GUMSHOE + Mouse Guard for your 4E game

Critical Hits is one of my favorite sites, period. Musings of the Chatty DM was as well. I positively jumped for joy a while back when Chatty merged his blog with CH. They’re awesome. Chatty has a history of loving small-press RPGs and I must admit that I have gained a love of them myself largely because of his enthusiasm.  Mr. Menard, I salute you.

Recently, Chatty posted an article I have read possibly a dozen times over in the last few days. In that article he suggests –among other things–that you as GM can use the Complication/Twist theory in your games (I play 4E, so I’m going to apply it there) and I really love that. He does a great job of elaborating on that, so go check out the article.

In the GUMSHOE RPG by Pelgrane Press, they take the investigation/mystery concept and revolutionize it; basically, the ruleset paradigm assumes that in a particular scene, the PCs doing the investigation are guaranteed to discover whatever clue they happen to be looking for. It’s preordained. What isn’t guaranteed is how that happens or whether the PCs are able to find any additional clue that can help them put the mystery together.

In Mouse Guard, is a PC fails a skill check roll, the action doesn’t stop, the PCs don’t come to a roadblock and the plot comes screeching to a halt. Instead, the action continues apace, but with a Twist, Complication, or additional Challenge added to the story. In the Mouse Guard RPG, the example of a patrol looking for a grain merchant is given. One of the PCs climbs a tree to make a Scout check in order to find the merchant. The PC fails the roll, so instead of the PCs not finding the grain merchant at all, they find his empty cart, and end up getting attacked by a snake (when you’re a mouse with a sword, a snake is about the size of a semi truck, mind you). The plot continues–the PC isn’t punished for failing the roll by the plot stopping– but things definitely get more interesting and more difficult.

So what happens if we put those ideas together?

If we add the GUMSHOE paradigm to this idea, we’re obviously dealing with an investigative scenario– a Skill Challenge, most likely. In this mashup paradigm combining 4E, Mouse Guard and GUMSHOE, we assume that through the course of the encounter that the PCs are going to find one clue per PC, and we as the GM create those clues. Now the PCs get to go find them. In the course of the Skill Challenge, they make their checks and either succeed or fail per 4E rules. However, this is where the fun comes in. With each skill check–whether it succeeds or fails– the PCs gain one of the pieces of information you as the GM designed. If the check succeeds, the PCs get the info with no additional issue. When they get that first failure, however, is when things get interesting.

This is where we as the GM get to toss in a complication or a twist. I’m going to separate this into two categories because in my brain it makes it much easier to process.The definitions I am going to use are as follows:

  • Twist– a change in the plot of the story that comes from within the structure of the plot at hand. The Mouse Guard example above would be a twist, because the grain merchant was dead and the snake attacked.
  • Complication– a change in the plot coming from outside the current plot structure.

I’m going to elaborate a bit on Complications. As a GM, most of us require the PCs, either at character generation or over the course of play, to have some kind of a background or origin story. These backgrounds, in my opinion, are really little more than a list of plot hooks for the GM running the game. There are many folks who have written about mining PC backgrounds for plot hooks, so I wont go into detail here. What I will say is that when using the GUMSHOE + Mouse Guard system, whenever the PCs roll a failure on a skill check is your chance to bring that to the front. Adding a Complication is an excuse for you to take one of those plot hooks floating around in the ether right out into the spotlight. In the above example, let’s say that the PC who failed his Scout check has an enemy in his background– a rival who he has crossed paths with before.

If we add a Complication to the mix, we get to bring that rival back into the story. Maybe the PCs come upon the grain wagon and the merchant is still missing, but the rival’s calling card is left there to taunt the PCs. Or maybe the merchant is there, but is an agent of the rival and that complicates the investigation further. Basically, having this mindset as a GM is an excuse to bring the PCs backstory or the fallout from their in-game decisions to the front–ANY TIME THEY FAIL A SKILL CHECK.

Next Time: Adding FATE into the mix and then stirring everything together!!

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3 Responses to GUMSHOE + Mouse Guard for your 4E game

  1. Thank you so much for the kind comments and I do feel I’ve found a kindered spirit. I like how you deconstructed Gumshoe’s approach, much like I did with the skill checks and combined them with Twists/Complications to make investigative challenges fun and dynamic… this is no small feat.

    Kudos to you, I’m tweeting this!

  2. Paul says:

    I read Chatty’s article and I agree 100%. I’ve been running Mouse Guard for a while now, and I can’t wait to bring the Mouse Guard skill paradigm into my next 4e campaign. It’s exactly what 4e really needs – a way to make skills important and to keep the game from bogging down. During last Friday’s 4e game, I kept track of the number of “needless” skill rolls that that DM called for: monster knowledge checks, history rolls to “learn” things, and a lot of social rolls that never seemed to affect the direction the game was going. I’m starting to think of these rolls as missed opportunities to keep the game fun.

    Monster Knowledge checks: why not just say that a character with training in the relevant skill passes and one without can’t make the test? This goes for History checks, too.

    Social checks are a great time to have meaningful rolls at the table. If you’re going to roll the die, the outcome should be important. If you have to impress the local duke, don’t have every player at the table making a bunch of rolls. Have one player roll. Other people can assist. Succeed and everything goes great, fail and you introduce that complication or twist. Keep the game moving, and keep it interesting.

  3. Pingback: RPG News from Around the Net: 08-MAY-2011 | Game Knight Reviews

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