the character remains in the story rather than fleeing. Additional rules for stability appear as well. The new edition takes the original slim volume and massively expands it. It offers better guidance for different kinds of campaigns and one-shot play, clarified rules, monsters, and example scenarios.
  • Core Book: Fear Itself
  • Additional Products: The Book of Unremitting Horror offers a particularly disturbing monster manual. The Seventh Circle is a module. While these were written for the first edition, they work equally well with the new one.
  • Reviews: The new edition dropped recently, so I haven't found any major reviews. 

Premise: Investigators against the Cthulhu Mythos. Adapts the key ideas of Lovecraft's work and the rpg traditions established by Call of Cthulhu into GUMSHOE. ToC notably moves the timeline forward, setting the game generally in the 1930's, rather than 1920's.

System Additions: Retooled ability sets to fit the genre. The rules offer two approaches to campaigns and mechanics, Purist versus Pulp, with the latter offering the players more of a fighting chance. Characters now have Drives which guide their behavior and choose a Occupation to start. Occupations determine starting abilities, credit rating and special talents. Stability has now been paired with Sanity as two distinct abilities. Those rules, including madness mechanics, have been expanded.

The rules offer a significant discussion of the Cthulhu Mythos, followed by an extensive bestiary for creatures from there and elsewhere. Rules for setting-specific magic and tomes appear as well.

Premise: An event ten years ago resulted in 1% of the population gaining super powers. Players take on the role of officers with powers dealing with "heightened" crime and criminals. A predictable structure and pattern to the superpowers allows for investigations based on meta-forensics.

System Additions: An extensive set of super-powers, some of which operate as investigative and some as general abilities. Unlike other superhero games, powers must be chosen along certain lines. These lines make up "The Quade Diagram" a resources for players to figure out which powers associate with which evidence. Other abilities and rules focus on the police procedural nature of the game.

Premise: A far-future sci-fi setting in which players take the roles of "Lasers," freelance law enforcers. These operate in the Bleed, a region of space once controlled by an empire known as the Combine, now left to its own devices. Navigating between disparate planetary cultures and races, the Lasers balance ethics and the need to make a buck. Moves the idea of mysteries forward more broadly to problem-solving.

System Additions: Several alien races with special talents provided. Alien specific abilities and psionics, as well as an ability list tuned to the sci-fi setting. Cyberware and biological implant rules. Extensive systems for spaceship combat. Notes on handling improvised investigations.

Premise: Not a stand-alone core book, Lorefinder adds elements of GUMSHOE's investigative rules to the Pathfinder system.

System Additions: Character creation within Pathfinder; drives for PCs; and new skills, feats and magic

Premise: Players take the role of spies who have been "burned" by their company. The reason: their discovery of a massive vampiric conspiracy behind the scenes. Now the PCs must remain alive while striking back at the monsters. Play is about survival, building resources, and putting together a picture of your actual foe.

System Additions: Highly tailored set of abilities for the genre- with new ideas and uses for abilities. Rules for using investigative abilities and general and vice versa. Benefits for high level purchases of general abilities. Role specific talents. Mechanics for trust, contacts, networks and betrayal. New options for cinematic combat. Chase rules. Vampire and conspiracy construction toolkit. Overall presents a detailed and crunchy set of GUMSHOE rules for a modern campaign. 

Premise: Based on Jack Vance's science fiction, in particular "The Demon Princes" series of novels. Players become hunters seeking vengeance on the mysterious and elusive Quandos Vorn. They have to seek their quarry through investigation, infiltration, and deception. The game take place in a golden-age sci-fi universe more of imagery than hard technical details. It has the slimmest version of the rules so it might be a good entry point for those looking for a “problem solving” vs. traditional mystery game.

System Additions: Players use a system of build cards to construct their characters. The group defines the details of why they're pursuing their quarry. The Gaean Reach also adds a version of the Taglines system from Skullduggery and the The Dying Earth Role Playing Game. This allows players to gain benefits by integrating premade phrases into their play. The basic GUMSHOE system on offer here is relatively light, with some interesting new takes on abilities. It doesn’t have the deep sci-fi mechanics of Ashen Stars, focusing instead on a more narrative approach.

Premise: Players are members of TimeWatch, recruited from across history to fix and maintain the one true timestream. Missions may require the team to head to a particular date to fix an obvious change. On the other hand missions may also be more subtle, requiring the characters to investigate and piece together the specific sabotage.

System Additions: TimeWatch offers a set of character archetypal competencies, for those who don't want to build from scratch. This includes non-human options (androids, disembodied brains, intelligent psychic dinosaurs). The game offers some interesting time-themed abilities with additional effects (Paradox Prevention for example). Because it has to cover a broad range, it has a slightly slimmed down ability set. Chronal Stability offers an additional damage track. It obviously includes material and rules for handling time travel, reality shifts, and destroying the timeline.

Premise: The first major GUMSHOE product not released by Pelgrane. Bubblegumshoe covers teen detective dramas like Veronica Mars, Nancy Drew, Mystery Team, Brick, and beyond. As you can see from the list there’s a large range of tone available. The players run teen sleuths in a town, dealing with crimes, parents, and the social intrigue of school.

System Additions: It has a slightly slimmed down list of abilities. That’s complimented by a relationship system. On the one hand this offers a map of connections and a hook for play. On the other PCs can draw on connections to fill out their abilities, like calling on a friendly uncle cop for insight on a forensic question. Bubblegumshoe also de-emphasizes traditional combat. High violence and guns end games rather than being a go to option. Instead we get the Throwdowns, a detailed set of options for social conflicts. Generally there more material on the human side of mysteries, using NPCs, building a town, etc.

A series of short essays by Ken Hite produced monthly by Pelgrane Press. These alternate between discussions of Cthulhu Mythos creatures (odd issues) and deeper looks at places and ideas for GUMSHOE (even issues). These are amazing and diverse. Each focuses in depth on a particular topic. I recommend checking out the list to see if any hit your interests.