A Lazy Sequence

Gumshoe: an overlooked feature of spends

Certain clues allow you to gain special benefits by spending points from the relevant investigative ability pool. During your first few scenarios, your GM will offer you the opportunity to spend additional points as you uncover these clues. After that it’s also up to you to ask if it there’s anything to be gained by spending extra time or effort on a given clue. You can even propose specific ways to improve your already good result; if your suggestion is persuasive or entertaining, the GM may award you a special benefit not mentioned in her scenario notes.

This text first appears in The Esoterrorists, (1st edition, page 30), the first Gumshoe game, and it is in every game up to the Yellow King RPG (YKRPG) at which point investigative points are replaced with pushes and the text on benefits is reduced in size. You can find it in Trail of Cthulhu on page 54 in the section titled Spends and Benefits.

Anecdotally I’ve encountered quite a few experienced Gumshoe players who, for whatever reason, have never realized the extent of what this rule is offering, so let’s look at it in depth.

The phrase your already good result is a little ambiguous. My interpretation is that your good result is intended to be the typical case of acquiring a clue with your investigative ability without the spend.

The rest of the emphasized sentence, if your suggestion is persuasive or entertaining, the GM may award you a special benefit not mentioned in her scenario notes. is, in my opinion clear: Gumshoe players have direct access to narrative control. Investigative spends are a mechanism to mediate this control, rather than a more free-wheeling approach as you might see in a Story-Game style system.

Take a look at the example list of benefits on page 53. For clarity here are the categories Trail of Cthulhu provides:

  • The benefit gives you an advantage in a future contest of General abilities.
  • The benefit gives a favorable impression to supporting characters.
  • The benefit can lead to a flashback scene.
  • Point spends can help you resolve a moral dilemma. If your character finds the action required to get a Core Clue distasteful you might make a point spend to avoid this.
  • Extra point spends might speed up an investigation
  • A point spend might get you some dedicated pool points (see p. 54)
  • An Technical spend spend might allow you to create a notable work. An Academic spend, to write an influential paper or join an appropriate society
  • An impressive point spend may even lead to refreshment of Stability points (see p. 79)

If you are a player, I would recommend adding a summary like this from the specific game you are playing to your quick reference sheet.

Remember that the mechanical outcome is only half the result. In addition to that you get to introduce something to the narrative, and have scene that acts as a spotlight for your character.

As an example, let’s take the example from Trail of Cthulhu on page 54, and flip it around a little. It assumes the default situation of the player, Zachary, asking for something that the keeper already has prepared. Instead, what might it look like if the player took advantage of the rule we are looking at:

“Is there another way into that house? I think it would be plausible that there would be old smugglers tunnels throughout this neighbourhood” says Zachary.

The Keeper hadn’t considered this – the front door would have got them to the confrontation just fine – but it seems plausible, and initiative should always be rewarded where possible.

“Would you rather spend 1 Architecture point or 2 Credit Rating points?” asks the Keeper. If Zachary picks Architecture, Boothroyd will “just happen to remember” seeing smuggler’s tunnels in a similar Georgian house in the neighborhood. But Zachary picks the bigger spend for the bigger benefit, reducing his Credit Rating pool from its maximum of 6 down to 4, so the Keeper asks “As it happens, you attended a soiree at young Brickman’s the other month, tell us how these tunnels came up"

Zachary improvises from the scene starter the Keeper has given him “Yes, Brickman has recently moved into a swanky new house in the neighbourhood, and after a few brandies at his soiree, was keen to show us the smugglers tunnels he found in his new wine cellar. He told us that he’d had to explore as soon as he found it, and visited the cellar of every house built before 1750”

“That’s great” says the Keeper, “You are sure he’d be happy to stand you a glass and lead you into the tunnels”

That’s really all there is to this. This rule really shines in improvisational games (especially The Armitage Files or Dracula Dossier where, obviously, the GM has less prepared). If you have previously overlooked this rule, try to consciously take advantage of it the next time you play.