Investigation is an aspect that always seems to be baked into horror. Modern investigation procedural TV shows tend to have an element of the horrific, whether in the depiction of bodies, or in the gruesome clues which helps them track and find killers. Even in Curse of Strahd, the setting of Barovia is unknown and full of mysteries, which the players are supposed to find out about throughout their travels. The problem with playing a game that depends on the characters finding clues is the randomness of dice rolls. Typically, when the players enter a new location, they all roll spot checks. But what if all your players bomb the check? What is a DM to do? One way to get around this problem is to steal a page from Pelgrane Press’s excellent GUMSHOE system (and again, the creator of the system did say the name is in all caps).
What is GUMSHOE
GUMSHOE is an RPG engine originally created for the horror conspiracy gameThe Esoterrorists, but the line has expanded into a myriad of different games. For instance, there’s Fear Itself, a game where you play regular people fighting the same horrors that the professional monster-hunters fight, with the expected high mortality rate. There’s also a setting for teen detectives like Nancy Drew and Veronica Mars in Bubblegumshoe. There’s a dark space opera Ashen Stars, reminiscent of gritty sci-fi space TV shows. We’ve previously reviewed the Call of Cthulhu variant Trail of Cthulhu which is set in the 1930s (Do You Want to Know More). And of course, there’s the super-spies vs vampires action game that I am running a campaign of right now called Night’s Black Agents, which we also did a review of (Do You Want to Know More).
The main mechanical innovation that the GUMSHOE engine introduced to gaming is simple: players don’t need to roll to find information. If you have an investigative skill, you automatically get information relating to it when it presents itself. It doesn’t automatically solve mysteries — that is still up to the players — but the players don’t have to worry about not finding the clues they need, and instead, they can focus on putting the puzzle pieces together. While it may sound like it’s over-simplifying the game, most GMs have run into the frustration of trying to give a clue to the players and having all them fail their dice rolls, which leaves you mentally scrambling to figure out how to give out that clue somewhere else. The concept is steadily being adopted by more and more RPGs, such as the upcoming Delta Green RPG, you guessed it, we have done a review (Do You Want to Know More). If you’re curious how these games work, read any of our reviews of GUMSHOE based games or check out the OGL rules from Pelgrane Press.
Using GUMSHOE Rules in D&D
The best part of this system is that you can use this concept right now in D&D, and it’s amazing how freeing it is. During the tail end of my Shackled City game, we switched to this system and it worked rather well. Here are the alterations to the skill rules:
Action Proficiencies are abilities that require a player to actively do something that is represented by a roll, such as attempting to leap across a chasm (Athletics), or walk a tight rope (Acrobatics), or pick a lock (Thieves Tools). These skills function the way the Players Handbook says they do, which is you roll against a difficulty and either succeed or fail. These skills in the current version of D&D are:
Dexterity (Sleight of Hand)
Wisdom (Animal Handling)
Wisdom (Perception) *
All Tools, Vehicles, & Kits
* This skill appears on both lists, as it has uses for when somebody is actively hiding from you (for which you would need to roll) vs spotting a hidden compartment in a room.
Investigative Proficiencies are sources of knowledge that a character has that automatically trigger when they are exposed to information relating to them, or when they attempt to use them to find out more information. The list of Investigative Proficiencies is as follows:
During an adventure, when you create clues that the players must find, have them come in two categories: Core Clues and Bonus Clues.
These are clues that players will always find if they have proficiency in a skill. For example, a player that has the proficiency Intelligence (Nature), when they walk into a barn, they automatically know if the animals are agitated or behaving oddly, such as noticing that the horses are sweating in the morning, which is unusual.
If a player has a total in a skill of +6 or higher (Proficiency + Ability modifier), can get a bonus piece of information. Bonus Clues are always useful and can possibly skip a step of a mystery. For example, the character who noticed that the horses in the barn are sweating in the morning, she then tells this information to another player who is proficient in Intelligence (Religion), who knows evil Witches and Warlocks will sometimes cause this phenomenon. But if the character’s Nature skill is +6 or Higher, she can get this extra information as a bonus clue, rather than relying on another player’s ability to get the full information.
What this system does is ratchet up the players in competence. It always assumes success in a number of skills. But while the players are given information by this system, the process of solving the mystery is still up to them. What this does is give the DM freedom to fill dungeons and adventures with a lot of lore. Because there is no chance the players won’t find the necessary information, it allows you to add much more depth to your campaign.
There are a lot of RPG books that explain how to design mysteries for your adventure, so I won’t go into that topic and will instead point you towards some good ones. Any GUMSHOE game is an excellent resource on mystery building, as is Call of Cthulhu, or even classics like Chill and Dark Matter. Once you get used to the skill system change, you will get a sense of which skills are required to find which clues. Remember that D&D players are also heroes, and also quite competent at combat. So in general, so any information they get should lead them to danger, and the more information they get, the more danger they are in.
For a more in-depth look at converting the GUMSHOE skill system to a d20 game, check out Garath Hanrahan’s excellent book Lorefinder. This books adapts the GUMSHOE skills to the Pathfinder RPG, so retrofitting it to 5th edition would take a bit more work. But if a deeper skill system is something you are interested in for 5th, this book might be just what you need. Or perhaps the fine people at Pelgrane Press will see this article and make a 5th edition version.