October 4, 2013

GM Tips from GUMSHOE

I’ve recently read Night's Black Agents (thanks to the Bundle of Holding and my pal Dave).  There are two great innovations in its system, GUMSHOE, that I wanted to share.  These two innovations may be adaptable as GM techniques in any system. 

Investigation is about Deduction not Perception

The innovation:  When following a plot, players never fail to find a core clue.  In character creation, the GM ensures that the players, between them, have taken every important investigative skill needed for his campaign.  Typically, that just means making sure the players take at least one point in every investigative skill.  Core clues are the clue that leads to the next scene – the clue that’s important for the plot to progress.  Whichever PC has that skill (or the most points in it) is the one who finds the core clue in each scene.  They find it simply by asking a question even vaguely related to it.  There’s no roll or expenditure required.

Why it’s great:  Mystery solving is supposed to be about figuring out what the clues mean, not simulating the process of searching for the clues.  Worse, if the PCs don’t find a core clue, what are you going to do?  End the adventure?

Adaptation:  Ensure that all of the skills available in the game are spread among your players’ characters.  Rating is irrelevant.  When a core clue comes up, the PC with the most in that skill automatically finds it simply by looking for it.

Skills are Spotlight Sharing

The innovation: In GUMSHOE, all die rolls are 1d6 vs. a target number.  Characters with 1 in the skill roll the same die against the same number as characters with 10 in the skill.  The skill rating defines a temporary pool that can be spent on a one time basis to add to any given die roll.  So you could spend 3 Shooting to roll 1d6+3 instead of 1d6 on an attack roll, for instance.  Investigative skills have no die roll – you just make a spend of 1-3 points to automatically gain information that gives your character an advantage (either information beyond the core clue that could help you, or an advantage with your general skills).  The effect of the spends rule is that players have to share the spotlight.  If they go on an “Infiltration” skill heavy mission, the character with the best Infiltration is going to get the most spotlight time, but he will eventually run out, and the other characters with Infiltration will get a chance to shine as well.  In most games, there’s one character with Stealth, and that character does all the scouting.  In GUMSHOE, that character eventually runs out of points and others have to take over.

Why it’s great:  Normally your PCs will focus on different tasks, so that spotlight is shared by sharing who is good at what task.  But then only the stealthy character ever uses stealth, and only the good driver ever drives, etc.  The other characters – and other players – never get to enjoy doing other tasks.  Characters become focused tools that only get used to do a few things, rather than generally competent heroes, like they’re supposed to be.  GUMSHOE fixed that.


Adaptation:  You can’t copy the full glory of the GUMSHOE spotlight sharing mechanic without house rules, but you can use mechanics that exist in every game to encourage rather than discourage spotlight sharing.  In a lot of games, skills like Driving and Stealth are better if one character does the task and the others wait.  The reason being that if one character fails, there is catastrophic consequence, so it’s better to trust the character with the highest rating to handle the task alone.  Most RPGs have a “working together” mechanic, though.  It may initially strike you as unrealistic/counter-intuitive, but consider using PC cooperation as a bonus in these sorts of situations rather than a penalty.  If five characters go scouting together, let the one with the highest skill make the roll “that counts” and let the others make rolls to give him bonuses or do other tasks.  It actually makes sense:  A scout works better with a lookout and someone making a diversion.  A car chase works better with other cars to serve as decoys or to cut the fugitive off and channel him into a dead end.  A sniper works better with a spotter and ground support.  A hacker needs help with social engineering, research, and data analysis.  (Etc.)

Try these adapted innovations and come back and tell me how it works.  As for me, I'm going to try running Night's Black Agents.