# Preventing player passivity in GUMSHOE?

I really like the game worlds of the various GUMSHOE games I have (Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Mutant City Blues) but haven't run it yet. My big concern is that I've seen the "ablative skill system" kind of mechanic work very poorly in other games - players hoard their "uses," or use them all and then sit on their hands during the latter part of the game session because they know they're not going to be able to succeed at anything and trying will just get them killed.

In GUMSHOE, your skills are a "pool" of points that you spend either for benefits or for adds to the dice when testing. You basically roll d6 + spend vs a difficulty, typically 4 for general stuff but often going higher. Fighting works the same way, so if you have a Scuffling pool of 8, once you've used them all, you know you won't live through any meaningful combat.

For those that have run GUMSHOE or similar ablative systems, do you find that happening, and what are ways to avoid it? I mean, I don't mind trying to capture the "downward spiral" but it risks characters just checking out if they don't think whatever plot is at hand is really worth all their lives. "Let's try to save her next session..."

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Robin Laws addressed this question in a Page XX column here as well: pelgranepress.com/?p=4232 – mxyzplk Jan 4 '12 at 4:25

Tell them to spend Investigative at every opportunity. It's like Monopoly in that respect - if you land, you buy. Being allowed a spend is a reward.

The resource that you are managing is really spotlight time. General skills? That's different. If they are avoiding combat to save points for later, that's all good.

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Having run games, this is exactly the case. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 20 '11 at 0:27

I haven't played or run Gumshoe in specific, but I have played and run several games which have the "ablative" abilities (including FATE) you cite.

In my experience, if you're playing with people who understand the point, you don't see the passivity thing. If you're playing with people who don't get it, you see it.

So what is the main point you have to get? It's that the "skill" or "ability" in question is actually a plot point, not an ability as we conventionally think of them. It emulates the principle you see in fiction where, say, someone might be noted as a great, ass-kicking martial artist ... but doesn't go around constantly kicking people's ass: the ass-kicking is used once near the beginning to establish the point and then saved for a key, often climactic, point later in the story. Even if the ass-kicking ability is mentioned constantly it generally tends not to get used a lot (unless the focus of the story is on martial arts encounters, naturally).

If you approach the game as if it were a simulation of a fictitious life, the ablative approach is not going to serve you well. It's designed for a completely different view of things: simulating not a life, but a certain structure to stories.

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I've run Trail of Cthulhu quite a bit and this has never been a problem. The application of non-investigative skills is usually infrequent and very clear in application, so players typically want to throw some of their points at them when they come up.

Investigative skills are even easier, because players know what they are good at and as GM you can offer spends tailored to their interests and expertise. You can just ask them how they are approaching a problem and tailor the result to the investigative skill they use. Spends are always optional but rarely turned down.

If you are concerned with players running out of points in, say, Scuffling, that might be an indication that it is time to re-assess how you are presenting the game and its challenges. If investigation is taking a back seat, that may also be a sign that the game is a poor fit for your group's play style and interests. Neither of these is a bad thing, but it is good to align system to enthusiasm, and Gumshoe is really heavily focused on investigation.

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Yeah, but there is also plenty of conflict, at least in Esoterrorists and Mutant City Blues. – mxyzplk Sep 7 '10 at 23:32

The first thing to remember with Gumshoe is that the important clues are free to anyone with the appropriate skills. If the players need a clue to move along, then its your job as the GM to ensure that the clue can be obtained with a skill they have. On investigation skills, spends should only ever be for things that will fill in the details, providing a more robust picture to the mystery, but not necessary to solving the case or being spent from a skill that is somewhat inappropriate for the clue but somehow you missed that the group didn't have the relevant skills when you built the adventure (this happens more often when you're doing a published adventure and your players aren't Gumshoe-savvy yet.

With general skills, early on it's a good idea to herd players a little - don't outright tell them the difficulty, but only ask for a spend if they'll need one to succeed. A little neurolinguistic programming doesn't hurt either - players will subconsciously pick up on "do you want to spend a point" vs "do you want to spend points" and make their spends appropriately. Eventually, they'll get a sense of the flow you want, when you throw the tough fights (and the important investigative reveals) and when you're just putting in some action for the sake of action.

A lot of the time, more experienced RPGers will need longer to be coaxed into the resource management aspect of the game than newbies.

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I know that clues are free, it's just use of other skills for the more adventure-y parts of the game. But the prompting for appropriate spends is good. – mxyzplk Sep 7 '10 at 23:34

Because of the branching nature of Gumshoes your easiest thing is to build fights so that people won't use that many of their points. I find a good rule of thumb is one combat per player plus one. This usually gets them to the point where they have few points at the end and are taking it very carefully. This makes sense, given the nature of the threats they face its infrequent your going to go rushing in.

But then my players tend to avoid combat whenever possible.

For Investigative abilities, Gumshoes works great if you tell people when to there is an option spend a point. What I often do is build my scenes so they get something automatically and then I might say there is more if they want to spend for it. They can then manage their resources appropriately. Oftentimes I'll have a player want to spend a point on something I haven't built a clue around and then I improvise something cool.

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I think half the GUMSHOE games I've played with you, you just removed the non-investigative skills entirely and/or turned them into investigative skills. Point spend in scuffling to win the fight, etc. – Bryant Sep 6 '10 at 17:31
I think that is my default now. Everything moves the story forward, even combat, in the same way. Maybe got that from watching too much leverage. – anon186 Sep 6 '10 at 17:56
I don't really like to railroad though, so "plan exactly how many combats they're going to have" leaves me somewhat cold. – mxyzplk Sep 7 '10 at 23:34
Its no different than deciding how many scenes to have. In a resource management game like Gumshoes establishing how many scenes, and of what type, is crucial. – anon186 Sep 7 '10 at 23:39

It seems to me that there are a number of things that you could do to help ameliorate this sort of risk.

The first would be to allow ablative skills to regenerate more frequently rather than just at the start of a session. If you intend to have a couple of scenes in a session which require the same skills (such as a combat), allow the PCs to regenerate their skills between. This would allow for the drama of getting tired (running out of points) during a scene, without that scene affecting others. Depending on how finely tuned GUMSHOE is however, this could be unbalancing.

Another option would be to reward ingenuity, good tactics, good role-playing or heroism etc. with point pool replenishments after or even during the scene. Since it's more under your control, it should be less prone to unbalancing the game.

I have seen this sort of thing with players in card based systems like SAGA, but only with relatively new players. Once you've played SAGA for a while you realise that the best thing you can do with a hand of low cards is to play them and hope to draw better cards, so any solution to this problem is likely to involve players being encouraged to be more active, more inventive, more dramatic when they get down to fewer pool points.

I know my thoughts are rather general, since I haven't played GUMSHOE, but I hope they were useful nevertheless.

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but the problem is once you have the bad cards you know you can't succeed at the actions you attempt, so you end up looking for "low risk activities" to do. The rest of the group's fighting Juggernaut, and you go try to kick a dog for a couple rounds to burn cards. But I do like the more frequent refresh options. – mxyzplk Apr 20 '11 at 1:01
That's not my experience. Marvel Saga has the 'throw ones into a skill check' which allows you to cycle through your hand more quickly if you have really bad cards and as you get more experienced you get to throw in 2's and eventually 3's IIRC. Otherwise, you just have to get creative to use your trumps. Have a low reasoning/perception card? Try spending a round analysing your opponents tactics, to give your companions a combat advantage. Have a low Presence card? Try intimidating or distracting your opponent. Of course if you have a bunch of Dragons/Doom cards, you're a bit stuffed. *8') – Mark Booth Apr 20 '11 at 8:49