A Lazy Sequence

Gumshoe: encoding genre with abilities

Today I want to look briefly at a facet of how Gumshoe encodes the setting and genre into the mechanics, and what that means for play. Because players experience the vast majority of the setting through their characters point of view and actions, that’s where I want to start.

If you look at a character sheet, I think you can separate out abilities and everything else (Drives, Sources of Stability, Deuced Peculiar Business, etc), with abilities as the primary means for the player to interact with the game world.

If you look at the different published Gumshoe games you will see that each one has a variation on the list of abilities described in the SRD, and that the descriptions (and therefore scope) changes too. As a simple example, in some games Assess Honest is called Bullshit Detector. Heres some guidance from the SRD to implementors that spell’s it out:

Rewrite investigative ability descriptions and example bullet points as needed for your setting. Rename abilities for desired flavor. Create new abilities keyed to your setting. Include only abilities relevant to your setting in your game.

To illustrate the point, the following table lists just the General abilities across the four settings the Yellow King RPG (YKRPG) takes place in. I’ve omitted the investigative skills simply because it would make the table too long.

Belle Époque Paris The Wars Aftermath This is Normal Now
Athletics Athletics Athletics Athletics
Composure Composure Composure Composure
Driving Driving Driving
Fighting Fighting Fighting Fighting
First Aid First Aid First Aid First Aid
Health Health Health Health
Mechanics Mechanics Mechanics Mechanics
Morale Morale
Preparedness Preparedness Preparedness Preparedness
Riding Riding
Sense TroubleSense Trouble Sense TroubleSense Trouble
Sneaking Sneaking Sneaking Sneaking
Traps and Bombs

If you are familiar with other Gumshoe games you may note the absence of skills such as Firearms, Scuffling, and Weapons: YKRPG deemphasizes combat and as result folds the more specialized types of combat into one catchall Fighting. Conversely, the Paris setting for Yellow King splits out Art into Painting, photography, poetry, and sculpture. The various games are intention about what is defined in fine grained and coarse grained terms. In general you can assume that the more fine grained the treatment, the more core those activities are expected to be.

Further, if you look at the specific description of a given ability across different Gumshoe games you will see that the scope and capabilities they confers also changes. As a simple example, compare Driving from Trail of Cthulhu to Drive from Fall of Delta Green: Trail requires 2 additional rating points to add additional types of ground vehicles to a characters repertoire, while Fall requires only 1. In other words, Fall characters are more likely to be skilled at a wide range of vehicular pursuits than Trail characters, even though both are able to drive.

This tells us that Gumshoe uses the ability list, and the specific details of abilities, to define the bounds of what the character can do in genre specific ways.

Adjudicating actions in the absence of abilities

What is perhaps more interesting is to look at the negative space the skill list maps out. What happens if a player wants their character to do something that is not covered by an ability in the abilities list? Let’s refer again to the YKRPG lists above: Aftermath has a Politics General ability, but (say) Paris does not. If a character in Paris tries to engage in politics how might you choose to adjudicate it?

First Considering the players intent, is there an alternate General or Investigative ability that suits? Perhaps Belle-Lettres or Bonhomie might be an appropriate substitute for Politics (coloring the action at the same time). Don’t worry about trying to force this. Either something is a reasonably obvious substitution, or or just move on to the next step.

You’re second backstop here is interpersonal skills, likely with a spend or push. The characters cant achieve this themselves, but perhaps they know someone who can get it done for them behind the scenes.

With no obvious appropriate ability available the action is pushing up against the bounds of the genre. In my opinion the correct interpretation of Gumshoe is not to roll:

  • If the action presents a interesting direction for the story to take, and it seems feasible, then no test is needed: It is an automatic success. Outcomes that introduce a twist but don’t dramatically alter the fortunes of either side are probably the best choice here. Briefly narrate the scene, and move on to fallout. Interesting, and not breaking the flow of the game should always be prioritized, in my opinion.
  • If it’s just not feasible, too far out of genre, or the results will introduce uninteresting consequences, then the character cannot succeed. Again, briefly narrate the fallout.

Finally, actions that upset the tone of the game should be addressed at a meta–game level. The groups should remind the player of the tonal expectations for the game, and ask them to reconsider.

Thats all for now. Next time we'll have a look at an important corner of investigative spends that seems to be often overlooked by players, even experience players, of the game.

18 September 2019