I am studying the GUMSHOE system as it is implemented in Trail of Cthulhu and, while I can grasp the logic behind its mechanics, I have a hard time of translating the rules of allocating points to skills and expending them into a believable in-game analogy, in order to minimize their meta-gaming aspect.

As far as the d100 (BRP) system is concerned, a 40% chance of succeeding in e.g. Archaeology could be translated as the chance of the player possessing a relevant knowledge. There is a believable in-game analogy: the higher the percentage, the higher your expertise and the better the chances of recalling/knowing things related to your skill. And this analogy can be consistently used in every situation.

In GUMSHOE's terms, when a player is an expert in Archaeology, they automatically succeed in finding a relevant clue if they associate their investigative skill with the required action. In this case, there is also a believable in-game explanation; the investigators are experts, they are supposed to spot relevant clues. The immersion does not break.

But when it comes to the spending point system, the only in-game analogy I can find is that expending a point from an investigative skill could mean that players put an extra effort in order to spot additional clues, like using your Archaeology skill to estimate the origin of an ancient statue and spending one point in order to associate it with a specific famous ancient figure. But in that case, from an in-game perspective, having no other points to spend means that for some unexplainable reason you are no longer able to make extra efforts of extracting further clues when using your investigative skill.

Another approach could be that these points represent the "stamina" of your character, so expending them would mean that they become more and more "fatiqued", either mentally or physically, and thus no longer able to perform harder tasks unless they replenish them. Which is also highly unconvincing.

Since I am mainly interested in Trail of Cthulhu, I thought of providing a more mystical interpretation, like that these points represent the will of the players to overcome the obstacles lied to them by unknown forces. So unknowingly to them, there is an subconscious, telepathic "battle of wits" taking place and the more they spend their points the lesser their will power becomes. Which is also something that the characters are not supposed to be aware of; thus we still have to resort to meta-gaming.

Perhaps I am overthinking this and I can just appreciate the novelty that the GUMSHOE system brings to the investigation-driven rpgs without trying to shoehorn every rule into an in-game perspective. But even if I ignore the meta-gaming aspect, the whole point system seems very unconnected to any physical or mental characteristic of the characters, albeit undeniably effective in building tension and giving the feeling that the stakes are being steadily raised.

To summarize; what would be a plausible in-game representation of the spending point system, at least as far as the investigative skills are concerned?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Why do you find the "stamina" explanation unconvincing? It makes a lot of sense to me that someone who is tired from having done a lot of work would be less effective at difficult intellectual tasks. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2020 at 5:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Because the point system does not take into consideration the timeframe required for the extra task. For example, you can use the lockpick skill to unlock a door and spend e.g.2 points for quickly and craftily relocking it from the outside in order to trap the monster that is hunting you. It doesn't make sense to assume that you became mentally fatiqued from something you executed in a short manner, seemingly out of inspiration. Now that I think about it, they are similar to "inspiration" points, though this is something better suited to high-fantasy games, not horror rpgs. \$\endgroup\$
    – FloaterGX
    Jul 16, 2020 at 5:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ I look at Investigative points as bennies a la Savage Worlds. They are meant to provide something extra beyond clue acquisition. That does not mean that there will always be a rational use of a point in every conceivable situation, however. It can require a creative player, or a GM willing to tell players not to spend in a certain case. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2020 at 10:45

4 Answers 4


I don't know if this is supported by any official published Gumshoe material, but the way we've been playing it is to say that points roughly correspond to areas of expertise. For example, your character may know Archeology in general, but is your character an expert in 2nd millenium BC Egypt? Or 2nd century Rome?

If you find some Egyptian artifacts and some Roman artifacts, if you have 1 point in Archeology, you will only be an expert in one of the two so you will only be able to give a more detailed analysis of one, not the other. And which one are you an expert on? As a player, you don't have to commit ahead of time -- but once you spend the point, your character was always an expert only in Egyptology and not Roman archeology.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you Cactus for your contribution, I find your approach quite clever. I will build upon it. \$\endgroup\$
    – FloaterGX
    Aug 14, 2020 at 19:57

GUMSHOE doesn't have or need an in-game explanation for spending points

The system is not built to simulate reality, but to create dramatic investigative stories. For instance, the number of investigative points available to each character scale with the number of characters regularly present. There's no in-world explanation why larger groups of investigators are composed of less capable individuals. Most importantly, necessary clues are always revealed to the PC with appropriate skills. An impartial world doesn't know or care what a "necessary clue" is. GUMSHOE does.

As Trail of Cthulhu (p 195) itself says,

Choose the cost of the spend according to the entertainment value of the information, not the game-world difficulty of completing the task. [...] Drama should supersede realism, and the GUMSHOE rules and structure are fundamentally dramatic.

The possible explanations you offer make some sense, but I'd caution against using them. You will inevitably wind up in situations where they don't work, thus introducing the tension between rules and fiction you were trying to avoid in the first place. Let drama rules lie.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Magician thank you for your contribution. So, according to GUMSHOE's logic, is the point system meant to be an effective way to create tension entirely from a meta-gaming perspective? In other words, is it meant for only actual players to worry about it, without being able to translate somehow their worries to a "language" that their characters can understand and roleplay? I apologise in advance if I am not making sense or if I am still misunderstanding this. \$\endgroup\$
    – FloaterGX
    Jul 16, 2020 at 8:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ To clarify my confusion further: A "pushing" roll is justified in-game; the character dares to try something more dangerous, acknowledging the risks. When a skill is low, the player can roleplay their worries that it won't succeed as their character realise their incompetence. A player can roleplay every worry as if it really was their character's. In GUMSHOE's point resource management system, the player can not roleplay the mental struggle to carefully spend points. It will always be a meta-gaming task. I am not implying that the system is flawed. I'm just checking if I've got it correctly. \$\endgroup\$
    – FloaterGX
    Jul 16, 2020 at 9:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CourageMind - Looks correct to me, yes. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2020 at 9:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ The system is meant as a way to allocate screen time; the tension arises from the clash with decades of gaming experience that counsels players to expend the minimum amount of resources on any task. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 17, 2020 at 10:40

There is no in-game explanation

Spending a point is like rolling dice — it's the player's action, not the character's one. Characters do not know about game mechanics. Points, dice, stats, attributes — they all exist out of the game world.

Often they do correlate with in-game things — let's say, Strength score shows us how "strong" the character is, whatever that means. But still, it's an abstraction, which does not have to be somehow "explained" in the game world, because it does not exist in the game world, it's a part of game mechanics.

There are games which use very abstract resources in their mechanics, like Fate Points, Bennies, etc. You can treat these resources as some kind of "luck" or "fate", but since characters have no direct control over their fate/luck, it's the player who spends them. If such things ruin the immersion for you, it could be a matter of taste, consider trying different game systems until you find the "right" one.

Alternatively, you can try to look from different angle. As a player, you have to make out-of-character decisions anyway. It's a useful skill you could train — to distinguish player decisions from character derision while preserving the suspension of disbelief. This will make a lot of games more accessible and enjoyable, it will also help to fight some typical issues like "my guy syndrome".


The explanations needn’t be any different than when rolling the dice...

While a character with a higher skill percentage has a higher chance of success in dice-based systems like BRP, their success is still essentially random. A character with a very high skill and thus good odds can still roll poorly enough to fail repeatedly - we’ve all had sessions like that. We then have to narrate a character having a string of bad luck, or justify them making frequent mistakes - finding an excuse for a competent character to fail when we wouldn’t expect them to.

In the same way, a character in GUMSHOE can’t succeed all the time, even with many points in an Investigation skill. The only difference is that instead of the dice deciding, the player decides by spending a limited resource. The narrative explanations can be the same: they are a competent investigator who has had bad luck, made a mistake, missed a vital detail that would have helped etc.

In either case the characters are not aware of the game rule reason for their failure, but with dice rules we as players and GMs are explaining a (hopefully interesting) failure forced on us at random that is counter to the intention of both player and character. In GUMSHOE and similar systems, we are in control of the narrative in a way very different to that of the character - we choose when the failures occur, and they have to deal with it.

But there’s another way to look at it, too.

Try reframing the question

This kind of player-as-author model isn’t intended to map directly to in-character justification - at least, not in the way dice rolls kind of do. The player is choosing for their character not to succeed, rather than to try and fail, and so they can also choose a reason why.

Instead of asking “why did you fail at X?”, you are asking “why didn’t you X?” This still works with lots of explanations you’d use for dice, based on luck, circumstances, or lack of skill.

But to link it more to the mechanics, you can also frame it as a choice the character makes, consciously or otherwise, to not attempt the task - and narratively justify that choice. There are as many different answers for this as there are for failing when rolling dice.

Perhaps the character decided this particular avenue wasn’t important enough. Or they didn’t think they had time to look into it further. They mistakenly believe they have enough information. They think - perhaps rightly - that making sense of the information is beyond their knowledge or capabilities. They are distracted by other thoughts, events or characters. They are too tired, or angry, or distraught. They decide it’s not ethical for some reason.

The specifics are very important here, perhaps more so than when rolling dice, but these are all high level answers that might inspire you. But particularly in horror stories, characters make bad choices - wittingly or otherwise - all the time. That the monster traps you because you didn’t make the salt line cross a mouse hole, deciding it was a waste of time, rather than because you rolled poorly on a Spot Hidden roll and didn’t notice it, is meat and drink to these kinds of stories. This mechanic very much supports that.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Guybrush thank you for your input. My confusion lies to the, at least as I perceive it, lack of a way to translate the player's mental struggle to carefully spend points into an in-game situation. The player can not roleplay this resource management. It is bound to be a meta-gaming task. The reason behind the player's choice concerning the spending of a point, this abstract concept of resource management, can not be roleplayed, while at the same time is, paradoxically, a key factor of the tension building. I am practically asking if there is a way to roleplay this resource management somehow. \$\endgroup\$
    – FloaterGX
    Jul 16, 2020 at 9:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @CourageMind - As this answer hints at, Gumshoe is meant to be played (at least partially) in "author stance", with the player writing the character's story. Your issues with making sense of it seem to be coming from an assumption that RPGs are played entirely in "actor stance", with the player inhabiting the character's mind. Personally, I share your preference, but author-stance games seem to have become quite popular in recent years. socratesrpg.blogspot.com/2010/11/… talks more about this if you're interested. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2020 at 9:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ I might be wrong but the way I see it, comparing point spending for investigative skills with dice rolling is a bit misleading. Dice rolling for skills is a mechanism which decides if you know this particular information, or if you can handle a specific task. It is a mechanism to resolve a conflict, in a sense even for skill checks. When deciding to not spend a point on an investigative skill, you do not fail; you simply choose to omit a clue, for reasons though that you can not justify in-game. It's ok if that's the way it should be, it's just a different perspective from what I'm used to. \$\endgroup\$
    – FloaterGX
    Jul 16, 2020 at 9:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaveSherohman thank you for the clarification, I wasn't aware that there was a formalized distinction between these two mindsets. I will definetely take a look at this! \$\endgroup\$
    – FloaterGX
    Jul 16, 2020 at 9:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @CourageMind I agree, to a point - as I mention in the answer, you can choose not to succeed rather than to fail, but you are free to narrate that however you like. Failing an attempt is another method of “not succeeding”, so the player is also able to use any of the explanations you’d use for a failed roll, but you’re right in that the player is choosing that their character doesn’t know X, rather than letting the dice decide. Sorry if this answer isn’t as helpful as I’d hoped! \$\endgroup\$ Jul 16, 2020 at 10:27

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