Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Non-GUMSHOE Mystery

On a few occasions, I've sung the praises of the various GUMSHOE systems and their way of doing things that makes picking your way through a mystery mostly foolproof and kind of cool.

Wait, what's that? You're not playing a GUMSHOE game, and don't want to switch over? Fortunately, there are ways to adapt.

He throws a knife, you throw some skill points—That's the GUMSHOE Way.

GUMSHOE is a system curated by Pelgrane Press (and most notably Robin Laws). What it does best is the mechanical nuances of an investigation of some sort. There are several genres that have gotten the GUMSHOE treatment, including horror (The Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, Trail of Cthulhu), space opera (Ashen Stars), superhero (Mutant City Blues), and there has even been a fantasy variant (Lorefinder).

If You Lived Here, Your Mystery Would Be Solved By Now

The central pillar of the system is the investigation spend mechanic. It's so important to the game that characters are even built around the concept; separate pools are allocated between action skills and information-gathering skills, and the more players there are around the table the fewer information-gathering points each player gets; this encourages ensemble play and teamwork by keeping one person from sorting the whole mess out himself.

"Adventure" (read: Investigation) design in GUMSHOE is fairly nodal. Clues revealed in one part of the investigation will lead to other parts of the investigation until you're drawn to what by that time should be an obvious conclusion and possibly a boss fight.

The foundation of that central pillar is that the investigation must always be allowed to continute. Even if a character has spent all of the points in a particular skill, that character still has the slot for that skill, so that character can get the clue, and that information can advance the plot if the player so chooses.

The Alternative Use Case

The way most other games "do it" makes sense for them mechanically, but may end up doing the central mystery a disservice.

It starts with the usual drops: A central event happens, questions arise about what happened or (if it's bleeding obvious) who perpetrated the outrageously foul deed. Then there's an investigation to answer the questions that answer those questions to the satisfaction of the aggrieved parties or their next of kin.

Many systems will get by with a simple Notice or Perception skill to pick up things that are significant in a scene—not necessarily wrong, just different, or important in a way outside that may not be immediately obvious. And good news, gentle readers: D&D 5e is not a good example of this principle at work. Fate ...won't work either.

Some systems provide more specialization in the sorts of information they gather. D&D 5e will work as an example here, because not only do you have the obvious Perception skill, but you have a more properly fitting Investigation skill (which does a good bit of this stuff), the Insight skill (used to determine peoples' feelings and emotional states), and several information skills in History, Arcana, Religion, and Nature. Any of those could be used to gather information to answer those questions.

Fate fits a little better here because while the basic skill tree only has Notice, Investigate, and Lore as obvious investigation skills, the use of Stunts can narrow their focus to pick up information on more specific topics.

Thinking about Hero System, beside the basic Perception ability (it's not even a skill because everyone can do it), the skill list contains Criminology, Forensic Medicine, and a whooooooole lot of catchalls, in the form of Science skills, Knowledge skills, and Professional skills that require a specialization.

And then there's GURPS. Oh, dear sweet GURPS, with your nigglingly precise lists of skills by category, which can be broken down by not just specializations but by tech level. Yeah, there's Criminology/TL, Forensics/TL, and then Accounting, Anthropology, Archaeology, Architecture, Biology, Chemistry, and I'm not going to go on because...

A long skill list doesn't necessarily make investigations easier. In fact, if the skill list is broken down precisely enough, it decreases the chance that someone will have the right skill for an investigation task, if you'd either drawn up the mystery without taking the characters into account first. Unless you didn't use any investigation ability deeper than "hey look at that."

And Then What Happens May Surprise You. Okay, no, you've probably seen it already.

Having a neat little line of clues from start to finish is no guarantee that they'll run the whole course.

What happens if they come to a clue they absolutely need, and roll poorly? This is a point I've made on numerous occasions: Dice are little bastards. They don't care about your "player gratification" or your "narrative" or anything. They produce random numbers. And at least part of the time, those random numbers are disadvantageous.

So what happens if they don't get that clue they need? Hint: Nothing Good. The mystery usually stops dead. The culprit gets away. Dissatisfaction. This is the number one occurrence GUMSHOE was forged to avoid.

GUMSHOEtizing Your Game

You're likely playing a non-GUMSHOE game. Or you're running a non-GUMSHOE game, and some time in the past you very likely had to some fancy GM-stepping to keep the plot moving.

This shouldn't stop you. The principles that guided the development of the GUMSHOE system could make your own game more mystery-friendly.

The Skill Should Get The Clue

The standard "use case" is a character investigating the scene of a crime, using whatever faculties he has at hand or in mind. If the character has the relevant clue, that should be good enough to get the basic information.

Yes, I know there's usually a number attached to the skill, as in roll that number or less or that number or more or roll that many dice and try to roll above or below a different number selected for the difficulty of the task. But that's one of the conceits of GUMSHOE that should work well in any system: Just having the skill means the character has enough training in the skill to pick up a piece of information relevant to the clue.

You still want them to roll for it? Remember what I said about dice... But hey, we can still hook you up. Simply having the relevant skill entitles them to the basic clue, the minimum that they need to get to the next step. For an extra sense of accomplishment, go ahead and let them roll, and if they get a better result, give them more. "More" in this case includes stuff that might guide them down informative or useful side-quests, or might help out the investigation farther down the line.

Broaden Your Definition of "Information Skill"

Feng Shui did this first, and to good effect too. Even the obvious action skills in that system were good for knowing not just stuff, but people too. You could use any skill for contacts and information in addition to hitting, shooting, driving, etc.

Why not carry that over into your games too? Even a skill as apparently task-oriented as knitting could be used to convey information. Spotting at one particular point on a scarf may indicate, for instance, not just that a knitting needle was used to stab somebody before it was used, but given knitting styles and speeds, who and when. And having the knitting skill means you'd likely know other people who knit, which means that even if you aren't skilled enough to get the answers you need, you might know someone who is.

Planning Helps A Lot

The mystery requires a solid line of clues from start to finish, and that means planning ahead. Take into account what skills your characters have, and plan the case around them. And give everyone something to do, so that nobody feels left out.

Will this make my game better?

Not necessarily. But it will smooth out most of the potential bumps if you want to work an additional style of play into your repertoire. What could it hurt to try this out?

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