Gumshoe Thoughts

Let’s be honest. I’m middle aged and in gaming terms, that makes me an old bat. I’m set in my ways and in gaming terms, this means I find a lot of the more narrative games like Fate to be, well, a little weird. They’re just not structured enough and it’s not so much the crunch vs. narrative because I tend to like streamlined systems. It’s more that I find myself thinking “we’re not playing an RPG, we’re just playing pretend like my six year old. And the simple fact is that I’m too dull and structured to do that.”

The one exception to this has been Gumshoe, the system that runs Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, and others–soon to include a King in Yellow themed game. It’s oriented towards investigation and there’s no rolling for clues, you just get them. If you spend a few skill points, you get additional information to pad out the story, but you still don’t roll. And you don’t need to spend for core clues, you always get what you need to move the story forward. Skill rolls, like shooting someone or sneaking around, are based on a simple d6 roll and skill is exercised by spending points to adjust the roll. It’s definitely not the kind of old school system that I’m most familiar with.

That doesn’t mean I was comfortable with the system, it’s more that I was fascinated by it. There were things that attracted me on an intellectual basis. I have tended to fudge a lot of rolls myself as a GM. And I’ve noticed the silliness of having every character in a group of six roll for the usual library research, spot hidden, etc. in Call of Cthulhu. Well, what’s the point of rolling if everyone knows these are the research skills you need, takes them at some relatively high level, and you have six people with 50%-80% rolling until someone gets a success? They’re getting the clue. Why not just give it to them?

I also find the spend system fascinating. Again, it’s not so much that I sat down and analyzed the whole thing, it just felt like a really interesting concept. The whole notion of choosing to make a spend, choosing when the character or NPC is going to get a good roll or just an average one, intrigues me. I also liked the concept of additional spends for extra information on clues because it lets you fill in the blanks without

There’s also a certain level of fatigue with Chaosium. I know they had a lot of economic problems, but I would think those are mostly past them. Yet, their production is relatively low, and they seem to be going with fairly safe choices. Also, I love Glorantha, but I think they over estimate Runequest’s potential as compared to Call of Cthulhu, and it seems like they’re looking backward rather than forward. Pelgrane, on the other hand, is pushing new boundaries. It feels like the kind of games and scenarios you want to be running. The company feels fresh. It has an attitude. It’s taking risks. It’s doing new things, even if they sometimes don’t quite work. In a lot of ways, it’s what Chaosium was when I first started gaming back in the 80s.

So I started to check out various Gumshoe products and it’s embarrassing to say exactly how much I’d spent on them before I ever ran a game or was even sure that I was going to like the system. Finally, I had the kind of eureka moment that’s one of my favorite scenes in Young Frankenstein: “It could work!” (But hey, I’m not sure…)

There were things that left me skeptical. Only D6es? No funky dice? That’s actually a hard one for me. Yes, my dice rolling these days is mostly clicking a button. But I love dice. In particular, I love percentile dice. Proper percentile dice, one colored and one white, each numbered 0-9 twice. Was I really ready to give up my bags and bags of oddly shaped solids in favor of the venerable cube?

And would it feel as comfortable to throw clues at players without them rolling? I have also listened to way too many “actual play” podcasts where someone walks in a room and says “I use notice and forensics” which is definitely not how I want game play to come off. I didn’t want that. I want some effort on behalf of players. On the other side, I’m not comfortable with one side of the table telling the other what to do. Players make player choices. GMs make NPC choices. The notion of seeing someone has “flattery” and telling them that they talk to Jane Q. Criminal, complement her appearance, and she tells them that Cthulhu lives in the sewer? That’s more than I want to do, but I worried that without that level of intervention, the system would fall down.

Well, I’ve finished my first full adventure running the system, a Trail of Cthulhu game that ironically was using one of the new scenarios for Call of Cthulhu 7th edition. I’ve also dipped into a NBA scenario as well. I guess the system ran pretty much how I expected it to. I’m still not entirely comfortable with combat rolls because I feel like I don’t really quite have them internalized the way I have the BRP/RQ/CoC system. On the other hand, I first ran RQ in 1982… So it might take awhile.

The clue gathering has worked well. My players are all newcomers to the system, so they tend to take the initiative to describe their actions rather than simply saying they use a skill, and I’ve been able to weave in any GM intervention in what I hope wasn’t a too overt way. At the least, it didn’t offend my sensibilities. So yeah, this is working for me. There was a point where there was a simple “notice” clue and it felt extremely natural to just look at the character sheets and tell someone that they noticed something. It also let me make choices about who was going to get a clue, which let me give some attention to the quieter players. (I could do better here.)

In terms of difficulties, I felt like I wasn’t being hard enough on the players, not because of the giving away clues for free, but because I don’t have a good enough sense of the system to be providing enough of a challenge. I tend to play fast and loose with NPCs when I generate them and it’s going to take a while for me to figure out what a “strong” or “weak” NPC looks like. Also, generally as a player, I tend to be extremely parsimonious with any sort of consumable. So taking an NPC and recognizing I am meant to use all their points in this one fight is a push for me personally.

I like the sanity system in Trail a lot. Gumshoe has a “stability” system to measure psychological strain that applies to all of its games. The Cthulhu version adds a separate “cosmic horror induced insanity” to that. To me, this means I can throw psychological damage at players without worrying that I’m going to drive them permanently and cosmically insane. It’s easy to write that off as taking it easy on PCs, but I’m thinking the opposite, the fact that it’s relatively easy to recover from heavy STAB losses means I’m more likely to push that button because they’re not going to go cosmically insane. And that’s important to me because I’m just not one of those Keeper’s who’s interested in slaying my PCs. I tend towards the long pulpy creepy campaigns. (Oddly, the game I look forward to most as a player is Dungeon Crawl Classics. Go figure.)

One thing I’ve found surprisingly hard is choosing what skills to use for what. I know it doesn’t really matter–they’re out to get the clue and the “art” of GMing gumshoe is in allowing them to do so elegantly. Still, it bothers me on some level, and I have this desire to “do it right” that I suspect isn’t really in the DNA of the system. That’s more of a problem with NBA than Trail.

Combat is a mixed bag and I’m still not sure how I feel. I’ve run both Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, which are pretty much at opposite ends of the combat complexity. I’ve been surprised at my reaction to rolling everything on a d6. I can handle that. I even got some nice d6s with an elder sign instead of a 6.

Night’s Black Agents probably represents the extreme combat orientated flavor of the system with a plethora of “thriller combat” rules. I was very dubious, but the players took them and ran and I left convinced. In our first session, we finally got to fight with the big bad that I’d been waiting for. One player did a refresh for an elaborately planned move, then did a second parkour move to distract the baddie, and a second player then did a called shot to the head, and spent enough (including a bonus for the distraction move the other player made) that with a rolled 6, managed to pull off a crit. It was a huge combination of alternative rules and narrative bonuses and at the time, I was mostly reeling in shock, but damn if it wasn’t both clever and cool looking back at it. One shot. One kill.

NBA also includes enough additions to the combat system to get around some of the problems. Hand to hand and some weapons actually have a negative damage modifier (ie d6-1, or d6-2) and can result in zero damage. NBA lets you do called shots, which guarantee damage. And for the professors and so on in Trail of Cthulhu, occasionally whiffing seems to fit with the setting.

So really, I’ve become a fan of the system. It feels good to me for the moment and I look forward to when I know the rules unconsciously and can be a bit more spontaneous. Until then, there’s always printed handouts.