The GUMSHOE system, as designed by Robin D. Laws and used in a number of RPGs, Trail of Cthulhu and Mutant City Blues being but two, has been widely praised for turning the standard approach of how role-playing game systems dealt with the issue of clues and information on its head.
Traditional RPGs doled out clues and information to the players only if characters completed a successful action of some kind – did you notice the single blonde hair in the victim’s hand, did you find the relevant newspaper clipping in the library, do you know anything about ancient Aztec murder rituals? On the plus side, this gave players a sense of positive achievement if they managed to find a clue; on the flip side, a failed roll could stall the adventure and bring the entire story crashing to a halt. So GUMSHOE does what many GMs ended up doing anyway: if you have the necessary investigative skill, you get the clue. No roll necessary. You just get it. Simple and, in hindsight, so obvious.
But that’s not the genius of GUMSHOE. Well, ok, maybe it is. But it’s not the genius I want to talk about today.
Ingredients for dramatic tension
One of the challenges in RPGs is creating dramatic tension in an adventure. Certain types of scenes have dramatic tension in spades, typically those governed by detailed conflict resolution mechanics – such as combat. In large part, it’s because these scenes have six in-built mechanical elements:
- Objective – the players must have some firm goal that they’re looking to achieve.
- Challenge – a clear obstacle between the players and the objective.
- Risk – the scene presents some sort of negative consequence for failure.
- Reward – the scene presents some sort of positive consequence for success.
- Choices – the players have to decide how best to overcome the challenge.
- Resources – the players have limited resources that inform what Choices they can exercise.
The best, most dramatic or dramatic scenes have all six of these elements. For example, a good combat scene in an D&D-esque fantasy game might have:
- Objective – the heroes want to save a Princess, locked up in a far-away tower.
- Challenge – the tower is being guarded by a Dragon.
- Risk – the dragon will eat you. Or maybe eat the Princess. Or both.
- Reward – if you kill the dragon, rather than just avoid it, you get its huge pile of treasure.
- Choices – you have potions, spells, different types of weapons and a range of combat maneuvers that you can exercise to take down this hideous monster.
- Resources – you have a limited number of potions and spells. In addition, you have a finite number of Hit Points and when they have gone, you’re dead.
This example has all of the mechanical ingredients to be a great dramatic scene. To become the finished article, it probably needs one other thing, which is to be interesting, but it’s got all of the basics.
The Dramatic Rock
Other scenes frequently lack one of more of these ingredients, and the more of these that are missing, the more it is difficult to capture an appropriate level of drama. A classic one of these is the simple binary obstacle.
Take a rock in the path. You can move it, or you can go back and find another route, which will waste time. You have an objective. The rock is the challenge. The risk is losing time. There’s no clear reward. You may have multiple ways of dealing with the rock but nothing to stop you potentially trying all of them, so there’s limited decision-making. Resources may be used, but that depends on what Choices you exercise. In the absence of real pressure, its unlikely to be an issue.
In D&D, we could ask the players to make Strength rolls for their characters. They succeed or they fail. They could use a potion of Bull’s Strength, but it’s unlikely that any party would do so. So it becomes a straight roll. Succeed. Fail. Basically, it’s a rubbish obstacle. Unless your aim is just to annoy your players, you should just narrate your way through and let them get onto the next really dramatic challenge… which, knowing D&D, is probably another fight.
Resources require Decisions, so if all Skills are Resources…
However, this is another area where GUMSHOE really cleverly changes how we think about simple binary obstacles. In GUMSHOE, each skill has a numerical rating. If you want to use that skill, you have to spend one or more points, reducing its numerical rating in return for getting a bonus on your die roll. So having a high skill level doesn’t mean you’re always better at something, it means you have more opportunity to choose to be better at something. But once it’s gone it’s gone. All of a sudden, we’re embuing every single skill roll with the elements of Choice and Resources.
In GUMSHOE, we still have that rock. My character has the Athletics skill. I could spend some points to improve their chance of success, but how many should I spend? Spending 1 doesn’t improve chances that much, so I might have just wasted it. How important is this rock anyway? If I fail, is there someone else in the party who might be able to succeed after me? I only have 2 Athletics points left, what if I need some later on?
With GUMSHOE’s resource-based skills, every single skill-use is embued with inherent dramatic tension. It’s only modest, not over-whelming. It’s unlikely to lead to analysis-paralysis. But it does mean that the players are constantly thinking about what is important to them, trying to think ahead to future challenges, trying to juggle their choices and balance the limited resources available to them. Just as with how GUMSHOE handles clues, it’s a really simple mechanic that has a huge impact on game play.
Other RPGs have suggested bringing tension into simple obstacles through the use of complications. This is basically a way of ensuring that even simple tests have a heightened Risk and/or Reward. So it’s not a question of whether you can move the rock – of course you can, given enough time. It’s a question of whether you can move the rock before the mob of ravenous ghouls descends upon you and feasts on your weak, scrawny, unable-to-shift-a-rock-fast-enough bodies. Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel puts this concept at the core of its conflict resolution mechanics, requiring that every action is framed in terms of not what you do but what you want to achieve: you don’t say “I try to move the rock”, you say “I move the rock before the ravenous ghouls can get to us”, placing the onus on the player to set up the consequences for failure.
So if you really want to make simple skill checks dramatic and exciting, go the full whammy. Combine the use of consequences with GUMSHOE’s inherent Choices/Resources aspect. Now you have the tools at your finger tips to turn every non-combat obstacle into a dramatic challenge that tests, excites and challenges your players.
NB: Just realised I should add a citation to the end of this. Main inspiration for this was listening to discussion on obstacles in RPGs in Ken & Robin Talk About Stuff podcast, episode 103. If you haven’t listened to it before, there’s no time like the present!