Ask The Readers: What are your thoughts on the GUMSHOE system?

esoterrorists TrailofCthulhu Recently I have thought about running another horror campaign this fall/winter and two of the games I am currently considering are Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press.

Both games are using the GUMSHOE system, that focuses on investigative scenarios.

There are two kinds of skills in Gumshoe: Investigative Skills and General Skills. General Skills work much like skills in any other system. When you perform an action, you roll the dice and the result tells you if you have succeeded or not. Investigative skills never fail. When you have the right skills and if you can put them to proper use in a given scene you get the clues. Aside from that, Gumshoe is a pretty standard rules-light roleplaying system, but the automatic successes for Investigative Skills is what sets it apart.

I have to admit this sounds pretty interesting on paper but alas I haven’t been able to try Esoterrorists or Trail of Cthulhu out yet. So, I am asking my players if anyone has already played any GUMSHOE game and if he or she could share the experience with us. Does the system work as advertised? Or does the system make clue gathering too easy?

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

7 thoughts on “Ask The Readers: What are your thoughts on the GUMSHOE system?”

  1. I own, but have not yet played Esoterrorists. I really like the heart of what the GUMSHOE system attempts, but I feel it is lacking in one department: resource management. There is nothing stopping every character from just running down their list of skills for each scene (except maybe social contract and the occasional GM-enforced time constraint.)

    My proposed ruling is this: During an investigation a character can only have one major discovery per skill–if you have purchased the skill multiple times, you can use those extra uses to get more info (as per the rules) or you can budget them for additional uses during the investigation. Once you have used all of your major breakthroughs with a skill, you can only get rudimentary knowledge (the sort of stuff I would give away in other systems without a skill roll.)

    With this ruling, a player has to decide when using a particular skill will have the most impact. The GM should not penalize a player for using a skill at an inopportune time–keeping with the core idea of the game, using a major breakthrough grants the character full disclosure of the sort of information a skill would confer, but this information might not be the most useful (or, like losing a D&D 4ed skill challenge, might lead to further complications such as false leads or a longer string of witnesses and evidence that has to be traversed.)

    The trick with this, as GM, is not painting the investigation into a corner that it can't get out of. Maybe that defeats the purpose of the game system, though?
    .-= DeadGod´s last blog ..Zombie Metrics =-.

  2. We recently played through the introductory scenario in the Esoterrorists book.

    As @DeadGod mentioned, there is sometimes this weird sense of, I have all this skills, why do I have to pick one? I think the solution, which our GM started using after a while, is just to give the characters clues that they would notice by surveying the room with a skilled eye. Investigative Abilities like Fingerprinting and Image Analysis require specialized equipment or are only appropriate in certain settings. You're obviously not going to use Intimidation to determine a cause of death, so the problem isn't as broad as it seems at first blush.

    Overall, the system works very well. It is definitely geared more to storytelling and roleplaying than action-adventure. There was hardly any combat, but it nonetheless had some awesome/cool/scary moments. I personally would have preferred a slightly crunchier skill test and combat system. My group really enjoyed the game and we would definitely take it up as a longer campaign.

    My biggest complaint is with the introductory scenario in the Esoterrorists book. It seemed too linear. The material talks about how the difficult part of an investigative scenario is piecing together the clues, not finding them. In the adventure, the clues pointed pretty clearly from one to the next, so there wasn't a lot of piecing together to do. The GM has told me that some of the other published scenarios are more complex. This is really just a complaint about the scenario, not the rules. On the other hand, it was a good introduction to the system, including investigative abilities, regular skills, and combat.

  3. If I may add my two cents, I'd suggest you try to find a podcast of real play. I listened to a podcast of some guys playing Esoterrorists, and it really opened my eyes to how it would work at the table. I usually erase podcasts after having listened to then (due to a small harddrive) so I'm afraid I can't give any links. Google should be able to help, though.
    .-= Andreas Davour´s last blog ..Miniature wargaming, roleplaying and me =-.

  4. Just for kicks, I've spent past two days going through my Fear Itself (more of a freeform Gumshoe horror game), Trail of Cthulhu and Esoterrorists to get the feel of the system. First impressions – the rules are concise, neat and use a single dice, as in: one puritan D6 per roll! – sleek. The pesky investigators/agents/meddlers are very likely to find the clues and depending on how generous the Keeper/GM is with the fluff around them. Those hapless victims, sorry, intrepid heroes may just interpret them to propel the flow of events down the scripted path. I admit it is an interesting mechanic, and with a contemporary investigative horror game something a prospect GM, especially one not blessed with a particularly dedicated/driven/keen/inquisitive or experienced group is likely to implement implicitly anyway regardless of the system – heck guilty as charged. Good times, the mystery resolved, nobody feels they cut corners; all can kick back and smoke a pipe. But that’s just that. As I mentioned I find the clue-granting mechanic ok if a tad superfluous. After all if the key clues must be found to move the case forward and gumshoe scenarios are designed in this way so it’s likely to be automatic (i.e. one of the characters is bound to have the matching skill) Sure the characters can be flexible in their skill use but there is little room for chance here (That, incidentally, might be the motto of the gumshoe system J). Jokes aside, I don’t see this to be any different from any other game with similar themes. Most scenarios will be tailored for the specific characters, their skills, mentality and expected behavior (etc) anyway (should be I think). Plus I doubt that in horror campaigns, GMs rely too much on the dice rolls for finding clues, it’s rather down to players’ ability to interpret the given scene and act to utilize their character’s skills.

    What I find a tad off-putting is the “spend” mechanic, which I feel, in the presented form, is too intrusive. I’m one of those cantankerous people who believe in the credo of the storytelling especially when running horror, and throwing things like meta language into the narrative (i.e. the whole “I’d like to spend 1 point of x to find out y?”) makes me cringe. I would have to find a more subtle way of activating this rule. Also it is not very clear how this should be made available to the characters – initially it’s down to GM to signal this opportunity, but later on the Keepers are encouraged to leave it to the players, who might just want to spend those extra points all the time and if they don’t always get the associated benefits – heck, effectively it doesn’t sound too different from a dice roll approach to me. In other words this is left to you as the Keeper/GM to figure out.

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