As regular readers will know, Robin Laws' and Pelgrane Press' GUMSHOE game system has become by far my favorite roleplaying system over the past year. Much as I like it, its focus on character and narrative instead of the more traditional event-driven stories can make for a tricky adaptation for both players and GMs. There is a lot of advice and material out there for GMs, but not so much for players. So, here are are some strategies that I've picked up from playing and running games.
- Look at your Drive. Understand it. If it’s not completely clear to you, ask your GM. Never mind your background, character flavor, or skills, your Drive is your single most important roleplaying tool. If you're ever in doubt about what direction your character should be going, consult your Drive. Nobody will ever fault you for honestly pushing your Drive, and your GM will likely thank you.
- Don't concern yourself with equipment. Rely on your Preparedness skill instead. The GUMSHOE character sheets have no inventory lists – there is a reason for that. The GM is not out to screw you because you forgot a 10' pole. It's just not that sort of game. Let go. Pick a weapon, if appropriate, and leave the rest to Preparedness.
- For your first few games, don't worry about investigative spends. They make sense, but only once players are comfortable with the system and its goals. One good, simple way to think about them is this: if you monopolize the GM’s time for a little while, that's a spend. If you find that a skill use you've called for has ended up highlighting your character for a non-trivial sequence, dock yourself a point or two based on your sense of how much screen time you sucked down. Once you have no points left in a skill, be careful about calling for actions using that skill that place demands on the GMs time to the exclusion of other players.
- Think about what information you need, then look at your investigative skills to figure out how your character might go about it if you need help. Remember, GUMSHOE characters are generally highly competent, and as such their skills define them more strongly than in other games. Other systems can develop a pattern of "here's what I want to do, what skill should I roll against?", but this can cause problems for GUMSHOE because of the auto-succeed nature of investigative skills. So know what skill you’re using. The skill list has been carefully chosen to reflect the genre and style. When in doubt, you can look at your skill list and try to figure out how those skills might be useful and interesting in this scene.
- This is tricky, but try to let scenes develop while also knowing when to end them. GUMSHOE is a character-driven game. If the GM sets a scene or introduces a character, it's something for your character to explore, have some fun with, and see where it goes. Once you've developed something a bit, try to recognize when it’s played out. The GM will try to help you here – pay attention if she is trying to shut the scene down. This is easier said than done, but scenes usually follow a logical narrative flow which you can try to grasp.
- Recognize each player's character's strengths, as represented by their skill ratings, and let them take care of stuff in their specialties. If you have Library Use 1, that's great, but let the player with Library Use 4 take charge in an appropriate scene. GUMSHOE parties are built as teams, almost to a greater degree even than D&D parties. Let each team member shine at what they do well.
- Recognize dead ends. If you call for a skill use and the GM doesn't give you anything interesting, there is nothing there. If you've called for Reassurance to calm down an NPC and get information out of him, and he's not forthcoming, there is no key reassuring phrase you can utter in-character that will change this. This is the magic of investigative skills ... you never have to worry about looking for something and missing it. If you use your skills, and don't get results, you can still play out the scene for dramatic purposes if there is something interesting there – but you’ve got all the information you’re going to get. It's tempting to think that anything significant the GM introduces at any point is immediately important, but that's not always true. Sometimes it's laying pipe, sometimes it's just flavor, sometimes it's a background detail. Don't beat your head against things. In an event-driven story, you can never go back. In GUMSHOE, you can.
- Be very careful about splitting the party. This is of course a truism in D&D, where there are endless jokes about it. GUMSHOE may be a totally different game from D&D, but there remains relentless logic behind sticking together. If half the party investigates one avenue while the other half minds the store, the GM can't run a big scene without idling half the players for a significant amount of time and running the risk that skills key to resolving it are absent. If you lose the argument about what to do next, suck it up.
- Apropos the last point, another trope of classic RPGs is to strictly cordon off player knowledge from character knowledge. Don't do this. Or at least don’t go crazy. For example, if you do split the party for legitimate reasons, don't duplicate what the other half of the group has already done because that's what your character would do and he hasn’t got that information yet. Remember, your remit as a player is to move the narrative forward and be interesting. What your character does still has to make sense of course, but don't do boring or redundant things because that's what your character would do when you as a player know better.
- GUMSHOE is about information: getting it, understanding it, making decisions based on it. The emotional tenor of the game will be based on what kind of information we're talking about and how it's revealed, but pieces of information are the corridors, doors, and treasure of GUMSHOE. Have a plan to get the information. Follow the information where it leads. Stay focussed. Let your plans play out.
The most important overarching thing to remember goes back to where I started: unlike most RPGs, GUMSHOE is primarily character-driven, not event-driven. Don't concern yourself at all with what the GM is trying to do to your character. Ask yourself what you are doing to interestingly drive the narrative forward. The GM is not going to hose you, at least not in uninteresting ways. In fact, the only way you will end up getting hosed is if the GM is forced to hose you because you are being boring. Players have a lot of the responsibility for making a GUMSHOE story interesting, and the GM is at your mercy here. Consult your Drive and your skills to figure out ways to move the narrative forward. Most of the time you can go with just doing something obvious, because what is obvious to you in the context of your character, your drive, and your skills will usually be interesting to everyone else, including the GM. There is still plenty of room for dramatic, character-building scenes, but GUMSHOE is an investigative system which requires the players to get the information they need. Figure out what you need to know, what questions you need answered, and get those answers. Answers, not questions, move the narrative forward. Ask yourself, is what I'm doing interesting? Is it trying to answer questions based on what we've seen, what we know, or what my drive is? If it's not, come up with something different.