Nov 022011

So if you’re a right-thinking person and already following Will Hindmarch‘s blog, this part will be old news: Evil Hat is working with Will to produce a new game titled Revengers, and it’s going to be based on the Gumshoe engine created by Robin Laws, which powers several games from Pelgrane Press, including Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, and Ashen Stars.

Will calls what we’re going to be doing “a substantial hack” of Gumshoe, and he’s right. My hope is that the Evil Hat flavor of Gumshoe will be something that folks who normally don’t get into Gumshoe will be willing to give another chance, and will also appeal to folks who think it’s great just the way it is.

Personally I sit somewhere between those two positions, which is part of what motivated me to get this project — and another Gumshoe hack of a different flavor with Ken Hite that’s still on the drawing board — rolling. (I see some really interesting things in Gumshoe as a system, and I’ll get into that in a bit — it may not be what you think — so in a way this is an attempt to take the things I like about the system and the things I think are underused and tune them to produce a play experience more like what I would want from it.)

Will and I are still sorting out what the hacks will be, so I can’t get into the details of Revengers specifically just yet; the project’s still quite early in its life cycle. I can tell you that I’ve set a few ground rules about what I’d like to see addressed, including things like reducing the number of abilities from (my opinion here) overwhelming quantities to something more manageable, closely examining the necessity of the dividing line between investigative and general abilities, and what sorts of things a player can do to the story with a “spend”.

That latter bit — the utility and implementation of a “spend” in Gumshoe — is where I think a lot of juice can be squeezed, and I’ll touch on that in a moment. But you may have noticed one thing I don’t touch on in that above list, and that’s the bit about Gumshoe that gets all the press: the whole thing about “discovery is inevitable”. If you’re not familiar with Gumshoe, the gig is that the system places importance on the notion that access to information is important for moving the story of the game ahead, therefore, it should not ever be something at risk of staying hidden on a failed roll. So, investigative abilities in the system carry an element of inevitable discovery: if you have the ability to know a thing, you’ll come to know it, and the plot will move ahead. That’s a great gimmick, and I get why it gets the press, but it’s highly portable to other systems and when it comes down to it, it’s just one gimmick. It works, and there’s little need to fiddle with it (aside from maybe expanding the underlying concept of inevitability to other abilities or widgets in the system)[1].

So instead I’m inclined to look at the rest of the system and ask how it could do its job a little differently, and maybe a little better. Setting aside the inevitable discovery aspect, what do we have in the core system?

At the end of the day, it’s a resource allocation game that’s paired with a flat distribution randomizer (a single d6 roll). Without the randomizer in play, the resources (points in your various abilities) can be spent to do things like buy access to additional, non-essential, but still elucidating pieces of information, or to absorb stressors placed on the character (Health and Stability being the examples there), and possibly a few other things. With the randomizer in play, the resources are spent as a one for one adder to the d6 roll. In essence, you spend points to purchase certainty of outcome.[2] Roll a d6 to shoot the monster, and maybe you hit; roll a d6 and spend some points, you’re more likely to hit. As resources dwindle, tension about their allocation escalates, as does the character’s exposure to randomness. Actions may be undertaken to refresh those resources under appropriate circumstances.

But for some — occasionally, me included — there’s not a lot of there there with that resource allocation game. While each ability has points tied to it, giving us our resource source, those points don’t feel particularly pregnant with meaning on a story level. Abilities end up having three states: abundant, scarce, and depleted, and while you can ascribe some meaning to those states, it’s only with a few  particular abilities (like Health) where they really seem to have some narrative punch. I’m not sure what it means, exactly, to have run out of points in my Stealth or Driving ability, other than that I’m gonna be more at the mercy of fate.

So in a way, that forms the root of our mandate as we create the Evil Hat brand of Gumshoe. Give those points more meaning. Tie them and the resulting ability-states to explicit story effects whenever possible. Figure out other things which could be given points like abilities, and use that as an engine to drive story.[3]

At the end of the day, the system is posing questions like What price are you willing to pay in order to get the outcome you want? and What are the consequences of paying that price? But in its present form, it might not be posing those questions in a particularly interesting way.[4]

It’s on us to change that.

[1] Some might even argue that the effect of the gimmick is that clue discovery becomes less of the point of a mystery game, and thus it creates an experience that feels less like a mystery, but I’m not sure I buy into that take. For me clues are less about their discovery (though that’s when “the reveal” happens) and more about their content. What new questions do clues create? What discussions do they trigger? What actions do they call the characters to? None of those aspects of clues hinge on the method of their discovery. [Back]

[2] Perhaps not immediately obvious is that this “certainty economy” needs the randomizer to be a flat one, a single die where all the outcomes are equally likely. On a flat distribution, you can’t be sure that any particular part of its range is going to happen more often. If two or more dice were used, you’d get a bell curve, with outcomes in the middle being more likely than outcomes at the extremes. This would muddle the source of certainty in Gumshoe; Gumshoe wants certainty to come from those points, period. [Back]

[3] Consider: what happens if you stat up relationships like you stat up abilities in Gumshoe? What’s it mean when your relationship is an abundant, scarce, or depleted state? What does a point spent from a relationship do? What sorts of actions do you need to take to refresh the points in a relationship? [Back]

[4] Or maybe it is, in which case, great! This is more a statement about taste and perception. Clearly, not everyone experiences Gumshoe the same way. [Back]


  17 Responses to “Evil Hat and Gumshoe”

  1. Hi Fred: Really looking forward to Evil Hats take on Gumshoe. I think it Gumshoe looks pretty fun and plan to start a Trail Of Cthulhu game when my current campaign wraps in a couple months. This is also the first time I heard about this project. Excellent. 🙂
    John T>

  2. As a big fan of both GUMSHOE and the work you folks at EH do, I’m really interested in watching where you take this. You’re asking a lot of the questions, and seeing a lot of the same potential (and issues) as I have running Armitage Files.

    I’m very excited to see where the questions take you.


  3. Yes, yes … so much yes. I hadn’t caught this previously, and very much interested to see it develop.

  4. note 3 – ooh

    Every so often I feel like I’ve neglected Gumshoe and ought to give it another go or two. The impression I have through osmosis and 1? 2? plays is a bit ho-hum, system-wise, and I’m aware that may be unfair (especially as it’s probably evolved from the early days).

  5. Oooh, excited! I really wanted to like Gumshoe but it sounds like I had similar issues with the system as you. I’m really interested to see what you guys come up with as a modified version.

  6. This sounds fantastic. Looking forward to it.

  7. Fascinating stuff, Fred. I’ve never played Gumshoe (or even heard of it until recently), but I have to say my interest in this is piqued. As a right-minded individual, I’ll be following the development.

  8. Interesting. I’m tempted to try a game where I allow attributes to go negative in the same way as Health (and Sanity) to give a much more extended range of effect. This would mean the players would get to push the envelope a bit more often, but at the cost of making stuff harder for them later on. Although it might require an invocation threshold based on the base attribute. Of course that will also mean that the attributes will need to refresh at the same rate, which means effects will tend to be more pronounced over the long term. Hmmmm. Why do I want to now bring Dying Earth style explicit refreshes into the game?

    [One variant we did try was combining the spends with Donjon-like discoveries – in that the spend allowed the players to create the clues. Had the advantage that it tied the adventure directly to the character’s abilities, but in doing so you need a pacing mechanism, either through player competition or some sort of adventure threshold tally. I’m not sure it would work for most groups, though. [Actually on thinking about it just now, some sort of flow chart along the lines of the tech advance charts from Star Empires (the same as the old Gamma World artifact manipulation charts) might work, especially if you place meaning to each position in the overall narrative arc of the adventure.]

    Good luck with it all.

  9. […] themselves have a forthcoming hack of GUMSHOE to Pathfinder (Lorefinder) and have given license to Evil Hat Enterprises to produce another hack of the system. How much work this conversion requires will depend on your system of […]

  10. I’m really looking forward to this. I’ve put more and more emphasis on benefit spends in actual play – particularly for moral dilemmas and allowing player narrative contributions.

    • Thanks Simon! It seems like a natural evolution (to me these days) of currency-spend systems to allow for at least partial authority-sharing with the players. I dig that you’ve been doing that at the table already. 🙂

  11. […] talked briefly before that we’ve got two Gumshoe system projects in the works at Evil […]

  12. […] sandbox Stars Without Number, and the horror/SF Ashen Stars, which uses the Gumshoe investigative/troubleshooter rules. All of them will be helpful in my current […]

  13. Any news on Revengers and Bubblegumshoe?

    • Will hasn’t had a lot of time for Revengers, I think. When that one’s ready to come to life, we’ll get noisy about it for sure.

      The Bubblegumshoe team is continuing to chisel away at the challenges of the project. Ken Hite’s also, as you might imagine, the sort of guy who’s pulled in a lot of different directions, so we’re not yet at a point where we can firmly state a timeline. Some good ideas about teenagerness, community, and authority figures are bubbling about within, tho.

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