Gumshoe SRD (System Reference Document)

06Running Scenarios

The GUMSHOE Rules System covers much of what you need to run The Esoterrorists; this section supplements that with additional GM-centric advice.

Giving Out Clues

To give out information, the PC needs to be in the right place, with the right ability, and use that ability. This section deals with each of these preconditions. In short though, whatever you’ve done in other games, you should always err on the side of giving out information, not holding it back.

Having the Right Ability

The rules offer a number of way to call on abilities, depending on the situation. Choosing the right way to call on an ability is crucial to the forward momentum of your investigative plot. Make this choice according to the consequences of failure.

If the consequence of failure is that a character fails to get a piece of crucial information, success should be automatic provided that the character has the ability in question, and the player thinks to ask for it. However, any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario.

(Even at that, you may need to improvise during play if no player steps up to claim the needed clue, bending the details of the scenario so that the same information can be garnered with a different ability, possibly by another player.)

Using the Right Ability

You can give out clues both actively and passively. By default, though, GUMSHOE assumes that the use of interpersonal abilities is active; the players have to correctly choose an appropriate ability and describe how they’re using it to open a contact up to questioning. When you see that players are hesitant, tell the player with the relevant ability that his experienced OV character can sense that it will work here:

  • “You get the feeling that this guy will crack if you lean on him a little.” (Intimidation)
  • “He seems kind of smitten by you.” (Flattery)
  • “The squeal of a police scanner tells you you’ve got a wannabe cop on your hands. “ (Cop Talk)

Being in the Right Place

GUMSHOE procedural series require their own conceits in order to keep the story moving in an entertaining manner. They require the audience’s complicity in looking the other way. Here GM and players handwave certain elements that break the rules of realism in order to keep the game running smoothly, just as TV scriptwriters. For example, the conceit of primacy in shows such as Law and Order ensure that the lead characters get the juiciest cases and more action than any cop is likely to experience in a lifetime. Just as the aforementioned devices arise from the requirements of TV drama, GUMSHOE’s conceits grapple with the limitations of a roleplaying session.

The major device you’ll want to adopt, needed for all but the smallest groups, is the conceit of elastic participation

Use the concept of elastic participation to ensure that there is always a PC in the right place.

GUMSHOE works best when you assume that everyone is kind-of sort-of along for every scene—without squinting too hard at any resulting logic or staging absurdities.

Rolling for Clues and the GUMSHOE Style

Just as in games where you roll for clues, players always have to describe a logical course of action that might lead to their getting information, directly or indirectly suggesting the ability you use to get it. In the traditional model, there’s a roll; you supply the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped—but it’s the only step skipped.

Traditional style:

Player: I examine the body looking for a cause of death .

GM: Roll Forensic Anthropology

Player: I succeed.

GM: It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue

GUMSHOE style:

Player : I examine the body looking for a cause of death.

GM: [Checks worksheet to see if the player’s character has Forensic Anthropology, which she does.] It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.

In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out “Anthropology! Archaeology! Art History! Evidence Collection!” They don’t do this because it would be weird, boring, and stupid—and because in neither case does it fill all the requirements necessary to get information from a scene.

The only difference between GUMSHOE and those systems is the lack of a die roll. You know your group. Give out information in the same way you would usually give out information, actively, passively: GUMSHOE doesn’t care. Your players will solicit it, or you will give it our, just as you always do. There will be a strong effect on your gaming, but from a subtle change.

Ending Scenes

In a novel or TV episode, writers can freely cut to the next scene when their characters have acquired all of the clues available in the current one. The characters might stick around for hours tying up loose ends and pursuing fruitless questions, but this doesn’t happen on screen. We, the audience, are not forced to sit through such sequences.

This kind of concise editing isn’t so easy in the roleplaying medium. Players don’t know when they’ve got all the clues.

Here’s a simple trick to gently steer them onwards, without unduly breaking the illusion of fictional reality:

Before play, take an index card and write on it, in big block letters, the word SCENE. As soon as the players have gleaned the core clue and most or all of the secondary clues in a scene, and the action begins to drag, hold up the card. When the players see this, they know to move on. (Of course, you have to explain the cue to them before play begins.) Easy, efficient, yet somehow not nearly as disruptive or jarring as a verbal instruction.

Even better, use one of the musical stings available from the Pelgrane Press website for just this purpose.