Recently I started reading Esoterrorists and Trail of Cthulhu again, since I am planning to run a game using the GUMSHOE system. While doing some research on the system, reading playtest reports and listening to actual play podcasts, some questions arose. Although I was very intruiged by the GUMSHOE system, there are a few things that concerned me, so I thought the best cause of action would be to contact the creator of the system to ask him a few question. And luckily enough, Robin D. Laws agreed to do an interview.
Please note: The intervierw was done by email and I added the photos afterwards. So the photos don’t convey Robin’s emotions while answering those questions. It’s just me fooling around with his profile pictures from his Lifejournal account. The photos are used with his permission.
Stargazer: Thanks again for answering a few questions for me and my readers. Some time ago I stumbled upon the GUMSHOE system in general and Esoterrorists in particular. The GUMSHOE system has been designed with investigative scenarios in mind. When did you first have the idea to create a roleplaying game especially for that kind of play?
Robin: Simon Rogers of Pelgrane Press commissioned me to create a rules system that would rethink investigative roleplaying from the ground up. He’d been frustrated in the past by the dead ends that tend to crop up in investigative games and wanted a system that would remove these roadblocks. I started by examining the problem of the failed information-gathering roll that stops the plot, but we wound up with a mechanism that changes much more than just that one classic dilemma. From that simple change evolved a streamlined investigative engine allowing for a focus on clue interpretation over clue gathering. The result are games that more closely emulate mystery stories, from Lovecraftian probings into truths best left unlearned, to TV police procedurals.
Stargazer: And why was a special system for this genre necessary?
Investigative roleplaying has always been one of the major structural forms of roleplaying, but is comparatively under-served compared to the action-adventure gaming that forms the basis of almost all other RPGs, no matter what their exterior genre trappings might be. Inspectres did a great and innovative job in the cooperative storytelling arena, where the entire group collaborates to create the mystery as the game develops. But it seemed like there was still creative room left to explore the more traditional mystery game, where the GM has a predetermined solution and the players piece together the clues to work toward it.
The basic idea behind the game could have been conveyed in a number of ways. I could have written it as a magazine article, as a chunk of rules text for an existing rules set, or as a blog post. All of these choices, however, would ignore the process through which ideas enter the collective gamer consciousness and become part of the established corpus of techniques. To do that, you need a new rules set to garner sustained attention and spotlight your defining idea. That gets hundreds and thousands of gamers to grapple with the concept you’re working to convey, rather than the dozens or hundreds you’d get otherwise.
Once it’s injected into the bloodstream of gaming in this way, your strand of conceptual DNA can then become a permanent part of various GMs’ play styles, and travel from there into other games. A previous example of the same phenomenon would be the way that Feng Shui encouraged players to describe elements of the physical environment and incorporate them into their fight descriptions. In 2009 this sounds like an incredibly minor step toward the shared narrative control that now runs through so many indie designs. At the time it came as an exciting revelation to many GMs, and changed the way they played their other games, too.
So while on a design level, you could easily bolt on the basic concept of GUMSHOE to any existing traditional investigative game, the reception dynamics that determine which ideas get taken up and which ones vanish decreed that it should be presented as the core of its own specialized game system.
Similarly, it’s a simple fact of RPG marketing that you can sell more copies of a product that appears as a core game than you can as a supplement or modification to something else.
The gamer soul is torn when a new game appears. The uber-gamer wants to buy new games, yet does not want to buy new games. Who wants to spend more money on more stuff? None of us, yet at the same time all of us. This sales resistance is understandable, and fuels the online reception to new products as they appear. You have to expect a certain segment of the audience to ask if your game really needs to exist. RPGs are entertainment products; none of them need to exist. The ultimate proof in the pudding is not whether folks question a game’s existence, but whether enough of them buy it, dig it, and keep playing it. And fortunately we’ve reached a point where GUMSHOE has acquired a self-sustaining base of players who see why the game warrants its independent existence and are happy to keep on playing it.
Stargazer: At least for me the name GUMSHOE conjures up images of hardboiled ’40s detectives wearing trenchcoats and fedoras, but no game using this system is actually set into this genre. Was this intentional or are you considering writing a game inspired by the “hardboiled detective genre”?
Robin: We needed a snappy, one-word name that instantly conveys the core idea behind not just the first game, but the system, and GUMSHOE seemed instantly to be the right choice. It was the first name I came up with and we never considered another one.
The hardboiled detective is one of many sub-genres of straight-up mystery that could easily be done with GUMSHOE. A Sherlock Holmes game is another obvious choice. Because they’re medieval history buffs, lots of gamers enjoy Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books,. Thanks to Lindsey Davis, the Roman empire is also an appealing setting for mystery that in its own toga-clad way recalls the classic tropes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.
The question then becomes whether we could sell enough copies to justify doing any of these settings. Traditionally gamers play historical RPGs only if you add a fantastical element to them, whether it’s magic or SF gear or Cthulhoid horrors. You see this logic at work in Mutant City Blues, which takes the modern police procedural and makes it interesting to our audience by grafting super-powers onto it. The smaller base of players who want a straight police procedural can then take the book, ignore the super stuff, and they’re set to go.
On those grounds, it may be that something like Gareth Hanrahan’s Trail Of Cthulhu supplement, Arkham Detective Tales, is as close as we can come to a straight-up hardboiled game.
Sherlock Holmes might be doable as a crossover out of the gaming scene because of the large Holmesian collectors’ market.
(The interview continues after this break…)