Elevator Pitch: Investigative game designed specifically to model the tropes of mystery fiction

Core Resolution Mechanic: 1d6 + spent points vs. Difficulty, or auto success + bonus information for point spend

Dice Used: d6s


Gumshoe is an investigative roleplaying game originally designed by gaming luminary Robin D. Laws, and initially released as the engine for Esoterrorists, a game about cultists who attempt to make magic real by committing strange occult murders to convince people that it is, which in turn allows it to function, and the secret agents who try to track them down and stop them. It has since been expanded into several other genres, from the classic Cthulu investigations of Trail of Cthulu, to the vampire conspiracy busting of Night’s Black Agents, to the police procedural drama with superheroes in Mutant City Blues, and several others.

System Features

Gumshoe separates a character’s skills into two categories: Investigative and General. Investigative abilities (which can be anything from actual forensic science to flirting to extract information) are used to garner the clues necessary to progress through a mystery, and are never rolled; when used, the character always finds any core clues that are in the scene related to that ability. She can, however, choose to spend a number of points up to her rating in the skill to get extra information; this information is never required to finish the mystery, but instead exists to allow players to control when their characters are in the spotlight by doing something a little extra cool. Points in Investigative abilities generally only replenish when the mystery is solved.

By contrast, General abilities are almost always used as part of a roll, to add a bonus. General abilities are things like firearms skill, ability to sneak, or athletic ability; in other words, they’re things that, if failed, don’t cause you to not get a clue so much as create a complication for you to deal with. When making a roll related to a skill, you roll a d6, and you can spend as many points as you like from the appropriate pool, with each point spent granting a +1 to the roll and most rolls being around difficulty 3-4. Spending points represents a cinematic moment of spotlight; it’s not that you’re only a good shot when you spend a bunch of Firearms, but rather that you’re declaring that the moment you do it is one where it’s important for your character that you hit. General abilities can be recovered by resting, or by taking certain genre specific actions such as monologues.

Health and Stability are similar to general abilities, but represent your ability to take hits and sustain mental trauma respectively. You rarely spend health, instead just subtracting damage taken from it when an opponent beats your defense or you otherwise sustain injury. Stability, on the other hand, requires a d6 roll vs. a difficulty of 4, with the severity of the trauma determining points lost on failure; you can spend Stability points for a bonus to the roll, but they’re also lost if you fail, so it’s a gamble.

Different iterations of the system introduce further wrinkles; in Night’s Black Agents, for instance, having a high rating in a General ability also gives you a Cherry, which is a special ability related to the skill in question, while in Trail of Cthulu, you have Sanity in addition to Stability, which is harder to lose but also much harder to replenish.

Getting the Game

The core system of Gumshoe is available under open licensing from Pelgrane here. Pelgrane is also the primary publisher of Gumshoe games, so you can find many of them for sale on their site as well.


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