Aligning GUMSHOE General and Investigative skills

Don’t get me wrong I love GUMSHOE, really I do. I think the philosophy behind it is sound and works really well in action. It makes investigation play flow well and once the players understand their characters the investigative abilities fade in the background and are replaced by questions and answers.

I have played it in its Trail of Cthulhu and Night Black Agents incarnation, I have read the base rules, and most of the other settings using it. In short GUMSHOE is now my go to system for pretty much any game. That being said, I have now more sessions under my belt and I found some problems with it. Nothing that can’t be fixed or that completely changes the system. Some of those problems are even fixed in later implementations of the system.

Here are the problems I have seen at my gaming table and my proposed fixes. To make sure my solutions do not bring worse side effects, I have placed upon myself a base set of requirements, Unit Tests, that must always be kept in mind.

  • Keep the system using 6 sided dice
  • Stay simple, it can be explained in < 15 minutes
  • Changes should be minimal

The fact that a system like GUMSHOE can accept hacks of this type speaks to its solid design.

Problem #1 – Overlap

Large amount of abilities (investigative or general), something with a large overlap between them. Later incarnations (Timewatch, The Esoterrorists 2nd Ed ), have fixed this by reducing the number of abilities. So I won’t spend lots of time here as this is already taken care of, and the solution is so simple it makes monkey brain hurt.

Problem #2 – The Leak

That one will be tricky to explain. I call it the “I always win until I don’t anymore.” problem. It only occurs with general abilities. This is due to the use of the pool system and the pure 50% chance of success on most actions. In my experience it is frequent that a player will use 2-3 points for every general skill use.

Using 2 points gives the player a success rate of 83%, using 3 points gives us guaranteed success on standard difficulty 4. Varying the difficulty rating between 3-8 makes the problem more apparent as players are often unwilling to go below a certain success ratio threshold. So they spend enough points to almost guarantee success until they have no points left leaving them (the players) in a confused state of what their characters can do.

This is called a leak in computer science, where your resources are slowly drained. Adding more build points to a highly used skill only pushes the problem to later, but it remains there.

Problem #3 – Scale

The scale difference between the skill sets, while I understand that Investigative and General abilities are not used the same way in game (sometimes they are, some general abilities can be used in lieu of an investigative one).

Build points for character advancement can be used to increase proficiency in General or Investigative Abilities, but since both sets do not work on the same scale this feels clunky.

Problem #4 – Binary Results

The current GUMSHOE system treats any result equal or higher than the target as a success, anything else is a failure. The lack of varying degrees of success is one of the main reason why problem #3 happens, players abhor failure. Compounded by the lack of critical success or failure it leaves the players with only two choices, win/lose.

Problem #5 – Too many guests

Health, Stability and others (Network, Cover, Aberrance) as general abilities. These should be renamed to attributes as they are used for a completely different reason. I would not change their current scaling as I believe that a greater range offers the players more to play with here.

Continue reading