Walking in Gumshoes ~ The End of the Road

Our Mutant City Blues campaign has not been declared dead, but the lack of an official pronouncement does not make it less so. Predictably, the game to a crashing halt the moment it was about to take off. There is nothing about Gumshoe or Mutant City Blues itself which contributed to this, so this post will not get into the reasons. The plan for this post was to look at the players’ progress in solving the case, but as since the last report there has been none, it will simply look at some ideas to facilitate interest in this game among those who believe they have none.

Why don gumshoes?

That is an important question, and one for which it has taken a long time for me to frame an answer. When I first heard of Gumshoe, then in relation to Trail of Cthulhu, my first reaction cannot be described as positive. After I picked up the gorgeous core book for Trail of Cthulhu and a few of the clever and generally well-written supplements I was even more confused. The primary reason for creating the system and applying it to a Lovecraftian setting seemed to be due to a misunderstanding of how to play Call of Cthulhu. I have mellowed on that reaction a bit over time, but that is what my first impression was. It certainly did not help that the marketing strategy based the reason to play the game on that misunderstanding and tied it to a suggestion of player entitlement to success. Each subsequent setting immediately grabbed my interest, but its usage of Gumshoe left me unwilling to take a risk on buying a game I was so certain I would not like using.

What changed your mind?

I cannot honestly say that my mind has been changed, but I am more open to the idea of using Gumshoe for a very narrow range of games and for very specific purposes. What opened my mind was the quality of the ideas, the investment in capturing each setting, and the devotion to producing attractive products. A Gumshoe book for any of its settings is guaranteed to be a thing of beauty and a tribute to the genre.

I bought Trail of Cthulhu to see if my suspicions about it were correct, and to see if the authors were contributing good research that I could use for Call of Cthulhu. So many spoke so highly of the game, and seemed to blithely agree with the base assumptions of having had trouble with Call of Cthulhu’s version of Basic Roleplaying, that I felt that I should investigate fully before allowing my opinion to fester into a fact. As I read through the core book, the system left me cold, but the writing was engaging and evocative. Each title that was being released sparked hundred of ideas, the enthusiasm for the work was dripping off the page, and the understanding of how to communicate a vision to the reader so refined it was hard not to respect what was being done. The writers earned enough of my respect that I decided to give them a broader chance to convince me of their vision.

I decided to check out some of the other products in PDF and so bought the Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues over a short period of time. The latter two have great and quite original settings, and again the writing is engaging and evocative. I wanted to play these games after I read them…. but then ran headlong into the system again. The system works fine, but it drains the fun and challenge out of so much of the flow of the game – or shifts it into a game of making investments – that it killed my enthusiasm. The focus did not seem to be on playing a game, but on navigating a traditional story structure. It is an exaggeration, but a useful one, to say that player contribution boils down to contributing dialogue while the story happens around them. While I do understand how that can be fun, and as effective as theatre games for engaging the mind and creative talent, it baffled me why this approach would be dressed up as a game. Its intent seems counter to its being a game.

You played it anyway?

The books sat on my shelf and my hard drive and each time a new title was released I would read the description, remind myself I would never run the game, but still end up buying it anyway. Even the scenario releases ended up getting me to buy them, and I don’t tend to buy them for any game. The more of these books I collected, the greater the drive became to see if the game felt different in play than it read on the page. Friends were as interested in seeing how the system works in play as I was, and I had gone as far as I could with my review of the game as I possibly could without a play test, so we threw ourselves into Mutant City Blues with enthusiasm. We chose Mutant City Blues for many reasons, not the least of which was simply that it is extremely cool. It feels like a pitch for a TV show, and it is so easy to immerse yourself in a world of mutant cops and criminals, Quade diagrams, and all the subtle changes widespread mutation would bring. I’d like to say we jumped into the game without reservations, but that would be untrue. I hoped the enthusiasm would carry us through, but it did not take long before the GM was frustrated with the game’s underlying assumptions. These frustrations did not kill the game, however. Real life did that, as it so often does.

How was it?

The GM deserves a medal for all the hard work he put into the game. The players too deserve notice for their creation of nuanced characters with a variety of interesting hooks and development potential. The game premise and setting were fun, even when the system began to grate on some of us.

Honestly, it was hard to invest in the characters because in its opening stages, where one traditionally bonds with one’s character, interacts with the game world, and gets to know the others in the group, we kept coming up against the problem of being competent. I recognize that is a strange thing to say, so I will explain. At some point in a typical RPG, a character will find limitations in what they can and cannot do. In the opening phase of a Gumshoe investigation this will not generally happen. Moreover, the GM is compelled to either separate the characters so they can receive a massive info dump based on their various exceptional specialties, or ignore individual capability and dump a truckload of detail on the group as exposition. Nowhere in these initial stages is there challenge, and the only tension one can create while laying this groundwork is interpersonal background material, or entering into an investment of points to buy (not get a chance to discover) additional details.

I suppose for some people this competence can produce a rush of some kind, but I think it is more likely to lead to a dampening of tension and eventually interest. The game requires you to invest points to uncover additional clues, but ensures you will get the required clues. That really means that you are not playing through the procedures of evidence gathering, nor are you really roleplaying being an investigator. You don’t really get involved in interaction with the mystery or with the flow of the story until you start trying to assemble the puzzle pieces. Even then, the GM is encouraged to have written the whole story out and herd characters from scene to scene, sooooo…. the only reasonable response I think a gamer would have is,”Why do I even need to show up?” Again that is an exaggeration, but it is this sort of idea which play caused to rise up from the deep soup of our souls.

That is when I understood, finally – or I think I did, anyway. Gumshoe is not a game – at least, not in the risk/reward sense.

Doing things the ‘Write Way’

The complaints about games like Call of Cthulhu, since I have taken some pains to step into the shoes of those behind the game, now strike me not as a lack of understanding of the rules, but as the desire to minimize game play in favor of storytelling. The popularity of the endeavor suggests that there are many out there who agree to varying degrees that this is desirable. The goal seems to be telling a story, not discovering one, and the players invest their focus in making their way from scene to scene as the genre, the theme, and the GM’s narrative habits would indicate. Characters can fail if their players mismanage their resources or read the flow of the story incorrectly, and experienced players will be exposed to these risks more often than starting characters. For those who are into completing set story lines, this may very well be enough game to satisfy. It certainly puts me in mind of the approach of video games.

Gumshoe puts the GM closer to the role of author than a game like Call of Cthulhu does, and it puts the story centre-stage. The characters are not the focus of the tale, even through it might seem that they are. The emulation of a procedural investigation, minus the risks associated with flawed evidence collection, is the real drive of Gumshoe. Roleplay happens around this, but the game elements are more about degrees of investment and degrees of success  – not risk. For those who enjoy the open nature of story, the freedom to fail, and the thrill of earning success, Gumshoe is not your game. For budding actors and authors, this game cannot be rated highly enough.

How do those of us approach the game if we are not of the disposition to truly appreciate it?

My thoughts on this are that it would work extremely well as a one-shot if you enjoy trying your hand at running an occasional mystery, or are running games at a club or convention. It is an excellent way to introduce players to a genre with the assurance that you can expose them to a story arc you can predict and influence. This is of great use when the concept of the genre doesn’t lend itself to short and easy description. Its ease of character generation and simple rules make it quick and effortless to start using.

Beyond that, starting the game at the deductive phase, with printed hand-outs to take the place of the investigative phase, can minimize exposure to the blandness of extreme competence and treat that section of the story for what it ultimately becomes anyway: exposition. Being able to jump in with intellectual engagement, the possibility of making game influencing mistakes, and the freer roleplay interactions of working with data rather than receiving it should all be appreciated by gamers more used to a risk/reward framework.

I can easily see choosing to run a specific game, set to emulate a novel or a movie for example, and having a good time. With the clear expectation set beforehand that this was emulation, not exploration or discovery of an emerging story, there should be no reason to feel disconnected from events, or dissatisfied with the outcome. Sometimes, it can be a lot of fun to shift game play to one of the extremes of your normal habits. Having a combat heavy night, or having a night full of drama and pathos can let people stretch little-used skills and open up creative outlets. Gumshoe is one way to shift the focus over to roleplay and sensitivity to story for a while.

Have you gone through an examination of Gumshoe? Share your thoughts~

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