The Whiff Factor: GUMSHOE Edition

As a part of getting my head wrapped around the upcoming GUMSHOE game Mutant City Blues game from Pelgrane (think the Powers comic book as an RPG), I decided to sit down with The Esoterrorists and give it a read. I’d heard some mixed reviews (1, 2) about this game both online and off, and wanted to see what was up with it.

I actually enjoyed the read quite a bit. Yes, the system’s pretty simple — honestly, I’d have loved a bell curve in the die-rolling part — but I do like the idea of bringing the idea of the character sheet as a resource management problem together with the investigative horror genre.

I haven’t yet gotten a chance to read through my copy of Trail of Cthulhu, nor have I reread the advance text I have of Mutant City Blues, so I’m not sure if later versions based on the core GUMSHOE system from Esoterrorists make any substantial changes to how the system functions. That’s next.

At any rate, ultimately the GUMSHOE system looks to be something that takes a specific stance on the “whiff factor” in RPGs. Most of you know what the whiff factor is: a whiff is what happens when you roll the dice, putting all kinds of focus and effort into it even, and you just flat out miss, your joy dies, and someone else gets their turn. It can really stink, and a lot of more recent designs are a response to the existence of the risk of the whiff. Fate’s definitely included in this, with the invoking part of aspects intended as a mitigation of the whiff.

GUMSHOE is particularly concerned with the whiff factor when it comes to investigative, fact-finding challenges in games. Its answer is simply to eliminate them: if a clue is there to be found, it is found by those with an appropriate investigative ability (though not really in any sort of railroading way — the idea is that you might get your clues, but the interpretation is still left up to the players). Dice don’t come into play with investigative abilities 99% of the time, but you can still spend some points out of your various investigation abilities’ pools in order to get some bonus extras. Sure, you might know right away that this guy’s lying to you about the gun because you have an nonzero rating in your Bullshit Detector skill (you gotta love a game that has Bullshit Detector as a skill), but you might be able to spend a point or two from your BSD ability pool to notice that he’s positioned himself so that you don’t notice that box on the desk behind him — containing the gun! Again, my Fate brain kicks in a little here and says, “hey, that’s a lot like extra shifts on a skill roll”, and there’s definitely some resemblence, minus the rolling of dice.

This approach with investigative abilities is ultimately a pretty good thing for the game, I think, and it’s dirt simple to house-rule in a little story-gaming sensibilities here if you want them — let the players spend a point to assert the existence of a clue, much like a successful declaration roll works in Fate. I can definitely see using the SOTC brain to say — in essence — okay, the automatic clues from having an ability are essentially assessments and the point spends from those pools are declarations and calling it a day, there. Instant hippy GUMSHOE action!

But GUMSHOE segregates its investigative abilities from what it calls “general abilities”. General abilities are the ones where the dice (okay — die, since it’s basically 1d6 plus however much you’re willing to spend from the relevant ability) come into play, introducing risk and the possibility of failure. Moreover, to underscore the horror element (and, I suppose, avoid the real possibility of gaming the very simple dicing system a bit too much), in Esoterrorists at least there’s an explicit recommendation that the GM not disclose the target numbers to the players before they roll. That’s a risk heightener, to be sure, but it also does something that I wouldn’t have expected out of GUMSHOE: it embraces and maybe even desires the Whiff Factor in general abilities. General abilities are there to give you something to spend to increase your chance to succeed, yes, but their existence and resolution method also suggests they are there to give you opportunities to fail.

Problem is — from my perspective at least — that there’s nothing to be gained from the failure and complications that arise from it. And that’s a place where players can get really perturbed, especially if you were sitting on the target number and not letting them know what it was.

Chad Underkoffler’s PDQ system (among others) takes on this sort of thing by giving a reward back to the player when failure occurs: some sort of experience point benefit has been seen, as well as other temporary benefits (analagous to getting a fate point when you fail a roll — Fate doesn’t do that, but we figure the compel mechanic stimulates the Fate point economy just fine without it).

I think something along those lines could do a lot to improve the perturbing situation described here, in GUMSHOE; just let players get back one point in any one of their pools (or just in the one that is being used on the roll) whenever they fail a roll. Now, you have folks willing to spend a point on nearly every general ability test: they get a +1 to their roll, increasing the feeling that their general ability rating is palpable and relevant, and that either boosts them to their success, or is a break even if they fail. It’s a tiny change, and it does mean that characters might end up feeling more heroic or resilient than they normally would, but I think it’s a change that could seriously improve the perception of how the system works in play. (I talked this over with Rob, who’s been a bit lukewarm on the game, and confirmed that this is a change that would address a solid chunk of his lukewarm-ity.)

So, yeah. I suppose it’s all proof that I’m still heavily inclined to look right away for what house rules when I encounter a new game. So how about you? Do you have any house rules you’d be inclined to apply to GUMSHOE?