Why Aren't Designers Using The GUMSHOE System?
  • Why Aren't Designers Using The GUMSHOE System?



    I was re-reading Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite and Pelgrane Press for a review for this site, when I was stopped in my reading by what I thought was an important question (which I ask in the headline). Why aren’t more designers making games around the Gumshoe system created by Robin Laws? Robin Laws is a very smart man who thinks a lot about role-playing games. Now, I don’t always agree with where his lines of reasoning take him, as a designer, but that doesn’t take away from the man’s brilliance. I will admit that I wasn’t as impressed with the Gumshoe system at first blush, but as I have put more experience with the system under my belt, that has changed and my appreciation for what Laws did in the rules has grown.

    The concept at the heart of Gumshoe is one that has bothered me in a lot of fantasy games that I have run or played over my many years of gaming. That simple phrase: “I search the room.” Forgive my French, but the one thing that I dislike most about RPGs is the tendency towards “pixelbitching.” For those who may not be familiar with this term, it basically applies to having to state that you’re searching every inch of a room and looking out for cracks, crevices and any weirdly discolored patches that you may encounter in the flickering torchlight. It also refers to those “locks” that are pointless mini-puzzle games that require you to figure out the right combination of up-down-up that will unlock a door, or activate device. I hate those things.

    One of the central concepts of a Gumshoe game is to get rid of that idea, and let you get to the meat of the scenario at hand. In game design in the 90s, we saw a rise of role-playing games with highly detailed skill systems. Pages and pages and pages of skills, with specialties and sub-skills all detailed. One of the high points of this style of game design would probably be GURPS from Steve Jackson Games. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t bashing that style of design. I played the heck out of games like GURPS in the 90s. Just about everything that I wanted to play was ported into GURPS via the multitude of supplements that the system had. The problem arose with this school of design in that, while you were still assumed to be creating highly competent characters (at the higher point totals for GURPS characters, at least), the way that the skill systems worked your “highly competent” characters always had a non-trivial chance of failure when a player attempted to do anything.


    As games touting their “realism” became more and more prevalent in the 80s and 90s, this trend for designing skills followed. All of those years of characters trying to do something cool, and instead doing something disappointing. You see this idea made fun of in various D&D memes around the internet, and I think that game design is finally getting around to fixing this idea. Gumshoe isn’t the only one doing this, not by far, but it is one of the only systems that is putting “fixing” investigation in RPGs in the center of the design.

    But Gumshoe doesn’t catch the imagination of game designers in the same that Fate or Apocalypse World seems to be doing. I’m not saying that Gumshoe is better than either of those systems, in fact I’m supposed to by playing my first Powered By The Apocalypse game next month. There are always going to be game systems that catch on with designers, and those that get left behind. Gumshoe seems to have a devoted following, and a number of successful games, including the earlier mentioned Night’s Black Agents and Trail of Cthulhu among them. Pelgrane Press has a growing number of Gumshoe powered games, but for a system that has been released under both the OGL and a Creative Commons license it just surprises me that we don’t see more designers chewing on this system for their own worlds, like we do with D20, Fate or Apocalypse World (or any other number of free-to-use game systems out there).
    Maybe Pelgrane Press is doing such a good job with their games that designers don’t need to remake the wheel. I know that there was talk of a Ars Magica/Gumshoe mashup at Atlas Games at one point, but I haven’t seen anything about that in a while.

    At this point, you’re probably wondering one of two things, maybe even both. First, why does it matter what systems people use? Second, why is Gumshoe so cool?


    The first question has a simple answer for me, and it lies in why I started writing for this site. Diversity in games is always a good thing. I like the idea of having a toolbox of different games, so that I can use the game, or system, that works best with what I want to do. Yes, I can just get a high level of system mastery with one game and use it for everything that I want, but that isn’t really how I roll. You get a different feel for a fantasy world when playing D&D, or when playing Stormbringer, and I like that. I want a game to reflect a world, and I want a world to be a good fit for how the mechanics of a game works. When I play a pulp game with Fate, and one with Troll Lord Games’ wonderful Amazing Adventures, the characters have different feels to them, and how they can interact with their worlds are different. Sometimes those differences are what I am looking for when I run, or play, a game.

    Now, why do I like Gumshoe is a more complicated question to answer.

    First off, it gets rid of the idea that a competent character has a non-zero chance of failure. That’s a HUGE idea, when you look at the stream of design that hit its height in the 90s (and still shows up at times in more contemporary game designs). If you look at role-playing games from the idea that they are supposed to simulate what you see in the stories/movies/comics that we all read, this brings what happens in a game much closer to what we see in the fictions that we are trying to emulate.

    One thing, the “zero to hero” games, which cover a lot of the level-based games out there, most of which draw upon some strain of D&D as their influence, are not a counter argument to why there should be a “whiff” factor in RPG design. You can argue many things about the “heroic journey” of these games, but mostly the idea of them is that your character is on the journey to get to be that competent character. Using a first level D&D character to refute Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark (sometimes they’re even the same person) isn’t proof that competent characters shouldn’t be doing competent things. It just means that different characters should be able to do different things.

    I think that our recent Classic Traveller game would have been more interesting for the players if the game had been designed like Gumshoe. Too many times the momentum of our game was interrupted because a character who should have been able to do some sort of action couldn’t. Definitely not a slam on old school game designs. In most other aspects, the design of Classic Traveller is a hallmark of how simple and elegant older school game mechanics can be. If your idea of fun is overcoming adversity through fumbled dice rolls, then the task resolution of Classic Traveller will be your thing. I just think that, in the case of our group, this held us back in some ways.

    So, again, what makes Gumshoe so great? I keep talking about where other games fall down. In a Gumshoe game, characters have what are called Investigative Abilities. But, what does this mean? At the core, the Investigative Abilities in a Gumshoe game let you get to the heart of the matter, because getting a piece of necessary information shouldn’t be dependent on a dice roll. Now, there are still contingencies for getting this information: your character has to be one the scene, they have to have a relevant ability and they have to tell the GM of the game that they are using it. In Night’s Black Agents an example of this is “I use Chemistry to test the blood for silver.” Obviously the character has an important reason to ask this question (perhaps it is a way for people to protect themselves from vampiric attacks, by dousing themselves with silver), and the next step of the characters (and the story) probably hinges on the results. In a game where there are non-zero chances of success, time can be wasted in a game session in rolling the results of this over and over to figure out if the answer given to a character is correct or not. What Gumshoe posits is that, if a character is a chemist, and demonstrates competency in their Chemistry ability, time shouldn’t be wasted in rolling until you get a high enough of a result to be able to tell if the GM is telling the truth or not.

    This idea also assumes something important: a role-playing game isn’t a competition between the GM and the players. If the information is important to the story, and the characters have the relevant knowledge, don’t waste time in the reveal. While I’m sure that some gamers have fun with those hours spent in a chemistry lab testing, and retesting blood samples, others would have much more fun getting past the blood tests and getting to the point where they get to fight vampires. I know that I would.

    But all of this brings me back to my initial point of this piece. Why aren’t more designers using the Gumshoe rules for their games? Maybe they just aren’t as familiar with the rules, which is entirely possible. But becoming more familiar with these rules is why I wrote over a thousand words for this piece. It does mean that I will, hopefully, have to explain less in my review for Night’s Black Agents, but that is really only secondary. What we see often in gaming writing is people writing what they know, talking about the games that they know and figuring out how to make them fit into other situations. Sometimes, instead of talking about how a screwdriver can be used in different situations, we should talk about why a pair of pliers are also useful.
    Comments 152 Comments
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      This is a test comment, because the system seems to hate me.
    1. TrippyHippy's Avatar
      TrippyHippy -
      Robin D. Laws resume includes a number of games that are 're-writes' of classic games - so we have Trail of Cthulhu instead of Call of Cthulhu, HeroQuest instead of RuneQuest - and collaborative efforts where he made systems with other creators Feng Shui, Over The Edge and so on.

      While certain systems have been developed by other writers, like Ken Hite and the Gumshoe system, he's not really set his name against a particular setting, which is what resonates more with some gamers. Feng Shui is the closest to this, although it must be noted that this is a very post-modern mish-mash of genres and the original core mechanic wasn't actually his.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      True, but I don't think that has anything to do with what I just said.
    1. Nagol's Avatar
      Nagol -
      Probably the main reason developers aren't constructing games with the rules engine is that it isn't popular enough with their expected player base.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      @Piratecat is about to put out Timewatch. So, there's one designer using it.

      I think, however, that you overestimate how many games are really published at all. By my count there are already 7 GUMSHOE games out there, and Timewatch will make 8. How many more systems do you really expect there to be using one system core?

      To answer the question, we should note that GUMSHOE is really designed to handle mystery/investigation/procedural style games. It is at its best when you have a "problem/mystery of the week" kind of adventure design. It doesn't do dungeon crawling well, for example, and isn't designed for particularly rules-detail-heavy combat. All in all, it is a system that does what it does pretty well (I'm about to use Ashen Stars for a campaign for my group), but what it does isn't necessarily what everyone wants to do. And that's okay.
    1. Kramodlog's Avatar
      Kramodlog -
      I always have a funny feeling with these sort of columns. I find them pertinent and interesting, at the same time they do not touch me as we have very little time and monetary resources to buy, learn and test various gaming systems.
    1. Dahak's Avatar
      Dahak -
      To me, the reason is twofold (in addition to all of Umbran's spot-on comments):

      1. The game's method of handling clues/procedures feel more like guidance of which experienced GMs are already aware.

      2. The system and its GURPS-esque number of skills isn't really aimed at beginners.

      The kind of people who need those kinds of procedures and advice tend to also need a more entry level game.
    1. werecorpse's Avatar
      werecorpse -
      I am not a game designer and I haven't played much gumshoe but here are my thoughts on the system.
      I agree that many systems are designed with a non-trivial chance of failure to find an important clue but you don't need a whole new system to change this. Instead just adjust your favourite system slightly and it's all good. In the example you give of testing the blood for silver the party has to notice/pay attention to the blood (auto success based on play action) have the skill (player design) and ask to use the skill. In D20 you simply make the DC for using chemistry to discover the silver in the blood 0. That's the whole investigative system done. You don't need a whole new system to do that just a different attitude to making clues available.
      If you want to make it a bit more complicated maybe have
      DC 0 (success but problem) the blood has silver but you botched the test so it takes 4 hours to find out
      DC 10 (simple success) the blood has silver and it takes half an hour to find out
      DC 20 (great success) the blood has silver and traces of chloroform and it takes a half hour to find out

      Now I agree with the philosophy behind the system which is along the lines of "if it's important for the players to be able to find something don't leave it up to the dice to decide if they do" but this is just an issue of poor adventure design not game design. All those dungeons with important rooms behind secret doors you are meant to find to have more fun. Madness.

      I have read and tried to absorb the Gumshoe philosophy (again I am still no aficionado) and I do think it's clever so when I run these dungeons I decide if the door is a bonus or a necessary lead. If it leads to a secret treasure room that's not that important I might leave a chance of failure but otherwise my secret door location chart is more like
      Perception DC
      0 after 10 minutes of loud searching you discover a section of the wall is hollow with a corridor behind, you can't figure out how to open it but you could probably force it open (door found, negative consequence of time and noise)
      20 after a few minutes searching you find a secret door, it appears to be able to be opened by pushing first against a spot about 2 foot above the floor and pivoting it (success)
      25 as 20 plus the dust around the door indicates it hasn't been opened in many months, maybe a year and the scratches on the floor suggest something heavy was dragged in or out some time in the distant past (success plus).

      The truth is that the non trivial chance of failure should be reserved for certain things that are trivial to the plot. IMO This actually was the way it was in old school gaming when your character had no skills. It was all about what you did.
      DM "you see in the room a dead Orc covered in a filmy substance, a small wooden chest and on the opposite wall a door" (3 auto success perception rolls)
      Player "before going in I look carefully at the ceiling and the corners of the room"
      DM "you see in one corner of the roof a thick web and a large black spider" (auto success based on action)
      - cut to combat-
      Player "right now I examine the chest"
      DM "it's locked" (auto success)
      Player "I search the Orc for a key"
      DM "you find it" (auto success)
      Etc etc.

      There may be something more to the system other than just a way to adjust the philosophy behind finding clues but if that's all there is (and its important) you don't need a whole new system IMO.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
      To me, the reason is twofold (in addition to all of Umbran's spot-on comments):

      1. The game's method of handling clues/procedures feel more like guidance of which experienced GMs are already aware.

      ...

      The kind of people who need those kinds of procedures and advice tend to also need a more entry level game.
      I feel that RPGs are entering an age of refinement and polishing. That many of the new games are more about helping codify best practices that many experienced GMs and players already use these days.

      I put Fate and Apocalypse World in this category as well..
    1. pedr's Avatar
      pedr -
      I think GUMSHOE, like the various Cortex Plus games, is an interesting development in the game design sphere where influences from narrowly-focused "indie"/story games are being developed into larger and slightly more general games. GUMSHOE can be implemented in different ways, and each contains particular mechanical additions and choices to make it easier to run and play the particular type of game. Mutant City Blues would actually be a pretty poor system for running a game of vampire conspiracies and spycraft.

      Where designers are interested in an investigation and inter-character relationship game, GUMSHOE is a good choice - it's probably the only system deliberately designed to make that kind of game easy to run. Evil Hat is currently developing Bubblegumshoe, which is basically the Veronica Mars (or Brick) RPG. But as mentioned there's a limited market for those kinds of games, so it's not surprising that it doesn't get used as much as Apocalypse World or Fate.
    1. Umbran's Avatar
      Umbran -
      Quote Originally Posted by Dahak View Post
      1. The game's method of handling clues/procedures feel more like guidance of which experienced GMs are already aware.
      I think the "codify best practices" comment from Von Ether is a good response to this. Experienced GMs are aware of the issues, and they either have to lay it on thick (with things like the Three Clue Rule) or actually defy the system they are playing to be *sure* the players get the required information. That's silly to have to do.

      Plus, codifying the practice is a good way to not have to wait for the new GMs to make mistakes for several years before they figure it out. Why make them reinvent the wheel? Just give them the wheel in the product!

      2. The system and its GURPS-esque number of skills isn't really aimed at beginners.
      Ashen Stars has an alternate skill system that has fewer skills that has gotten some fine recommendations. Which suggests that GUMSHOE doesn't *need* to have loads of skills. Though, to be honest, a broad list of skills is there to support the procedural style, which is in part defined by having specialists in various areas. If everyone can do nigh everything, it isn't much of a procedural.

      Ashen Stars *also* has a way to deal for those who might shoot themselves in the foot with a fully open large skill system - they strongly recommend that the characters take roles (one shipboard, one planetside) and give the skill minimums for each role. You buy your skills for your roles first, and then flesh out the characters with what remains. The effect is almost class-like.
    1. Bedrockgames's Avatar
      Bedrockgames -
      I think it is a well designed system. I've been putting out investigative style adventures for about six years and one of the things I've noticed is people have very different sets of preferences when it comes to those. If my table and audience were slightly different I might use the system. Gumshoe handles it well for people who want a particular style of mystery adventure. The reason I don't use it, is it doesn't quite fit my style of running such a game. I am not big into scenes and I like mystery adventures that have the risk of failure to them (so non-zero chance of failure is something I generally like in games). But I have read it, and I've run it. I enjoy reading Laws and I've certainly been influenced by some of his design.
    1. dd.stevenson's Avatar
      dd.stevenson -
      I like reading Gumshoe games, but I doubt I could ever get my players to go with a game using the system. I mean, they're hardwired to play D&D, and every rule that's not the same as the D&D rules would have to be re-explained every session. I have this same problem with a lot of Indie games, sadly--and I doubt whether I'm alone in this.

      Best to steal the parts I like as D&D houserules (and boy howdy have I), and then move on.
    1. MatthewJHanson's Avatar
      MatthewJHanson -
      I think the reason is that Gumshoe is specifically targeted at running investigations, while I feel that something like Fate or World have a lot more options. If the designer wants to create a game that's anything other than weekly investigations, they are probably not going to use Gumshoe to do it.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Actually, after reading the first half of the article, the main thing I was wondering what: "What the heck is Gumshoe?" Obviously it's some kind of RPG system. I would wager it has something to do with investigation, given the name "gumshoe" was a nickname for a detective.

      After reading the second half, I still have no idea what Gumshoe is, or what the rule system is like beyond "If you're skilled in a thing you can't fail." Which, aside from "rolling until you win" which really isn't that common practice anyway, seems to be the biggest complaint in this article.

      So Mr Article Author (whose name I can't actually find on the article, maybe I need a skill for Author Finding!), if you want to know why more people aren't using the Gumshoe rules, I'd say the answer is quite simply: because most people have no idea what Gumshoe even is.
    1. Christopher Helton's Avatar
      Christopher Helton -
      Sometimes, when you ask a question in a headline, it is a rhetorical one that is not meant to be literally answered.
    1. TerraDave's Avatar
      TerraDave -
      I was going to do a longer response on pointlessly pointless twee game systems with oxymoronic automatic resolution mechanics, but I thought these made the real point.

      Quote Originally Posted by goldomark View Post
      I always have a funny feeling with these sort of columns. I find them pertinent and interesting, at the same time they do not touch me as we have very little time and monetary resources to buy, learn and test various gaming systems.
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      Actually, after reading the first half of the article, the main thing I was wondering what: "What the heck is Gumshoe?" Obviously it's some kind of RPG system. I would wager it has something to do with investigation, given the name "gumshoe" was a nickname for a detective.

      After reading the second half, I still have no idea what Gumshoe is, or what the rule system is like beyond "If you're skilled in a thing you can't fail." Which, aside from "rolling until you win" which really isn't that common practice anyway, seems to be the biggest complaint in this article.

      So Mr Article Author (whose name I can't actually find on the article, maybe I need a skill for Author Finding!), if you want to know why more people aren't using the Gumshoe rules, I'd say the answer is quite simply: because most people have no idea what Gumshoe even is.
    1. Wrathamon -
      Quote Originally Posted by TerraDave View Post
      I was going to do a longer response on pointlessly pointless twee game systems with oxymoronic automatic resolution mechanics, but I thought these made the real point.
      ouch
    1. gribble's Avatar
      gribble -
      Quote Originally Posted by werecorpse View Post
      I am not a game designer and I haven't played much gumshoe but here are my thoughts on the system.
      The main issue with the approach you outlined, is that it pretty much eliminates niche protection. If you set the DC too low (such as in the DC 0 examples you give), then any player can find the important clue tied to (for example) a Religion check, making the cleric feel like he is superfluous in an area where he should shine. Set it high enough so that characters other than the cleric will have a hard time discovering it, and once again you'll have a (perhaps low, but certainly non-zero) chance the cleric will fail and the plot will stall. Sure you can introduce house rules, like requiring training in the relevant skill (and although commonly used, this has been a house rule in the last couple of editions of D&D) but then you can no longer claim "D&D handles this already".

      For things like knowing about religious stuff, the cleric really shouldn't fail, for guiding a group through the wilderness to an ideal observation spot the ranger really shouldn't fail, for sneaking up behind some suspicious characters and eavesdropping on their conversation the rogue shouldn't really fail, etc. (you can assume a caveat that there might be times it's appropriate for these things to fail due to the needs of the story). Conversely, the non-cleric/non-ranger/non-rogue really shouldn't have much of a shot normally at succeeding in these sorts of things.

      Gumshoe does this really well - if your explosives expert looks around the scene of a crime, he automatically uncovers the important information (e.g.: the explosive seems to be an obscure type which is only available to the military) , and no-one else has a chance of uncovering it. He also has the option of getting less crucial, but still useful information (e.g.: there are some components of a short range receiver - clearly the bomb was detonated remotely from a nearby location). It makes experts in certain areas really feel like they should, without rendering their expertise irrelevant by making it possible for anyone to get the info.

      As for why it isn't more widely used? I agree with those saying it probably isn't well known enough. People may have heard of NBA or ToC, but most probably don't know the name of the common system is Gumshoe. Of those that do, most probably don't know that it is an Open System - I knew about Gumshoe, but didn't realise it was open until reading this article, so thanks for that!
    1. Matchstick's Avatar
      Matchstick -
      Quote Originally Posted by Umbran View Post
      @Piratecat is about to put out Timewatch. So, there's one designer using it.

      I think, however, that you overestimate how many games are really published at all. By my count there are already 7 GUMSHOE games out there, and Timewatch will make 8. How many more systems do you really expect there to be using one system core?

      To answer the question, we should note that GUMSHOE is really designed to handle mystery/investigation/procedural style games. It is at its best when you have a "problem/mystery of the week" kind of adventure design. It doesn't do dungeon crawling well, for example, and isn't designed for particularly rules-detail-heavy combat. All in all, it is a system that does what it does pretty well (I'm about to use Ashen Stars for a campaign for my group), but what it does isn't necessarily what everyone wants to do. And that's okay.
      I agree with Umbran for the most part. GUMSHOE does what it does very well, and has covered most of its bases with the released settings. About the only thing I can think of off the top of my head that I'd like to see from GUMSHOE would be a Dresden type Urban Fantasy setting, and I'm not totally sure Mutant City Blues doesn't fill that niche somewhat (though it doesn't have magic).

      I should add that NBA is a great example of something much more than "mystery of the week" with regards to GUMSHOE. The "conspyramid" is a really great way to lay out a campaign, and it's a GUMSHOE/NBA thing.
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