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.

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Recap Game #9 Liberia

We left our Agents lost in the jungles of Liberia, after their second plane crash this week. After walking down a road for a couple of hours, they start hearing the sound of a large engine coming their way. After a few seconds of indecision, they had the brilliant idea of putting the two female agents on the roadside hoping that the militia men would be in a more helpful mood, maybe get a first aid kit and a lift to the closest city. Their western mind where quickly reset to the correct mind set after men came out and promptly overpowered and took the women in. These militia could not believe their luck of finding two white women standing on the side of the road. A gift of the gods they believed.

Sean, McGee and Victor went into action to recover Sanderson and Natasha. The ensuing fight started from a bad plan and became a fiasco. Sean, Natasha got really hurt and made the rest of their  lives that much more worthwhile. Sean quickly learned that headbutting a Kevlar helmet was not an approved martial technique. Once everything went back to normal, they disposed of the bodies and took over the banged up truck. Driving in the direction of Fish Town.

After 25 klicks of hard and slow driving through Liberia’s jungles they approach a side road that Victor finds familiar. Going up the road the arrive at a gate, marked Our Lady of Mercy Hospital, in front of a broken down white building, 3 stories high. On the yard there is other rusted structure and long yellow grass. This compounds looks like it was abandoned a while ago. Against their better judgement, and their feelings of  distrust they go in hoping to raid the hospital for supplies. After parking the truck in front of the entrance, the team starts discussing who goes in. McGee completely freaked out by the creepy vibe, decides to stay in the truck with Victor. Looking over he sees that Victor, who was not feeling well earlier, is unconscious. If the agents were unsure of the hospital before, there are now freaked out.

As they start thinking that they should be getting away, a tall black man dressed in a doctor garb comes out of the front door. And addresses them in a perfect London accented English.

“Please, do not let the look of our humble hospital deter you. If you need help, we will try our best to give you comfort. I am doctor Edwards, I run this small hospital.”

Sean, Natasha and Sanderson follow the man in, hoping to get a break and hopefully some medical aid. Passing two orderly pushing a gurney, they see various pictures on the wall, and the hospital foundation plaque, Sean learned that the hospital was established in 1999 a couple of years before Operation Licorne. Also on  the wall are pictures of Doctor Edward with U.N. officials celebrating the opening of the hospital. The plaque under the picture reads…

While walking Doctor Edwards explains when and how the hospital was established, the words going from normal to weird to scary in a single sentence. Sean noticed that the good doctor was quoting the plaque verbatim. While using hand signals to communicate the information to the other agents, they see a nurse staffing a desk at the end of the corridor, smiling with wide teeth at the good doctor Edwards. They are hushed in a examination room and are asked to sit down while the doctor examines them one at a time in his adjoining office. Sean now sure that something is not as it seems jumps the good doctor, and punches him in the face. After a good hit that would have put down most man the doctor just smiled and said

“Please let us help you, you are in dire need of medical assistance.”

offering a shark like smile for the ages. The man/thing had two sets of teeth layered in front of one another, with an impossible gaping mouth and lizardly tongue. That made everybody react, Natasha readied her AK while Sanderson fumbled through her vest for her pistol. Seizing the initiative, Sean picked up the doctor and slammed it through the ceiling light, the agents clearly heard the sound of tearing skin and breaking bones. In answer to the difficult patient the doctor got his scalpel out and drove it multiple times through Sean right shoulder.

Natasha took aim, trying to not hit Sean who was still wrestling with the creature. She failed?. The adrenaline pumping Sean lifted the doctor again and this time the bullet went true, hitting the doctor in the head. Losing blood, having a really bad day, Sean decides that he has enough and loses consciousness. Sanderson communicated their predicament to McGee, patiently waiting outside. When he heard gunshots, McGee gunned the truck backwards aligning with the entrance. McGee took Victor out of the truck and dropped him in bushes near the road. Coming back to the driving seat, he heard more gunshot and the cry for help from Sanderson. Flooring it the truck went from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds, thanks to a quick overhaul done previously, nearing the hospital entrance, McGee jumped out, to some consequence, after flipping a new red switch on the dashboard. The truck impaled itself in the hospital, almost disappearing completely inside, leaving something to be said regarding the quality of constructions from UN special aid projects.

“Get out! NOW!”

Sanderson looks around the examination room and finds a window being a huge curtain, she breaks it with a metal chair, cleaning out the glass shards from the edges. The P.A. system of the hospital goes live with a static crackle, “Orderlies to examination room 5, code white” followed immediately by the examination door bursting in with the two orderlies and the nurse… Not a nurse, something playing a nurse, something thinking that a cloth puppet dressed as a nurse would make sense. Their minds shaken, their bodies broken, Sanderson and Natasha, with Sean draped over her shoulder make their way outside. Trying to put as much distance from the creatures in the examination room, the red switch finishing its works of igniting the volatile gas from the damaged truck parked in the hospital main corridor. The explosion flattening everyone to the ground and throwing the nurse outside near the agents.

The fire quickly spreading, the silence is deafening, where one would have expected cries for help, there is nothing to hear. Only the slow movements of feet on the dry ground walking towards patients in need.

“Please let me help him, he needs our help, he will die.”

The nurse walking toward them, Natasha drops Sean on the ground and quickly puts a couple of shots through it. The nurse never acknowledging it, kneels and places her hand on Sean, waking him up with a start, he feels better, but looking at her face, Sean does not see altruism. He only sees a wanting for pain and suffering. Natasha thinks back to her KGB training days, in the interrogation portion of the training. They were invited to watch how senior KGB personnel conducted interrogations, asking impossible questions to a political prisoner, not really expecting an answer. The goal was pure torture, alternating the person between a hellish waked up state and the release of unconsciousness.  She remembers that these sessions could go on for hours, before the mental strain became so intense, that the prisoner’s mind just broke completely. Taking intelligent men and turning them in gibbering idiots. Often these were returned to their communities, as a reminder of what happens when one tries to go against the apparatchik.

Hardened by this memory, Natasha, continued firing at the nurse. It was sadly not enough, the nurse was still up. Sanderson started crying and firing at the same time, completely oblivious of her actions, she emptied her clip, and continued pulling the trigger long after the nurse hit the ground. The sound of flames eating a building, with the click, click, click of a pistol going through the motions.

They quickly took inventory of the hospital ground and found an old ambulance parked in the garage section, it took McGee a couple of minutes to get it started while Sanderson foraged for medical  supplies. When the ambulance came to life she was already patching Sean, staving the worst of his wounds. She had to take a deep breath when she saw that the scalpel cuts on his should were not random at all, as it should have been. They were perfect surgery cut, following the muscle lines, these were impossible.

“The robots, I hate the robots!”

Not wanting to stop for anything, they drive the remaining distance in darkness hoping to reach the normality of a city, with people and real human problems. After hours of driving they finally reach Fish Town, River Gee’s county capital. Streets made of dirt, houses build by hand from dirt and grass. The third world welcoming our agents by giving a taste of reality.

Not wanting to lose more time in this shit hole, the agents get the bearing and start looking for the army base. As they drive through the small city they spot two men walking the shadows wearing brown djellabas. Their walking patterns betraying their US special forces military training. Trying to keep the men in check and looking for General’s Maurice base the agents continued driving west along the main street, camouflaged by the ambulance borrowed from the hospital. As they near the west side of the town, they see the military base entrance with a guard post manned by children no older than fifteen.  The guards check the papers shown by the two djellaba wearing men and quickly wave them in. As they near the base main building they take off their vestment revealing their origin. These men are obviously special forces or at least ex special forces. They are wearing complete tactical gear, with complete Mil-Spec tactical webbing holding grenades, extra clips and all the other dangerous paraphernalia you would expect on a man  expected to kill another in exchange for a paycheck. The special forces also sport completely tricked out M4 assault rifles with under barrel grenade launcher.

Apart from the special forces the base is guarded mostly by child soldiers with over sized AKs and a good amount of fear. Sitting on the tarmac two old British Cruiser Mk I CS, looking serviceable. As they set up their OP (Observation Point) they agents start hearing a chopper coming from the east side with a low flight pattern. It lands on the base helipad and out comes General Maurice in full military regalia. Walking like he owns the place, he probably does, he goes straight to the main building

Witnessing the arrival of General Maurice they quickly formulate a plan, hit the base this very night, execute the wet work and get out of this hell hole, and the nice General just gave them their exit strategy. Waiting till 0300 hours they slowly walk to the rear fence and slip in unnoticed by the young sentries. Staying low they enter the garage building and divide up. Sean and McGee to capture one of the British Cruiser, while Natasha and Sanderson go for the football. After taking their time, Natasha and Sanderson get to the back of the main building, helped by Sanderson, a bruised and tired Natasha climbs the rain pipe to the second floor. As she climbs up she can hear the General talking with another man with a Texan accent. They are discussing the delivery of shipments of Selenium in exchange of weapons and money.

On the other side of the building Sean and McGee time the sentries movements and manage to gain access to the Cruisers. Upon entry McGee knows how to operate the controls to drive the tank and takes control of the situation telling Sean to load up the main gun. Completely baffled by the tank that Sean once had a pleasure blowing up, he tries to make haste and survive this. Looking back at all this, young Sean would probably call his old self a traitor, following the orders of a British national and manning a tank from the enemy.

“GO, GO, GO”

As soon as the tank is ready to go they tell Natasha and Sanderson to execute, the female agents get the go and Natasha moves in position. Knowing that she does not have the strength to take the fight to the two men. She looks in her pant pockets and finds a gift left by McGee. A nice green pineapple grenade. ready to go, ready to do the job of the not so subtle assassin. Natasha takes the ‘nade out, pulls the pin, counts to four and throws it in the opened window. The grenade lands at the feet of General Maurice and with a satisfying boom sends the man to its maker. Natasha slides down rapidly, covered by Sanderson. They start making their way to the helicopter as the base wakes up.

Once the grenade explodes the military base goes in full alert, the two special forces enter the building running. Sean fires the main gun at the building entrance, hopefully creating enough chaos that Natasha and Sanderson can get to the chopper without getting intercepted. Drawing fire from the militia and from one of the two special forces the tanks crawls forward. As soon as they see the bullets have no effect the grenade launchers are aimed at the tanks hoping for a track blowout. With the tank drawing most of the fire, the second special force soldier comes out the side of the main building, near the helipad. As he spots Sanderson at the control of the helicopter he fires towards her. Hitting the sides, Natasha quickly retaliates by taking a front facing tactical position, hoping to draw fire away from the helicopter. Backed by the tank’s main gun  blowing holes in the side of the building, Sanderson manages to fire up the helicopter’s engine, but not before Natasha gets hit by a perfectly line shot from the US mercenary.

Sean jumps out of the tanks and starts running toward the downed agent, grabs her while yelling at McGee to get the fuck out. Sean jumps in the chopper as it starts moving up slowly. McGee not one to leave things unfinished drives the tank in the main building side, then jumps out and starts running towards the helicopter. He jumps out to catch the railing and misses, only to be caught by the hand of Sean who pulls him up.

This concludes Act I of the Agents Shooting at the Stars campaign.

Shoot for the Stars

This blog is my humble attempt at writing up the events leading to the demise of the Colonist; An alien entity/ies arrived in 1914 on the Tungustan comet. The Colonist is/are a fungus type infection that requires human antigens to survive, highly fragile to high level of ultra-violet light. Using porphyria to survive the organism is fighting to harvest the human blood, once the planet has been cleansed of non infected human lifeforms, it will go dormant, waiting for the next impact to move to the another world.

The Colonist entities themselves cannot be said to be intelligent in human terms, but they have a clear purpose; reproduce at all cost to insure survival. When combined with human DNA the Colonist organism slowly subverts it unless correctly controlled, but confers what could be regarded by external observers as powers. To insure survival of the spore, the organism regenerate most human tissues except for the brain.

Shoot for the Stars is our first attempt at creating a Night’s Black Agents game. Shoots for the Stars starts where the Lennart’s Dossier ends. The first series of posts will explain the background of the conspiracy and detail the organism itself and all of its mutations. Finally we will offers the operations, that the agents could encounter. Every couple of weeks or so, I’ll try to post a recap of the game session itself.

This is my first time writing that level of detail for a running game, hopefully it will be clear enough that other directors can use some of it for their own conspiracy. Also please note that English is not my native language, so please expect inconsistencies, syntax errors and grammar issues; Constructive comments welcomed.

A personal note on Night’s Black Agents, and the story driven Role Playing Games using the GUMSHOE engine and others. I had pretty much given up on Role-playing, the mapping aspects of it were and is turning me off completely. I find this cumbersome, and in a sense a complete creativity killer. Some players might love the precision of pushing figurines around, frankly I don’t; At least not when playing Role playing games. I rediscovered RPGs with Trail of Cthulhu, a new take on an old story. Most observers will talk about the GUMSHOE system, how it makes clues easy to get, hard to interpret, this has been discussed to death.

The thing for me that it brought forth was a simple concept, sharing the gaming creativity burden between the players and the storyteller. By introducing skills like preparedness, players could forgo the endless shop through the book to make sure they have the correct equipment. With the simple fact that players could keep unassigned points stored for a later use when the storyteller introduced something new in the story. All of these to make sure that the sessions go forward. Some might say that any house rules could make this happen in any system. Maybe, but GUMSHOE internalized all of this and made it part of the system.

The games created using this system are no longer a story told from the storyteller to the players, but a shared affair between all the involved parties. As one of my players commented; traditional gamemasters should be aware that they will lose control of some key parts of the story, this is the part where I sit back, listen to the players tell me a story and smile.

We currently play Night’s Black Agents, and sometimes when I’m lucky I can get people introduced to Fiasco from Bully Pulpit Games.

Hopefully, you will find my ramblings thoughts interesting.