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This section describes the basic GUMSHOE rules system and is addressed to players and GM alike. But first bear with us for a little explanatory theory.

Why This Game Exists

GUMSHOE speeds and streamlines the time-honored form of the investigative roleplaying game. The central question a traditional RPG asks is:

Will the heroes get the information they need?

Assuming that they look in the right place and apply appropriate abilities to the task, GUMSHOE ensures that the heroes get the basic clues they need to move through the story. The question it asks is:

What will the heroes do with the information once they’ve got it?

If you think about it, this is how the source materials we base our mystery scenarios on handle clues. You don’t see the forensic techies on CSI failing to successfully use their lab equipment, or Sherlock Holmes stymied and unable to move forward because he blew his Zoology roll.

You don’t see this because, in a story failure to gain information is rarely more interesting than getting it. New information opens up new narrative possibilities, new choices and actions for the characters. Failure to get information is a null result that takes you nowhere.

In a fictional procedural, whether it’s a mystery novel or an episode of a cop show, the emphasis isn’t on finding the clues in the first place. When it really matters, you may get a paragraph telling you how difficult the search was, or a montage of a CSI team tossing an apartment. But the action really starts after the clues are gathered.

Investigative scenarios are not about finding clues, they’re about interpreting the clues you do find.

GUMSHOE, therefore, makes the finding of clues all but automatic, as long as you get to the right place in the story and have the right ability. That’s when the fun part begins, when the players try to put the components of the puzzle together.

That’s hard enough for a group of armchair detectives, without withholding half the pieces from them. Every investigative scenario begins with a crime or conspiracy committed by a group of antagonists. The bad guys do something bad. The player characters must figure out who did it and put a stop to their activities.

When you do see information withheld from characters, it’s seldom portrayed as a failure on the part of the competent, fact-gathering heroes. Instead the writers show an external force preventing them from applying their abilities. In a space opera show, you might get the proverbial ion storm that prevents the crew from scanning the planet before they go down. Information is only withheld when it makes the story more interesting—usually by placing the heroes at a handicap while they move forward in the storyline. In GUMSHOE terms, they’re not trying to get an available clue and failing; they’re using an ability for which no clue is available.

Historically, story-based roleplaying, of which investigative games were an early if not the earliest example, evolved from dungeon-bashing campaigns. They treat clues the same way that dungeon games treat treasure. You have to search for the clue that takes you on to the next scene. If you roll well, you get the clue. If not, you don’t—and the story grinds to a halt.

However, treasure gathering isn’t the main event in a dungeon game. There, the central activity is killing the monsters and enemies who live in the dungeon. The treasure-finding phase comes afterwards, as a mere reward. If you don’t get all the treasure in a room, you lose out a bit, but the story keeps going, as you tromp down the hallway to the next monster-filled chamber.

Imagine a dungeon game where you always had to roll well to find another room to plunder, or sit around feeling frustrated and bored.

Many of our favorite roleplaying games use the traditional roll-to-get-a-clue model. You may have been lucky enough to play in them without ever seeing your game ground to a halt after a failed information roll. Perhaps your GM, or the scenario designer, has carefully crafted the adventure so that you never have to get any specific clue to advance the story.

More likely, your GM adjusts on the fly to your failed rolls, creating elaborate workarounds that get you the same information by different means. When you think about it, these runarounds moments are essentially time killers. They bring about a predetermined, necessary result while giving you the illusion of randomness and chance. GUMSHOE cuts out these filler moments in favor of scenes that actually advance the story. With the time saved, you can construct more detailed, compelling mysteries for the players to sort out. That’s where the streamlining comes in.

If you’ve never had a game stop dead on a missed clue, you may naturally figure that it never happens to anyone. Having run GMing seminars at conventions for years, I can assure you that this is not the case. People come up to me all the time to share their horror stories of games that literally go nowhere on a blown spot test. This should not be surprising. GMs are doing what the rules tell them to do, and failing to see the unwritten rule that they should then spend five to twenty minutes of game time introducing a workaround.

GUMSHOE gives you the rules you should actually use as written, and skips the workaround.

But even if you’ve never noticed this problem, play it because it focuses and streamlines play, eliminating the elaborate workarounds your GM has to use to make the missed information rolls invisible to you. It replaces these moments of circular plotting with more interesting scenes that move the story forward.

Mystery Structure

[Alter as needed for your genre.]

Every investigative scenario begins with a crime, conspiracy, or other act of disorder committed by a group of antagonists. The bad guys do something bad. The player characters must figure out who did it and put a stop to their activities.

Your GM designs each scenario by creating an investigation trigger, a sinister conspiracy, and a trail of clues.

The investigation trigger. This is the event, that attracts the attention of investigators.

  • The discovery of a murder victim, obviously slain during a ritualistic killing.
  • The discovery of a corpse slain by supernatural means, perhaps by a creature.
  • Sightings of supernatural creatures or phenomena.

The sinister conspiracy. This sets out who the bad guys are, what they’ve done so far, what they’re trying to do, and how the investigation trigger fits into the overall scheme. The GM also determines what has to happen to prevent the plot from going forward. This, unknown to the players, is their victory condition — what they have to do to thwart the bad guys and bring the story to a positive conclusion.

Once the GM has the logic of the story worked out from the villain’s point of view, she then thinks in reverse, designing a trail of clues leading from the investigation trigger to an understanding of the sinister plot and its players, sufficient to get to work destroying it.

Optionally, the GM may also plan a series of antagonist reactions. These lay out what the bad guys do when they find out that they’re being investigated. The GM determines what conditions trigger them, and what the antagonists attempt to do. These may include further crimes, giving the team more to investigate. They may try to destroy evidence, hinder the investigation by planting false leads, or to intimidate or dispose of potential witnesses, including accomplices they no longer trust. They may attack the investigators. Foolish, overconfident or risk-taking antagonists may take them on directly. Clever antagonists will strike from a distance, taking great pains to cover their tracks.

Ordinary crime dramas may call for a simpler structure. The bad guys could still be furthering a sinister plot, or they may be doing nothing after committing the triggering crime other than hoping that the investigators don’t catch up with them. In this case there is no ongoing conspiracy to disrupt. To achieve victory and bring the scenario to a successful conclusion, the investigators need merely prove their case against the criminals. The climactic scene might involve wringing a confession from the wrongdoer, or provoking him into revealing the crucial bit of evidence which will ensure his conviction.

From Structure To Story

The GM’s structure notes are not a story. The story occurs as you, the team of players, brings the structure to life through the actions of your characters. The story proceeds from scene to scene, where you determine the pace, discovering clues and putting them together. Your characters interact with locations, gathering physical evidence, and supporting characters run by the GM, gathering expert and eyewitness testimony.

The first scene presents the mystery you have to solve. You then perform legwork, collecting information that tells you more about the case. Each scene contains information pointing to a new scene. Certain scenes may put a new twist on the investigation, as the initial mystery turns out to be just one aspect of a much bigger story. As clues accumulate, a picture of the case emerges, until your characters arrive at a climactic scene, where all is revealed and the bad guys confronted. A wrap-up scene accounts for loose ends and shows the consequences of your success—or, in rare instances, failure. (Why is failure possible at all? Its possibility creates urgency and suspense.)

To move from scene to scene, and to solve the overall mystery, you must gather clues. They fuel your forward momentum.

Tip For Players: Containing Speculation

Investigative scenarios often bog down into speculative debate between players about what could be happening. Many things can be happening, but only one thing is. If more than one possible explanation ties together the clues you have so far, you need more clues.

Whenever you get stuck, get out and gather more information.

Gathering Clues

Gathering clues is simple. All you have to do is: 1) get yourself into a scene where relevant information can be gathered and 2) have the right ability to discover the clue and 3) tell the GM that you’re using it. As long as you do these three things, you will never fail to gain a piece of necessary information. It is never dependent on a die roll. If you ask for it, you will get it.

You can specify exactly what you intend to achieve: “I use Textual Analysis to determine if the memo was really written by Danziger.”

Or you can engage in a more general informational fishing expedition: “I use Evidence Collection to search the crime scene.”

If your suggested action corresponds to a clue in the scenario notes, the GM provides you the information arising from the clue.

Some clues would be obvious to a trained investigator immediately upon entering a scene. These passive clues are provided by the GM without prompting. Scenarios suggest which clues are passive and which are active, but your GM will adjust these in play depending on how much guidance you seem to need. On a night when you’re cooking with gas, the GM will sit back and let you prompt her for passive clues. When you’re bogging down, she may volunteer what would normally be active clues.

Core Clues

For each scene, the GM designates a core clue. This is the clue you absolutely need to move to the next scene, and thus to complete the entire investigation. GMs will avoid making core clues available only with the use of obscure investigative abilities. (For that matter, the character creation system is set up so that the group as a whole will have access to all, or nearly all, of these abilities.) The ability the GM designates is just one possibility, not a straight jacket – if players come up with another plausible method, the GM should give out the information.

Some clues would be obvious to a trained investigator immediately upon entering a scene. These passive clues are provided by the GM without prompting. Scenarios suggest which clues are passive and which are active, but your GM will adjust these in play depending on how much guidance you seem to need. On a night when you’re cooking with gas, the GM will sit back and let you prompt her for passive clues. When you’re bogging down, she may volunteer what would normally be active clues.

Special Benefits

Certain clues allow you to gain special benefits by spending points from the relevant investigative ability pool. During your first few scenarios, your GM will offer you the opportunity to spend additional points as you uncover these clues. After that it’s also up to you to ask if it there’s anything to be gained by spending extra time or effort on a given clue. You can even propose specific ways to improve your already good result; if your suggestion is persuasive or entertaining, the GM may award you a special benefit not mentioned in her scenario notes.

Each benefit costs either 1 or 2 points from the relevant pool, depending on the difficulty of the additional action and the scope of the reward. When asking you if you want to purchase the benefit, the GM always tells you how much it will cost. Additional information gained provides flavor, but is never required to solve the case or move on to a new scene. Often it makes the character seem clever, powerful, or heroic. It may grant you benefits useful later in the scenario, frequently by making a favorable impression on supporting characters. It may allow you to leap forward into the story by gaining a clue that would otherwise only become apparent in a later scene. On occasion, the additional information adds an emotional dimension to the story or ties into the character’s past history or civilian life. If you think of your GUMSHOE game as a TV series, an extra benefit gives the actor playing your character a juicy spotlight scene.

The act of spending points for benefits is called a spend. The GM’s scenario notes may specify that you get Benefit X for a 1-point spend, or Benefit Y for a 2-point spend. Sometimes minor non-core information is available at no cost.

GMs of great mental agility who feel comfortable granting their players influence over the details of the narrative may allow them to specify the details of a special benefit.

If you wish to make a spend in a situation where the GM has no special benefit to offer you, and cannot think of one that pertains at all to the investigation, you do not lose the points you wish to spend.

Inconspicuous Clues

Sometimes the characters instinctively notice something without actively looking for it. Often this situation occurs in places they’re moving through casually and don’t regard as scenes in need of intensive searching. The team might pass by a concealed door, spot a droplet of blood on the marble of an immaculate hotel lobby, or approach a vehicle with a bomb planted beneath it. Interpersonal abilities can also be used to find inconspicuous clues. The classic example is of a character whose demeanor or behavioral tics establish them as suspicious.

It’s unreasonable to expect players to ask to use their various abilities in what appears to be an innocuous transitional scene. Otherwise they’d have to spend minutes of game time with every change of scene, running down their abilities in obsessive checklist fashion. That way madness lies.

Instead the GM asks which character has the highest current pool in the ability in question. (When in doubt for what ability to use for a basic search, the GM defaults to Evidence Collection.)

If two or more pools are equal, it goes to the one with the highest rating. If ratings are also equal, their characters find the clue at the same time.

Simple Searches

Many clues can be found without any ability whatsoever. If an ordinary person could credibly find a clue simply by looking in a specified place, the clue discovery occurs automatically. You, the reader, wouldn’t need to be a trained investigator to find a bloody footprint on the carpet in your living room, or notice a manila envelope taped to the underside of a table at the local pub. By that same logic, the Investigators don’t require specific abilities to find them, either. When players specify that they’re searching an area for clues, they’re performing what we call a simple search.

Vary the way you run simple searches according to pacing needs and the preferences of your group. Some players like to feel that their characters are interacting with the imaginary environment. To suit them, use a call-and-response format, describing the scene in a way that suggests places to look. The player prompts back by zeroing in on a detail, at which point you reveal the clue:

You: Beside the window stands a roll-top desk.

Player: I look inside!

You: You find an album full of old photographs.

At other times, or for players less interested in these small moments of discovery, you might cut straight to the chase:

You: You find an album full of old photographs in the roll-top desk.

In the first case, the player who first voices interest in the detail finds the clue. In the second, it goes to, at your discretion:

  • The character to whom the clue seems most thematically suited (for example, if you’ve established as a running motif that Agent Jenkins always stumbles on the disgusting clues, and this clue is disgusting, tell his player that he’s once again stepped in it)
  • A player who hasn’t had a win or spotlight time for a while
  • The character with the highest Evidence Collection rating

Die Rolls

All die rolls in GUMSHOE use a single ordinary (six-sided) die.


A test occurs when the outcome of an ability use is in doubt. Tests apply to general skills only. Unlike information gathering attempts, tests carry a fairly high chance of failure. They may portend dire consequences if you lose, provide advantages if you win, or both.

Even in the case of general skills, the GM should call for tests only at dramatically important points in the story, and for tasks of exceptional difficulty. Most general ability uses should allow automatic successes, with possible bonuses on point spends, just like investigative abilities.

There are two types of test: simple tests and contests.

Simple Tests

A simple test occurs when the character attempts an action without active resistance from another person or entity. Examples include driving a treacherous road, jumping a gorge, sneaking into an unguarded building, binding a wound, shooting a target, disconnecting a security system, or remaining sane in the face of creeping supernatural horror.

In the game world, expenditure of pool points in this way represents special effort and concentration by the character, the kind you can muster only so many times during the course of an investigation.

The GM does not reveal Difficulty Numbers beforehand. This rule is meant to force players to decide how much they want to commit to the situation, with the gnawing emotional dissonance that comes from the possibility of making the wrong move.

Difficulty Numbers and Story Pacing

Just as the GUMSHOE system keeps the story moving by making all crucial clues accessible to the characters, GMs must ensure that tests and contests essential to forward narrative momentum can be easily overcome. Assign relatively low Difficulty Numbers of 4 or less to these crucial plot points. Reserve especially hard Difficulty Numbers for obstacles which provide interesting but nonessential benefits.

For example, if the characters have to sneak into the cannibal campground in order to stage the final confrontation, assign the relatively low Difficulty Number of 4 to the task. If it seems to the characters that they ought to have a tougher time of it, insert a detail justifying their ease of success. The cannibal assigned to patrol duty might be found passed out at his post, say.

Where it is essential to overcome a General obstacle in order to reach a core scene, allow success whatever the result, but give a negative consequence other than failure for the test. For example, the PC climbs a fence, but receives an injury. This rule never protects characters from Health or Stability loss.

The test represents the character’s best chance to succeed. Once you fail, you’ve shot your wad and cannot retry unless you take some other supporting action that would credibly increase your odds of success. If allowed to do this, you must spend more pool points than you did on the previous attempt. If you can’t afford it, you can’t retry.


When a group of characters act in concert to perform a task together, they designate one to take the lead. That character makes a simple test, spending any number of his own pool points toward the task, as usual. All other characters pay 1 point from their relevant pools in order to gain the benefits of the leader’s action. These points are not added to the leader’s die result. For every character who is unable to pay this piggybacking cost, either because he lacks pool points or does not have the ability at all, the Difficulty Number of the attempt increases by 2.

In most instances a group cannot logically act in concert. Only one character can drive a car at one time. Two characters with Preparedness check their individual kits in sequence, rather than checking a single kit at the same time.


When two characters cooperate toward a single goal, they agree which of them is undertaking the task directly, and which is assisting. The leader may spend any number of points from her pool, adding them to the die roll. The assistant may pay any number of points from his pool. All but one of these is applied to the die roll.

Continuing Challenges

For tasks where drama, verisimilitude or suspense call for a feeling of repeated effort, assign the obstacle a pool representing the base Difficulty of doing it all at once unaided: this will generally be 8 or higher, often much higher. The tests per se use the standard Difficulty of 4.

The players may take turns, cooperate on each action, or use any other means at their disposal in a series of tests: Athletics to batter down a door, or Digital Intrusion to penetrate a firewall, for example. The points they roll and spend accumulate; when they have enough points to overcome the initial Difficulty, the task is done. No points or rolls spent on a failed test add to the total.

Characters can’t render an impossible task possible just by applying the continuing challenge rules.

Zero Sum Contests

A zero sum contest occurs when something bad or good is definitely going to happen to one of the PCs, and you need to find out which one takes the hit. Each player makes a test of a general ability. A zero sum contest can be positive or negative. In a positive contest, the character with the highest result gets a benefit. In a negative contest, the one with the lowest result suffers an ill consequence. When embarking on a contest with an open Difficulty, inform the players that this is an open Difficulty, and whether this is a positive or negative test. They then decide in advance how many points to spend to modify their rolls, keeping this number secret from other players by writing it down on a piece of paper. They then roll the dice, reveal their expenditures, and announce their final results. You can cap the maximum spend.

Be cautious when treating events with negative outcomes as zero sum contests. Because they guarantee that something bad will definitely happen to one of the PCs, make sure that the negative consequence is distressing but does no permanent harm to the character.

Worse results of zero sum contests are acceptable if the characters have had some other fair chance to avoid exposure to the bad situation.

If players are tied for best result (in the case of a positive test) or worst (in a negative test), the tied players may subsequently spend any number of additional points from the pool in question, in hopes of breaking the tie in their favor. Should results remain tied after additional expenditures, the GM chooses the winner based on story considerations.

General Spends

Occasionally you’ll want to create a task at which there is no reasonable chance of failure, but which should cost the characters a degree of effort. To do this, simply charge the character(s) a number of points from relevant general ability pools. Where tasks can be performed by cooperative effort, multiple characters may contribute points to them. 1 or 2 points per character is a reasonable general spend.

Making General Tests Without Abilities

[Decide whether you want your game to be unforgiving (grim settings, horror atmosphere) or heroic (upbeat settings featuring omni-competent protagonists), then choose your options from the two choices below.]


You can always make a test of any general ability, even when you have no points in its pool, or even if you have a rating of 0.


You can always make a test of any general ability if your rating is 1 or more, whether or not you currently have points in its pool. You can never test a general ability when your rating is 0.

Lucky Shots

[Forgiving settings only.]

In a desperate situation, you may be called on to use an general ability you don’t have. Once per episode, a character with a rating of 0 in a given ability may attempt a lucky shot. The other players must grant unanimous permission for the character to try a lucky shot. They have a vested interest because the once-per-episode rule applies to the entire cast. If they let you use the lucky shot, none of them will be able to try it later on.

If allowed to go forward, you spend up to 4 points from your highest current general ability pool, and add it to your roll.

Should you succeed, you get the result you wanted, but are required to describe the outcome as somehow fluky or embarrassing. Thus you preserve the sense that the players who invested real points in the ability are the real masters, and you succeeded through sheer happenstance. Alternately, you can succeed with a straight face, but then explain how the victory really belongs to the PC with the highest rating in the ability. Maybe she taught you a few tricks between episodes. Or perhaps you remember something bad-ass she did earlier, and are simply aping it now.

Toll Tests

[First seen in Ashen Stars, you might find this rule worth including in settings where the investigators regularly build things, or encounter other situations more about cost-benefit than pass-fail.]

In a toll test, your success is assured, if you want it enough, but the cost of your effort is not. The GM informs you of the Difficulty; you roll the die without announcing an expenditure. Once you see the die result, you then decide whether to spend the points needed to bridge the gap between die roll and Difficulty, or to allow yourself to fail. The base Difficulty of a toll test is 6, which may be modified upwards as circumstances warrant.


Contests occur when two characters, often a player character and a supporting character controlled by the GM, actively attempt to thwart one another. Although contests can resolve various physical match-ups, in a horror game the most common contest is the chase, in which the investigators run away from slavering entities intent on ripping them limb from limb.

In a contest, each character acts in turn. The first to fail a roll of the contested ability loses. The GM decides who acts first. In a chase, the character who bolts from the scene acts first. Where the characters seem to be acting at the same time, the one with the lowest rating in the relevant ability acts first. In the event of a tie, supporting characters act before player characters. In the event of a tie between player characters, the player who arrived last for the current session goes first in the contest.

The first character to act makes a test of the ability in question. If he fails, he loses the contest. If he succeeds, the second character then makes a test. This continues until one character loses, at which point the other one wins.

Typically each character attempts to beat a Difficulty Number of 4.

Where the odds of success are skewed in favor of one contestant, the GM may assign different Difficulties to each. A character with a significant advantage gets a lower Difficulty Number. A character facing a major handicap faces a higher Difficulty Number. When in doubt, the GM assigns the lower number to the advantaged participant.

Throughout the contest, GM and players should collaborate to add flavor to each result, explaining what the characters did to remain in the contest. That way, instead of dropping out of the narration to engage in an arithmetical recitation, you keep the fictional world verbally alive .


Fights are slightly more complicated contests involving any of the following abilities:

  • Scuffling vs. Scuffling: the characters are fighting in close quarters.
  • Shooting vs. Shooting: the characters are apart from one another and trying to hit each other with guns or other missile weapons

Initiative: Determine whether the character who attempts to strike the first blow seizes the initiative and therefore gets the first opportunity to strike his opponent, or if his intended target anticipates his attack and beats him to the punch—or shot, as the case may be.

As GUMSHOE is player-facing, how this works depends on whether the PC in the situation is the aggressor or the defender.

In a Scuffling contest, the PC gets to go first if his Scuffling rating equals or exceeds that of his target.

In a Shooting contest, he gets to go first if his Shooting rating exceeds that of his target.

Otherwise, the opponent goes first.

In the rare instance where two PCs fight one another (when one of them is possessed, say), the PC with the higher applicable rating (Scuffling or Shooting) goes first. If their ratings tie but their pools do not, the one with the higher pool goes first. If both are tied, roll a die, with one player going first on an odd result and the other on even.

A contest proceeds between the two abilities. When combatants using the Scuffling or Shooting abilities roll well, they get the opportunity to deal damage to their opponents.

Hit Thresholds: Each character has a Hit Threshold of either 3 (the standard value) or 4 (if the character’s Athletics rating is 8 or more.) The Hit Threshold is the Difficulty Number the character’s opponent must match or beat in order to harm him. Less competent supporting characters may have lower Hit Thresholds. Creatures may have Hit Thresholds of 4 or higher, regardless of their Athletics ratings.

Dealing Damage: When you roll on or over your opponent’s Hit Threshold, you may deal damage to him. To do so, you make a damage roll, rolling a die which is then modified according to the relative lethality of your weapon, as per the following table:

Weapon TypeDamage Modifier
Fist, kick–2
Small improvised weapon, police baton, knife–1
Machete, heavy club, light firearm0
Sword, heavy firearm+1

For firearms, add an additional +2 when fired at point blank range.

Supernatural creatures often exhibit alarmingly high damage modifiers.

Characters may never spend points from their combat pools to increase their damage rolls.

The final damage result is then subtracted from your opponent’s Health pool. When a combatant’s Health pool drops to 0 or less, that combatant begins to suffer ill effects, ranging from slight impairment to helplessness to death.

Unlike other contests, participants do not lose when they fail their test rolls. Instead, they’re forced out of the fight when they lose consciousness or become seriously wounded.

Exhaustion, Injury and Death

Unlike most abilities, your Health pool can drop below 0.

When it does this, you must make a Consciousness Roll. Roll a die with the absolute value2 of your current Health pool as your Difficulty. You may deliberately strain yourself to remain conscious, voluntarily reducing your Health pool by an amount of your choice. For each point you reduce it, add 1 to your die result. The Difficulty of the Consciousness roll is based on your Health pool before you make this reduction.

If your pool is anywhere from 0 to –5, you are hurt, but have suffered no permanent injury, beyond a few superficial cuts and bruises. However the pain of your injuries makes it impossible to spend points on Investigative abilities, and increases the Difficulty Numbers of all tests and contests, including opponents’ Hit Thresholds, by 1.

A character with the Medic ability can improve your condition by spending Medic points. For every Medic point spent, you regain 2 Health points—unless you are the Medic, in which case you gain only 1 Health point for every Medic point spent. The Medic can only refill your pool to where you were before the incident in which you received this latest injury. He must be in a position to devote all of his attention to directly tending to your wounds.

If your pool is between –6 and –11, you have been seriously wounded. You must make a Consciousness roll.

Whether or not you maintain consciousness, you are no longer able to fight. Until you receive first aid, you will lose an additional Health point every half hour. A character with the Medic ability can stabilize your condition by spending 2 Medic points. However, he can’t restore your Health points.

Even after you receive first aid, you must convalesce in a hospital or similar setting for a period of days. Your period of forced inactivity is a number of days equal to the positive value of your lowest Health pool score. (So if you were reduced to –8 Health, you are hospitalized for 8 days.) On the day of your discharge, your Health pool increases to half its maximum value. On the next day, it refreshes fully.

When your pool dips to –12 or below, you are dead. Time to create a replacement character.

Bigger Fights

Combat becomes more chaotic when two groups of combatants fight, or a group gangs up against a single opponent.

If one group of combatants is surprised by the other, the surprising side goes before the surprised side.

Otherwise, determine initiative as follows.

Close-up fight: if any PC has a Scuffling rating equal to or greater than than any combatant on the other side, the PCs act first.

Shoot-out: if any PC has a Shooting rating equal to or greater than than any combatant on the other side, the PCs act first.

Shoot-outs may devolve into scuffles; this does not alter the already-established initiative order.

The time it takes to go through the ranking order once, with each character taking an action, is called a round. When one round ends, another begins.

In the course of each round, either the PCs or their enemies go first, as already established by the initiative order. Then the other side responds. The order in which the two sides act remains unchanged from round to round.

During the portion of the round devoted to the PCs, each participating PC makes an attack in sequence, according to the players’ seating order, from left to right. Sequence becomes irrelevant, obviously, when only one PC is participating (or still standing) in the fight.

In their portion of the round, opponent(s) respond with their own wave of attack attempts, ordered by the characters they’re targeting, again using a left to right player seating order. Where multiple opponents attack a single PC, the GM determines their order of action in whatever manner she finds convenient—usually the order in which she’s tracking them in her rough notes.

The order of action can therefore change slightly from round to round for the PCs’ opponents, but not for the PCs.

Some beings may strike more than once per round. They make each attack in succession, and may divide them up between opponents within range, or concentrate all of them on a single enemy. GMs order these attacks in whatever order they find convenient, so long as they fall within portion of the round devoted to enemy attacks. Usually it’s easiest to have them act against multiple PCs at once, starting when they reach the first target in the seating order

When called upon to act, each character may strike at any opponent within range of his weapons.

Creatures may choose to use their actions to deal additional damage to downed or helpless opponents rather than engage active opponents. They automatically deal once instance of damage per action. Only the most crazed and bestial human enemies engage in this behavior.

Characters who join a combat in progress come last in order of precedence. If more than two characters join during the same round, the GM determines their relative precedence using the rules above.

The fight continues until one side capitulates or flees, or all of its members are unconscious or otherwise unable to continue.


Player characters are surprised when they find themselves suddenly in a dangerous situation. Avoid being surprised with a successful Surveillance test. The basic Difficulty is 4, adjusted by the opponent’s Stealth Modifier.

Player characters surprise supporting characters by sneaking up on them with a successful Infiltration or Surveillance test. The basic Difficulty is 4, adjusted by the opponent’s Stealth modifier.

Surprised characters suffer a +2 increase to all general ability Difficulties for any immediately subsequent action. In a fight, the penalty pertains to the first round of combat.


Armor may reduce the damage from certain weapon types. If you’re wearing a form of armor effective against the weapon being used against you, you subtract a number of points from each instance of damage dealt to you before applying it to your Health pool. Light body armor, as worn by police officers, reduces each instance of damage from bullets by 2 points and from cutting and stabbing weapons (knives, swords, machetes) by 1 point. Military-grade body armor reduces bullet damage by 3 points.

Light body armor is heavy, hot, and marks you out as someone looking for trouble. All of these drawbacks apply doubly to military-grade body armor. Investigators can’t expect to walk around openly wearing armor without attracting the attention of the local SWAT team. Armor and heavy weapons may prove useful in discrete missions conducted away from prying eyes.

In choosing to make contemporary body armor highly effective against firearms, we’re drawing on the portrayal of Kevlar vests in cop shows and movies. We make no claims for any resemblance between these rules and real life. The rules also favor close-up physical confrontations, which are more in keeping with the horror genre than firefights. GMs using the GUMSHOE rules in more realistic, horror-free investigative settings may wish to reduce the effectiveness of body armor against gunfire.

Creatures often have high armor ratings. They may possess hard, bony hides or monstrous anatomies that can take greater punishment than ordinary organisms. Most supernatural creatures are more resistant to bullets and other missile weapons than they are to blunt force trauma, slashes, and stab wounds.

[Delete or modify references to supernatural creatures as needed for your genre.]


In a typical gunfight, combatants seek cover, hiding behind walls, furniture or other barriers, exposing themselves only for the few seconds it takes them to pop up and fire a round at their targets. The GUMSHOE rules recognize three cover conditions:

Exposed: No barrier stands between you and the combatant firing at you. Your Hit Threshold decreases by 1.

Partial Cover: About half of your body is exposed to fire. Your Hit Threshold remains unchanged.

Full Cover: Except when you pop up to fire a round, the barrier completely protects you from incoming fire. Your Hit Threshold increases by 1.

One Gun, Two Combatants

If your opponent has a gun well in hand and ready to fire, and you charge him from more than five feet away, he can empty his entire clip or chamber at you before you get to him, badly injuring you. You are automatically hit. He rolls one instance of damage, which is then tripled. Yes, we said tripled. And, yes, the tripling occurs after weapon modifiers are taken into account. This is why few people charge when their opponents have the drop on them.

If your opponent has a pistol but it is not well in hand and ready to fire, you may attempt to jump him and wrestle it from his grip. If he has a pistol well in hand but is unaware of your presence, you may also be able to jump him, at the GM’s discretion. The characters engage in a Scuffling contest to see which of them gets control of the gun and fires it. The winner makes a damage roll against the loser, using the pistol’s Damage Modifier, including the +2 for point blank range.

If you jump an opponent with an unready rifle, a Scuffling combat breaks out, with the opponent using the rifle as a heavy club.

Ammo Capacity

In some settings, characters need reload only when dramatically appropriate. Otherwise, they’re assumed to be able to refill the cylinders of their revolvers or jam clips into their automatic weapons between shots.

When reloading is an issue, GMs may request a Shooting test (Difficulty 3) to quickly reload. Characters who fail may not use their Shooting ability to attack during the current round.


The effect of range on firearms combat is likewise simplified nearly out of existence. Handguns and shotguns can only be accurately fired at targets within fifty meters. The range limit for rifles is one hundred meters.

Non-Lethal Weapons

In GUMSHOE, non-lethal attacks never take an opponent out faster than standard combat. Otherwise players will have their characters simply knock their enemies out and kill them in cold blood, which is unsympathetic and out of genre. Thus tasers and stun guns work less effectively in the game than in real life.

Fighting Without Abilities

A character with a Shooting rating of 0 is not allergic to guns. Anyone can pick up a revolver and empty it in the general direction of the foe. Likewise, a character with no Scuffling ability is not going to just ignore the fire axe sitting on the wall when a blood bursts through a partition wall.

However, such characters will use their weapons ineffectively and hesitantly. Using a weapon (including fists or feet) without ability has the following drawbacks:

  • You automatically do an additional -2 damage
  • You must declare your action at the beginning of each round and cannot change it if the tactical situation alters.
  • You automatically go last in each round.
  • If you are using a firearm, a roll of 1 means you have accidentally shot yourself or one of your allies, as selected (or rolled randomly) by the GM. Do damage as normal (including your automatic -2 penalty).

Called Shots

[Use only for especially combat-oriented GUMSHOE games.]

In certain situations simply hitting an enemy isn’t enough: you need to get him in a particular spot. When taking a called shot, specify the desired location of the strike and any additional intended effect other than injury to the opponent. The GM decides whether this is a likely outcome of such a hit. If it is clearly not a likely outcome, and your character would logically know this, she warns you in advance, so you can do something else instead.

The GM then adds 1 to 4 points to the target’s Hit Threshold, depending on the additional difficulty entailed. Use the following table as a guideline. Body locations assume a human of ordinary size. Hit Threshold modifiers for ordinary body parts of extraordinary creatures are left as an exercise for the GM. Vehicle locations are in italics.

Desired LocationModifier to Hit Threshold
Large carried object (rocket launcher, laptop computer, backpack)+1
Torso, windshield+1
Chest (if attacker is facing target)+2
Gut, specific window, tail rotor+2
Head or limb+2
Hand or foot, joint, tire+3
Heart, throat, mouth, or face+3
Weapon or other hand-held object+3
Eye, headlight+4
Chest (if target faces away from attacker)+4

With the new Hit Threshold determined, you then make a combat ability test, as per the standard rules. If you succeed, your specified effect occurs as desired.

If you struck an ordinary person in the head, throat, or chest with a weapon, add +2 to the damage; hitting the heart adds +3 to the damage. Neither can be combined with a point-blank gunshot, which is already assumed to hit a vital location.

If you struck an ordinary person in a joint (wrist, knee, etc.) or throat with an aimed hand-to-hand blow, lock, or kick, add +2 to the damage; hitting an eye adds +3 to the damage.

This assumes a trained, targeted strike intended to disable or cripple. You may narrate some other crippling strike to suit your own specific martial arts idiom, but the modifiers remain the same if you want to do the extra damage.

If, after this damage is dealt, the victim is already Hurt but not Seriously Wounded, you may then pay an additional 6 points from the fighting ability you are using to reduce the target to -6 Health. If the target is already Seriously Wounded you may then pay an additional 6 Shooting, Weapons, or Hand-to-Hand points (whichever applies) to kill the target outright.

Combat Options

Combat options provide extra benefits during a fight. They require:

  • That the character meet a prerequisite rating in one or more fighting-related General abilities


  • The expenditure of points from one or more fighting-related General abilities.
Example Combat Option: Mook Shield

Prereq: Hand-to-Hand 8+

If you have a Hand-to-Hand rating of 8 or more, you can drag a convenient mook, henchman, or minion into the path of incoming gunfire. Spend 3 Hand-to-Hand points and then make a Hand-to-Hand attack against any mook in Point-Blank range, or 3 Hand-to-Hand and 2 Athletics and then make a Hand-to-Hand attack against any mook in Close range. (Those points do not add to your attack.) If no mook is closer than Near range, you cannot use Mook Shield.

If you succeed, all ranged attacks that miss you hit the mook instead until your next turn; the mook can do nothing. Additionally, the mook provides -4 Armor against incoming fire, losing 4 points of Health for each bullet that hits you. Holding a mook up in front of you gives you full cover, and increases your normal Hit Threshold by 1. On your next turn, you may fire a weapon, but must either drop the mook (or, more likely, his corpse) or spend 3 additional Shooting points to fire from under his arm.

[From Night’s Black Agents]

[Many combat options and cherries allow an immediate ability pool refresh. For example:]

Example Combat Option: Martial Arts

Characters with a Scuffling rating of 8 can specify that they are trained in one or more martial arts. Once per fight, their players may gain a 4-point Scuffling refresh by uttering a brief, evocative narrative description of his or her elegantly bone-crunching moves:

  • “With a flowing Kata Gurama, I try to sweep him up onto my shoulder and down to the pavement.”
  • “Using my krav maga training, I target the back of his knee with a pivoting, angled kick.”
  • “Remembering the sweat and humidity of that sweltering Bangkok gym so long ago, I summon up all my strength to tag him with a ferocious cross jab.”

At the GM’s discretion, especially poetic or believably obscure descriptions may fetch a 5-point refresh.

These utterances needn’t be improvised; players can prepare key phrases in advance, then adapt them to the situation at hand.

[From The Esoterror Fact Book.]

Running Away

Fleeing from an ongoing fight requires an Athletics test. The Difficulty is 3 plus the number of foes you’re fleeing from: to flee one enemy is Difficulty 4, fleeing two enemies is Difficulty 5, fleeing four enemies is Difficulty 7. On a success, melee ends and you flee; if they intend to chase you, your foes must roll first in the ensuing full contest of Athletics. If you fail, the opponent with the highest damage value automatically deals one instance of damage to you. Melee still ends, but you must roll first in the ensuing chase.

In situations where it seems appropriate to make flight more difficult, on a failure, any directly engaged opponent might spend 3 Athletics to block you from fleeing—interposing himself between you and the exit, tackling you, slamming the garage doors, or whatever the narrative description warrants. In this case, your enemies forgo the damage they would otherwise deal.

Stability Tests

[Not all genres require a system for psychological resistance. In horror games, Stability marks the downward spiral of your diminishing faculties. In Mutant City Blues, it’s just a resistance to mental attacks. Ashen Stars doesn’t use it at all. Adjust as needed for your setting.]

Mental stresses can take you out of commission, temporarily or permanently, as easily as physical injury.

When an incident challenges your fragile sanity, make a Stability test against a Difficulty Number of 4.

If you fail, you lose a number of Stability points. The severity of the loss depends on the situation. As with any other test of a general ability, you are always permitted to spend Stability points to provide a bonus to your roll. However, it’s never a good bet to spend more points than you stand to lose if you fail.

Your Stability loss from failed tests is capped at the worst incident in that scene. Points spent on providing bonuses are still lost.

IncidentStability Loss
A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to do serious harm2
You are in a car or other vehicle accident serious enough to pose a risk of injury2
A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to kill3
You see a supernatural creature from a distance3
You see a supernatural creature up close4
You see a particularly grisly murder or accident scene4
You learn that a friend or loved one has been violently killed4
You discover the corpse of a friend or loved one6
You are attacked by a supernatural creature7
You see a friend or loved one killed7
You see a friend or loved one killed in a particularly gruesome manner8

GMs should feel free to assess Stability Losses for other incidents, using the examples provided as a benchmark. Some especially overwhelming creatures may impose higher than normal Stability losses when seen from a distance, seen up close, or ripping your lungs out.

Characters make a single roll per incident, based on its highest potential Stability loss.

Groups craving an additional point of complexity can occasionally alter Difficulty Numbers for Stability tests depending on the character’s attitude toward the destabilizing event. Characters who would logically be inured to a given event face a Difficulty of 3, while those especially susceptible face a 5. A character whose daytime identity is that of a surgeon or coroner might, for example, face a lowered Difficulty when encountering gruesomely mutilated bodies. A stock car racer would get a better chance against car accidents. No character type gets a break when encountering supernatural creatures.

Losing It

Like Health, your Stability pool can drop below 0.

If your Stability ranges from 0 to –5, you are shaken.

Difficulty Numbers for all general abilities increase by 1, and it becomes more difficult to use investigative abilities.

If you want to make an Investigative spend, make a test with the absolute value3 of your current Stability pool as your Difficulty. You may deliberately strain yourself, voluntarily reducing your Stability pool by an amount of your choice. For each point you reduce it, add 1 to your die result. The Difficulty of the Stability test is based on your Stability pool before you make this reduction. If you fail, you still make the spend, but you should roleplay this failure.

If your Stability ranges from –6 to –11, you acquire a mental illness.

This stays with you even after your Stability pool is restored to normal. See below for more. You also continue to suffer the ill effects of being shaken. Furthermore, you permanently lose 1 point from your Stability rating. The only way to get it back it to purchase it again with build points.

When your Stability reaches –12 or less, you are incurably insane. You may commit one last crazy act, which must either be self-destructively heroic or self-destructively destructive. Or you may choose merely to gibber and drool. Assuming you survive your permanent journey to the shores of madness, your character is quietly shipped off to a secure Ordo Veritatis psych facility, never to be seen again. Time to create a new character.

Mental Illness

[Alter as needed for the flavor of your setting.]

If the incident that drove you to mental illness was mundane in nature, you suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD.) You are haunted by dreams of the incident, and spend your days in a constant state of anxiety and alert, as if prepared for it to repeat itself at any moment. Whenever your senses register any input reminding you of the incident, you must make a Stability test (Difficulty 4) or freeze up. If you freeze up, you are unable to take any action for fifteen minutes and remain shaken (see above) for twenty-four hours after that. Tests to see if you show symptoms of PTSD do not in and of themselves lower your Stability pool.

If driven to mental illness by a supernatural occurrence, you face a range of possible mental disorders. The GM rolls on the following chart or chooses a disorder based on the triggering circumstance. The player is then sent out of the room, while the GM and other players collaborate on a way to heighten his sense of dislocation and disorientation.

  1. Delusion. The other players and GM decide on a mundane detail of the world which is no longer true and has never been true. For example, there might be no such thing as a squirrel, a Volkswagen, or orange juice. Maybe John Lennon was never assassinated, or never existed in the first place. PCs and supporting characters deny knowledge of the chosen item, person, or event.
  2. Homicidal Mania. The GM takes the player aside, tells him that he knows one of the other players is a supernatural creature, and tells him just how to kill the monster.
  3. Megalomania. When the character fails at a dramatic moment, the GM describes the outcome of his ability attempt as successful, then asks the player to leave the room. Then the GM describes the real results to the other players, and invites the megalomaniac player back into the room.
  4. Multiple Personality Disorder. At moments of stress, another player is assigned control of the character, speaking and acting as if he’s an entirely different person.
  5. Paranoia. The other players are instructed to act as if they’re trying to keep straight faces when the affected player returns. Occasionally they exchange notes, make hand signals to the GM, or use meaningless code words, as if communicating something important the player is unaware of.
  6. Selective Amnesia. The group decides on an event that did happen in the world that the player has now forgotten all about. He’s married, or killed someone, or pseudonymously written a best-selling book. Everyone he meets refers to this new, verifiable fact that he has no knowledge of.

Psychological Triage

A character with the Shrink ability can spend points from that pool to help another character regain spent Stability points. For every Shrink point spent, the recipient gains 2 Stability points.

If a character is acting in an erratic manner due to mental illness, a another character can spend 2 points of Shrink to snap him into a state of temporary lucidity. He will then act rationally for the remainder of the current scene.

Head Games

Mental illness can be cured through prolonged treatment using the Shrink ability. At the beginning of each scenario, in a prologue scene preceding the main action, the character administering the treatment makes a Shrink test (Difficulty 4.) After three consecutive successful tests, and three consecutive scenarios in which the patient remains above 0 Stability at all times, the mental illness goes away.

However, if the character ever again acquires a mental illness, he regains the condition he was previously cured of. Permanent cure then becomes impossible.

A successful Shrink test undertaken during the course of a scenario suppresses its symptoms until the patient next suffers a Stability loss.

Regaining Pool Points

Spent points from various pools are restored at different rates, depending on their narrative purpose.

Investigative ability pools are restored only at the end of each case, without regard to the amount of time that passes in the game world. Players seeking to marshal their resources may ask you how long cases typically run, in real time. Most groups finish scenarios over 2-3 sessions. Players may revise their sense of how carefully to manage point spending as they see how quickly their group typically disposes of its cases.

(GMs running extremely long, multi-part investigations may designate certain story events as breakpoints where all investigative pools are refreshed. For example, a globe-hopping investigation where the team meets a separate team in five different locales might allow refreshment of investigative pools after each group of enemies is neutralized.)

Use of the Shrink ability permits limited recovery of Stability points in the course of an episode. Full refreshment occurs between cases. It is possible only when the character is able to spend calm, undisturbed quality time with friends and loved ones uninvolved in the shadowy world of the Ordo Veritatis. In campaigns where the teammates’ personal lives are a matter of background detail only, refreshment automatically occurs between episodes.

GMs who wish to add a soap opera element to their campaigns, in which the characters must balance the everyday pressures of ordinary life against their activities as covert battlers of the supernatural, can complicate this process. In this campaign type, the characters must work to keep their support networks intact. If they fail, they regain no Stability between episodes. As part of the character creation process, players must detail their network of friends and loved ones in a paragraph or two of background text, which is then submitted to the GM for approval.

The Health pool refreshes over time, at a rate of 2 points per day of restful activity. (Wounded characters heal at a different rate, over a period of hospitalization.) Use of the Medic ability can restore a limited number of Health points in the course of a session.

Pools for the physical abilities of Athletics, Driving, Scuffling, and Shooting are fully restored whenever twenty-four hours of game-world time elapses since the last expenditure. The remaining general abilities refresh at the end of each case, like investigative abilities.

What Do Pool Points Represent?

Pool points are a literary abstraction, representing the way that each character gets his or her own time in the spotlight in the course of an ensemble drama. When you do something remarkable, you expend a little bit of your spotlight time. More active players will spend their points sooner than less demonstrative ones, unless they carefully pick and choose their moments to shine.

Remember, all characters are remarkably competent. Pool points measure your opportunities to exercise this ultra-competence during any given scenario. Even when pools are empty, you still have a reasonable chance to succeed at a test, and you’ll always get the information you need to move forward in the case.

Pool points do not represent a resource, tangible or otherwise, in the game world. Players are aware of them, but characters are not. The team members’ ignorance of them is analogous to TV characters’ obliviousness to commercial breaks, the unwritten rules of scene construction, and the tendency of events to heat up during sweeps.

We represent this most purely in the case of investigative skills, which are the core of the game. Their refreshment is tied to a purely fictional construct, the length of the episode.

However, where a pool could be seen to correspond to a resource perceptible to the characters, we handle refreshment in a somewhat more realistic, if also abstract, manner. Characters’ ebbing Health scores are perceptible to the characters in the form of welts, cuts, pain, and general fatigue4.

Stability is less tangible but can be subjectively measured in the characters’ moods and reactions. Physical abilities, also tied to fatigue and sharpness of reflexes, are also handled with a nod to the demands of realism.

Improving Your Character

At the end of each investigation, each player gets 2 build points for each session they participated in. (This assumes a small number of 3-4 hour sessions; if you play in shorter bursts, modify accordingly.) Players who had characters die in the course of the investigation only get points for each session involving their current character.

These build points can be spent to increase either investigative or general abilities. You may acquire new abilities or bolster existing ones. If necessary to preserve credibility, rationalize new abilities as areas of expertise you’ve had all along, but are only revealing later in the series.

Opponent Statistics

You usually only need game statistics for characters, including ODEs, that the investigators in some way have to overcome through general abilities. Most witnesses, suspects and non-combatants require only a text description, indicating for example which interpersonal abilities they’re most likely to respond to.

Opponents use the same Hit Threshold and Weapon Damage rules as player characters.

When choosing Health ratings for dramatically unimportant foes, don’t worry about simulating their relative robustness in comparison to the general population. Focus on how many hits they ought to be able to take before dropping, according to dramatic logic. If you want a thug who falls to a single burst of automatic fire, give him a Health of 1 or 2.

An Attack Pattern is an optional game statistic suggesting how the opponent might spend its Scuffling and/or Shooting points from round to round of a fight. GMs should always consult story logic and dramatic needs first and resort to the attack pattern second. You might want a vast lumbering creature to smash doors and walls around the PCs, and a small vicious ODE to attack with unerring precision. These numbers are a fallback if you can’t decide how the opponent would spend, or are uncomfortable choosing to spend enough to guarantee a hit each time. Don’t use them just because they’re there, even if you find the pull of numbers—oh, sweet, beautiful numbers—generally irresistible.

When you do use the Attack Pattern, increase the spends after each miss until the opponent either starts to hit, or runs out of points. Once engaged, opponents figure out how hard the PCs are to hit, and adjust their efforts accordingly.

Armor is subtracted from each instance of damage the opponent takes. Where a weapon or weapons is listed in brackets after the number, the Armor reduces damage only from those weapons. Some Armor may protect against all Scuffling attacks but not Shooting attacks, or vice versa.

An opponent’s Alertness Modifier represents its ability to sense your activities, whether through standard senses like sight and hearing, or exotic ones like echolocation, pheromone recognition, or energy signature reading. When you try to sneak past it, the Alertness Modifier is applied to your base Infiltration Difficulty, which is usually 4. It also applies to Surveillance tests when you’re trying to observe the opponent without being observed in turn. The Alertness Modifier reflects all of the individual’s sensing capabilities, both natural and technological. A second number appearing after a slash represents the opponent’s Alertness if its gear is somehow neutralized or taken away.

An opponent with a Stealth Modifier is either significantly harder or easier to spot with Surveillance. It alters the difficulty number for that or similar tests.

Sample Creature Stat Block: Lipovore

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 18, Scuffling 12, Shooting 8, plus one shipboard ability at 8 and another at 4.

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: punch +2

Shooting Weapons/Damage: disruption pistol +1

Hit Threshold: 3

Typical Tech: Disguiser, Personal Bluffer, Tether

Alertness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: +2

Savvy Modifier: +2

Special: At -12 hit points a lipovore falls into a deep coma that may be mistaken for death.

[From Ashen Stars]

Sample Creature Stat Blocks: Various Animals

Aggressive Herbivore, Cattle-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 8, Health 8, Scuffling 8

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: gore/trample +2

Hit Threshold: 2

Armor: 0

Alertness Modifier: -2

Stealth Modifier: -2

Aggressive Herbivore, Rhino-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 12, Health 12, Scuffling 12

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: gore/trample +4

Hit Threshold: 2

Armor: 2

Alertness Modifier: -3

Stealth Modifier: -3

Aggressive Herbivore, Triceratops-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 12, Health 24, Scuffling 16

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: gore/trample +6

Hit Threshold: 2

Armor: 3

Alertness Modifier: -3

Stealth Modifier: -3

Aggressive Herbivore, Sauropod-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 24, Health 36, Scuffling 24

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: trample +8

Hit Threshold: 1

Armor: 1

Alertness Modifier: -4

Stealth Modifier: -4

Apex Predator, Lion-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 12, Health 8, Scuffling 8

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: bite +1

Hit Threshold: 4

Armor: 0

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Apex Predator, Megafauna-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 16, Health 8, Scuffling 8

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: bite, swipe or claw +4

Hit Threshold: 3

Armor: 1

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: -3

Apex Predator, Monster-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 16, Health 18, Scuffling 18

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: bite, swipe or claw +6

Hit Threshold: 2

Armor: 2

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: -3

Pack Predator, Dog-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 8, Health 3, Scuffling 4

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: bite -1

Hit Threshold: 4

Armor: 0

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Pack Predator, Wolf-Sized

Abilities: Athletics 8, Health 3, Scuffling 4

Scuffling Weapons/Damage: bite +0

Hit Threshold: 4

Armor: 0

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Tests and Supporting Characters

Game statistics in GUMSHOE are, whenever possible, player-facing. When you as GM have the choice between making a determination based on a player test, or on a test made by you on behalf of a supporting character, always choose the player. For example, you may want to specify that there’s a chance a harried relative of a kidnapping victim might eventually lose her patience with the investigators and participate in a damaging press conference. Rather than having her make a Stability test to see when and if this happens, set it up so that a player makes a Reassurance spend to forestall her.

Likewise, if you want to have a supporting character steal something in a situation where the PCs are in no position to affect the outcome, simply decree that it happens. Don’t bother testing the character’s Filch ability. To do otherwise is to engage in false branching: you are creating unpredictability for yourself in a way that remains invisible to the players. They don’t get a chance to alter the outcome, and thus gain no benefit from the uncertainty you’ve introduced.


In or out of combat, the characters’ survival may be threatened by assorted hazards, from electrical shock to poisoning.

Electricity and Other Shocks

Damage from exposure to electricity varies according to voltage. You can suffer:

Mild shock, equivalent to briefly touching an ungrounded wire or damaged electrical appliance. You lose 1 Health and are blown backwards for a couple of meters.

Moderate shock, equivalent to a jolt from a cattle prod. You lose 2 Health and (if in combat time) your next four actions. You always lose at least one action, but may buy off the loss of other actions by paying 3 Athletics points per action.

Extreme shock, equivalent to a lightning strike. You suffer one die of damage, with a +4 modifier.

The GM should always give you some opportunity to avoid being shocked, whether it be an Athletics test to avoid unexpected contact, or a Surveillance test to spot the danger.

If you are reduced to –6 or fewer Health, the current is assumed to have traveled through your heart or brain, causing cardiac arrest or brain damage, respectively. The GM describes appropriate symptoms and futuristic treatments during your sick bay convalescence.

Many other hazards can be emulated using the mild/moderate/extreme breakdown above. Simply change the narrative description and side effects, keeping the Health pool losses.

Example Hazard Description: Alien Fungal Infection

Mild: For the next two intervals, you lose 2 Health every time you make an Athletics test.

Moderate: Make a Health test against a Difficulty of 4. If you fail, you suffer an extreme shock at the beginning of the next interval.

Example Hazard Description: Ion Storm

Mild: For the next interval, you lose all benefits from your cybernetic enhancements.

Moderate: Your cybernetic enhancements all go offline, returning after three intervals. You may activate any or all of them before this time by spending 2 Health per enhancement.

Example Hazard Description:Temporal Shock

Mild: For the remainder of the interval, you lose 1 Health each time you use an Academic or Technical ability.

Moderate: For the remainder of the interval, the Difficulty of any general ability rolls increases by 2.

[Hazard descriptions from Ashen Stars.]


Damage from exposure to fire varies according to the surface area of your body exposed to the flame, and repeats for each round (or, outside of combat, every few seconds) you remain exposed to it.

Minor exposure, most often to an extremity like a hand or foot, carries a damage modifier of –2.

Partial exposure, to up to half of your surface area, carries a damage modifier of +0.

Extensive exposure, to half or more of your surface area, imposes a damage modifier of +2.

The GM should always give you a chance to avoid being set on fire. The difficulty of extinguishing a flame is usually 4, but might be higher for anomalous flame-like manifestations, or when you are coated with a futuristic accelerant.


When deprived of air, you get two minutes before the nastiness kicks in. After that point, you lose 1 Athletics every ten seconds, as you struggle to hold your breath. Once that pool depletes, you start losing Health, at a rate of 1 point every five seconds.


Toxins are either inhaled, ingested or injected directly into the bloodstream. They vary widely in lethality. A dose of a low-tech cleaning substance may impose a damage modifier of –2, where a viro-active nerve gas might range from +6 to +16. Inhaled toxins tend to take effect right away. Injected and ingested toxins take delayed effect, anywhere from minutes to hours after exposure. Their damage might be parceled out in increments, and may prevent you from refreshing Health points until somehow neutralized. As with any hazard, the GM should always give you a chance to avoid exposure to them.

Designing Scenarios

The GUMSHOE system supports a certain style of scenario design. The rules are less important to the success of your game than the way you structure your adventures.


If a piece of information is essential to move the story on, it’s a core clue. It costs nothing. You can also offer minor tidbits of information at a 0 points, if the information not consequential enough to be worth a point spend.

If you have a piece of information that offers a fun sidelight on the action but is not essential to move through the story, you can make this available with a 1- or 2-point spend. Choose the cost of the spend according to the entertainment value of the information, not the game-world difficulty of completing the task. The whole point of the system is to make clues easy to acquire, so that players can get on with the fun of figuring out how they fit together. Facilitate this by making choices that get information into the hands of players. Habits die hard, so make sure you’re not slipping back into the old paradigm and making the clues hard to get.

If an action’s consequence of failure might be madness, death or injury, by all means make it a test. If game world logic suggests that a supporting character will actively oppose the PC, make it a contest.

Clue Types

Special clue types are as follows.

Floating Core Clues

It can be useful to structure a scenario with one or more free-floating core clues. These typically advance the story from one distinct section to another. Where an ordinary core clue is linked with a particular scene, a floating clue can be gleaned in any one of several scenes. The GM determines during play which scene gives up the clue.

Floating clues allow you to control the pacing of a scenario. They allow the characters to play out all of the fun or interesting experiences in one section of the scenario before the story takes a dramatic turn. For example, you might want them to separately meet all of the suspected esoterror suspects before they, and the Investigators, get locked up for the night in an old dark house. To achieve this, withhold the core clue that moves the investigators to the dark house until after they’ve met all of the relevant supporting characters. That way, you prevent them from leaping ahead into the narrative without getting all the information they need to fully enjoy what follows.

Likewise, a floating clue allows you to perform like a ruthless editor, skipping unnecessary scenes when you need to kick the narrative into a higher gear. Let’s say you’ve chosen five possible scenes in which the Investigators might logically get a necessary core clue. You figure that this phase of the adventure should take about an hour. If the players breeze through the scenes in ten minutes apiece, you can save the core clue for the last scene. If they linger, taking twenty minutes per scene, you’ll want to make the core clue available after the third scene.

Player frustration level usually serves as a better trigger for a floating core clue than a predetermined time limit. If they’re having obvious fun interacting with the vivid supporting characters you’ve created, or being creeped out by uncanny phenomena, you can give them more of what they want by saving the core clue for the final scene. On the other hand, if you see they’re getting bored and frustrated, you can slip in the floating clue earlier.

Leveraged Clues

A staple element of mystery writing is the crucial fact which, when presented to a previously resistant witness or suspect, causes him to break down and suddenly supply the information or confession the detectives seek. This is represented in GUMSHOE by the leveraged clue. This is a piece of information which is only available from the combined use of an interpersonal ability, and the mention of another, previously gathered clue. The cited clue is called a prerequisite clue, and is by definition a sub-category of core clue.

Pipe Clues

A clue which is important to the solution of the mystery, but which becomes significant much later in the scenario, is called a pipe clue. The name is a reference to screenwriting jargon, where the insertion of exposition that becomes relevant later in the narrative is referred to as “laying pipe.” The term likens the careful arrangement of narrative information to the work performed by a plumber in building a house.

Pipe clues create a sense of structural variety in a scenario, lessening the sense that the PCs are being led in a strictly linear manner from Scene A to Scene B to Scene C. When they work well, they give players a “eureka” moment, as they suddenly piece together disparate pieces of the puzzle. A possible risk with pipe clues lies in the possible weakness of player memories, especially over the course of a scenario broken into several sessions. The GM may occasionally have to prompt players to remember the first piece of a pipe clue when they encounter a later component.

Restricted Clues

Certain clues which are necessary to the solution of a mystery will not be known to everyone with the ability required to access them. Instead, these are restricted clues—secret, esoteric or otherwise obscure facts which one member of the group just happens to know.

Only a select few people know about OPERATION CORNWALLIS, but if it is necessary to the completion of an investigation, an investigator will be one of them.

To preserve the sense that the group has access to little-known facts, only one group member knows the information in question; its revelation comes as news to all of the other investigators, even those who have the same ability. The first character with the relevant ability to take an action that might trigger the clue is the one blessed with this fortuitous knowledge. Where no clear first actor exists, as in a clue provided as soon as the investigators enter a scene, the GM chooses the investigator with the highest current pool in that ability (if applicable) or the investigator who has had the least recent spotlight time or most requires a positive reversal of fortune. Alternately, the GM may allow applicable background considerations to determine the possessor of the restricted clue: for example, a character with high Bureaucracy might recognize an esoterror suspect from back office work.

Timed Results

The following structural technique applies to any GUMSHOE game where the characters have access to the services of a forensic lab, and rely on tests performed by others.

You can shape the pacing of a case with a timed result. This occurs when believability requires a suitable interval between the submission of evidence to forensic experts and the results of the testing they perform. In police procedurals, it is common for the direction of an investigation to be suddenly changed when the lab results come in. The scientific evidence may exonerate the current top suspect or point the investigators toward new witnesses or locations. Alternately, it can change the meaning of previously gleaned information, causing the investigators to conduct re-interview previous witnesses, or conduct closer searches of crime scenes.

A timed result can serve as a delayed-reaction core clue, directing the PCs to a new scene. These are useful devices in cases where the scenes can be connected in any order. If the PCs get bored or bogged down in one scene, they can receive a phone call from the lab techs calling them in to receive some much-needed exposition, which sends them in a new direction.

The arrival of a timed result can also change the players’ interpretation of their current case notes without moving them to a new scene. They might dismiss a suspect’s alibi, alter their timeline of events, or reject information provided them by a witness whose perceptions are revealed as unreliable.

News of a lab report requiring the team’s attention can also be used to cut short a scene that the players won’t abandon, even though they’ve already collected all available clues.

Records are your Friend

In addition to your adventure notes, there are two other documents you need to run the game.

When you are creating your adventure, make a note of the investigative abilities you’ve used on the Investigative Ability Checklist. It’s a good idea to add clues for as wide a range of abilities as possible. You can also use the Checklist during character creation to ensure all the abilities are covered, and that redundant abilities are left out.

Secondly, during character creation, have your players note their choices of investigative abilities on the GM’s Investigator Roster. This enables you to pick out which characters might notice obvious clues, and ensure spotlight time is evenly spread.

When you prepare your next session, you can use the Investigator Roster to see what interests your players. If someone has a 3-point rating in Art History, you could add a some forged artwork or a menacing sculpture to your notes. This is particularly useful in an improvised game.

Scene Types

Having planned out your mystery, it’s time to arrange it into scenes. Each of these takes place in a different location or involves an interaction with a different supporting character—usually both. Under the title of the scene, write the scene type, and the scene or scenes which lead to the current scene, and scenes which lead from it. Here is an example scene header from the introductory adventure.

The Good Reverend

Scene Type: Core

Lead-In: The Briefing

Lead-Outs: The Visionary, The Skeptic, Newshounds of Sequoia City

Scenes fall into the following types.


This is the first scene of the episode. It establishes the premise of the mystery. If it’s the characters’ first meeting, have the agents first rendezvous with one another. Then, they meet Mr. Verity in a second secure locale where you provide the briefing and answer questions. When sent to deal with an emergency already in, they go direct to the scene and are briefed there by Mr. Verity. You can extend this scene if it’s your first session.


Core scenes present at least one piece of information necessary to complete the investigation and get to the climactic scene.

Each core scene requires at least a single core clue.

A core clue typically points the group to another scene, often a core scene.

Avoid hard sequenced core clues, which can only lead to one another in a single order.

You’re constructing one way to move through the story to another core clue, not the only way. In play, you may find yourself placing the core clue from one scene in another, improvised scene inspired by the logical actions undertaken by the players. (This is also true of published scenarios, by the way.) The scene structure guarantees that there’s at least one way to navigate the story, but should not preclude other scene orders. By following the structure you also ensure that you’re creating a branching narrative driven by player choices. This avoids the syndrome of the story driven by the actions of supporting characters, which the players observe more or less passively.

Placing Information

A core scene typically includes many pieces of information in addition to its core clue. Facts may provide understanding and context. Or they may obscure the mystery, by focusing attention on irrelevant details. Creating a scene is about anticipating the questions the players will ask and figuring out which answers ought to be available to the investigative experts their characters happen to be.

Don’t make all non-core clues spends. Add spends when:

  • You think of facts that seem enjoyably arcane
  • A piece of information is tangential or obscure
  • Lasers might get information more quickly than they otherwise would
  • They might secure some other practical advantage

If a spend doesn’t make the character giving up his points seem more impressive, or confer some other advantage, it shouldn’t be a spend.5


Alternate scenes provide information which may be of some use in understanding and solving the central mystery, but aren’t strictly necessary to reach the conclusion. They often provide context and detail. Or they might provide the same information as core scenes, but in another way. As a third option, they might allow the group to eliminate a red herring possibility. These exculpatory facts are valuable; they let the lasers narrow their search to the real answer, even though they don’t strictly speaking, lead to another core clue.

Antagonist Reaction

This is a scene of danger or trouble in which supporting characters opposed to the group’s success take action to stop them or set them back. This might be a fight scene, but could just as easily be a political hassle, act of sabotage, or other less direct challenge. If it helps you keep track, you might note in brackets that the enemies faced are tangential rather than primary opponents. Antagonist reactions can be floating, that is, you can use them to kick up the pace if things are flagging.


A hazard scene presents the crew with an impersonal obstacle to their safety or ability to continue the investigation. It must typically be overcome through tests or contests.


A sub-plot scene gives the characters an opportunity to wheel, deal, explore and interact without directly altering the course of the investigation. These may arise from personal arcs, side deals, public relations efforts, or simply the curiosity of one or more agents. Where the central mystery provides structure and forward momentum, the sub-plot adds flavor and character. Sequences arising from it may be what the group remembers long after the mystery has been put to bed. Sub-plots are more suited to long-running campaign play.


The conclusion brings the group to the end of its investigation and often confronts it with a moral dilemma, physical obstacle, or both. Functionally, it’s a final hazard or antagonist reaction scene, although it may be initiated by the players busting in. The classic conclusion of an RPG mystery is a big fight. Your group may insist on a climactic scrap, or prefer to avoid it through quick talking and clever thinking. It’s easy to make a fight or other action scene feel exciting and conclusive.

Hybrid Scenes

Some scenes double up, most often when a general challenge leads to an information opportunity. It’s okay to give out a core clue as a reward for overcoming an obstacle only if that core clue is also available by other means. Otherwise you risk creating a situation where a core clue becomes unavailable, violating the central tenet of the GUMSHOE system.

Scene Diagrams

To check that player choice matters in your scenario, diagram its scenes. Connect them with arrows, checking to make sure that they can be unraveled in any order. It’s acceptable to add unpredictability and variance with non-investigative scenes (antagonist reactions, hazards, and sub-plots), but better form when the players can connect the core and alternate scenes in more than one way.

Activating Players

A common complaint about investigative scenarios is that they “railroad” players into tightly following a slavishly predetermined story path. Although you rarely see the opposite complaint voiced, a significant number of groups flail in confusion when not steered in an obvious direction.

Let players weigh options for as long as the discussion seems lively and fun. If you see the group get frustrated and unable to make a collective choice, gently insert yourself into the discussion. Summarize the various suggestions made and direct the discussion toward a conclusion. Guide the players in eliminating choices without nudging them to a preferred answer. This detachment is easier to attain when you don’t settle on one.

Remind the players that the only way forward in a mystery scenario is to gather more information. When things get static, refer to the characters’ drives. Ask them which choices before them most suit their specific drives.

Be ready for moments where players feel overwhelmed, either because there are too many choices to choose between or, more likely, no obviously risk-free choice. Nudge them onward by invoking their drives. Remind them that they’ve been trained by the OV as problem-solvers. Perhaps unlike the players, the characters are used to forming hypotheses, testing them by gathering information, and revising their theories, and moving forward. They respond to dilemmas by breaking them down into steps. With a little coaching, they’ll quickly internalize this problem- solving methodology. Your players will learn to take the initiative, abandoning the “wait for clues” passivity trained into them as they were run through more predetermined scenarios.

Avoid Negation

When running a mystery scenario, it helps to think two or three scenes ahead of the players. It’s often useful to have a possible climactic sequence in mind, too. That allows you to foreshadow enough to make the ending appear to be a logical outgrowth of the scenes that preceded it. (For more on this, see the next section.)

Don’t let the possible plot forks you have in mind become too fixed in your imagination. Instead, keep them provisional, so that you can turn away from them and substitute new choices more in keeping with player input.

This is a long-winded way of restating the basic principle of improvisation used by stage actors: never negate. If, as a sketch unfolds, one performer identifies the other as his mother, the second performer must embrace and build on that choice. To simply swat down the choice and say, “I’m not your mother,” is extremely poor form. It stops the story dead and punishes the other participant for attempting to advance it.

In a like vein, train yourself to respond to unexpected possibilities by embracing them and building them into the ongoing storyline. You may have decided that the pathologist Elsa Hower is an innocent dupe in an esoterror scheme which requires fresh corpses. However, the players heavily invest themselves in seeing her as a villain, you might consider setting aside that planned revelation, so they can feel a sense of unmitigated triumph when they bring her to justice.

You don’t have to accept every piece of player direction at face value. Keep the story surprising by building twists onto the elements you do incorporate. When in doubt, make the player half-right. Perhaps Elsa has been parasitized by an ODE which can be extracted and subjected to an emotionally satisfying comeuppance, allowing the team to both save an innocent and punish the guilty.

It’s not necessary to turn the narrative on a dime with every piece of player input. The key is to avoid a scene in which nothing happens, or in which your scene is less interesting than the one suggested by the player. When a player says that the computer archive in the ruined citadel must have a holographic librarian, it’s a disappointing to rule it out, or prevent the players from finding it because they haven’t the right skill to spend from. Extracting useful information from a holo-character is more fun, and more plot-advancing, than not. This doesn’t mean, however, that there the program shouldn’t afterwards spring a nasty surprise on them.

Leading and Following

Improvising is a technique, not an ultimate goal. Occasionally you’ll find that it’s more entertaining for all involved if you seize the narrative reins and steer them in a particular direction. This will tend to happen more near the end of a scenario, when you’re trying to wrap all of the threads together into a coherent and satisfying conclusion.

Again this is a matter of responding to the mood and attitude of the players. When they’re actively engaged in the story and throwing out fun suggestions, follow their lead. When their creativity hits the wall, pick up the slack. Improvisation is an organic process of give and take.

Running Scenarios

The GUMSHOE Rules System covers much of what you need to run any scenario; this section supplements that with additional GM-centric advice.

Giving Out Clues

To give out information, the PC needs to be in the right place, with the right ability, and use that ability. This section deals with each of these preconditions. In short though, whatever you’ve done in other games, you should always err on the side of giving out information, not holding it back.

Having the Right Ability

The rules offer a number of way to call on abilities, depending on the situation. Choosing the right way to call on an ability is crucial to the forward momentum of your investigative plot. Make this choice according to the consequences of failure.

If the consequence of failure is that a character fails to get a piece of crucial information, success should be automatic provided that the character has the ability in question, and the player thinks to ask for it. However, any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario. (Even at that, you may need to improvise during play if no player steps up to claim the needed clue, bending the details of the scenario so that the same information can be garnered with a different ability, possibly by another player.)

Using the Right Ability

You can give out clues both actively and passively. By default, though, GUMSHOE assumes that the use of interpersonal abilities is active; the players have to correctly choose an appropriate ability and describe how they’re using it to open a contact up to questioning. When you see that players are hesitant, tell the player with the relevant ability that his experienced OV character can sense that it will work here:

  • “You get the feeling that this guy will crack if you lean on him a little.” (Intimidation)
  • “He seems kind of smitten by you.” (Flattery)
  • “The squeal of a police scanner tells you you’ve got a wannabe cop on your hands. ” (Cop Talk)

Being in the Right Place

GUMSHOE procedural series require their own conceits in order to keep the story moving in an entertaining manner. They require the audience’s complicity in looking the other way. Here GM and players handwave certain elements that break the rules of realism in order to keep the game running smoothly, just as TV scriptwriters. For example, the conceit of primacy in shows such as Law and Order ensure that the lead characters get the juiciest cases and more action than any cop is likely to experience in a lifetime. Just as the aforementioned devices arise from the requirements of TV drama, GUMSHOE’s conceits grapple with the limitations of a roleplaying session.

The major device you’ll want to adopt, needed for all but the smallest groups, is the conceit of elastic participation

Use the concept of elastic participation to ensure that there is always a PC in the right place.

GUMSHOE works best when you assume that everyone is kind-of sort-of along for every scene—without squinting too hard at any resulting logic or staging absurdities.

Rolling for Clues and the GUMSHOE Style

Just as in games where you roll for clues, players always have to describe a logical course of action that might lead to their getting information, directly or indirectly suggesting the ability you use to get it. In the traditional model, there’s a roll; you supply the information on a success. In GUMSHOE, this step is skipped—but it’s the only step skipped.

Traditional style:

Player: I examine the body looking for a cause of death .

GM: Roll Forensic Anthropology

Player: I succeed.

GM: It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue

GUMSHOE style:

Player : I examine the body looking for a cause of death.

GM: [Checks worksheet to see if the player’s character has Forensic Anthropology, which she does.] It’s blunt force trauma to the back of the skull. There are traces of a slimy residue.

In neither style do you see players grabbing their character sheets as soon as they enter a new scene and shouting out “Anthropology! Archaeology! Art History! Evidence Collection!” They don’t do this because it would be weird, boring, and stupid—and because in neither case does it fill all the requirements necessary to get information from a scene.

The only difference between GUMSHOE and those systems is the lack of a die roll. You know your group. Give out information in the same way you would usually give out information, actively, passively: GUMSHOE doesn’t care. Your players will solicit it, or you will give it our, just as you always do. There will be a strong effect on your gaming, but from a subtle change.

Ending Scenes

In a novel or TV episode, writers can freely cut to the next scene when their characters have acquired all of the clues available in the current one. The characters might stick around for hours tying up loose ends and pursuing fruitless questions, but this doesn’t happen on screen. We, the audience, are not forced to sit through such sequences.

This kind of concise editing isn’t so easy in the roleplaying medium. Players don’t know when they’ve got all the clues.

Here’s a simple trick to gently steer them onwards, without unduly breaking the illusion of fictional reality:

Before play, take an index card and write on it, in big block letters, the word SCENE. As soon as the players have gleaned the core clue and most or all of the secondary clues in a scene, and the action begins to drag, hold up the card. When the players see this, they know to move on. (Of course, you have to explain the cue to them before play begins.) Easy, efficient, yet somehow not nearly as disruptive or jarring as a verbal instruction.

Even better, use one of the musical stings available from the Pelgrane Press website for just this purpose.

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