Gumshoe SRD (System Reference Document)

05Designing Scenarios

The GUMSHOE system supports a certain style of scenario design. The rules are less important to the success of your game than the way you structure your adventures.


If a piece of information is essential to move the story on, it’s a core clue. It costs nothing. You can also offer minor tidbits of information at a 0 points, if the information not consequential enough to be worth a point spend.

If you have a piece of information that offers a fun sidelight on the action but is not essential to move through the story, you can make this available with a 1- or 2-point spend. Choose the cost of the spend according to the entertainment value of the information, not the game-world difficulty of completing the task. The whole point of the system is to make clues easy to acquire, so that players can get on with the fun of figuring out how they fit together. Facilitate this by making choices that get information into the hands of players. Habits die hard, so make sure you’re not slipping back into the old paradigm and making the clues hard to get.

If an action’s consequence of failure might be madness, death or injury, by all means make it a test. If game world logic suggests that a supporting character will actively oppose the PC, make it a contest.

Clue Types

Special clue types are as follows.

Floating Core Clues

It can be useful to structure a scenario with one or more free-floating core clues. These typically advance the story from one distinct section to another. Where an ordinary core clue is linked with a particular scene, a floating clue can be gleaned in any one of several scenes. The GM determines during play which scene gives up the clue.

Floating clues allow you to control the pacing of a scenario. They allow the characters to play out all of the fun or interesting experiences in one section of the scenario before the story takes a dramatic turn. For example, you might want them to separately meet all of the suspected esoterror suspects before they, and the Investigators, get locked up for the night in an old dark house. To achieve this, withhold the core clue that moves the investigators to the dark house until after they’ve met all of the relevant supporting characters. That way, you prevent them from leaping ahead into the narrative without getting all the information they need to fully enjoy what follows.

Likewise, a floating clue allows you to perform like a ruthless editor, skipping unnecessary scenes when you need to kick the narrative into a higher gear. Let’s say you’ve chosen five possible scenes in which the Investigators might logically get a necessary core clue. You figure that this phase of the adventure should take about an hour. If the players breeze through the scenes in ten minutes apiece, you can save the core clue for the last scene. If they linger, taking twenty minutes per scene, you’ll want to make the core clue available after the third scene.

Player frustration level usually serves as a better trigger for a floating core clue than a predetermined time limit. If they’re having obvious fun interacting with the vivid supporting characters you’ve created, or being creeped out by uncanny phenomena, you can give them more of what they want by saving the core clue for the final scene. On the other hand, if you see they’re getting bored and frustrated, you can slip in the floating clue earlier.

Leveraged Clues

A staple element of mystery writing is the crucial fact which, when presented to a previously resistant witness or suspect, causes him to break down and suddenly supply the information or confession the detectives seek. This is represented in GUMSHOE by the leveraged clue. This is a piece of information which is only available from the combined use of an interpersonal ability, and the mention of another, previously gathered clue. The cited clue is called a prerequisite clue, and is by definition a sub-category of core clue.

Pipe Clues

A clue which is important to the solution of the mystery, but which becomes significant much later in the scenario, is called a pipe clue. The name is a reference to screenwriting jargon, where the insertion of exposition that becomes relevant later in the narrative is referred to as “laying pipe.” The term likens the careful arrangement of narrative information to the work performed by a plumber in building a house.

Pipe clues create a sense of structural variety in a scenario, lessening the sense that the PCs are being led in a strictly linear manner from Scene A to Scene B to Scene C. When they work well, they give players a “eureka” moment, as they suddenly piece together disparate pieces of the puzzle. A possible risk with pipe clues lies in the possible weakness of player memories, especially over the course of a scenario broken into several sessions. The GM may occasionally have to prompt players to remember the first piece of a pipe clue when they encounter a later component.

Restricted Clues

Certain clues which are necessary to the solution of a mystery will not be known to everyone with the ability required to access them. Instead, these are restricted clues—secret, esoteric or otherwise obscure facts which one member of the group just happens to know.

Only a select few people know about OPERATION CORNWALLIS, but if it is necessary to the completion of an investigation, an investigator will be one of them.

To preserve the sense that the group has access to little-known facts, only one group member knows the information in question; its revelation comes as news to all of the other investigators, even those who have the same ability. The first character with the relevant ability to take an action that might trigger the clue is the one blessed with this fortuitous knowledge. Where no clear first actor exists, as in a clue provided as soon as the investigators enter a scene, the GM chooses the investigator with the highest current pool in that ability (if applicable) or the investigator who has had the least recent spotlight time or most requires a positive reversal of fortune. Alternately, the GM may allow applicable background considerations to determine the possessor of the restricted clue: for example, a character with high Bureaucracy might recognize an esoterror suspect from back office work.

Timed Results

The following structural technique applies to any GUMSHOE game where the characters have access to the services of a forensic lab, and rely on tests performed by others.

You can shape the pacing of a case with a timed result. This occurs when believability requires a suitable interval between the submission of evidence to forensic experts and the results of the testing they perform. In police procedurals, it is common for the direction of an investigation to be suddenly changed when the lab results come in. The scientific evidence may exonerate the current top suspect or point the investigators toward new witnesses or locations. Alternately, it can change the meaning of previously gleaned information, causing the investigators to conduct re-interview previous witnesses, or conduct closer searches of crime scenes.

A timed result can serve as a delayed-reaction core clue, directing the PCs to a new scene. These are useful devices in cases where the scenes can be connected in any order. If the PCs get bored or bogged down in one scene, they can receive a phone call from the lab techs calling them in to receive some much-needed exposition, which sends them in a new direction.

The arrival of a timed result can also change the players’ interpretation of their current case notes without moving them to a new scene. They might dismiss a suspect’s alibi, alter their timeline of events, or reject information provided them by a witness whose perceptions are revealed as unreliable.

News of a lab report requiring the team’s attention can also be used to cut short a scene that the players won’t abandon, even though they’ve already collected all available clues.


Records are your Friend

In addition to your adventure notes, there are two other documents you need to run the game.

When you are creating your adventure, make a note of the investigative abilities you’ve used on the Investigative Ability Checklist. It’s a good idea to add clues for as wide a range of abilities as possible. You can also use the Checklist during character creation to ensure all the abilities are covered, and that redundant abilities are left out.

Secondly, during character creation, have your players note their choices of investigative abilities on the GM’s Investigator Roster. This enables you to pick out which characters might notice obvious clues, and ensure spotlight time is evenly spread.

When you prepare your next session, you can use the Investigator Roster to see what interests your players. If someone has a 3-point rating in Art History, you could add a some forged artwork or a menacing sculpture to your notes. This is particularly useful in an improvised game.


Scene Types

Having planned out your mystery, it’s time to arrange it into scenes. Each of these takes place in a different location or involves an interaction with a different supporting character—usually both. Under the title of the scene, write the scene type, and the scene or scenes which lead to the current scene, and scenes which lead from it. Here is an example scene header from the introductory adventure.

The Good Reverend

Scene Type: Core

Lead-In: The Briefing

Lead-Outs: The Visionary, The Skeptic, Newshounds of Sequoia City

Scenes fall into the following types.


This is the first scene of the episode. It establishes the premise of the mystery. If it’s the characters’ first meeting, have the agents first rendezvous with one another. Then, they meet Mr. Verity in a second secure locale where you provide the briefing and answer questions. When sent to deal with an emergency already in, they go direct to the scene and are briefed there by Mr. Verity. You can extend this scene if it’s your first session of the Esoterrorists. See the Introductory scene in Operation Prophet Bunco.


Core scenes present at least one piece of information necessary to complete the investigation and get to the climactic scene.

Each core scene requires at least a single core clue.

A core clue typically points the group to another scene, often a core scene.

Avoid hard sequenced core clues, which can only lead to one another in a single order.

You’re constructing one way to move through the story to another core clue, not the only way. In play, you may find yourself placing the core clue from one scene in another, improvised scene inspired by the logical actions undertaken by the players. (This is also true of published scenarios, by the way.) The scene structure guarantees that there’s at least one way to navigate the story, but should not preclude other scene orders. By following the structure you also ensure that you’re creating a branching narrative driven by player choices. This avoids the syndrome of the story driven by the actions of supporting characters, which the players observe more or less passively.

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Placing Information

A core scene typically includes many pieces of information in addition to its core clue. Facts may provide understanding and context. Or they may obscure the mystery, by focusing attention on irrelevant details. Creating a scene is about anticipating the questions the players will ask and figuring out which answers ought to be available to the investigative experts their characters happen to be.

Don’t make all non-core clues spends. Add spends when:

  • you think of facts that seem enjoyably arcane
  • a piece of information is tangential or obscure
  • lasers might get information more quickly than they otherwise would
  • they might secure some other practical advantage

If a spend doesn’t make the character giving up his points seem more impressive, or confer some other advantage, it shouldn’t be a spend.[6]

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Alternate scenes provide information which may be of some use in understanding and solving the central mystery, but aren’t strictly necessary to reach the conclusion. They often provide context and detail. Or they might provide the same information as core scenes, but in another way. As a third option, they might allow the group to eliminate a red herring possibility. These exculpatory facts are valuable; they let the lasers narrow their search to the real answer, even though they don’t strictly speaking, lead to another core clue.

Antagonist Reaction

This is a scene of danger or trouble in which supporting characters opposed to the group’s success take action to stop them or set them back. This might be a fight scene, but could just as easily be a political hassle, act of sabotage, or other less direct challenge. If it helps you keep track, you might note in brackets that the enemies faced are tangential rather than primary opponents. Antagonist reactions can be floating, that is, you can use them to kick up the pace if things are flagging.


A hazard scene presents the crew with an impersonal obstacle to their safety or ability to continue the investigation. It must typically be overcome through tests or contests.


A sub-plot scene gives the characters an opportunity to wheel, deal, explore and interact without directly altering the course of the investigation. These may arise from personal arcs, side deals, public relations efforts, or simply the curiosity of one or more agents. Where the central mystery provides structure and forward momentum, the sub-plot adds flavor and character. Sequences arising from it may be what the group remembers long after the mystery has been put to bed. Sub-plots are more suited to long-running campaign play.


The conclusion brings the group to the end of its investigation and often confronts it with a moral dilemma, physical obstacle, or both. Functionally, it’s a final hazard or antagonist reaction scene, although it may be initiated by the players busting in on esoterrorists or ODEs. The classic conclusion of an RPG mystery is a big fight. Your group may insist on a climactic scrap, or prefer to avoid it through quick talking and clever thinking. It’s easy to make a fight or other action scene feel exciting and conclusive. In The Esoterrorists conclusions tend to be gory and sanity-threatening.

Hybrid Scenes

Some scenes double up, most often when a general challenge leads to an information opportunity. It’s okay to give out a core clue as a reward for overcoming an obstacle only if that core clue is also available by other means. Otherwise you risk creating a situation where a core clue becomes unavailable, violating the central tenet of the GUMSHOE system.

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Scene Diagrams

To check that player choice matters in your scenario, diagram its scenes. Connect them with arrows, checking to make sure that they can be unraveled in any order. It’s acceptable to add unpredictability and variance with non-investigative scenes (antagonist reactions, hazards, and sub-plots), but better form when the players can connect the core and alternate scenes in more than one way.

Activating Players

A common complaint about investigative scenarios is that they “railroad” players into tightly following a slavishly predetermined story path. Although you rarely see the opposite complaint voiced, a significant number of groups flail in confusion when not steered in an obvious direction.

Let players weigh options for as long as the discussion seems lively and fun. If you see the group get frustrated and unable to make a collective choice, gently insert yourself into the discussion. Summarize the various suggestions made and direct the discussion toward a conclusion. Guide the players in eliminating choices without nudging them to a preferred answer. This detachment is easier to attain when you don’t settle on one.

Remind the players that the only way forward in a mystery scenario is to gather more information. When things get static, refer to the characters’ drives. Ask them which choices before them most suit their specific drives.

Be ready for moments where players feel overwhelmed, either because there are too many choices to choose between or, more likely, no obviously risk-free choice. Nudge them onward by invoking their drives. Remind them that they’ve been trained by the OV as problem-solvers. Perhaps unlike the players, the characters are used to forming hypotheses, testing them by gathering information, and revising their theories, and moving forward. They respond to dilemmas by breaking them down into steps. With a little coaching, they’ll quickly internalize this problem- solving methodology. Your players will learn to take the initiative, abandoning the “wait for clues” passivity trained into them as they were run through more predetermined scenarios.

Avoid Negation

When running a mystery scenario, it helps to think two or three scenes ahead of the players. It’s often useful to have a possible climactic sequence in mind, too. That allows you to foreshadow enough to make the ending appear to be a logical outgrowth of the scenes that preceded it. (For more on this, see the next section.)

Don’t let the possible plot forks you have in mind become too fixed in your imagination. Instead, keep them provisional, so that you can turn away from them and substitute new choices more in keeping with player input.

This is a long-winded way of restating the basic principle of improvisation used by stage actors: never negate. If, as a sketch unfolds, one performer identifies the other as his mother, the second performer must embrace and build on that choice. To simply swat down the choice and say, “I’m not your mother,” is extremely poor form. It stops the story dead and punishes the other participant for attempting to advance it.

In a like vein, train yourself to respond to unexpected possibilities by embracing them and building them into the ongoing storyline. You may have decided that the pathologist Elsa Hower is an innocent dupe in an esoterror scheme which requires fresh corpses. However, the players heavily invest themselves in seeing her as a villain, you might consider setting aside that planned revelation, so they can feel a sense of unmitigated triumph when they bring her to justice.

You don’t have to accept every piece of player direction at face value. Keep the story surprising by building twists onto the elements you do incorporate. When in doubt, make the player half-right. Perhaps Elsa has been parasitized by an ODE which can be extracted and subjected to an emotionally satisfying comeuppance, allowing the team to both save an innocent and punish the guilty.

It’s not necessary to turn the narrative on a dime with every piece of player input. The key is to avoid a scene in which nothing happens, or in which your scene is less interesting than the one suggested by the player. When a player says that the computer archive in the ruined citadel must have a holographic librarian, it’s a disappointing to rule it out, or prevent the players from finding it because they haven’t the right skill to spend from. Extracting useful information from a holo-character is more fun, and more plot-advancing, than not. This doesn’t mean, however, that there the program shouldn’t afterwards spring a nasty surprise on them.

Leading and Following

Improvising is a technique, not an ultimate goal. Occasionally you’ll find that it’s more entertaining for all involved if you seize the narrative reins and steer them in a particular direction. This will tend to happen more near the end of a scenario, when you’re trying to wrap all of the threads together into a coherent and satisfying conclusion.

Again this is a matter of responding to the mood and attitude of the players. When they’re actively engaged in the story and throwing out fun suggestions, follow their lead. When their creativity hits the wall, pick up the slack. Improvisation is an organic process of give and take.