The Alexandrian

Trail of Cthulhu - Kenneth D. HiteA fellow named Caleb asked me in an e-mail recently why I’m not a fan of the way GUMSHOE handles clues. In writing a reply to him, I think I’ve found a better way of expressing my personal distaste for GUMSHOE’s approach than I have in the past.

Start by considering a scenario with locations A, B, and C.

First, let’s assume that each of these locations contains a clue which points to the next location. GUMSHOE says, “Oh no! What if they don’t find a clue? Then the adventure can’t continue!” And in order to solve this problem, GUMSHOE says, “It’s OK. We’ll just remove the resolution mechanic and we’ll simply assume that the PCs succeed.”

Investigative scenarios have been done wrong since the early days of roleplaying games. As a consequence, they’re hard to run and prone to grind to a halt. (…) You have to search for the clue that takes you to the next scene. If you roll well, you get the clue. If not, you don’t — and the story grinds to a halt. (…) GUMSHOE, therefore, makes the finding of clues all but automatic, as long as you get to the right place in the story and have the right ability. (Esoterrorists, pg. 26-27)

In other words, we’ll remove the chokepoint of failure by simply removing the possibility of failure.

So what’s the problem?

Well, now let’s assume that each of these locations contains a monster which you have to fight before you move to the next location.

Presented with this problem, we would expect GUMSHOE to say something like, “Oh no! What if they don’t defeat the monster? Then the adventure can’t continue!”

And in order to solve this problem, GUMSHOE would then say, “Well, that’s OK. We’ll just remove the combat system and we’ll simply assume that the PCs always defeat their foes.”

To be fair, GUMSHOE is right: If you make it so that the PCs automatically win, then they will never lose. It’s tautological and everything. And is there anything wrong with that?

Not necessarily: If the game wasn’t actually about fighting people, there might be little harm in skipping past the fights. But if the game was about combat, then you might have a problem.

And, in my opinion, the actual act of investigation is, in fact, a relatively major component of what a mystery story is about. GUMSHOE says it isn’t because you never see a fictional detective miss a clue. (But if they did miss a clue completely and entirely, how would the reader or viewer ever know? And, in point of fact, there are many mystery stories in which the detective does miss a clue and later goes back to find it or realizes that they missed it only after the crime has already been solved.)

In addition to this, as I’ve discussed in the past, GUMSHOE’s “solution” doesn’t actually solve the problem it claims to be solving: Failing to find a clue is only ONE of the ways in which the clue can fail. Since the problem hasn’t actually been solved, you still need to implement the ACTUAL solution to the problem (which is to not design your adventure around chokepoints in the first place). And once you’ve implemented the actual solution, you’ll discover that characters failing to find any particular clue is no longer any sort of problem… which means that the GUMSHOE “solution” isn’t required at all.

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12 Responses to “Thought of the Day – GUMSHOE Approach to Clues”

  1. Bhoritz says:

    I think that the only thing that the Gumshoe solves is the tendency of unimaginative GMs to always ask dice rolls whatever the situation.
    There are situations that you can’t fail. If the players open the right drawer, there is no way they should miss the papers they are searching for inside.
    There should be automatic successes, but only in the right circumstances, not because it suits the scenario.

  2. Michael L says:

    I was worried about this too, but honestly, when playing, it just makes the GM say yes to a bunch of things that otherwise would be diced out.

    It’s really not interesting to fail on a energy signatures roll.

    There definitely is a “Here are clues, what do they mean, and what do you do about it” thing going on. Clue gathering isn’t the only thing you’re doing in a GUMSHOE adventure, you’re also figuring how you can nab the bad guy(s), figuring out what you do given a clue (it’s not always obvious), and wether or not it’s important to spend invg points on a skill sometimes to get more info (which only fill back up at adventure end).

  3. newsalor says:

    IMHO it’s all about what to do with the clues. As a GM I feel that I need to provide the clues and the players can the decide what to think and do about it. Playing Dogs in the Vineyard really drilled this into me.

    Implementation differs on the kind of game we are trying to achieve. If I want a challenge focused detective game, it’s going to be different than a hard-boiled detective game that’s all about setting some crazy family issues right.

    Anyway, I do agree that the railroad sucks.

  4. LS says:

    I know nothing about this system beyond the quote you’ve posted, but I’d agree with the source that rolling to find a clue is bad.

    Finding clues should rely on two player skills, I think:

    1. Knowing where to look.
    2. Knowing how to recognize a clue when you look at it.

    Walking into the kitchen and rolling to see if you find something is boring. Walking into a kitchen and being told you find a bent candelabra is also boring.

    Walking into a kitchen; telling the GM you’d like to look through the garbage; being told you find discarded food packing, a brown banana, a broken plate, and a bent candelabra; then recognizing that the candelabra could be the blunt object the coroner told you about…that’s interesting.

  5. Lior says:

    LS: the problem is that we sometimes like to play characters who are vastly more or less skilled than we are. In combat most rpgs allow players to roll dice rather than describe specific maneuvers since the average AD&D character, for example, is much better at sword-fighting than nearly every player. 3E allows mid-level characters to have supergenius-level intelligence, at which point they should be able to make deductions no living human could ever hope to make. Similarly, a genre-savvy smart player needs dice in order to simulate a less knowledgeable or less smart character.

    So, both styles are good. “I search the room” (Int or Wis check) more closely simulates what the character can do, at the cost of a coarse-grained abstraction. “I search the garbage can” immerses the player in the game world more deeply.

  6. Lior says:

    PS: you probably found a candelabrum, but my Latin isn’t good enough for me to be certain.

  7. Neal says:

    @ Lior,

    That was a good summary of why a dice roll simulates the difference between PC skills and player knowledge.

    In the case of a specifically stated location check: “I search the desk,” does the player also roll an Int/ Wis check to determine success?

  8. Justin Alexander says:

    @Bhoritz: You make a good point. Am I ignoring useful advice because it already represents something that I already do? Possibly. But, on the other hand, in this instance the advice is being hard-coded into the rules in a way that I find too extreme.

    @LS: You’re getting into some stuff that I talk about in The Art of Rulings. The short version is that, ultimately, I think there is a point in RPGs at which player expertise is turned over to character expertise; i.e., a point at which the stated intention of the player is turned over to the mechanics of the game to determine whether or not their character competently executes their intention.

    And while I think there is ABSOLUTELY an interesting and meaningful discussion to be had about exactly where the line between player expertise and character expertise should be drawn, it’s actually not relevant to GUMSHOE. GUMSHOE still hands the finding of clues over to the game mechanics; it’s just that the result is always “you automatically succeed”.

  9. Lior says:

    @Neal: I’d say that “search the room” means that character expertise determines which parts are searched and at what level of scrutiny. If the roll is high, the character searched the right places, or was perceptive, or was good at figuring out which things are relevant. If the roll is low, something didn’t work out.

    “Search the desk” (or “search the garbage can”) is guarateed to find everything on the desk, but as LS points out, it may not be obvious which of those things are relevant, and again this bit of reasoning can be attempted by the character (dice roll) or by the player (either the player figures it out or not). “Search the desk” may or may not find the hidden drawer in the desk (this requires a roll).

    I think some decisions ought to be made by the player even if the character could in principle make them (which of the bits of evidence we found should we carry back with us?) because otherwise you aren’t actually playing the role, but as Justin says the line is blurry.

    NB: After writing this I followed Justin’s link to his earlier article, and it gives a better and more detailed answer to this.

  10. Brooser Bear says:

    Placement of clues is one of the best parts of designing adventures, including dungeons! The best part I love is random stocking, but it doesn’t work very well for a great adventure design. A touch of randomness to fill in the leftover blanks adds realism, but stocking the dungeon is a guilty pleasure. Another fun mechanic I love, is telling the story through encounter tables. People can encounter anything! Monsters, Weather, Terrain features, role playing encounters, Descriptive scenes – say they are navigating a battlefield, you write up a bunch of things the players can witness, and fold those incidents into an encounter table, you roll every four minutes in town during the raid, every 20 minutes in the forest. A No Event is always one of the possibilities on the encounter table.

    Interspersed among all those are our CLUES. Justin has the right idea – three clues at the choke points, so that players can find at least one, but it doesn’t mean that you have to leave the smoking gun, ammunition from the smoking gun, and the holster from the smoking gun, to make sure that the players will find at least one of the three. It’s more realistic to organize clues along the cookie crumb trails and lines of inquiry. That way, the players are sure to find something, and the three crumbs from three trails will lead them nowhere. A good illustration for the lines of inquiry is a game mechanic first introduced in the traveler supplement “76 Patrons”. The supplement featured, well, 76 NPC’s who would hire the players for various missions. A brief introduction/encounter, that was really an introductory paragraph, that the GM had to develop fully into an encounter, was followed by 1d6 options for the adventure, that determined, what the adventure was going to be. Really, these were single sentence outlines that the GM had to fully develop into an adventure. For example: Patron 33 would be: A mysterious dark stranger with a flowing black beard and a blue turban aboard his own private (space) Yacht offers the player 10,000 Credits if the players would recover a large diamond that was in his family for generations, but was stolen by a gang of well organized thieves and whom the Patron 33 tracked to this planet. Next we have 6 possible outcomes: 1 – The Patron is in fact a wealthy and exotic merchant trying to recover a diamond that was stolen from him. The thieves are well armed, well fortified, and have the corrupt local police in their pocket. 2 – The Patron is an undercover police officer looking to catch some jewel thieves that the local authorities can blame for a str9ing of unsolved burglaries. 3 – The Patron is in fact a jewel thief, who needs players as patsies to get involved in the conspiracy so as to leave them behind for the police after he absconds with the stolen diamond. 4 – The Patron is a terrorist, who needs a distraction for the police. Players will be the distraction as they break into a local museum and draw the cops, while the Patron carries out the terrorist act. 5 – The Patron is a sociopathic eccentric, who thinks that the local treasure is his family heirloom, he will try to get the players to steal it, and then will try to steal it from the players. 6- The Patron is a con artist, who, along with his co-conspirators will draw the players into a conspiracy, in which they will trap the players so as to relieve them of their money.

    While this kind of a adventuring looks hopeless for the players, the whole supplement had either inane or dark outcomes. Inane on the order of trying to find a wealthy businessman’s daughter in local nightclubs and trying to get her to go back to college, with 1d6 defining the severity of circumstance. This kind of adventure plotting is absent from any books I seen on D&D adventure writing, and it can be used in any adventure writing to facilitate clue placement. I love mysteries. A sunset and the highway going off into the distance is mysterious to me. Every dungeon is a mystery to be solved. First of all, it is a ruin, and as such it holds it secrets and treasure. Second, it’s location is either hidden or hard to find, or else it would have been looted already. In case of the low level players, it is most likely well hidden. For the players, locating a dungeon is a combination a treasure hunt and a historical mystery. Let’s say we develop the dungeon in 1st DMG, which is given as a sample adventure, the ghoul infested basements under the abbey on the fens. In the Gygax write up, a local 4th level thief has volunteered to guide the players to the treasure (so that he can get the abbot’s large opal ring). Here is how my write up would look like to set that dungeon in my campaign: The abbey was the first and last outpost of the Papal Church in the region. It was overrun by whatever, and was forgotten and abandoned on the moors by the local people who are hostile to the Papal Church, being of the Evangelical bend. The abbey ruins could not be on in the Barony itself, since the Baron would have known the location of it then. The abbey is located South of the Barony in the unsettled frontier region lost in the swamps along the muddy banks of the Hob river, which is used as a main avenue of supply. The monks made a fatal error of running the river into the abbey to have and enclosed pier on the grounds, and also ran the river water supply into the basement. River water is what poisoned the monks and the monastery was overrun via the river. The monastery contains several powerful items to warrant an expedition – The Abbott’s crucifix, his clerical vestments, and the Holy Altar. All have major powers if used by Clerics in the Papal Churches. Everyone knows the story of the lost abbey, but nobody knows where it actually is. There are only three places where Lost Abbey’s location is revealed: The main abbey of the monks order has a scriptorium that maintains a collection of manuscripts that detail the monastic outreach and one describes the way to the abbey. The chart house of the Merchant Seafarers Guild has an old map with the Lost Abbey’s location. The Oldest Man in the Village, a pious person living in an obscure settlement, is kind, hardworking old illiterate peasant, and he knows the vernacular name where the abbey is located. One other way is that the local river pirates know the location. That is both, the easiest and the most dangerous way to get to the Lost Abbey. It is the easiest, because all the players have to do is act like your typical D&D dungeon diving dunces mining the local taverns for rumors. As soon as the River Pirates get wind of the party, they will send their “guide”. BTW, this is nothing new, merely a ploy from the Treasure Island novel. If the players follow along this “Catch All”, they will have two boatloads of armed river pirates and the “Guide” offering their surrender into “safe captivity and equal shares.”. In fact, knowing what the players do about the river pirates from immersion into the sandbox, surrender will lead to the total party kill. Players will either have to fight a numerically superior and equally or better skilled foe, or they can retreat, and if they break off the pursuit, they have an extremely dangerous fifty or so miles of bushwhacking across the unsettled wilderness. Not that other options are risk free.

    Rather than thinking about placing hidden “clues”, you should be thinking about distributing the sources of information, leads, witnesses, and clues across your story and your sandbox. Going back to the initial sources of information about the abbey location, we have to think it through a bit more to make it more accessible to players. Let us say that the Lost Abbey belonged to the Order of St. Grognard. There are no Papal Churches in this Barony, and the Evangelicals would not know the details of what Order the abbey belonged to. The next Barony overt to the East is very devoutly Papal, and has a number of Papal Churches, but the Parish Priests would not know such details as the Order the Abbey belonged to or would not disclose them to the players. If they like the Players, or if the players are smart enough (Players, not dice rolling!) to ask serious and sophisticated questions, then the Priests will direct the Players to the local Cathedral and its Bishop. If he thinks that the players are serious enough to reach the Abbey and rescue the relics, the Bishop will tell them about the Order and its Main Abbey deep in the Papal Kingdom to the North. However, he will deputize the players to recover the relics and deliver them to the Church out of the goodness of their heart and for some spiritual rewards of symbolic value. The journey to the Main Abbey will be safe, if longish, but deep in the clutches of Papacy, the Inquisition will question the players about their intent, will show force, and will warn the players of torturous executions for those, who steal from the church, and they will promise to hunt down the players with Paladins, if they fail to return the frontier relics to the Bishop. The Chart House has a forgotten map of the river with locations.. Only if any of the players shows the wherewithal to look for the river navigation charts or talk to a harbor master, will that information become available to the players – the ready tales of the Harbor Master, and the Merchant Captains, and their guild. The old man can be reached in two ways. The Baron and the local evangelical clergy want nothing to do with the lost abbey, if they get the wind of the players, they will tell them not to go there. If players question any of the Baronial men at arms or the Sheriff, the Baron will know, and will order the players to stay away. However, the Baronial Game Wardens and Hunt Masters, aka D&D Rangers, are eager to know what became of the abbey. If the players approach the game wardens, and if the game wardens believe the players capable of surviving the adventure, that the players are good, that they are not involved with the Thieves or the Papal Church, they will find out from the oldest man and reveal the location to the players. Another way to find out about the old man, would be if the players are actually known in the smaller churches and in the out of the way villages. If the players go to local village dances, and or if they listen o the local preachers, the young people in either scene, will tell the players about the oldest man, if they trust the players.

    There you go. You have a network of discoverable information that you can use top gauge the players search. to see if they get closer or farther from the information. Of course, there are unanswered questions that remain to be decided. What I the players go to a Sage or to the Wizards’ Guild? D still has to work. Two things, there are no choke points, that can ruin the mystery, and you can not solve it by ROLL PLAYING with a Super-genius character. Also, when playing sandbox, players always need to break away to pursue their own quests, they have primary tasks and functions, they may have two or three Lost Abbeys on their agenda, or they may have one given to them as a specific mission. Also note the amount of role playing and travel that goes on even BEFORE the dungeon expedition. In a way playing Sandbox is like playing the Canterbury Tales – always scenery, role playing encounters, some random combat and random events rolling by.

  11. Neal says:

    @ Brooser Bear,

    That sounds like a good way to run a campaign objective, using a net of possible links to information. Some links are ideal (Rangers and old men in the know) and some not so ideal: Papist-Piraticals and Paladins!

    Going the papist route didn’t sound so ideal to me, even before you added in the later details. They don’t offer you anything more than a pat on the head, and then they threaten you with torture! Far better, to walk away, and come back in a few months and take what you find for yourself, if they haven’t found someone else to loot it. Maybe, they’d be off your scent and not track you down? With wizards involved… probably no such luck. Note to self: Never talk to those guys about anything with treasure! Always find some other source, or come back to it when you can magically locate it, yourself.

  12. Brooser Bear says:


    In running a sandbox, players can and will often surprise you with unanticipated choices, most DM’s will gloss over it in the improvised narration. The right thing to do would be to stall for time and develop the situation at your leisure. the option of going to the Wizards’ Guild (which has both, a library and old men in the know), is something I left untouched, because there are two magic users in the group and each will have to role play a relationship with the Wizards Guild by encountering several of its academics. I can’t pre-plan for it, it will just have to emerge as we play through it.

    Note to self is a great rule to follow, even in real life. With regards to Papal Church. It’s land, one of the Ancient Realms, offers its peasants higher standard of living at the cost of more repression. The underworld, exists apart from the Papal Church, and it’s Boatman O’ the River guild is one of the deadlier factions, as it commits murder on routine basis is pretty much an anathema to the local Rangers because of their conduct. The River Pirates will simply melt the holy relics for gold and trade with it. With regards to the Papal Church, it is not as bad as it seems. Remember, they will bank roll your expedition, heal you, shelter you, and they only want the holy relics that are theirs. Any other loot is yours to keep. They will try to own your soul, true, but they will only go after you, if you renege on your word. Also, it’s a wild frontier largely off the limits to them, they will still have to track you down and catch you.

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