I ran a playtest of Pathshoe (a new Pathfinder + GUMSHOE hybrid from Pelgrane Press) for my gaming group last weekend. I have several of the other GUMSHOE games (Mutant City Blues, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself) but haven't run/played them. We had a bit of a problem with figuring out what skill uses and spends should be prompted for by the GM versus asked for by the players.

In a given scene, you might have a core clue, some no-spend optional clues, and some spendy optional clues. But in the end it's not clear to me how much prompting is supposed to be on my part.

It seems like you're encouraged to give the core clue automatically to anyone that has the skill. "We investigate the crime scene!" "Okay, who has... Forensic Pathology? Two of you? Uh, who has the larger pool, I guess? Pat? OK, Pat, you determine the guy died of autoerotic asphyxiation." Mostly GM-initiated.

But then the optional clues are less clear. "Forensic Entymology will show that the maggots infesting the corpse are actually from New Jersey." Do I just ask for who has FE and give them the info? Or do the players just run a fishing expedition where they say ad infinitum, "Does Streetwise tell me anything about the area? No? Does Forensic Dentistry tell me he's really a vampire? No? Does Forensic Entymology tell me something?" "Ding!"

And then with spends, it really seems like you have to prompt, but how explicit are you? "Anyone want to spend 2 points of Literacy for... a clue?" "Yes?" "He has a bunch of tattoos in Latin that says 'odi profanum vulgus et arceo' which means 'I hate the unholy rabble and keep them away.'"

It seemed at times that I was just handing out all the info to everyone because they had all the skills covered. But I'm not sure how these exchanges are supposed to go.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Robin Laws did a "Page XX" article on GUMSHOE GM troubleshooting that addresses this pretty well, I just ran across it... pelgranepress.com/?p=6851 \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jan 4, 2012 at 4:18

3 Answers 3


The key is to lead with the fiction. Don't give out an automatic/optional clue just for standing around in the scene location—reward active investigation with information. So, instead of:

GM: "Anyone have Forensic Entomology?"

Player A: "I do…"

GM: "Okay. So there are maggots in the wounds and you can tell they're from New Jersey."

… do this:

GM: "You've got a body to investigate! Do your stuff."

Player A: "Uh, okay… I guess I'll see if there's anything under the body."

GM: "So you flip the body over—"

Player A: "No! I don't want to disturb it yet. I'll just crouch down and see if there's anything obvious from the sides."

GM: "Right then. You can't see much, and and when you get close enough to see well there are maggots squirming around, like, inches from your nose."

Player A: "Nasty! I move back."

Player B: "Hey, I've got Forensic Entomology. I want to scoop up a stray maggot without disturbing he body, if I can."

GM: "No problem. You snag one with a stick and take a good look. You notice that this species of fly isn't from around here. In fact, the only place you know of that they call home is in New Jersey…"

This way is both more engaging and doesn't leave you wondering what information to give out. Just ask where your PCs are sticking their noses, and then hand them the clue that's right under the nose.

This works for spends, too. If they want to do something that's spendy, tell them that action requires a spend. Sure, they'll know there is something there now, but with limited spends they still need to decide whether it's worth uncovering, or if it'd be better to save for later clues.

The Latin example would then be:

GM: "Okay, so as you're cutting away the shirt, you see a tattoo in Latin."

Player C: "Ooh, oh, I can read Latin! What's it say?"

GM: "You can puzzle it out if you like. That'll be a 2-point spend."

Player C: "I'll take that. I've just been standing around anyway."

  • \$\begingroup\$ How do you not have a scene just turn into everyone listing all their skills at you to make sure they've gotten all the clues, though? \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Apr 30, 2011 at 4:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ PC: "I use Forensic Entomology!" GM: "Sure! What does that look like?" PC: "Uh… I dunno." GM: "Oh. (sadface) Then no, you can't." \$\endgroup\$ Apr 30, 2011 at 6:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ Still seems like it results in lengthy fishing expeditions. "I look for bugs on the body, do they tell me anything? I check the teeth, do they tell me anything?" \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    May 2, 2011 at 1:19
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Well, an actual investigation is a fishing expedition. To shortcut that a bit, though, set up the fiction so there are intriguing avenues to explore. If they don't have the first idea of what to do, they're going to just throw darts in the dark. \$\endgroup\$ May 2, 2011 at 1:54

Getting clues with skills works many ways.

So it works if you prompt:

GM: "There's a body. Anyone have Forensic Entomology?"

Player A: "I do…"

GM: "Okay. So there are maggots in the wounds and you can tell they're from New Jersey."

It works if you hint:

GM: "There's a body with maggots in the wounds."

Player A: "I've got Forensic Entymology."

GM: "Okay. You can tell that they're from New Jersey."

It works if you wait for the Investigators to name a skill:

GM: "There's a body."

Player A: "Can I tell anything with Forensic Enytomology?"

GM: "Yes, there are maggots in the wounds and you can tell they're from New Jersey."

And it works if you're flexible with skills:

GM: "There's a body."

Player A: "Can I tell anything with Streetwise?"

GM: "OK, sure. The guy has a tattoo, which you recognise as being from a gang in New Jersey."

In play, you generally find a couple that are comfortable for you and switch between them. There are no right or wrong ways.

Clearly, the fishing expedition above is awful, so don't do that. So be responsive to the players. If you'll only give out the clue for Forensic Entymology, then either ask ("Does anyone have Forensive Entomology") or hint ("There are maggots in the wounds"). If you'll give the clue out for other skills, wait until they suggest one that sounds plausible.


Treat is just as you would any other game where there are information gathering skills and information to gather. If you don't get fishing expeditions in other games, you won't get them in GUMSHOE. Abilities listed are just one way of getting information, and remember, you only have to give out core clues, not all the others.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Two things: referring to someone as @ is usually done in comments to make the person you talk to get a notification. In this case, mxyzplk is the asker, so your answer is automatically notified to him. Second, giving an example would make a better answer. I do agree with your general point. \$\endgroup\$ May 30, 2011 at 14:35

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