No Clues Without Consequence, part 1

Let’s talk about GUMSHOE-style investigations a bit.

I assume you already know terms like player character (PC), non-player character (NPC), and game master (GM). I also assume you’ve got some tabletop RPG experience but that you maybe haven’t played GUMSHOE yet.

GUMSHOE, of course, is the rules engine buzzing inside games like Ashen Stars and Night’s Black Agents. Robin D. Laws expertly devised GUMSHOE for investigative play but not only investigative play. If we look at investigations as explorations, though, and agree that RPG play is naturally exploratory, we see how much of GUMSHOE can sharpen our play for any RPG.

Right now, I have a couple of games with GUMSHOE or GUMSHOE-derived mechanics in active development, each of which has helped me understand something different about how I facilitate GUMSHOE play — and helped me incorporate new things into their designs. One of these games is Razed, my post-apocalyptic RPG of exploring to survive (which is closer to completion) and another is Revengers, about ghostly detectives (which is up on the lift in the garage again).

Player characters investigate the fictional game world in both of these games, in addition to all the other dramatic adventures they undertake. The ghosts solve murders that the living can’t. The survivors of catastrophe hunt down resources they need to live while exploring the causes of their fate and the circumstances of their new world. Each game depicts these characters and these worlds in dramatically different ways but each uses the GUMSHOE language and methodology to do it.

That, right there, is the first lesson: GUMSHOE can do a lot of different things.

“The game helps players make more informed decisions in play.”

GUMSHOE games spotlight investigations but that is not all that they’re about. I’m drawn to GUMSHOE’s investigative method, personally, because of how it helps the descriptive process and builds up the mental image of the game world that’s shared by everyone playing. It streamlines the imagination process and helps information about the game world be about the characters, too.

The point of contact between player and game world in an RPG is always informative, always about how the game world is conveyed. The game world is all information. It has to be moved from mind to mind, imagination to imagination, to be perceived. That information can arrive sharp or dulled, fine or coarse, bristling like hackles or dampened by mittens.

Players in tabletop RPGs get the game world through their imaginations, rather than their senses. They don’t feel the frost on the blade, they imagine they do. They don’t smell the damp in the cellar, they imagine they do. Passive perception barely exists in this medium; to imply requires presumptions, shared imaginings, cooperation. The starship might not have fire extinguishers when the GM first pictures it in her mind’s eye but they can come into being when a player’s character needs one. The creation of the fictional environment is collaborative. A mistake of communication in the flurry of play or the fog of overlapping imaginations can render the game world lacking in vital information, with details unspoken but assumed to exist by only some of the participants even when dramatic decisions must be made.

Does this room have windows? Is my enemy armed? Are we alone here? Do I hear anything? The game world is made up of questions, implicit or explicit, and answers, direct or evoked. It’s an inherently exploratory pastime.

For information to reach the imaginative “space” where all the participants’ notions agree to an extent that makes collaboration possible, that information might travel from the game-scenario writer in Ireland to the GM in Chicago, via the GM’s verbal rendering of the fictional environment, possibly adjusting for dramatic effect, genre tropes, and character conditions, all filtered by the limited perceptions of fictional characters as the GM imagines them, regulated by dice rolls, to be interpreted by each player through their imaginations and their concepts of how their character would interpret what they, the players, have just heard from the GM.

Damn.

Look at all those opportunities for vital information to accidentally play the Telephone Game before it gets to play in your RPG.

The fidelity of the rendering engine for a tabletop RPG experiences lag, frame drops, bad textures, phantom effects, and worse when communication breaks down — even when that breakdown is at first invisible.

“I want to shout at the person running away,” the player says. “Do I recognize him?”
“You can’t quite tell who that is climbing out the window, making their escape, because of the fire and smoke,” says the GM.
“From the fireplace?”
“No, in the room, roaring in the room. The room is on fire. There’s smoke everywhere.”
“Oh!” says the player. “I thought you meant there was a fire, like, in the fireplace.”

Some information drift may be inevitable in the medium of the tabletop RPG but GUMSHOE helps minimize those accidents to emphasize collaboration in play so that everyone can focus on asking for, giving out, and interpreting information as the participants decide how to incorporate and portray atmosphere, genre tropes, and character in the process.

The core practice and language of GUMSHOE ritualizes the flow of information to help enable interactions with the game world for players and their characters.

More simply, GUMSHOE helps players better understand the fictional worlds where their characters live and work and explore and strive. This helps the players make more informed decisions in play.

What’s the Big Deal?

In GUMSHOE, if your character has points in the right investigative ability, you and your character can get clues from the game world via the GM. It’s automatic. Bring your character with the right ability to the right location (that often means establishing an apt scene) and you get clues that’ll help you move the adventure forward, whether you’re hunting a killer, searching for vital supplies, or on the trail of Cthulhu cultists.

If your ghost detective knows about forensics, he can study blood spatter on a wall and figure out where the victim must’ve been standing and maybe even the angle of attack.

If your bold survivalist knows about machines, she can examine a defunct engine and tell you what parts aren’t working and maybe even where to find them.

This process of automatic information gathering sometimes gets static from players and GMs, often because of the way the procedure gets presented, not due to the procedure itself.

I see two broad types of static:

First, the GUMSHOE procedure can feel so obvious or simple that it doesn’t feel like it requires a whole game to support it. I’ve heard from players and designers alike who don’t get what the Big Deal is about GUMSHOE. Some respond by rejecting the idea that there’s a Big Deal at all, maybe by saying “I do that already.” Others feel like they’re missing something — some thing — that makes the game gel for others.

Second, I hear players and GMs object to the nature of gameplay and adventure design that GUMSHOE supports or that is thought to result inevitably from its method of play. Dreaded accusations of “railroading” (using various versions of the term) sometimes come along with this argument.

In my experience, these two kinds of discord stem from disagreements between player expectations and the way the game is taught or from a lack of actual-play contact with the game in action. It’s like this:

  1. The system is simple.
  2. But the procedures for playing it are a little more complicated, though many players and GMs have internalized it to such an extent that it doesn’t always seem that way.
  3. And teaching the procedures for play involve a lot of optional and situational techniques that can be quick to describe, yet rich in variation and personal style, and can expand to involve lots of masteries, customs, habits, and player skills. They’re containers packed tight with options and exceptions.

Put another way, GUMSHOE is or isn’t obvious, is or isn’t a Big Deal, depending on your experience with RPGs prior to learning GUMSHOE. As products, GUMSHOE games often get written as introductory texts that don’t fully address the (pre)conceptions, customs, and habits of experienced roleplaying and story gamers. As a game, in actual play, GUMSHOE robustly engages with a variety of play styles and experience, handling differently with different players and GMs at the wheel.

It’s like this: How do you write a novel? It’s simple, right? You put words in order until your story’s told. What’s the big deal?

Now, put 100,000 words in order. Make them compelling. Have them describe richly realized characters. Surprise us. Avoid clichés. Provoke our emotions. Then, do it again. And again. And again, chapter after chapter, novel after novel, until you have a career and an oeuvre and your every novel is a gem.

The procedure is repetitive. It is! The system is simple. Just type! Doing it well, though — riffing on it for the span of scenes, adventures, and campaigns — is gloriously complicated. Lots of books out there telling you how to write a novel. More on the way.

“Simple complexity allows for individual player and GM styles.”

And that’s great! That simple complexity allows for individual player and GM styles, variations in play, and lots of different stories, situations, and characters to play out across a thousand worlds. That is what gives the game its mileage.

Is this unique to GUMSHOE? Nope. But this particular arrangement of simple complexity is a trait of GUMSHOE’s and it sure is something that players and GMs get hung up on. Fair enough. We can work with that.

So, let’s talk about some techniques. Let’s show some of the procedure in action. Let’s look at some of the ways that clues work as packets of information, free of any one particular version of GUMSHOE. My way’s not the only way, but this is how things look after my particular experiences as a writer and GM…

This essay continues in part two, “So, Clues,” and eventually beyond. One day the whole thing’ll get collected in a PDF, too.