Thursday, October 28, 2010


Rather than one game, the GUMSHOE system is represented across three different games, two in the contemporary horror genre and one in the superhero genre, which has horror potential, but I digress. All three are joined by a quirk of execution: each is primarily geared to handle investigative scenarios.

They take a bit of getting used to, because all three are partially diceless systems. Yes, I said partially diceless. It's possible to play a game of this without ever rolling a single die. But there are mechanics which use dice, and depending on the scenario, you may be using them a lot.

The horror games are The Esoterrorists and Fear Itself. The superhero game is Mutant City Blues. Keep reading to review the evidence.


The Premise of GUMSHOE

The GUMSHOE system was created as an answer to many other roleplaying games which treat investigative skills like every other skill, to disastrous effect: Roll successfully, find the clue, the investigation continues. Roll unsuccessfully, don't find the clue, the investigation stops and the players all sit around dumbly.

In reality it doesn't always happen like that. There are other ways in which the GM can handle an information drought, and if the players are paying attention they might have ideas for other leads they can follow. The premise that the investigative scenario will come to a screeching halt, never to be satisfactorily restarted again, is a bit of a strawman.

The investigation skills will be covered in greater detail in the Mechanics section, but suffice it to say here: the investigation system makes sure you get the clues into the investigators' hands. What they do with them after that is up to them.

The Premise of Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists

GUMSHOE's horror games share a general worldview: there's a whole shadow world underlying ours, separated by a veil. If this sounds like White Wolf's Mage, yes, you're right, but there's one critical difference: In Mage, if ordinary people see magic being worked, they reject the other world, sometimes with violent effect, and the divide between the two is strengthened. In Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists, if people see the effects of magic, the divide weakens and more of the nasty things from the other side can cross through. And trust me, they are more often than not vile.

In Fear Itself, the player characters may or not know anything about the other world, and simply get caught up in the repercussions of the barrier breaking down in spots. This can be things as mundane as psycho killers or sociopaths, or as way out there as ghosts, kooks, and urban legends given legs to walk the earth.

In The Esoterrorists, the player characters are a team which not only know about the other side, but are members of a secret society of hunters tasked with tracking down those that act to weaken the divide (the title "esoteric terrorists") and the bizarre monsters which are sometimes the side-effect, sometimes the goal of their work.

In both cases, they use the GUMSHOE investigating system, which means if they have the points, they can get the clues. Putting them together to resolve the situation is ultimately up to the player.

The Premise of Mutant City Blues

Mutant City Blues isn't a horror game ...mostly. See, superpowers can be an awful temptation. Yes, people can sometimes do good with them, but there is also the constant urge to be selfish or even greedy with them, and do very bad things. The player characters are the "blues," the ones on the police force who are tasked with finding and stopping the evildoers. They could be the overtly laughing maniacal types, but they could just as easily be the guy you'd never suspect and certainly couldn't bring in without evidence, like Norman Bates or Jeffrey Dahmer.

Again, forensics and investigation count for a lot, even moreso for this setting. Each power on the Quade Diagram (more on that later) has its own list of minute traces which could be detected at a crime scene and lead astute players to whoever did what.


All three games take themselves very seriously, and all three depend on the investigation mechanics to make sense of whatever situation is confronting the characters. Obviously Fear Itself and Mutant City Blues are the heavy horror hitters, and they do this because they have something more horror games should have: their own pantheon.

Let's contrast. The creatures in Call of Cthulhu are so well-known in some circles they have songs written about them. Their names and and origins and weaknesses are all pretty famous, and as soon as the reveal is pulled, it all goes downhill fast so the GM has to be creative and stingy with the facts.

Compare that with the GUMSHOE group. You kind of know where they come from, but what they are, how they work, and what can stop them is an awful surprise, at least the first time. Even then, an enterprising GM can extend their life through new situations and investigations, and a supplement called The Book of Unremitting Horror contains such a ghastly array of nether creatures with clear but gorge-tuning modus operandi that, well, let's say that no songs will be penned about them.

Likewise, Mutant City Blues takes its setting seriously. It's not strictly speaking horror, in that there are no monsters in the physical sense, but the adventure in the back of the book has a villain behind it who's no less monstrous in attitude. Let's just say the potential exists here, even in the superhero genre, for some pretty tense and squicky action.


All three games were written by gaming luminary Robin D. Laws, who was also responsible for the Feng Shui RPG, which was itself based on a collectible card game. All three games are also published by Pelgrane Press, and available as both dead tree editions (my Mutant City Blues is hardbacked, the others are softcover) and PDFs.


There is nothing but the book in each case, really. All you need beside whichever one you're playing is paper, pencil, and six-sided dice. Admittedly, in the case of Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists, that supplement The Book of Unremitting Horror can provide extra ammunition for the GM who wants to go for extra shock value.

Each book contains plenty of artwork, if only greyscale, and none of the three does anything so egregious as low-contrast text. The main text in each book is black on white, and each sidebar is either white on black or white on dark blue.


As I said above, where these games shine is in the presentation of the investigation scenario. The first two contain numerous hints to scare your player characters out of their skins (and has the mechanics to cover that too) and the third contains more than a little on how to make mutant powers like flight work in a setting which purports to respect science. But in all three, the focus is on gathering information and reaching conclusions.

Of each game's skill list, about 75% are termed "investigation" skills. They have a lower rating, typically somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-6 points. This represents a pool of points you can spend to gather information from a scene or a piece of evidence. If you spend extra points, you can not only get the intended information but add extra helpful details which will give you some sort of tactical advantage or edge.

The remaining 25% are action skills, which may vary more in execution, so for those you roll dice. The general skills are pools as well, so you can spend any number of points to add to the difficulty of an action.

Pools refresh at different rates. Investigative pools refresh once per adventure. Action pools refresh daily. There are other pools like health and stability which have their own rates and rules too.

The Mechanics of Mutant City Blues

Mutant City Blues has one other interesting thing: the power system. Each power is its own pool of points which lets you do the requisite comic-booky incredible things. These abilities are broken down into investigative and action abilities and refresh at generally the same rates as their brethren, unless you're willing to do some permanent damage to your character. But the specifics of the damage depend on what powers you have.

It's time we talked about the Quade Diagram. It's a graph relating the various documented powers, and the closer and better connected they are, the more likely someone is to have both powers. For instance, Flight and Heat Blast are right next to each other; someone who has one is likely to have the other. The powers Telepathy and Cognition are halfway across the table from those first two, so someone who has a power from one group is highly unlikely to have a power from another group.

Scattered across the graph like little land mines of character enhancements are defects, like attention deficiency, low impulse control, arthritis, asthma, and others, which provide you an opportunity to refresh your power pools immediately, but each time you draw upon your reserves for that needed immediate refresh, you run the risk of advancing the defect to the next stage. Once a defect gets to its third stage, that character is no longer competent to serve on the force.


There are no attributes, just the various skill pools. You create a character by putting points into the various pools. And here's a nasty twist: the number of points you get to spend for investigation skills depends how many players there are. The more players there are, the fewer points are handed out, to keep any one player from hogging the investigative spotlight. Even in creating their characters, they'll have to coordinate to keep from duplicating each others' fields of expertise.

In Mutant City Blues, as with investigative and general skills, you start with a pool of points. You purchase the first power you want. Then you start stepping around the graph, either purchasing or skipping adjacent powers. Any defect you pass over you pick up automatically. And you can put extra points into each ability. In that way, it's reminiscent of Final Fantasy X.


Not a whole lot, really. Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists play on/within the same cosmology, meaning that any given campaign will have the same underlying rules of horrors.

And Mutant City Blues has its own underlying rules in the arrangement of the Quade Diagram which locks it into a certain limited number of styles of play.

Play These Games If...

  • You like investigation scenarios.
  • You like watching CSI
  • You like watching NCIS
    • But you think Abby is a lightweight (Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists, I'm telling you...)
  • You like the horror genre.
  • You like nasty surprises within the horror genre.
  • You like stone-age superhero action (If I understand it right, that's somewhere after the iron-age).

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