30 September 2010

Gumshoe & investigation in role-playing games

I keep reading about how the Gumshoe system provides a fix for investigation in role-playing games. The problem they identify is that a botched die roll can prevent players from gaining a vital clue.

My first thought is that applying mechanics to investigation is the real mistake. Then I think that for a game—like Call of Cthulhu, which is all about investigation—maybe it makes sense.

But then I think, isn’t D&D really about investigation too? You’re trying to locate the McGuffin or explore the unknown or whatever. D&D didn’t have much in the way of mechanics for investigation, and—I think—for good reason. The more such mechanics have been expanded and added to D&D, the more you see people coming up with complaints exactly like the one Gumshoe is designed to address.

Gumshoe’s answer is to provide a resource-based mechanic in place of a dice-based one. (There are still dice rolls, but overall it’s more resource-management focused.) Reading about this, I can’t help but think that I’d rather spend time at the table thinking about the mystery and the clues rather than resource management.

So, I’m back to thinking that applying mechanics to investigation doesn’t seem like such a good idea.

This all feels a little unfair since I haven’t actually read any of the Gumshoe books yet. This, however, is the reason why I haven’t bought or read any of them yet.


Don the Bassman said...

I've always felt that the die rolls for investigation should be used to uncover more of a hint or a possible link between things rather than just revealing the mystery straight out. I actually have put that into effect with Forbidden, I let the draw influence some of clues or hints as it were. It's kinda like House, something the character would see or here that triggers a thought process. You still have the mystery but you don't have to get a good roll to solve it and a good roll won't solve it, just give you more hints to it.Vital clues are always there, its just the extra stuff that can be hard to find.

Anonymous said...

A botched anything (die roll, card flip, GM interaction) will prevent players gaining a vital clue, and this is no problem if there's more than one clue. GMs should never design investigative adventures to rely on one clue, whatever method they want to use to find clues.

Robert said...

GMs should never design investigative adventures to rely on one clue, whatever method they want to use to find clues.


John said...

While we mainly play old school D&D, we've done some one-offs of Trail of Cthulhu - a gumshoe system game. You don't have it quite right.

In gumshoe, you automatically get clues if you have the right skills and choose to use them. The resource points control your ability to excel or shine by going above and beyond the base clues - gumshoe resource points are like action points or hero points.

It is quite a bit different than Call of Cthulhu (where botched investigation die rolls are a bother). The biggest thing I've pulled into D&D from gumshoe is the idea that base clues that are required to move the game forward should always be found...

Robert said...

Yeah, I think I understand that, even if I didn’t express it well. My primary point is still that I think the mistake is applying mechanics to investigation at all. A mystery generally ought to be solvable without needing to use any skills. Even clues that require a certain skill (even if no roll is required) ought to be bonus clues.

Lowell Francis said...

I think you'd find the system doesn't operate as you're suggesting exactly. The game works on the idea of Core Clues which move the plot forward and which can be found without a roll, but by the possession of appropriate skills (and a clue may have several possible approaches). The game works to make sure an investigative group will cover most of the bases. The option exists for players to make "spends" from investigative skills to gain additional information or details which may add color, provide insight into the larger mystery or show off the character's abilities. As such the investigation part of the system works really well.

Where the resource management arrives in a way which irritated my group was with the standard challenge skills (fighting, athletics, etc) where you spend points from a skill's pool before you roll. So you can easily waste points-- and its a single d6 roll. My players really disliked that resolution mechanic.

Robert said...

Am I really being that opaque? Let me try again.

Yes, I understand that the core clues require only the possession of a skill and no spending of points.

That's great, however... I think even this is going too far. The core clues should be available without needing to possess any specific skill. The problem wasn't the mechanics used as gates to core clues. The problem was applying mechanics as gates to clues at all. The solution is not a system. The solution is to just not do that.