I’ve long had an urge to try out one of the GUMSHOE systems. I played a lot of investigation roleplaying as a teenager, and the genre still holds a certain appeal. That made me curious to see GUMSHOE in action, to see if it makes for fun and interesting roleplaying. There are two implementations of GUMSHOE I’ve been particularly interested in trying out. First and foremost Trail of Cthulhu, particularly in the Bookhounds of London setting. Trail of Cthulhu is, as the name implies, the GUMSHOE variant of Call of Cthulhu, and in Bookhounds, you play sellers and procurers of rare tomes and manuscripts in 1930’es London who get lured into the occult world of the Mythos by the hunt for old and valuable tomes.
The other is Ashen Stars, a space opera investigation game. In it, you play Lasers, lawmen-for-hire in the slightly lawless outer fringe of a galaxy that’s fallen into chaos after a great war. It has a feel that is too law-abiding for Firefly and not moral enough for Star Trek.
Now, while Trail and Bookhounds appeals more to my feelings of nostalgia, I have a soft spot for space opera. And so, when Niels asked me if I wanted to play Ashen Stars with him, I knew I had to say yes.
GUMSHOE in a nutshell
If you don’t know GUMSHOE, it’s a system that sets out to defeat one of the main issues with a game like Call of Cthulhu: if make a bad roll, you don’t get the clue that allows the story to continue – and suddenly, you are stuck. In GUMSHOE, you have a number of investigative abilities. If you have an ability, you get any clues related to that ability in any location you visit. You also have a pool of points you can spend to gain more clues, leading you to the goal faster, or helping you achieve a better result.
GUMSHOE has been paired with a number of different genres to make a range of games: Mutant City Blues is a police procedural in a world of superpower mutants, while Esoterrorists is a Delta Green/X-Files/Special Police Force game of fighting otherworldly entities trying to gain access to this world by creating fear and confusion.
Most recently, they published The Dracula Dossier, in which Bram Stoker’s original first draft of the novel, Dracula, is revealed to be a real account of encounters with the count. I also know that Robin D. Laws is working on GUMSHOE 1ON1, in which you play one GM and one player.
We started character creation ahead of our first session by talking about what we wanted to play and putting our ideas into a Google Doc I created. In Ashen Stars, your character fulfils certain roles – usually one role on the ship and one role on the ground, though certain roles can be doubled.
So when we met, we pretty quickly decided who would take on which roles. Most of us also had a pretty good idea about which species we wanted to play, and which drive we would have. Drives are an important part of many GUMSHOE games, giving them a motivation to keep on investigating.
Spending skill points was a bit more difficult. Not least because we didn’t have a good understanding of what a certain number of skill points indicated, nor what all of the different skills entails.
Ironically, the most confusing and difficult part of character creation was buying gear, cyberwear and add-ons to our ships. We got a budget as a crew, and had to spend it together. But many of the things were cheap to buy, but had a big upkeep. So if this thing has a cost of 3 and an upkeep of 2 – is that expensive? Can we afford that upkeep? How much should we spend now, and how much should we save? It brought back memories of sitting at character creation in Shadowrun, trying to spend a million nuyen.
When that was done, it was getting late. And so we decided to skip the last part of character creation: creating personal arcs. Each character has their own personal story, possibly related to their drive, that the GM will include in the main plotline from time to time. But in the interest of getting around to playing, we decided to postpone that for next time.
Iwra Silvercreek: My character. A balla (tall, fair, unearthly beautiful who must control their emotions or risk mental breakdown). StratCo (captain in all but name) while on the ship, Cultural Officer/Face (the guy who talks to people and understand cultures) while on ground. My drive is Combinism, meaning I want to get all the systems in the Bleed (the frontier) to support the Combine again. I served as an officer in the fleet during the war, and turned bitter over the way people abandoned the Combine, and with it, all the people who gave themselves in the Combine navy to fight in the war.
Jax Okara: Our pilot and Survey Officer/mapper. In charge of much of the “science-y” stuff, like energy readings, astronomy, botany etc. He was a scout pilot during the war, and served with Iwra. When Iwra set up the Laser crew, Jax decided to join. I believe his drive is Exploration.
Kabuk: A Tavak (a two meters tall armadillo with a penchant for meditation). Our Systems officer (mechanic) and Bagger (the guy in charge of business affairs. He bought the ship and fixed it up, and sold it to us cheap on condition that he would be part of the crew. During the war, he was in the Engineer Corps, and spent a few years clearing mines, before buying the ship.
Virologist: a Cybe (a species of genetically altered human with loads and loads of cyberware, created to be super soldiers), and our medic and security officer. He served with Iwra and Jax in the navy, and tagged along when they were getting into the Laser business.
Adventures on Pleasure Planet
Niels found this song, which is the theme song for our campaign.
The scenario starts as we are flying between the stars on a hyper-lane, waiting for a call from a prospective employer. And right on cue, it comes: a call from someone in need of help from a group of Lasers. In this case, it’s the Loghos corporation, who wants us to go to the planet Andarta to locate one of their directors who has gone missing.
We get started on using the system already during the call with the employer, calling on a couple of skills to get background information and insights, and I believe we even made one or two spends to get further information.
Fast forward a day or two. We are coming in to the space port in Andarta’s capital, Joy City. Andarta is famous for being a pleasure planet, where people go to enjoy the carnal pleasures. The original culture of Andarta had a religious culture built around sensuality and sexuality. But after the big war, that culture has been debased by the need for resources, and by the pressure of thousands of refugees coming in from all over the sector.
This point is driven home to us as we enter the space port. Before we can leave the hangar, we are forced to receive a vaccine against STDs. Out in the lobby of the space port, we are accosted, first by an escort agency, then by the Church of Regenerative Carnality, a popularised pop-version of the old fertility cult.
The purpose of the scene was clearly setting up the background of the place, so that we can get what’s going on later. It served that purpose well, but I did get a bit impatient to get to the action.
Luckily, we passed from there and quickly to the action. Which, in this case, meant the lobby of the hotel where the director was staying when she vanished. First up: convincing the receptionist to provide us with information. After a bit of good cop, bad cop, worse cop, indifferent cop, (and a few spends) we got him to give us a good bunch of information – including the fact that the local police commissioner had asked him to tell her about us, and not tell her that we were being watched. Interesting.
From there, we went up to her hotel room to see what we could learn about her from there. In the bedroom we found hypodermic syringes of broad spectrum antibiotics, and her headset (phone) showed that she had called a medical hotline. All in all, some medical emergency seemed likely. She had also had contact with the escort agency we had encountered in the airport, and with a private guy who appeared to have been a romantic interest – one of his hairs was on some of her clothes.
Finally, a spend from the very Trek-y skill “Energy Signatures” indicated that someone had phased through the wall some days ago, right after she had gone away. That indicated the involvement of a member of the Durugh species. Which was interesting, as we knew the only Durugh staying in the hotel was another employee of the (primarily Durugh) Loghos Corporation. Hmmm…
And that was when we had to call it quits for the night. Next time, we’ll – gulp – split the party, and send one part to go seek out the Durugh, while the others try to track down the movement of our main target.
Thoughts so far
I think we all enjoyed the game so far. The roles give you some direction when making a character, and when you add a species and a drive to that, the contours of an interesting character reveal themselves. When we add personal arcs to that, we can end up with some quite interesting characters on our hands.
The main mechanic of skills and spends seems to run pretty well also. It meant several of us got involved at different times, bringing our own perspectives to bear. Having said that, it did sometimes feel a little mechanical. The call of “Who has Energy Signatures?” and “Would you like to spend one Xenoculture to know more?” became a little stale. I think it’ll become less so as we get to have more options for our approaches. We already started to offer up our own ideas as the game progresses: “’What my colleague means to say is that a busy and important man such as yourself…’ I am showing him a lot of Respect…”.
I still think I would enjoy Trail of Cthulhu a little more than Ashen Stars. Not least because it’s a bit difficult to do sci-fi investigation. We are imagining the capabilities of all these abilities that refer to things that don’t exist yet, and have to get to grips with what Energy Signatures can tell us that Imaging couldn’t. Besides, we have to not only explore the case, but also the culture of the planet we’ve landed on. That is a bit challenging. Space Opera might be better suited to something adventurous, where we can spout a bit more technobabble and not worry so much about understanding how everything fits together.