Gumshoe has many elements which make it up. Some of which are appropriate for investigative games, and some which are just hanging around to help out. I’ll talk about the latter first.
I don’t like the system for what they call “Physical” skills, ie non-Investigation ones. This is basically personal preference. I dislike any game which requires the players to choose how much they care about a task (or how important they think it is to the plot) and spend points on it. I just don’t like those kind of decisions. I think they slow down play. I just assume everyone is always trying they’re hardest, and if they fail, it’s because of outside circumstances. I also don’t think its well implemented, because you can spend a bunch of points and still fail. It just doesn’t seem fun to use, either.
I also hate systems which have different systems for different parts of the game. I can stand a bit more complexity in combat, but not a complete system shift. For one, I’m just too lazy to learn different systems. For another, it feels like there’s two different games at once. That feels like lazy, inelegant design.
It also leads to an important question as to the nature of the two systems. Clearly (and we’ll get into this later) Laws believes that gathering information should never fail, but physical tasks should sometimes fail. Now there are some interesting philosophical things behind that, but it seems kind of arbitrary. Either failure is interesting or it isn’t. Pick one, you know?
You could point to genre and say that in, say, Law and Order, sometimes Detective Munch will fail to grab a perp before he slips away. On the other hand, this is pretty rare. As Laws himself says, most police procedural shows are “love affairs with competence”. They almost always succeed at such tests, or not even feature them. What’s more, in the same shows, Munch will sometimes walk into shot and explain that his most recent avenue of exploration has failed to produce anything useful. In other words, a failed investigation roll.
Or is it?
In Laws’ philosophy, I think what this would represent is a pre-planned adventure (which is fine) where it had been decided that there were No Clues in Box A. Granted, I sometimes do this. Meanwhile, Laws’ idea of Gumshoe is to plug the problem where there are, according to the adventure or GM, some very important clues in Box B, but every time the PCs look in Box B, they fail their roll.
Long ago, I figured out how to resolve this, which is to put the clue in whichever Box the players succeed on their roll in. Gumshoe solves the problem in reverse, by making success automatic, and just waits for players to look in the right box. Or look in any vaguely appropriate box (as discussed on this page in the bits about railroading and going off-script). Even allowing for vaguely appropriate boxes though, this does make writing adventures more work, because you have to come up with a list of boxes and a list of clues. Instead of say, Smallville, where adventure design involves coming up with a list of Reveals and putting them wherever they fit. It also has exactly the same amount of downbeats (to use Laws’ term), because it implies players can look in wrong boxes.
Or that they just scan through the boxes and get all the clues, all the time (we’ll come back to that). This is what makes people think that adventures become “easier”. Again, the solution to this backwards: since you’re getting all the clues, all the time, you can give people shittons of information, allowing for mysteries to be much more complex, include many more red herrings and be more fun to solve. In my experience, players don’t really like this. Don’t get me wrong, ratiocination is fun on television and in books, and I enjoy a little bit of it, engaging my own little grey cells as a way of connecting (through Squib) to the PC. But too much ends up being dull or hard work. And too much information just becomes annoying.
Players like to feel awesome, and generally, without having to work for it. This is why Call of Cthulhu has the Idea roll, so you can solve things by rolling a die. This is also why I don’t like systems like Feng Shui and Wushu, which reward people with descriptive skill – to my mind, the system should provide descriptive awesome FOR YOU. That’s it’s job, not yours. And everyone should get the same awesome reward, regardless of their personal skills. That’s the philosophy behind There Is No Spoon, for example.
Gumshoe’s “spend” system forces players to decide when they want to be awesome, and for GMs to come up with multi-layered clues for when this happens. This is not unlike systems where levels of success matter – which is something I rarely use either (too lazy!). But it’s a particular headache here because now you have to plan clues and mega-clues, as well as boxes. And yet the mega-clues can’t be too big because if one box gives away everything, the players who have specified their character towards other boxes will feel cheated.
This is of course the danger of any system with increased detail. Having a long list of investigation skills is a GREAT way to get into the niches of genre and explore minute differences in style and enhance a sense of genre. But it can be harder to balance screen time as a result. If Bob is good at punching and Jim at talking, I can design pretty broadly. If Bob is intimidating and Jim is glib…I have to design two talking scenes with equally important goals, AND provide reasons why Bob can’t just intimidate his way through both of these. Now that doesn’t apply to the knowledge skills so much, but we definitely had a problem with the social skills in Gumshoe too. There were so many of them they actually kind of detracted from the game – I prefer to put my gamist, can-the-players-solve-this elements into actual roleplaying and discussion (backed up by dice rolls, of course) but having a Bullshit Detector kind of killed that for us, turning what were normally subtle live-action interactions into single dice rolls and that killed a huge part of our fun.
Oh this is getting all confused. Time for Part Three, then.