Talking Gumshoe, Part Three

Like I said, Laws inspires discussion. There’s another bit on that “problems with Gumshoe” page that needs a lot of unpacking:

Won’t the players just rattle off all of the abilities on their character sheets every time they enter a scene?

No more so than in a game where you have to roll against your abilities to get information. Players who imagine this happen are assuming a much greater difference between the traditional style and the GUMSHOE approach than actually exists. In each case, players always have to describe a logical course of action that might lead to their getting information, directly or indirectly suggesting the ability they use to get it. In the traditional model, there’s a roll; the GM supplies the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped—but it’s the only step skipped.

Traditional style:

Player: I scan the area for unusual energy signatures.

GM: Roll Energy Signatures.

Player: I succeed.

GM: You detect a harmonic anomaly on the quantum level—a sure sign that Xzar technology has been used here, and recently.

GUMSHOE style:

Player: I scan the area for unusual energy signatures.

GM: [Checks worksheet to see if the player’s character has Energy Signatures, which she does.] You detect a harmonic anomaly on the quantum level—a sure sign that Xzar technology has been used here, and recently.

In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out “Anthropology! Archaeology! Botany! Cybe Culture! Evidence Collection!” They don’t do this because it would be weird, boring, and stupid—and because in neither case does it fill all the requirements necessary to get information from a scene.

The only difference is the lack of a die roll. It has a big effect on play, but that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly taking the express train straight to Crazytown.


The thing that needs to be said here is that this isn’t what we assumed would happen in the game – it is exactly what we EXPERIENCED happening in the game. For a couple of reasons. Firstly because in Call of Cthulhu, it’s rare that all your skills can work at once. Whereas in Esoterrorists, you’re most often standing in a crime scene or evidence scene, using your eyeballs and inherent knowledge. So you ARE rattling things off. This is doubly true in a social situation where you are using your eyeballs on a suspect. Bam bam bam, until we get a hit. And of course, the nature of the game, as written, is playing Find the Box, so players quickly learn to seek the box as quickly as possible.

Second, because we’re used to – and enjoy – rolling dice. For us, it’s part of the roleplaying experience, and if you take it away, it feels weird. You can imagine if you took dice rolling out of Monopoly, and just moved one space at a time, it would feel weirdly sped up, as turns would suddenly be a lot shorter – and a lot less exciting, as there would be no thrill of chance in the movement phase.(Not to mention the kinesthetic appeal and inherent excitement in rolling dice – rolling dice is fun FOR ITS OWN SAKE for many people, and so many games forget that.)

Thirdly, because the die roll is a strong connector with the physical action. Again, this is habit, from playing lots of rpgs, but we have learnt from them that doing things and rolling dice are the same thing. So what slows us down and makes us go “Hmm, my character examines the object in a thoughtful way” is the sense of squib which arises from physically picking up a die and throwing it, and the random sense of outcome also provides squib to not knowing if the scene will reveal something to our character. Without that, we had no reason to posit our characters doing something because physically, our players weren’t doing anything.

Fourthly and perhaps most importantly, nobody wants to fail a die roll. It’s not fun. Even if it creates no consequences, rolling low IS NOT FUN. Again, too many game designs forget that one of the fundamental concepts of rpgs is rolling a dice and feeling personal achievement (however misplaced) when you roll a 20, and feeling personal failure when you roll a one. It’s silly but it is undeniably true. We know this. Studies have shown that people who play poker machines believe they have a skill, and get the same sense of accomplishment when they win as they do when winning a game of skill or completing a task. Anyway, the point is, low rolls create downbeats, even if they have no consequences, and nobody wants to roll down their skill list in a row because they risk those downbeats.  Take away the risk of failure, as Gumshoe does, and you can rattle off every skill on your sheet – and so you do.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle that we tend to, in gaming, have too many downbeats to accurately model a lot of fiction or to have fun investigating things. I just don’t think that automatic success solves either problem. The point of investigative rolls has never been about whether they get a clue or not, but when and how they get the clue. Clues have never been treasure in a chest, but orcs in a dungeon, waiting to be stabbed, and the stabbing is the fun part.

Also, there are much better ways to remove the problem of failure being boring or out of genre. For example, look at Leverage, where character stats are insanely high, so failure almost never happens, and when it does only causes complications, not failure (and complications can happen even if you succeed, so you get to feel awesome AND have interesting failures). Or look at Smallville, where nobody can actually fail at anything, randomly. Success and failure operate outside the dice roll, but the dice roll is still important and emulative. Smallville doesn’t quite work for mysteries (unless both the detective and the criminal are PCs) but it’s another interesting approach to success (or really failure – it happens a lot in Smallville, but not because of the dice, but because success would destroy the angst – in many ways, soap operas are the opposite of mysteries, because they thrive on nobody finding out anything). Both games also have no sense of damage, with failure ALWAYS meaning complications, which removes much of the issue of downbeats anyway – you can’t stop the story if failure is never dull. It’s not unlike Paranoia and Warhammer where you look forward to failing because it was more hilarious that way.

(Hacking Cortex Plus for a mystery game is an awesome idea, though. I will think on it.)

So there’s Gumshoe: it’s central idea of exploring whether investigation rolls should ever fail was a good one, but it was based on a problem huge swathes of gamers have never encountered, and its solutions to the question were interesting but ended up being a) not really offering anything new at heart (just more clues faster) and b) unappealing, inelegant and lacking in squib, while the rest of the system felt bolted on and incomplete.

But like I said, it’s interesting and I’m glad it exists. After all, I just spend a few hours writing 3000 words about it.



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