No Clues Without Consequence, part 5
Let’s look at how to make actual play in any GUMSHOE game matter more to the players and their characters.
This article concludes an essay series that began with “No Clues Without Consequence, part 1” and continued in “So, Clues” and “How Clues Connect” and “Remixing Clues.” Start with any of those or start here, if you like. Each article contains information you can use without the others.
Clues All Over
The game world is made up of clues, the atomic unit of information in GUMSHOE. The game world is clues. Everything is information, presented through the perceptions of the players’ characters or shared in response to player questions, reflecting the knowledge and actions of the characters.
(That’s important: information flows toward the players to reflect the knowledge and actions of the characters.)
Yet GUMSHOE scenarios are seldom about things the characters already know. These adventures are about discovering new things and applying player and character knowledge — new or old — to the game world in ways that change the game world, hopefully for the better.
Characters explore and change the world, and they get muddy and bloody along the way. If these are NPCs, that mud and that blood can become clues for the PCs. But the PCs get dirty, too. They get clues all over themselves along the way — clues to who they are and how they fit into the world.
When you’re devising a scenario, when you’re playing a scenario, when you’re wrapping up the scenario, think about this:
What is your scenario about?
The answer to this can be factual and practical (“It’s about ghosts haunting the bayou” or “It’s about recovering Excalibur”) or it can be thematic (“It’s about the costs of trying to escape your history” or “It’s about keeping magic alive”), but whatever the answer it can be helpful to remind yourself what you’re doing. Use improvised scenes and impromptu clues to underline and emphasize what your scenario is about, or what it turns out to be about through play. You’re allowed to change your answer as you go, as you discover through play that your whodunnit is also about themes the PCs evoke during play.
Now compare how your answer to that question interacts with this one:
Who is your scenario about?
Is your GUMSHOE scenario about the players’ characters or is it really about someone else? Even if it’s told from the point of view of the PCs, it might not be about them in a certain dramatic sense.
Think of classic Law & Order episodes. Although the voice-over introduction says otherwise, those are seldom stories about the detectives and the prosecutors. They might be stories the detectives and prosecutors can and would tell (and in that sense “these are their stories” is accurate) but the dramatic questions aren’t always theirs. Consider the difference between “Can the detective learn why she killed him?” and “How does her motive affect the detectives or their world?”
Who or what changes (or changes back) as a result of the story? Your answer might be the killer, the victim’s family, the victim, the detectives, the police chief, the city — the more people that stand to change, the bigger the scope of the story. Player characters can sometimes be impervious to the parts they play in other characters’ stories but they must be vital to that story, how it unfolds, and how it ends. PCs are in the conclusions business.
GUMSHOE presumes that forward momentum, that progress through a dramatic tale, is desirable for the players. Great stories can absolutely be told about cases gone cold or investigators arresting the wrong man for the crime, but GUMSHOE also presumes that these stories should emerge from the interaction of available information and player choice, not from the accidental lack of information that might arise from a bad roll of the dice.
“The PCs are powerless without the players’ abilities.”
The setting teems with information but the PCs are powerless without the players’ abilities to make use of that information. Getting information to the players helps them make dramatic decisions as participants in the narrative. How the players change the characters and the game world depends on them having information — even if incomplete, even if unpleasant — that they can act on. What good is a story about characters other than the PCs if the players don’t get to hear it and, as players, act on it?
Players explore the fictional world of the game through their characters, collaborating on stories involving those characters, but the stories aren’t for the characters. They’re for the players, including the GM.
The Shadow of the Dungeon
The fantastical tomb or monster-filled dungeon casts a long shadow in the RPG hobby. In a dungeon, every stray footstep can trigger a lethal trap. Open the wrong door and your character might get eaten by a grue. These are volatile, closed environments where one wrong move can end the game.
GUMSHOE-style investigations can feature detailed explorations and dungeon crawls, whether you’re in a forgotten catacomb under the Maltese capital or creeping through a derelict alien spaceship, but play is more often about the build-up of information over time and the actions PCs take a result of getting that information. Whereas jumping ahead from the first room of a dungeon to the tenth might be odd in a dungeon crawl, in a GUMSHOE investigation moving from one interview to the next can take a single sentence if you like.
We can compress, edit, and streamline GUMSHOE play with ease, without shorting the play experience. When a clue suggests the Old Mill might contain more clues (or a fight scene, or a treasure), we can jump straight there. This isn’t unique to GUMSHOE, by any means, but GUMSHOE-style scenario design often draws on this power in a big way.
GUMSHOE blends character abilities with player capabilities to give players some flexibility when making choices. Often the character knows more about chemistry (or space aliens, or the occult, or whatever) than the player does, and the player can choose to press on with their current information or spend resources like Investigative ability points to convert more information from the game world, via the GM — in the form of character knowledge — to the player. This gives the player more options, more information to enrich their options and their understanding of those options.
Dungeons provide clear points of contact where the players and their characters can interact with the game world: keys and doors, swords and monsters, boots and pressure plates. The stone corridors, spiked pits, and wooden doors all get described fairly and directly as setups for action. The GUMSHOE environment can be described similarly, if with less repetition sometimes, provided the players understand what they can act on and why.
“What happens if I press this button?” the dungeoneer asks, gambling their 10-foot pole or their hireling’s life on the answer. It’s a simple relationship between action and reaction.
“What do I do now that I know this?” the investigator asks, unsure what lies and the end of the lead implied by the clue they just discovered. It’s a more complex and nebulous relationship between action and reaction.
Our impulse to preserve an air of mystery during an investigative game can guide us toward bad decisions. Don’t worry about preserving mystery — unless you prepare a 60-minute lecture on the backstory, mystery is automatic. The players’ imaginations lead them to new questions, from “Who killed Edgar?” to “Why did Douglas kill Edgar?” to “Who paid Douglas?” and so on. Establishing a scenario is partially about agreeing beforehand on when to stop asking questions. Police detectives can stop when they arrest the suspect they like for the murder, occult detectives can stop when they’re confident the evil ritual has been thwarted, or whatever.
When an investigative player is unsure what they can do, that’s a sign that they need more information from the GM — and GUMSHOE makes channeling that information free of charge. The abilities also help the GM present it using details or language that emphasize the PC’s place in the game world. “As a world-class biologist, you can discern…” begins the GM, or “With your medical experience, it occurs to you that…”
When an investigative player is unsure which lead to follow, that’s a sign that you’ve built up a good roster of potential points of contact with the environment. Do they confront the suspect or question his old partner? These are clear things to do. Give the players a sense of what might happen if they act or avoid action on either option.
The dungeon environment is full of implied consequences — monsters, traps, magic, treasures, etc. — associated automatically in the players’ minds just from participating in the tropes of the genre. In a GUMSHOE investigation, especially in vast and mysterious worlds, the possibilities can be overwhelming and paralyzing.
As I play and design more GUMSHOE games, I find that you can make the process of acting in and on the game world more fascinating and rewarding by emphasizing the contact between character and environment. Do that by adding consequences.
Your Fingerprints On Everything
I sometimes see GUMSHOE players wondering why they don’t just spam every ability in every scene or spend any point whenever they’re given the chance.
Some information you give the PCs just for being around, for having put points in the apt ability and showing up for the scene. This represents the passive perception of the characters. Characters see things and know stuff that helps us move forward.
But when I play GUMSHOE, characters get more (maybe most) information by coming into contact with the game world — by touching it and interacting with it. Their characters lift a shell casing with a pen, touch a pool of blood to see if it’s tacky, feel the rough texture of the scratch marks on the stone. Doing this moves the shell, gets blood on their fingers, and maybe lives prints on the stone. But it also gives me a vector to describe more sensory details, which believably trigger knowledge in the characters and thus move information toward the players.
This helps the PCs feel substantive and the game world feel solid. When a PC takes action, they impact the environment, creating consequences that anyone can draw on later to build tension, cause troubles, or push the story in new dramatic directions.
It is, after all, the NPCs’ actions on the game world that create clues the PCs can follow. Why should the NPCs be the only ones with that power? If the PCs’ foes also have Investigative abilities, they might come to know that someone — and maybe who specifically — has been on the scene.
If the PCs try to Intimidate a witness, they may get penalized by their police chief or the witness may no longer be willing to respond to Reassurance or Flattery without a spend.
If the PCs touch the sigils to make a spend using their Occult ability, they may activate a spell.
I warn of consequences, sometimes specific consequences, to give the players a clearer idea of what happens if they make a spend or don’t make a spend.
“To spend a point of Biology here,” I might say, “you need to touch its fur.”
“You can get more information more quickly,” I might say, “if you spend a point to do a full-spectrum analysis with Chemistry, but in the time that takes the beast might strike again.”
Some of these consequences are essentially cosmetic, adding details and texture and tangibility to the game world. But these aren’t merely details. They help draw players in, help them question the costs of their actions, and sometimes encourage them to devise their own opportunities to spend points during play. Everyone, from me to the players to their characters, gets more involved this way.
Everything’s Mark on You
As the characters impact the game world during their explorations, the world acts on them, too. Investigating the cemetery muddies their boots. The gunfight in the crypt leaves them dusty and bloody. Their escape from the burning hotel has them teary-eyed and ashen.
In Eternal Lies, we put some focus on the wardrobe of the PCs in different locales to emphasize that these people change and adapt to their environments. The PCs can look different depending on where they go, interacting with the game environment immediately.
This effect should only deepen and intensify as the characters take actions. When they grab that suspect to Intimidate him, their hair falls out of place. The fist fight puts tears their tuxedos. Digging up graves is dirty work.
It’s not just about Stability. It’s not just about equipment damaged or destroyed. It’s not just about lost points of Health.
The PCs don’t float through the game world, scanning the environment like players at a monitor, looking for glinting hints against the wallpaper. Information flows toward them but when they grab it, they make contact with the game world. They don’t see through the rocks, they must turn them over to see what’s underneath.
Help your fellow players get in that spirit. Help them play it up. When they use an ability, ask them what the other characters can see the PC do when that ability is used. When they declare they’re using Mechanics to study that car, ask them with doors they’re opening. When they want to use Forensics, ask them which hand they use to touch the body.
This means they put their fingerprints on the world. This means the world makes its mark on them. This means the characters are in there, not watching, but getting involved.
This means no clues without consequence.
This is the final Medium article in this essay series. As a special bonus for web readers, I also offer how to interpret one motion picture as a GUMSHOE scenario using these techniques. One day we’ll expand and collect much of this series as a PDF for download. Until then, enjoy this rough draft. Thank you for reading!