A Lazy Sequence

Gumshoe: adjudicating interpersonal skills

Over on the Gumshoe reddit, user Vheraun asked why Gumshoe games (Trail of Cthulhu specifically) There are no abilities in ToC to outright persuade or deceive someone…How do you deal with players that want to outright lie to someone?…. This is an interesting question, so today I’m going to look at some ideas for ajudicating trickier interpersonal situations.

First, let’s look at what Night’s Black Agents has to say about lying specifically:

Unlike many other RPG rules sets, GUMSHOE does not treat lying as an ability unto itself. Instead characters employ it as a tactic while using any of the various interpersonal abilities. With Bureaucracy, you tell functionaries what they want to hear. A little Flirting convinces the attractive stranger you admire her politics. Using Interrogation, you convince suspects that you’re really just trying to help them out, and so on. There’s a little bit of deception in nearly every successful interpersonal interaction — at least that’s how it works for covert operatives.

There is a more general principle to be gleaned here, especially the emphasized part, and it mirrors a principle that I first encountered in the Burning Wheel family of games where it is called Intent and Task and forms the core of the system. Intent is what the player wants to achieve for their character, and task is how their character is going to go about achieving it.

In addition to making adjudicating the ability to use easier, also the separation of intent & task provides tools to allow us to more easily derive interesting failures.

Determining intent

Let’s start with an example: Alice is playing Estelle, a parapsychologist. Estelle needs access to town finacial records that she suspects will show where how the council is being used to launder money for a high society Cthulhu cult. Alderman Renalds, an upstanding man, won’t just hand over these records to anyone who asks for them and Estelle obviously can’t tell him the real reason she needs them. Lacking the necessary general abilities for subterfuge, she’s going to have to lie.

Asking Alice, we determine that her intent is to ”access the records without mentioning the cult".

Determining the task

For task, Alice will need to choose one of investigative abilities (likely, but not necessarily, an interpersonal one) to use. This ability will change the interpretation of the intent within the narrative being established.

Here are some examples Alice could consider: Using reassurance (“You can trust me, I’ve only got the best interests of the town in mind”) to convince someone of a lie, using bureaucracy (”here’s the paper work you need, signed by Judge Anderson”), to streetwise°* (“It’s in your best interest to believe me. I can help you with Eddie the Knife’s protection if you help me”).

The choice of task (the ability, and they way its being deployed) is going to determine how much it may cost. Core clues stay core clues, free (non-core) clues, you may want to attach a point/push cost for tasks that are less obvious or direct. Non-free clues, the cost may go up. A big one for me is if the players take advantage of the authorial tools Gumshoe offers them, then I’ll tend to increase a cost.

Returning to our example, if Estelle has reassurance, that approach would likely be a good fit for a free clue here. However, if Alice were to suggest that she was going to reassure Renalds a different way, “I won’t have to take the records out of the building; nobody would even know”, maybe you would want to make that a spend, because she has misjudged his character. For bureacracy if she actually went to Judge Anderson first, then I would make it free, if she didn’t, or—especially—if she has just introduced Anderson improvisationally, then I would attach a cost. Streetwise seems like more of a stretch, so probably a spend regardless, and introducing Eddie the Knife would increase it.

Success and failure

I mentioned earlier that one facet of this way of thinking that I realy value is how it helps me with failure. This really helps when there are spends associated with the task, as you have leeway to allow the player to fail to achieve their task while still having forward momentum.

The way to do this is to start by examining the intent. In order to fail forward, you want to identify what counts as success, and that is what the statement of intent is about. From there you theres two broad approaches: Only fulfill part of the intent, or apply an additional twist. Look at the narrative introduced in the task to aid you.

For our example, the most obvious candidate is a partially fulfilled intent: Estelle gets "access to the records”, but not without mentioning members of the Cthulhu cult, thus involving Renalds where she didn’t mean to. This will definitely increase the stability cost when he (now) turns up dead.

If we did want to add a twist instead, lets look to the tasks: If Alice chose to go with bureacracy Judge Anderson might involved with the cult somehow, or by using him in this way Estelle might earn the emnity of either him or the Alderman; perhaps the judge frequently uses his authority to bully Renalds.


Wrapping up, I would be remiss if I did not also point you to Robin D. Law’s article from an early Page XX offering some different methods for handling these situations. Next up, I think I might look at how genre is encoded in Gumshoe games.

13 July 2019