Monday, 3 November 2014

GUMSHOE - conclusions

I've completed my first adventure running Gumshoe. We played the scenario 'Operation Slaughterhouse' from the original Esoterrorists core book. What follows are my observations firstly on the Gumshoe system, in the fairly basic format in which it appears in the original Esoterrorists game, then on the scenario itself, and finally on running games with covert operatives as the core party.

Gumshoe / Esoterrorists

This feels very much like a game inspired by CSI and similar crime series. Although Ken Hite later took Gumshoe in the direction of the Cthulhu Mythos, the original game places massive emphasis on forensic skills and interviewing suspects. The action component - fighting, infiltration, etc - is very truncated. The idea behind the system is to faciliate a progressive investigation without reliance on dice rolls. Investigators are defined by their capabilities in academic, interpersonal and technical skill groups, with general abilities called on to support action and to meter health and mental stability.

Running the game, perhaps the hardest thing is to decide when to wave through player success, and when to call for them to spend points. Robin D. Laws, author of Esoterrorists, believes the point spend should really be the choice of the player, to obtain additional information / colour and to demonstrate their ability to excel in the particular area of knowledge. I'm not sure this works for me.

We had a pretty diverse team of agents, namely an assassin who used the cover identity of an antiques dealer, a history professor and a Boston detective. They were later joined by a second academic specialising in occult studies. Because the investigation focused on a deceased CIA agent, a Congressional corruption investigation, and shady dealings by military intelligence in the Caribbean, the cop and the assassin were probably given the most opportunity to shine. But some skills, like Bullshit Detector, Data Retrieval and Cop Talk can be used to cover a multitude of sins and can push the investigation forward quickly. For a GM who has spent many, many years running Call of Cthulhu, it requires a major mental jump to go from imposing an obstacle by asking for a dice roll to simply providing an automatic success that can, in some instances, literally blow the case wide open. But thinking on it, this is what happens in TV series of this ilk.

Think of it more like running a dungeon adventure where, instead of requiring the group to pick the lock of each and every door they come across, you allow them to get through the door regardless. The important issue is what lies in the room, not how you get into it.

So where does the point spend come in? Because we're all new to Gumshoe, I've tended to ask players to spend points to facilitate activities that are not 'core' to the investigative trail, but can be used to support it - for example, use of Bureaucracy to obtain travel documents supporting a cover identity, or to manufacture false evidence to frame an NPC suspect for a murder. These activities are not uncovering new information, but agents are using skills and knowledge to achieve other objectives. Hence, a point spend is required. IIRC I think I called for a 2-point spend to allow the agents to sneak across to the Dominican Republic with a boat load of illegal firearms and C4 without the US Coast Guard paying them any attention. But that could have been an Infiltration check...

The focus on the game is very much one of piecing together the investigation. It feels very much like an exercise in crime fiction, and you could quite easily drop most of the horror / mystical elements from Esoterrorists and run it as a straight CSI / murder mystery game, particularly for newcomers to roleplaying. There is far less dice rolling and leaving things to chance than there is in Call of Cthulhu, but sometimes I felt that when the game progressed into action scenarios, e.g. when the players ambushed some rogue military contractors - there was a lack of crunch. Hopefully this is something that will be resolved in the second edition of the game, which I believe includes more rules on combat.

Operation Slaughterhouse

I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that running pre-written scenarios may not be for me, or that I must find a new way of prepping them effectively. Operation Slaughterhouse, which is one of the first adventures ever written for Gumshoe, is meant to demonstrate the system in action and it does to a certain degree, but I felt it could have been done far, far better. I doubt I will run it again.

It revolves around the ritual murder of a CIA officer in a plush Washington DC hotel, with the PCs coming in under the cover of a ritual crimes squad working with the FBI team already on the case.

It is a sorry tale of high level corruption, defence contracts and the illegal rendition of terrorist suspects from the Middle East in the dying months of the Bush administration. It demonstrates how a Gumshoe plot is meant to hang on core clues, and to a large degree that works well. There are few opportunities for the party to ski off piste and go chasing for red herrings, and that is a sign of a focused scenario.

At one point they did begin to focus on a corrupt Congressman to an alarming degree, with the team walking into the Capitol in broad daylight using manufactured identities, but that was the only time they left the path. Many core clues were uncovered in ways other than those specified in the adventure, and the scenario author does sometimes assume clue 'x' will be provided by 'y' when in fact this can be missed completely, forcing the GM to improvise by inserting clue 'x' elsewhere.

Generally, this is easy to do with Gumshoe, but in the case of core intelligence, it has to happen. I made one error that allowed the PCs to miss a core clue, attributing too much competence to the dead CIA agent, Rusty Mistaugh in covering his tracks. Hence, I had to drop the clue in via a new PC joining the party, but this seemed to happen seamlessly.

Writing Gumshoe scenarios requires a lot more focus on clues and plotting than Call of Cthulhu, IMHO. CoC favours a scattergun approach - throw enough leads in there, and PCs are sure to pick up one of them that is needed for the investigation to progress. Look at Masks of Nyarlathotep, which dumps a parcel full of information on the investigators in the opening scene, and lets them run with it. Gumshoe requires a little more structure, with precise clues needed to progress the investigation. I am sorely tempted to write my own material for Gumshoe and see how I go, but may run another published adventure first before I do.

Running spy games

Like superheroes, spies / intelligence agents are a bunch of tough and resourceful individuals. While the party we generated for Esoterrorists included two academics, between them and with the help of their patrons, they represented a much greater potential threat to the opposition than your average party of 'civilian' Cthulhu investigators.

These investigators have the training, the contacts and the equipment to make themselves very dangerous indeed. Our team sneaked into Congress, hacked databases, forged evidence, and shot their way into a secure compound in pitch darkness, laden with semi-automatic weapons and C4. They also made use of a wide range of connections, from smugglers to CIA agents, to get the job done.

I have run one game of Delta Green in the past, where the team were all FBI agents (one of the starter adventures in the original DG core book), but those were law enforcement agents constrained by the legal agenda. In Esoterrorists we have guys trained and prepared to go off the radar and carry out illegal activities. They represent a much more potent force. The opposition needs to be configured to meet this effectively. The group was also very effective in covering their tracks, and the tracks of the cult they were investigating. Mind you, we have some very experienced players as well, with the capacity to slash their way effectively through an investigation with consummate skill.

 Night's Black Agents, by Ken Hite, includes a lot more detail on running espionage-based campaigns for Gumshoe, and includes a new milieu which channels more of The Bourne Identity and Ronin than CSI Las Vegas. It will be interesting to how this plays out...


  1. I did wonder what you thought of the point-spending mechanic as you didn't seem that convinced.

    In a surprising coincidence another blogger has been musing about Gumshoe tonight and has come up with an interesting idea about shared investigative skills.

  2. Liked it. Agree the combat system needs changing. Not sure how. But deffo needs changing!

    Liked how we as pcs were able to quickly create narratives/ actions for our pcs. As you describe above. Instead of incessant dice rolling we just used some resources and BOSH! It was done!

    Really enjoyable game :)

  3. I've been reading Ashen Stars lately, and the combat system seems very much as we played it. We didn't do much wrong. My big concern is that lethal weapons like a sniper rifle are simply not lethal enough in Gumshoe.

    1. I was expecting there to be some sort of mechanic in which the spending of skill points would affect the damage caused; for example, every point spent beyond the threshold needed for automatic success would convert to a point of damage.

    2. In Night's Black Agents they introduce the concept of the called shot which allows you to do enhanced damage. This would represent, for example, a sniper trying to make a head shot. Without this, it is very hard to do fatal damage with one shot in Gumshoe.