Category Archives: Gumshoe System

Robin D. Laws interview

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…)

Continue reading Robin D. Laws interview

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?

The end is nigh!

The end of the year that is. It’s mid-September now and fall is approaching fast (at least in the northern hemisphere). Perfect time to start a horror RPG campaign! So, why should you start a horror campaign now?

Especially fall and winter are perfect seasons for horror campaigns. The days are getting shorter, the shadows are growing longer, it’s cold and uncomfortable outside and oustide activities become less and less attractive. Usually when you try to run horror campaigns in summer and spring you encounter several problems. For one it’s usually easier to pull off a horror atmosphere when it’s dark outside. Most people have fear in the dark or at least feel slightly uncomfortable which definitely helps to set the mood. I also noticed that people are usually more willing to get into the right mood for horror when it’s cold and rainy outside. Your mileage may vary of course.

Rippers There are a few games I am considering right now. I am already running a Rippers campaign for quite some time now, but it’s not as horror-laden as I wished, but that’s something I can easily change. But my players are currently happy with the campaign’s style right now, so I consider offering them to run a second/alternative campaign over the fall/winter months.

As an alternative I could run a horror solo game with my girlfriend as I planned a long time ago. Alas this plan never left the development stage, but since the "stars are right” this idea may see the light of day (or the darkness of night) after all.

Call of Cthulhu One of my all-time favorite horro games is Call of Cthulhu. Most of you are probably familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, so I don’t have to go into details about the setting here. Especially on a rainy winters day nothing is more fun than to fighting a losing battle against old gods, aliens and insanity. This time I am actually considering purchasing one of the classic CoC campaigns. I have run self-written Call of Cthulhu adventures before, but I just don’t have enough time to properly research, write and prepare an epic Lovecraftian horror campaign right now. So just using a tested campaign may be the best way to go.

Trail of Cthulhu Instead of using the Call of Cthulhu rules by Chaosium I actually consider using Trail of Cthulhu, which is using the Gumshoe system. The Gumshoe system was created for campaigns where the focus is on investigations and less on combat. And that is exactly what I am usually aiming for in any horror game. Pelgrane Press’ another horror roleplaying game Esoterrorists could be an alternative to classic Lovecraftian horror. As Trail of Cthulhu it uses the Gumshoe system, but this time the players have actually a chance to make it through the campaign alive (and somewhat sane).

Esoterrorists Especially if your players are well versed in the Cthulhu mythos, Esoterrorists could be a welcome change. Instead of “just another Byakhee” or “not Nyarlathotep” again, they are confronted with new and original adversaries. Esoterrorists also allows you to run a campaign reminiscent of the X-Files, with federal agents investigating all kinds of mysterious events all over the United States (or wherever you want to set your campaign). If you haven’t done so, you should at least leaf through the book in your local game store. There are already a couple of supplements and adventures available including a full-blown campaign and even a soundtrack!

Hunter: The Vigil If you want some more action in your horror game, I would have a look at Hunter: The Vigil or its predecessor Hunter: The Reckoning. I recently acquired a copy of the latter in a garage sale and I enjoyed reading it very much, but from what I’ve heard, Hunter: The Vigil is a better game in all respects. First and foremost the updated World of Darkness rules are in my opinion many times better than the old ones.
The new setting in Hunter: The Vigil finally allows players to play real humans. In Hunter: The Reckoning the player characters had special abilities which made them just another kind of monsters. The updated setting of Hunter: The Vigil allows for a three-tiered game, where GM and players decided which power-level they prefer. Especially a tier 1 game could be a great basis for a horror campaign.

Ok, you’ve decided you want to run a horror game, you’ve chosen one of the many available settings and perhaps you have even prepared a campaign. Now you really should think about music and props. In my opinion both may not be vital for a good horror game experience, but if used right, they can contribute a lot.

As I’ve pointed out in many posts before, music can help to set the mood. And especially in a horror game mood is everything. Horror movie soundtracks usually work pretty well. I have also used candles for lighting in horror games in the past which usually works great. But beware candles on the game table can be a distraction, too. So, if your players are playing with candles wax instead of focussing on the game you should consider using electrical light instead. 😉

If you ask me, handouts are a must in any investigative game. If the players find a newspaper article, a scrap of paper in the clenched fist of a dead man or some strange runes on the wall of an desecrated church, make sure you have an appropriate handout ready. If you have any artistic skill, a sketch of the monster they encounter or perhaps even a small statue may be pretty cool.

I believe these tips should help you jumpstart your horror campaign. As always I am keen on hearing from you. What horror roleplaying game is your favorite? And what do you use to set the mood? Please post your thoughts in the comments below!