Wrapping My Brain Around Gumshoe




On my list of games to try at some point is some game from the Gumshoe family of RPGs. I've got a bunch of them - though I've never played one outright they are all wonderfully done and have a very high density of useful ideas, even if you never play one of those games outright.

However, I do want to get around to playing one of them at some point. High on my list is the recent TimeWatch RPG, followed closely by Night's Black Agents, especially it's Dracula Dossier.

For TimeWatch I'm generally a fan of the time travel genre and more importantly, at least for me, a huge fan of history. I hope at some point to be able to visit Istanbul and see the capital of two great empires, to see the pyramids in Egypt, to see the canals of Venice, etc. I doubt I'll ever be able to go on a history world tour but some of those destinations are definitely in reach (alas no trip to the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth next year - the girls really want a trip to Disney...)

Dracula Dossier... I absolutely love the novel Dracula as well as fiction that has been built around it, such as Kostova's The Historian.

One of the things I've wrestled with is the Gumshoe system itself. It's not a particularly complex system. It has a number of traits that separate it from most systems:

  • It is geared towards accumulating clues - if a clue is present and you have the proper investigative ability (which could be scientific, interpersonal, etc. - it's not always finding a scrap of paper) you get it. The interesting thing is supposed to be what you do with these clues.
  • The game is very much a resource-based game, with all abilities measured in points that refresh under certain conditions (often the end of an adventure). While you automatically get clues with your investigative abilities, spending a point from that ability adds extra awesomeness. For example if you interrogate a gang member to learn about his boss you get the needed information automatically. But a point spend might, for example, also get him to contact you with additional information later.
  • In addition to investigative abilities, general abilities are used for things like combat, athletic ability, etc. General abilities are random with your action determined on a 1d6 roll, plus any points you spend.
There's a bit of weirdness here, at least from the perspective of more "traditional" RPGs.

The biggest has to be the whole mechanic of auto-finding clues. It's definitely a switch from the whole "make an intimidate skill check" or "roll against spot hidden". 

The other is the task resolution. There's a few things here to wrap your brain around. The first is one that a player in my group mentioned to me and it crystallized something I'd been contemplating - 1d6 just seems a little bit... dull. That's a qualitative objection but I understood exactly what he meant. I'm not saying it's like this in practice - I actually imagine what works would vary from person to person and group to group. But it certainly is one of those things that seems odd from the outside.

Similarly, the spending of points from a finite pool seems a little unusual, given most games provide you with a static bonus based on how skilled you are. The character certainly doesn't know how low in points he or she is getting but the player does. I imagine how much you accept that is somewhat key in how well the game would work for you..


I'm probably sounding a bit negative on the system - to be honest, I'm not. But I am giving some thoughts to the areas that I find challenging. I imagine that this is a case where actually trying out a system is critical and listening to an actual play recording might be worthwhile as well. I'm definitely still giving some thought to trying out TimeWatch.

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