Arkham Archivist: Gumshoe Adventure Master Class

Gumshoe RPG

The Gumshoe Adventure Masterclass was held at GenCon 2014, 2014-08-16 at 4pm at the Westin. These are Ruth’s notes from attending. Some are direct quotes, others are paraphrases depending on how she wrote up the note. The notes have been cleaned up and most speakers marked out. G: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan; K: Kenneth Hite; R: Robin Laws. An initial may be repeated if what they said was too long for just one paragraph.

In the Pipeline

K: In the next “Ken Writes About Stuff,” he’s finishing up the Lligor, which will be followed by one on Elizabethan occultism. Rather than getting to play the occultist’s best friend or acquaintance, however, you’ll get a look at how to play some of these occultists themselves. After that, he’ll be doing a final push on the Dracula Dossier. Kickstarter for that is expected in October.

R: Around December, ideally for Dragonmeet in the UK, the Dreamhounds of Paris print will be released. You get to play the major figures of the surrealist movement working to change the Dreamlands, a vast sleeping unconsciousness created by our minds. Its current form only dates to about the 1890s when the symbolists got their hands on it. There are a lot of bizarre stories from the surrealists which could absolutely be used in gameplay. There will be a companion diary of a surrealist poet who gets drawn into things.

R: Is currently writing Worldbreaker, a world-spanning campaign for Esoterrorists. In it, the characters will have to track down 4 foreign nationals who were infected…or infested…in the US and have been sent back to their home countries to complete rituals.

G: Besides work with the Dracula Dossier, Gareth is working on the Fear Itself second edition.

The Evolution of Scenario-Writing

First, does the thing you’re having the bad guy do actually make sense? You need some kind of coherent (possibly flexible) plot thread if you want your players to follow the plot. And building on that, can your players find all this information?

Ken points out that how your players go about finding the information may differ by the particular Gumshoe game you’re playing. For example, Night’s Black Agents is more of a thriller, while Trail of Cthulhu is a long mystery. The thriller genre supports a series of mini-mysteries or challenges in scenes, but you may already even know the big bad and your challenge is getting to it.

Ashen Stars was comparatively simple, in that you had a mystery with a twist in it. But people would be following along a series of things that had already happened. Esoterrorists introduced the element of antagonist reactions. This may be as simple as sending a few thugs after you or as complicated as working parallel to you to complete some kind of ritual.

Handling Clue Threads: Trail, Network, or Ocean?

K: uses the “ocean of clues” method vs. a “trail” of clues, although it has a beginning and and end.

G: Imagine what would happen if the players are very cooperative and ask all the right questions. Build that into almost a railroad. Then work on what they might do that’s completely different and what other threads they might follow. Then ask how they’ll still get to the same ending. He notes this pattern is used in the Zalozhniy Quartet.

G: Start asking why you can or can’t get from A scene to J scene. Start building in consequences of making certain decisions.

Question: Are there digital tools for this kind of thing?

R: Has moved away from the flow-chart for lead-in/lead-out because it turns into a web.

G: Notes using Scaffold, related to Scrivener, but it’s still pretty hard.

K: Starts with what is the obvious stupid thing to happen. You figure that out and then you put in the clues to make sure there’s an obvious path. Next, he asks what’s the scariest/worst/most dangerous (the last especially for Night’s Black Agents) way to get that information. Then he asks what’s the strangest way to get that information. The universe is a strange, weird place.

K: While he does all of these steps, he lets his mind run figuring out how these may correspond to abilities. Sure, Library Use would get you a lot of things, but consider how Interpersonal abilities might get you the same info, or what your character might already know.

R: Uses the imagistic process. You don’t want every scene to merely be plotting and legwork. You want memorable and interesting things to happen in scenes that are memorable in-and-of themselves and relate to whatever the genre is. Think of an image to go with each scene. He uses the example of a mysterious golden pyramid from a nearly-forgotten Renaissance. None of the locals know anything about it any more. Or look for local color in a real-world situation.

R: Interpersonal skills may be a bit privileged because they allow fr more interaction with the NPCs (that’s a good thing). He tries to think logically about what would get from A to B. After logic, what’s the alternative. There’s always the implicit assumption in a Gumshoe scene that the players are the ones coming up with the ideas. Don’t force the players into any one thing…let them come up with cool ideas.

G: He started off with clues as pieces of information. You have X and find Y. You may even get a sub-scene depending on the type of skill you choose to use. Maybe you use Forensic Anthropology and instead of seeing the body, you have a meeting and gossip with the local coroner. Imagine yourself as the GM being put on the spot by an odd request.

Point Spends

K: Spends are like a reward for being engaged in the scenario. He’s going to find awesome things to make the real world more terrifying and awesome and uses those spends to add flavor. Zero points also may not be just a core clue, it may be anything you want included in the scene, including some of that flavor. 1-pt gives you a spin on it, 2-pt may give you an additional clue as well as something cool.

K: “A spend is the currency of coolness. Your job is to sell cool at a going-out-of-business rate.”

R: If you’re GMing and don’t have anything else to offer for a spend, narrate what they’re doing in a super-awesome way. Give them a possible flashback or a really interesting method of finding the information.


Question: How should one prepare for improvisation, i.e. Armitage Files or Dracula Dossier?

K: Run it on your home turf. Play to your strengths, lure them to your home ground, and destroy them. He gives the example of if you happen to know a lot about ancient Egypt, start there. If you know about Chicago, great. Once you’re on your home turf, you’re probably going to be better at making stuff up faster. Knowing your turf is the alpha of improvisational gaming.

K: If everyone, including you, is fumbling their way through, you might Three-Stooges your way to victory, but it’ll feel weird. Make yourself confident and you’ll be able to improve the rest. And consider borrowing the knowledge of your players.

R: It may be easier to improvise a mystery than to write a mystery to run. You may not even know the answer when you start. Follow their lead. It’s like a big Q&A where you get to decide what’s real. You want to stay at least one step ahead of the players so that each question leads to other questions which are possibly resolved. If you’ve got basic stuff like initial contract/problems with contract/horrible thing (Ashen Stars), then think yes, and… Keep possibilities in your mind until your players whittle it down and it makes sense to you.

R: Also consider any arcs or interesting points your players have and bring them to the fore. He suggests that if one of your players is exploring the universe and has sworn never to eat a sentient being, what does it mean to bring them a human whose mind has been completely eradicated by a hive mind? Does this affect their character element?

K: In addition to personal arcs, play to personal strengths. Think of people’s niche abilities. In Night’s Black Agents make sure there’s a scene where the shooter gets to shoot, the hacker gets to hack, the driver gets to drive… you know the dramatic tropes of the genre, you can figure out what they were fighting about or hacking for as the challenge happens. References Bourne Trilogy…maybe this is the point for a car chase or a fight in a modernist building.

G: Plan 2-3 scenes ahead, hold it as absolute truth to yourself, foreshadow, etc. But then only commit yourself to about one scene ahead. If that scene changes what’s 2-3 steps ahead and it makes sense to you, then change that absolute truth in your head. Stay one step ahead, think three steps ahead.

Compelling But Fragmented Clues

Question: How do you come up with compelling clues that don’t spill all of the beans at once?

K: A compelling clue is a clue that’s interesting in the moment. If you can’t describe something astronomical, introduce interesting astronomical people around the information. 9/10 of the time giving away the whole thing as actually a bonus.

K: Think of the clue as pieces of an orange that you’re giving out. If they do manage to figure it out by being awesome, reward them for that, continue, and figure out how to turn it into a thing that lasts longer. Is Jerry Brown an avatar of Nyarlathotep? Ok, there’s a big new thing.

R: A problem can impel them to seek more information before they start coming up with an idea. Does the professor explain everything? Or is he lying because his daughter is being held hostage—so maybe they have to assure her safety first.

G: If you’re doing a twist where the bad guy is the person they met at first or if they’re in danger of tripping over the answer too early, have the answer run away.

R: Avoid info dumps as much as possible. If they say “let’s take their hard-drive” ask “ok, what are you looking for on the hard-drive?” Turn it into a Q&A interaction. And hey, it’s as common in real life as in game that people may not ask the right question the first time around.

Handling Game Time

Question: How do you slow it down so that they don’t do it in a 24-hour period?

R: You may narrate about how there’s a montage of them taking a while to do stuff. Make it short but colorful, like how they’re drinking horrible coffee and staring at a computer, or watching a house. Make it fast-forward.

K: “You’re going to have to talk to him tomorrow because the office is closed.” “Ok, now it’s the next day and you’ve ambushed him outside his office.” Or use the metaphor of the scene card. Do a cinematic wipe. Perhaps nothing can be done until X happens. You’re good enough detectives to know that you have to do this later. You can also force it so that they’ll be at a huge disadvantage because of exhaustion—”if you don’t sleep tonight, your health will be half.”

G: Why is there a timetable for the NPCs and why is it that long? Figure out from this what kind of timetable you’ll need and work around transitions.

[Ruth’s note: I noticed that this is addressed in the form of “travel units” in the new Mythos Expeditions and think this may be useful]

In an uncompensated note, if you wish to purchase any of the items mentioned above—at least the ones already in print, you can find them at the Pelgrane Press store.


Ruth is an eldritch enthusiast, librarianish, podcaster, and gamer. You can find her on Twitter as @cthulhuchick and on The Double Shadow, a podcast exploring the works of weird fiction writer Clark Ashton Smith.


  1. Christopher says

    I’ve been using Scapple for NBA for my plot “skeletons,” but I admit I need to get a little better at doing those.

    I use it for Adversary Maps and for my Conspyramid, too. It’s pretty easy to make “nodes” and to connect them. Line labels are the hard part. You have to make another node, remove the formatting so it looks like text, and then you’ve lost your straight line from node to node.

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