Your Character


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Create player characters by choosing your character concept, investigative abilities, and general abilities.

Investigative abilities allow you to find the information your character needs to move forward in a mystery-solving narrative, plus occasional additional benefits.

General abilities help you survive while you’re gathering information and solving problems. You create characters by spending build points on your character’s abilities. Each ability has a numerical rating. Every rating point costs 1 build point to purchase.

The GUMSHOE rules define your character by what he or she can accomplish in an investigative scenario. The component elements of each ability don’t matter in rules terms. The rules don’t care if your Forensic Accounting ability is one part native mental acuity to two parts training or vice versa, although you can mention them when describing your character to others. All that matters is how you solve cases, and overcome other obstacles arising from them.

Ratings and Pools

The number you assign to each ability is called a rating. Although you may improve them gradually over time, ratings remain static over the course of the typical game session.

For each ability your character has a pool of points, which fluctuates over the course of each session. You begin each case, or scenario, with pool points equal to your rating. You might then immediately spend some of them during a prelude phase to the investigation itself. You will definitely spend points as you conduct the investigation. At times your pool may increase, sometimes refreshing to equal its rating again.

The distinction between ratings and pools is a crucial one; keep it in mind as you read and interpret the GUMSHOE rules.

Step One: Concept

[Describe the sorts of mystery-solving characters the players will play in your setting, and any preliminary creative decisions each player will make about her character.]


[In some games you may wish to guide players to choose genre-appropriate concepts by supplying a list of stereotypes as a starting point in character creation.]

Sample Stereotype: Good Girl

The good girl is an ordinary young woman. If not chaste, she’s more modest and circumspect about her sexuality than the other young women in the cast of characters. Smart and cautious, she becomes the ultimate prize of the shadowy forces stalking the group—often proving herself more determined to survive than those around her.

[From Fear Itself]


[In some games you may choose to give additional mechanical heft to the stereotypes by turning them into Packages.]

Each package sets out minimum requirements in both Investigative and General abilities. Before spending any points elsewhere, make sure you have those covered.

Sample Package: Communications Officer (Hailer)

You establish, receive and route communications with other ships, planetary installations, and space stations. More than a glorified space receptionist, you serve as a combination of public relations frontperson and psychological warrior. You facilitate the decision-making process of the crew and convey its intentions to the outside world. In crisis situations, you keep vital information flowing to the stratco, so that the right decisions get made at lightning speed. During space combat, you launch hack attacks on the enemy’s computer system, while defending your own from penetration.

Investigative: Linguistics 1, Flattery 1, Reassurance 1, Decryption 1, Data Retrieval 1

General: Communications Intercept 6, Sense Trouble 4

[From Ashen Stars]


[A variant of the Package sub-system, the Occupation, appears in Trail of Cthulhu. Rather than providing minimums to qualify for a package, an Occupation provides key abilities at half-price, and often a Special mechanical benefit as well. Future Pelgrane GUMSHOE designs will likely stick to the faster, simpler ability minimum approach found in Packages.]

You get two rating points in Occupational abilities for every one build point you spend. For example, 12 rating points of Occupational abilities cost you 6 build points. Left over half-points are lost, so assign an even number points to Occupational abilities.

Sample Occupation: Private Investigator

There are things that cops can’t do, and things that cops won’t do, and you’ll take money to do either. Sometimes you get dragged into something the cops want you out of, but you gotta stay in it to keep the cops honest. What keeps you honest? Now, that’s the real mystery, ain’t it?

Occupational Abilities: Accounting, Disguise, Driving, Law, Locksmith, Photography, Assess Honesty, Reassurance, Scuffling, Shadowing.

Special: Private eyes with point pools in Disguise or Shadowing may spend points after rolling the die for a test. For every 2 points you spend after rolling the die, you increase the die result by 1. This only applies if you are undistracted and not directly observed. It never applies during a contest. You must describe the thing that almost went wrong, and how you caught it barely in time or succeeded through sheer luck.

[From Trail of Cthulhu]

Step Two: Assign Investigative Abilities

Investigative abilities are central to any GUMSHOE character; they enable you to gather information and drive the plot forward. The number of points each player spends on investigative abilities varies according to the number of regularly attending players, according to the following table. The GM leads the group through the list of investigative build points, ensuring that each one of them is covered by at least one member of the group.

[Complete this chart with values based on the total number of investigative abilities you include in your game. That number is x. The final numbers don’t have to be dead on, so fudge them upwards if desired for a prettier-looking numerical progression.]

# of playersInvestigative Build Points
280% of x
360% of x
455% of x
5+50% of x

Players who can only attend every now and then get the same number of investigative build points as everyone else, but are not counted toward the total when deciding how many points to allocate.

Free Rating

[If your setting concept assumes all characters will have a particular ability (like Cop Talk if everyone is a police officer), indicate what it is, and that everyone gets 1 rating point in it for free.]

What Good Are Investigative Ratings?

Players used to the bumbling half-competence of their characters in other investigative game systems may be surprised to learn how effective even a single rating point is.

Any rating in an investigative ability indicates a high degree of professional accomplishment or impressive natural talent. If you have an ability relevant to the task at hand, you automatically succeed in discovering any information or overcoming any obstacles necessary to propel you from the current scene further into the story.

You may ask to spend points to gain special benefits. Sometimes the GM will offer you the chance to spend points. In other circumstances she may accept your suggestions of ways to gain special benefits. Use them wisely; spent points do not return until the next investigation begins.

Once all of the abilities are covered, you are permitted, if you desire, to reserve any remaining build points to spend as situations arise during play. You may assign yourself additional abilities, or increase your ratings in the ones you’ve chosen, as seems appropriate to your character and the situations she finds herself in. When you choose to do this, you are not suddenly acquiring abilities on the spot, but simply revealing for the first time what the character has been able to do all along.

If you want, you can save build points from character creation to spend later. If your GM is running an ongoing series, you will accumulate additional build points during play.

Investigative Benchmarks

When choosing investigative abilities it is better to get a large number of abilities with fairly low ratings. Even a 1-point rating is worth having. You’ll rarely want to spend more than 3 or 4 points on any one investigative ability.

You must have an investigative ability at a rating of at least 1 to get useful information from it.

Step 3: Assign General Abilities

Each player gets 60 points to spend on general abilities, regardless of group size.

General abilities use different rules than investigative ones, which allow for possible failure. They help you survive while you investigating. When choosing general abilities, you’ll want to concentrate your points among a few abilities, giving your comparatively higher ratings than you want in the investigative category.

[To support 60 as the value for general build points, include approximately 12 broadly useful general abilities. Some games may also support specialized general abilities on top of the 12. You may wish to assign an additional build pool to another class of general abilities unique to your setting.]

You start the game with 1 point [each] in Health and [any other similar ablative ability required for the setting’s genre emulation, like Stability in most GUMSHOE horror games.]

Although there is no set cap on abilities, the second highest rating must be at least half that of the highest rating.

What Good are General Ratings?

General abilities use a different set of rules and are measured on a different scale than investigative abilities. The two ability sets are handled in different way because they fulfill distinct narrative functions. The rules governing general abilities introduce the possibility of failure into the game, creating suspense and uncertainty. Uncertain outcomes make scenes of physical action more exciting, but can stop a mystery story dead if applied to the collection of information. This division may seem aesthetically weird when you first encounter it, but as you grow used to the GUMSHOE system you’ll see that it works.

GUMSHOE focuses not on your character’s innate traits, but on what they can actually do in the course of a storyline. Why they can do it is up to each player. Your characters are as strong, fast, and good-looking as you want them to be.

General Ability Benchmarks

A rating of 1-3 indicates that the ability is a sideline. 4-7 is solid but not off the charts. 8 or more suggests a dedicated bad-assery that will be immediately apparent to observers when they see you in action.

0-Rated General Abilities

If you have a rating of 0 in a general ability, that is you have put no build points into it, you cannot make a test on that ability. That is not to say you can’t do the thing at all; it’s only if you want to attempt something requiring a roll that you will not succeed. You character might be able to drive, but with a Drive rating of 0 you will not be able to deal with a car chase or potential crash.

Investigative Abilities

The following abilities are the bread and butter of GUMSHOE characters.

Ability descriptions consist of a brief general description, followed by examples of their use in an investigation. Creative players should be able to propose additional uses for their abilities as unexpected situations confront their characters.

Certain specific actions may overlap between a couple of abilities. For example, you can enhance image resolution with either Data Retrieval or Photography.

Some abilities, like Research, are broadly useful, and will crop up constantly. Others may be called for many times in the course of one scenario, and not at all in others. When building your character, strike a balance between the reliable workhouse abilities and their exotic, specialized counterparts.

Investigative abilities are divided into the following sub-groups: Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical. The purpose of the sub-groups is to allow you to quickly find the best ability for the task during play, by scanning the most likely portion of the overall list.

[Rewrite investigative ability descriptions and example bullet points as needed for your setting. Rename abilities for desired flavor. Create new abilities keyed to your setting. Include only abilities relevant to your setting in your game. Some investigative abilities tie into specific general abilities and vice versa; make sure you either include both relevant abilities, or drop the cross-references between them.]

Anthropology (Academic)

You are an expert in the study of human cultures, from the stone age to the Internet age.

You can:

  • Identify artifacts and rituals of living cultures
  • Describe the customs of a foreign group or local subculture
  • Extrapolate the practices of an unknown culture from similar examples

Archaeology (Academic)

You excavate and study the structures and artifacts of historical cultures and civilizations. You can:

  • Tell how long something has been buried
  • Identify artifacts by culture and usage
  • Distinguish real artifacts from fakes
  • Navigate inside ruins and catacombs
  • Describe the customs of ancient or historical cultures
  • Spot well-disguised graves and underground hiding places

Architecture (Academic)

You know how buildings are planned and constructed. You can:

  • Guess what lies around the corner while exploring an unknown structure
  • Judge the relative strength of building materials
  • Identify a building’s age, architectural style, original use, and history of modifications
  • Construct stable makeshift structures
  • Identify elements vital to a building’s structural integrity

Art History (Academic)

You’re an expert on works of art from an aesthetic and technical point of view. You can:

  • Distinguish real works from fakes
  • Tell when something has been retouched or altered
  • Identify the age of an object by style and materials
  • Call to mind historical details on artists and those around them

Astronomy (Technical)

You study celestial objects, including the stars, planets. You can:

  • Decipher astrological texts
  • Plot the movement of constellations
  • Study and debunk UFO reports

Ballistics (Technical)

You process evidence relating to the use of firearms. You can:

  • Identify the caliber and type of a bullet or casing found at a crime scene
  • Determine if a particular gun fired a given bullet

Botany (Academic)

You study plants and fungi and can:

  • Identify the likely environment in which a plant sample grew
  • Identify plants which might be toxic, carnivorous, or otherwise dangerous
  • Spot the symptoms of plant-derived poisonings

Bullshit Detector (Interpersonal)

You can tell when some people are lying. You must usually be interacting with them or observing them from a close distance, but sometimes you can spot liars on television, too. Unfortunately, nearly everyone lies, especially when facing possible trouble from the authorities. Sometimes you can infer why they’re lying, but it’s hard to reliably discern motive or get at the facts they’re working to obscure. This sense doesn’t tell you what they’re lying about, specifically, or see through their lies to the truth.

Not all lies are verbal. You can tell when a person is attempting to project a false impression through body language.

Certain individuals may be so adept at lying that they never set off your bullshit detector. Some people believe their own falsehoods. Psychopathic personality types lie reflexively and without shame, depriving you of the telltale tics and gestures you use to sense when a person is deceiving you. Sometimes you need leverage to get information out of people who you know are lying – re-interviewing suspects in the light of additional facts is a genre staple.

Bureaucracy (Interpersonal)

You know how to navigate a bureaucratic organization, whether it’s a governmental office or a large business concern. You know how to get what you want from it in an expeditious manner, and with a minimum of ruffled feathers. You can:

  • Convince officials to provide sensitive information
  • Gain credentials on false pretenses
  • Find the person who really knows what’s going on
  • Locate offices and files
  • Borrow equipment or supplies

Bureaucracy is not a catch-all information gathering ability. Bureaucrats wish to convey the impression that they are busy and harried, whether or not they actually are. Most take a profound, secret joy in directing inquiries elsewhere. When players attempt to use Bureaucracy to gain information more easily accessible via other abilities (such as Research), their contacts snidely advise them to do their own damn legwork.

Camping (Technical)

You are familiar with working and living outdoors and in the wild. You might be a farmer, cowboy, or logger, or an amateur (or professional) fisher or hunter, or work for the Park Service. Perhaps you were merely an Eagle Scout, grew up in the back of nowhere, or served in a military unit with sufficient patrol experience “in country.” You can:

  • Tell when an animal is behaving strangely
  • Tell whether an animal or plant is natural to a given area
  • Find edible plants, hunt, and fish
  • Make fire and survive outdoors at night or in bad weather
  • Navigate overland, albeit more easily with a compass and a map
  • Track people, animals, or vehicles across grass or through forests
  • Hunt with dogs, including tracking with bloodhounds, assuming you have friendly dogs available

Chemistry (Technical)

You’re trained in the analysis of chemical substances. You can:

  • Among a wide variety of other materials, identify drugs, pharmaceuticals, toxins, and viruses
  • Match samples of dirt or vegetation from a piece of evidence to a scene

Craft (Technical)

You can create useful physical objects, working with materials like wood, metal, jewelry, and so forth. Although the resulting cabinets, kettles, or rings may be beautiful, your focus is utility, not art. Like the Art ability, you may focus on one craft (blacksmithing, cabinetry, coopering, etc) or diversify into many; the same rules apply.

You may be able to use your Craft ability to specific investigative ends: discover a secret drawer in a desk if you are a cabinet-maker, and so forth.

Comparative Religion (Academic)

You study religions in their various forms, both ancient and modern. You can:

  • Supply information about religious practices and beliefs
  • Quote relevant tags from the major scriptures
  • Recognize the names and attributes of various saints, gods, and other figures of religious worship and veneration
  • Identify whether a given religious practice or ritual is orthodox or heretical
  • Fake (or in some traditions, officiate at) a religious ceremony

Cop Talk (Interpersonal)

You know how to speak the lingo of police officers, and to make them feel confident and relaxed in your presence. You may be a current or former cop, or simply the kind of person they immediately identify as a solid, trustworthy citizen. You can:

  • Coolly ply cops for confidential information
  • Get excused for minor infractions
  • Imply that you are a colleague, authorized to participate in their cases

Cryptography (Technical)

You’re an expert in the making and breaking of codes, from the simple ciphers of old-school espionage tradecraft to the supercomputer algorithms of the present day.

Data Retrieval (Technical)

You use computer and electronic technology to retrieve and enhance information on hard drives and other media. You can:

  • Recover hidden, erased or corrupted computer files
  • Increase the clarity of audio recordings, zeroing in on desired elements
  • Miraculously find detailed, high-resolution images within a blurry video image or blurry JPEG

Document Analysis (Technical)

You’re an expert in the study of physical documents. You can:

  • Determine a document’s approximate age
  • Identify the manufacturer of paper used in a document
  • Tell forged documents from the real thing
  • Identify distinctive handwriting
  • Match typed documents to the typewriters that produced them
  • Find fingerprints on paper

Electronic Surveillance (Technical)

You’re adept at the use of sound recording equipment to gather evidence. You can:

  • Trace phone calls
  • Plant secret listening devices
  • Locate secret listening devices planted by others
  • Make high-quality audio recordings
  • Enhance the quality of audio recordings, isolating chosen sounds

Evidence Collection (Technical)

You’re adept at finding, bagging and tagging important clues. You can:

  • Spot objects of interest at a crime scene or other investigation site
  • Note relationships between objects at a crime scene, reconstructing sequences of events
  • Store objects for forensic analysis without contaminating your samples

Explosive Devices (Technical)

You’re an expert in bombs and booby-traps. You can:

  • Defuse bombs and traps
  • Reconstruct exploded bombs, determining their materials, manufacture, and the sophistication of the bomb-maker
  • Safely construct and detonate explosive devices of your own

Fingerprinting (Technical)

You’re an expert in finding, transferring and matching fingerprints. This includes expertise in the computer software used to compare sample fingerprints against large databases of criminal defendants and government personnel.

Flattery (Interpersonal)

You’re good at getting people to help you by complimenting them, as subtly or blatantly as they prefer. You can get them to:

  • Reveal information
  • Perform minor favors
  • Regard you as trustworthy.

Flirting (Interpersonal)

You’re adept at winning cooperation from people who find you sexually attractive. You can get them to:

  • Reveal information
  • Help you in small ways
  • Date you

It’s up to you whether a high rating in Flirting means that you are physically alluring, or simply exude a sexual magnetism unrelated to your looks.

Forensic Accounting (Academic)

You comb through financial data looking for irregularities. In the words made famous during Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal, you know how to “follow the money.” You can:

  • Tell legitimate businesses from criminal enterprises
  • Spot the telltale signs of embezzlement
  • Track payments to their source

Forensic Anthropology (Technical)

You perform autopsies on deceased subjects to determine their cause of death. In the case of death by foul play, your examination can identify:

  • The nature of the weapon or weapons used
  • The presence of intoxicants or other foreign substances in the bloodstream
  • The contents of the victim’s last meal

In many cases, you can reconstruct the sequence of events leading to the victim’s death from the arrangement of wounds on the body.

You also perform DNA analysis on samples found at crime scenes, matching them to samples provided by suspects.

Forensic Entomology (Technical)

You specialize in the relationship between corpses and the legions of insects who dine on them. By studying eggs and larvae in a decomposing corpse you can:

  • Determine approximate time of death
  • Identify a crime scene, in the case of a dumped body

Forensic Psychology (Academic)

You apply psychological insight to the solving of criminal cases. From the details of a crime scene, you can, based on past case studies of similar offenses, assemble a profile detailing the perpetrator’s likely personal history, age, habits and attitudes.

You can also glean useful information from simple observation of certain individual, especially as they react to pressure.

Geology (Academic)

You are an expert on rocks, soils, minerals, and the primordial history of the Earth. You can:

  • Analyze soil samples, crystals, minerals, and so forth
  • Determine the age of a rock stratum
  • Date and identify fossils
  • Evaluate soil for agriculture or industry
  • Identify promising sites for oil or water wells, mines, etc
  • Anticipate volcanism, seismic events, avalanches, and other earth phenomena

High Society (Interpersonal)

You know how to hang with the rich and famous, and how to chat them up without getting security called. You are comfortable with “old money” aristocracy, with the Davos elite, with the televised chattering classes, and with the crassest of nouveau riche vulgarians and celebutantes. Yachts, Gulfstreams, and three-star restaurants are your seeming natural habitat. You can:

  • Dress fashionably for any occasion
  • Get past the velvet rope at exclusive clubs and parties, or past the concierge at a four-star hotel
  • Drop brand names, allude to current trends, and generally blend in culturally with rich scenesters of all types
  • Identify the best wine, liquor, food, jewelry, and other luxury goods
  • Successfully schmooze for an introduction to, e.g., a celebrity, elected official, or financier
  • Recall specific or relevant gossip or news about the tastes, lifestyles, or sordid behavior of a rich or famous person
  • Know where and when the best parties, most culturally important openings, or other gala events in any city are due to happen
  • Score drugs or otherwise find the seamy side (if any) of high-society functions, happening nightclubs, etc.
  • Interact with the rich and famous as an accepted equal

Note that this ability does not necessarily convey any actual wealth or fame. The Director can, if she wishes, allow an agent to use family connections or a liberated Company slush fund to explain it.

History (Academic)

You’re an expert in recorded human history, with an emphasis on its political, military, and economic and technological developments. You can:

  • Recognize obscure historical allusions
  • Recall capsule biographies of famous historical figures
  • Tell where and when an object made during historical times was fashioned
  • Identify the period of an article of dress or costume

Impersonate (Interpersonal)

You’re good at posing as another person, whether briefly misrepresenting yourself during a phone call or spending long periods undercover in a fictional identity.

Successfully disguising yourself as an actual person known to those you’re interacting with is extraordinarily difficult. Brief voice-only mimicry requires a spend of at least 1.

Face-to-face impersonation requires a spend of at least 2 to 3 points for every five minutes of sustained contact between you and the object of your impersonation. Especially wary or intelligent subjects cost more to hoodwink than dull-witted walk-on characters.

Inspiration (Interpersonal)

You convince reluctant witnesses to supply information by appealing to their better selves. After a few moments of interaction you intuitively sense the positive values they hold dearest, then invoke them in a brief but stirring speech.

Interrogation (Interpersonal)

You’re trained in extracting information from suspects and witnesses in the context of a formal police-style interview. This must take place in an official setting, where the subject is confined or feels under threat of confinement, and recognizes your authority (whether real or feigned.)

Intimidation (Interpersonal)

You elicit cooperation from suspects by seeming physically imposing, invading their personal space, and adopting a psychologically commanding manner. Intimidation may involve implied or direct threats of physical violence but is just as often an act of mental dominance. You can:

  • Gain information
  • Inspire the subject to leave the area
  • Quell a subject’s desire to attempt violence against you or others

Languages (Academic)

For each rating point in Languages, you are verbally fluent and literate in one language other than your native tongue. You may specify these when you create your character, or choose opportunistically in the course of play, revealing that you just happen to speak Javanese when circumstances require it. You are not learning the language spontaneously but revealing a hitherto unmentioned fact about your character. You may elect to be literate in an ancient language which is no longer spoken.

Law (Academic)

You are familiar with the criminal and civil laws of your home jurisdiction, and broadly acquainted with foreign legal systems. At a rating of 2 or more, you are a bar-certified attorney. You can:

  • Assess the legal risks attendant on any course of action
  • Understand lawyerly jargon
  • Argue with police and prosecutors

Linguistics (Academic)

You are an expert in the principles and structures underlying languages. You can probably speak other Languages, but that is a separate ability that must be purchased separately. You can:

  • Given a large enough sample of text, decipher the basic meaning of an unknown language
  • Identify the languages most similar to an unknown language
  • Identify artificial, alien and made-up languages

Locksmith (Technical)

You can open doors and locks, and disarm alarms, without benefit of the key. (You can also find convenient windows to jimmy or coal-cellar doors to force, if need be.) Many locks require specialized tools, possession of which without a locksmith’s license is a criminal offense in most jurisdictions. Very complex or tricky locks may require spends to open them speedily, to avoid noise or damage, or to relock afterward.

Using Locksmith is, in other words, a way to gather clues. A lock that won’t open is like a witness that won’t talk or a bloodstain you can’t find: antithetical to mystery-solving, investigative-adventure design. Only safes, bank vaults, and the like – locks that exist to drive drama or conflict, rather than locks which merely hold clues — require actual tests against Difficulty.

Natural History (Academic)

You study the evolution, behavior, and biology of plants and animals. You can:

  • Tell when an animal is behaving strangely
  • Tell whether an animal or plant is natural to a given area
  • Identify an animal from samples of its hair, blood, bones or other tissue
  • Identify a plant from a small sample

Negotiation (Interpersonal)

You are an expert in making deals with others, convincing them that the best arrangement for you is also the best for them. You can:

  • Haggle for goods and services
  • Mediate hostage situations
  • Swap favors or information with others

Occult Studies (Academic)

You’re an expert in the historical study of magic, superstition, and hermetic practice from the stone age to the present. From Satanists to the Golden Dawn, you know the dates, the places, the controversies, and the telling anecdotes. You can:

  • Identify the cultural traditions informing a ritual from examining its physical aftermath
  • Supply historical facts concerning various occult traditions
  • Guess the intended effect of a ritual from its physical aftermath
  • Identify occult activities as the work of informed practitioners, teenage posers, or bona fide terrorists

Your knowledge of the occult is that of a detached, even disapproving, outsider. This ability does not allow you to work magic or summon supernatural entities. Doing either of these things is bad. It weakens the fabric of reality and warps the practitioner’s psyche. You can, at best, fake your way through a ritual while attempting to pass yourself off as a believer. Even in this situation, your actions do not evoke supernatural effects. Your covertly hostile presence may, in fact, be enough to prevent a ritual from achieving efficacy.

Oral History (Interpersonal)

You can find sources willing to talk, win their confidence, and gather (usually lengthy) oral testimony about historical events, local traditions, folklore, family legend, or gossip. This is an excellent way to do research in illiterate or semi-literate societies, and in rural or small-town communities in general. This ability also covers taking shorthand notes or making recordings without spooking your sources.

Pathology (Academic)

You are trained in carrying out medical examinations of living human subjects and forming diagnoses based on your findings. You can

  • Diagnose probable causes of sickness or injury
  • Identify the extent and cause of an unconscious person’s trauma
  • Detect when a person is suffering from a physically debilitating condition such as drug addiction, pregnancy or malnutrition
  • Establish a person’s general level of health
  • Identify medical abnormalities

If you have 8 or more points in Medic you get Pathology 1 for free.

Photography (Technical)

You’re proficient in the use of cameras, including still and video photography. You can:

  • Take useful visual records of crime scenes
  • Spot manual retouching or digital manipulation in a photographic or video image
  • Realistically retouch and manipulate images

Reassurance (Interpersonal)

You get people to do what you want by putting them at ease. You can:

  • Elicit information and minor favors
  • Allay fear or panic in others
  • Instill a sense of calm during a crisis

Research (Academic)

You know how to find factual information from books, records, and official sources. You’re as comfortable with a card catalog and fiche reader as with an Internet search engine. The contacts file on your personal digital assistant brims with phone numbers of exotic and useful contacts.

Respect (Interpersonal)

Your knowledge of social rituals allows you to gain information and favors with a culturally appropriate show of respect for a subject. This ability applies to subjects who consider themselves figures of authority, or who hold real or imagined power over you. By showing respect, you preserve your status as well as the subject’s.

Streetwise (Interpersonal)

You know how to behave among crooks, gang-bangers, druggies, hookers and other habitués of the criminal underworld. You can:

  • Deploy criminal etiquette to avoid fights and conflicts
  • Identify unsafe locations and dangerous people
  • Gather underworld rumors

Tradecraft (Interpersonal)

You know how to utilize the techniques of conventional espionage agents, and how to talk to them if you must hold a meet. You can:

  • Set up and check a dead drop
  • Spot or conduct a brush pass or car toss
  • Determine which agency trained a covert operative by examining his tradecraft, surveillance methods, etc.
  • Identify good places for recognition signs, cleaning passes, etc.
  • Recall notorious or relevant episodes of spying, covert ops, etc.
  • Gather rumors in the covert ops world
  • Make contact with operatives without scaring them off
  • Convey information or threats elliptically without tipping off eavesdroppers

Textual Analysis (Academic)

By studying the content of texts (as opposed to their physical characteristics of documents) you can draw reliable inferences about their authorship. You can:

  • Determine if an anonymous text is the work of a known author, based on samples of his work
  • Determine the era in which a text was written
  • Identify the writer’s region, and level of education
  • Tell a real work by an author from a false one

Traffic Analysis (Technical)

You know how to boil down a mass of data — probably raw signals intel, a tranche of phone records, or possibly a whole lot of surveillance tapes — and extract its meaning and patterns. Given the data, you can:

  • Determine which numbers in a set of phone records are calling who, when, about what
  • Determine which cars in a city’s traffic pattern are driving where, when, and how long they’re staying there
  • Find patterns in the data flow, e.g., more murders in August, or the same museum guard on duty during all the incidents
  • Work out the daily (and weekly, monthly, etc.) routine of an office, military base, museum, etc. and answer questions like: When is payroll made? Who takes delivery of parcels? When does the cleaning staff arrive?
  • Find anomalies in the data flow, e.g., missing records or “dogs that didn’t bark”
  • Find weak spots in security that follows a regular pattern
  • Identify the source of information (or disinformation) by tracking its route through the system
  • Assemble a communications or organizational picture of a social network such as a criminal conspiracy, academic email list, or division of border guards

Trivia (Academic)

You’re a font of apparently useless information that would stand you in good stead as a contestant on a quiz show. You’re especially good in the following spheres of interest:

  • Celebrities and entertainment
  • Sports records and statistics
  • Geography
  • Arts and letters
  • Names in the news

This catch-all ability also allows you to know any obscure fact not covered by another GUMSHOE ability. (In moments of improvisatory desperation, your GM may allow you to overlap with abilities which none of the players at the current session possess, or which no one is thinking to use.)

Exotic Investigative Abilities

[Evocation of your setting and genre may prompt you to introduce general abilities allowing characters to glean information via means, inherent or technological, unavailable to nonfictional characters. Here are two examples.]

Analytic Taste

Your sense of taste is superhuman, and you have, by trial and error, trained yourself to use it as a precision instrument. You function as a walking, talking chemical analysis lab, able to instantly detect the composition of nearly any object you can touch your tongue to. By distinguishing fine gradations of taste, you can, for example, match a sample of heroin to the precise batch it came from, or conduct a comparative analysis of soil samples. Although you may for good reason be reluctant to do so, you can even identify blood types from small samples, or derive similar identifying or typing information from other bodily fluids.

Some individuals with analytic taste suffer from high revulsion thresholds and can only enjoy the purest, most perfect foods. Others become inured to traditional pleasures associated with the sense of taste, or become passionate connoisseurs of substances ordinary people consider inedible.

When using this sense, you consume, at most, only trace quantities of the substances you test. Analytic taste grants no ability to digest inedible matter.

Although this power grants no poison immunity, only the most toxic of substances will harm you in the tiny trace quantities required for analysis.

{From Mutant City Blues]

Aura Reading

To those with the sight to see, every living organism is surrounded by a nimbus of energy. By studying the color and movement of this energy, you gain insight into people and animals.

When you read a person’s aura, you can:

  • Examine the subject’s general emotional state, determining which of the following adjectives best fits his current condition:
  • Joyful, depressed, angry, amused, confused, frightened, or relaxed. (Costs 2 points per
  • Attempt.)
  • Tell whether the subject is healthy or determine if the subject is under the influence of a spirit or other supernatural being. (Costs 4 points per attempt.)

[From Fear Itself]

General Abilities

[Rewrite general ability descriptions as needed for your setting. Rename abilities for desired flavor. Create new abilities keyed to your setting. Include only abilities relevant to your setting in your game. Some investigative abilities tie into specific general abilities and vice versa; make sure you either include both relevant abilities, or drop the cross-references between them.]

Almost every General ability has a cherry, a feature that kicks in when the character has 8 rating points or more in it. Agents can always use that special benefit, even if their pool in that ability has dropped to 0.

Some GUMSHOE iterations, including Night’s Black Agents, permit the following:]

Many General abilities also function as Investigative abilities, either when used to gather a clue (rather than to overcome opposition) or to interact with people devoted to those abilities’ use: Hand-to-Hand, for example, can be used investigatively to infiltrate a dojo or gymnasium, and to gather information or gossip from the clientele or managers.

[Some GUMSHOE games, like Ashen Stars, maintain a tighter separation between investigative and general abilities, so that the general Business Affairs ability, used to keep a crew’s finances humming, doesn’t garner you the clues you get from the investigative Forensic Accounting ability. To use this more restrictive approach, omit the above paragraph.]


Athletics allows you to perform general acts of physical derring-do, from running to jumping to dodging falling or oncoming objects. Any physical action not covered by another ability, probably falls under the rubric of Athletics.

If your Athletics rating is 8 or more, your Hit Threshold, the Target Number your opponents use when attempting to hit you in combat, is 4. Otherwise, your Hit Threshold is 3.

Business Affairs

You know how to run a profitable business.


You can hide things from view and conceal them from search. Your methods might include camouflage, holding items out on your person, snaking things into drawers unobserved, building secret compartments, or even altering a thing’s visual signature with paint or plaster.

This ability also allows you to discover things intentionally concealed.


This is the skill of altering your own appearance, posture, and voice to be unrecognizable. Disguising others in anything more complex than a baseball cap or false mustache is good only for brief periods, as posture and body language are vital components in any successful disguise.

This ability also covers selling yourself as a different person: vocal mannerisms, altered body language, dress and motion sense, and realistic-seeming reactions.

Successfully disguising yourself as an actual person already known to those you’re interacting with is extraordinarily difficult. Brief voice-only mimicry pits you against a Difficulty of 4. Face-to-face impersonation requires a successful roll against a Difficulty of 7 for every five minutes of sustained contact between you and the object of your impersonation.


You’re a skilled defensive driver, capable of wringing high performance from even the most recalcitrant automobile, pick-up truck, or van. You can:

  • Evade or conduct pursuit
  • Avoid collisions, or minimize damage from collisions
  • Spot tampering with a vehicle
  • Conduct emergency repairs

For every additional rating point in Driving, you may add an additional vehicle type to your repertoire. These include: motorcycle, transport truck, helicopter, or airplane. You may choose exotic types, like hovercrafts and tanks, although these are unlikely to see regular use in an investigation-based game.


You’re an expert in bombs and booby-traps. You can:

  • Defuse bombs and traps
  • Handle nitroglycerine or other dangerously unstable materials with relative safety
  • Given time, blow open safes or vaults without damaging the contents
  • Mix explosive compounds from common chemicals
  • Safely construct and detonate explosive devices or booby-traps of your own

Explosives doubles as an investigative ability when used to:

  • Reconstruct exploded bombs
  • For any bomb (exploded or unexploded), determine the method and materials of the bomb-maker, and deduce his sophistication, background, and skill


Your nimble fingers allow you to unobtrusively manipulate small objects. You can:

  • Pilfer clues from a crime scene under the very noses of unsuspecting authorities
  • Pick pockets
  • Plant objects on unsuspecting subjects


Although you are not a strong overall athlete, you can boot it like a bat out of hell when chased by dangerous people, beings, or moving objects.

If your Fleeing rating is more than twice your final Athletics rating, you can buy rating points in Fleeing above the value at a reduced rate, getting 2 rating points for each build point spent. Hence, if your Athletics rating is 0, all your Fleeing is half-price.


You are conversant with the rules and etiquette of all forms of gambling, from Texas hold ‘em and roulette to horse racing and numbers rackets. To win (or strategically lose) at a game of chance or sporting flutter requires a Gambling test, or a contest if played against an NPC with the Gambling ability. In addition to playing by the rules and winning, you can:

  • Spot cheating, either by the house or by another player
  • Stack a deck, rig a horse race, load dice, or otherwise cheat

Palming cards, tiles, or dice is allowed as a Gambling test; anything else requires Conceal or Filch.

Gambling doubles as an Investigative ability when used to:

  • Calculate the odds of events ruled by probabilities
  • Use Bullshit Detector on professional gamblers despite their poker faces
  • Interact with gamblers and blend in at casinos


Health measures your ability to sustain injuries, resist infection, and survive the effects of toxins1. When you get hit in the course of a fight, your Health pool is diminished. A higher Health pool allows you to stay in a fight longer before succumbing to your injuries.

When your Health pool is depleted, you may be dazed, wounded, or pushing up the daisies. For more on this, see “Exhaustion, Injury and Gruesome Death.”


This ability represents medical hypnosis as depicted in pulpy genre sources; it is not psychic mesmerism or Dr Caligari-style mind control. You can only hypnotize a willing subject, and only one subject at a time. Using Hypnosis requires a Test against a Difficulty Number that varies depending on what you are using it for.

Simple hypnotic state: To place a patient in a hypnotic trance, you must succeed against Difficulty 3. During this trance, she is calm and placid.

Establish analytic rapport: Once you have successfully hypnotized a patient, your Psychoanalysis pool increases by 3 during any future use of Psychoanalysis on them. Your Psychoanalysis rating must be at least 3 to gain this benefit, and the 3 points must be spent on the patient.

Recover memories: The patient’s fragmented or buried memories, as of dreams, traumas, or murky monster attacks, can be called to the surface and “relived.” This is a Difficulty 4 test. Reliving an experience that cost Stability will cost the patient the same amount again, although you may practice immediate Psychological Triage to minimize the patient’s shock. The GM is free to provide false memories if she feels you are “leading the witness.”

Post-hypnotic suggestion: Upon lifting the trance, you may cause your patient to perform a single action without apparent thought. You may require a “trigger phrase” or simply specify a time: (“When you get home, you’ll leave the book on the desk.”) Spells and other complex activities cannot be post-hypnotically induced. The patient will not accept a suggestion contrary to her normal behavior. This is a Difficulty 4 or higher test; the GM may increase the Difficulty based on the suggestion.

Ease pain: You can relieve symptomatic pain in a patient. This removes the mechanical penalties for being hurt and lasts until the patient is wounded again. This is a Difficulty 4 or higher test; the GM may increase the Difficulty depending on the pain’s severity. This does not work under battlefield conditions.

False memories: You can purposely implant false memories in the patient or bury real ones. This is extremely unethical without a direct therapeutic benefit (such as easing a remembered trauma). This is a Contest between your Hypnosis and the patient’s Stability. Your Difficulty Number is 5; the patient resists with Difficulty 4. Again, the GM may increase your Difficulty based on the severity of the memory change. At the GM’s discretion, if the patient suffers a further trauma (such as her Stability dropping below -5 again), she may suddenly recall the truth.


You’re good at placing yourself inside places you have no right to be. You can:

  • Pick locks
  • Deactivate or evade security systems
  • Move silently
  • Find suitable places for forced entry, and use them

Despite its name, Infiltration is as useful for getting out of places undetected as if its for getting into them.


You’re good at building, repairing, and disabling devices, from classic pit-and-pendulum traps to DVD players. Given the right components, you can create jury-rigged devices from odd bits of scrap. Mechanics doubles as an investigative ability when used to:

  • Evaluate the quality of workmanship used to create an item
  • Determine the identity of a handmade item’s maker by comparing to known work by that individual

[You may wish to maintain the flavor of certain settings by splitting this into multiple disciplines, each specializing in its own particular subset of technology.]


You can perform first aid on sick or injured individuals. For more on the use of this ability, see “Exhaustion, Injury, and Death.”

If you have 8 or more points in Medic, you get 1 point in Pathology.


You can fly one or more airborne vehicles. You can:

  • Evade or conduct pursuit
  • Anticipate bad weather
  • Avoid collisions, or minimize damage from collisions
  • Spot tampering with a vehicle
  • Navigate by compass or the stars, read maps, and maintain a sense of direction
  • Conduct emergency repairs

[You may require the player to specify a particular type of craft, gaining 1 vehicle per 2 rating points. Rewrite to reflect the air vehicles prevalent in your setting. In some settings you might include water craft in this ability.]


You expertly anticipate the needs of any mission by packing a kit efficiently arranged with necessary gear. Assuming you have immediate access to your kit, you can produce whatever object the team needs to overcome an obstacle. You make a simple test; if you succeed, you have the item you want. You needn’t do this in advance of the adventure, but can dig into your kit bag (provided you’re able to get to it) as the need arises.

Items of obvious utility to a paranormal investigation do not require a test. These include but are not limited to: note paper, writing implements, laptop computer, a PDA with wireless Internet access, mini USB drive, cell phone, various types of tape, common tools and hardware, light weapons, flashlights of various sizes, chem lights, batteries, magnifying glasses, thermometer, and a no-frills audio recording device.

The utility of traditional anti-supernatural accoutrements such as crucifixes, holy water, and silver bullets is a matter of great debate within the Ordo Veritatis. Whether you choose to include them in your basic kit reveals your attitude toward the supernatural.

Other abilities imply the possession of basic gear suitable to their core tasks. Characters with Medic have their own first aid kits; Photographers come with cameras and accessories. If you have Shooting, you have a gun, and so on. Preparedness does not intrude into their territory. It covers general-purpose investigative equipment, plus oddball items that suddenly come in handy in the course of the story.

The sorts of items you can produce at a moment’s notice depend not on your rating or pool, but on narrative credibility. If the GM determines that your possession of an item would seem ludicrous or and/or out of genre, you don’t get to roll for it. You simply don’t have it. Any item which elicits a laugh from the group when suggested is probably out of bounds.

Inappropriate use of the Preparedness ability is like pornography. Your GM will know it when she sees it.

Public Relations

You manage the public image of your team or others. You unruffle feathers, burnish reputations, downplay failures, and trumpet successes.

When keeping the locals onside during a case, the GM may allow you to spend Reassurance or Respect points on Public Relations tests.


Although staying on a tame, untroubled walking horse (on flattish terrain, anyway) is relatively easy once one gets the hang of it, and staying on a mule or burro even easier, you are a gifted equestrian. You can gallop even recalcitrant or spirited horses, donkeys, and mules past distractions and across the countryside. You can:

  • Evade or conduct mounted pursuit
  • Care for, groom, shoe, and stable mounts
  • Take care of, prepare, and use riding gear such as saddles and bridles
  • Calm a nervous mount
  • Drive a horse-drawn wagon or cart
  • Wield a weapon while riding

For every additional 2 rating points in Riding, you may add an additional riding animal: camel, water buffalo, or elephant.


You can hold your own in a hand-to-hand fight, whether you wish to kill, knock out, restrain, or evade your opponent.

[To preserve the flavor of certain settings you may wish to break this out into two abilities, for armed and unarmed close combat.]

Sense Trouble

Keen perceptions allow you to spot signs of potential danger to yourself and others. Information gained from this ability might save your skins but doesn’t directly advance the central mystery. You might use it to:

  • Hear someone sneak up on you
  • See an obscured or hidden figure
  • Smell a gas leak
  • Have a bad feeling about this

Players never know the Difficulty Numbers for Sense Trouble before deciding how many points to spend, even in games where GMs generously inform the players of other Difficulty Numbers. Players must blindly choose how much to spend.

When more than one player is able to make a Sense Trouble test, the group decides which of them makes the attempt. Only one attempt per source of trouble occurs, conducted by the chosen PC.


You can provide comfort, perspective and solace to the mentally troubled. You may be a therapist or counselor, a priest or pastor, or just a empathetic and intuitive individual. You can restore panicked characters to a state of calm, and treat any long-term mental illnesses they accrue in the course of their investigations.


You are adept with firearms.


Jarring or stressful events can exert a damaging long- psychological toll. Your Stability rating indicates your resistance to mental trauma.

You get Stability 1 for free.


You’re good at following suspects without revealing your presence. You can:

  • Guide a team to follow a suspect for short periods, handing off to the next in sequence, so the subject doesn’t realize he’s being trailed
  • Use telescopic viewing equipment to keep watch on a target from a distance
  • Find undetectable vantage points
  • Hide in plain sight
  • Perceive (either with sight or other senses) potential hazards to yourself or others.

8 or more points in Surveillance grants you 1 free point of the investigative ability Electronic Surveillance.

Exotic General Abilities

[Fidelity to your setting and genre may prompt you to introduce general abilities allowing characters to perform fantastical actions impossible in our world, or to interact with imaginary technologies. Here are some samples.]

It costs 5 build points to gain a rating of 1 in any [exotic general ability] and 1 build point for each additional build point after 1.

Mutant Power: Blood Spray

You can perform a ranged attack in which you send a high-pressure spray of your own blood gushing from your mouth. You hit your target on a successful Blood Spray test. If you hit, the opponent must make an Athletics test, the Difficulty of which equals 4 plus any Blood Spray points you spent on the attack. If he fails the test, he is knocked over and must, in lieu of his next attack, make an Athletics test (against the same Difficulty) in order to regain his footing. If he fails, he continues to slip on the blood, losing further attacks until he finally succeeds.

A blood spray attack inspires instinctive revulsion. Anyone within direct visual range must make a Stability test or suffer the urge to flee. Victims with the Olfactory Center power add your Blood Spray pool to the Difficulty of this test.

Characters who do not flee suffer ill effects while they remain able to see and smell your blood: their Hit Thresholds decrease by 1, and the Hit Thresholds of anyone they’re attempting to attack effectively increases by 1.

In addition to any Blood Spray points you spend, each use of this power costs you 3 Health points. Health points lost to Blood Spray use can be refreshed with a large meal of red meat, washed down with large quantities of orange juice or a similarly sugary drink, followed by an hour’s nap.

[From Mutant City Blues]

Pathway Amplification

You can heighten another mind’s ability to recall, process and interpret information. Once per episode, you may designate a PC recipient and an investigative ability that character possesses. The PC adds your Pathway Amplification rating to his pool in that ability. The pool refreshes to normal at the case’s conclusion.

[From Ashen Stars]

Viroware Enhancement: Dominator

You emit pheromones provoking the instinct of intelligent beings to obey high-status individuals in a social hierarchy. When an interaction with a supporting character has turned against you, spend 4 points from your Bureaucracy, Cop Talk, Downside, Interrogation, and/or Intimidation pools. The GM then plays the character, subtly or overtly, as if you have gained the upper hand. The subject must be within 4m of you when you first initiate the effect.

[From Ashen Stars]


[In some games, you may wish to trick out general abilities with the following fillip:]

Almost every General ability has a cherry, a feature that kicks in when the character has 8 rating points or more in it. Agents can always use that special benefit, even if their pool in that ability has dropped to 0.

  1. Example Cherry: Crackers’ Crypto

If your Digital Intrusion rating is 8 or more, you get 1 free rating point in the Investigative ability Cryptography. You can also encrypt your team’s electronic communications against all but government-level (NSA, GCHQ, MID, DGSE, GRU, Unit 8200, etc.) cracking.

[From Night’s Black Agents]

Potential Points

[Useful in some settings; best when restricted to one, or a few, abilities you wish to highlight.]

Some abilities are more abstruse, difficult, or complex than others, enough so that they can’t simply be bought “from scratch” during character improvement. They require a prerequisite: teaching by a master, learning from an ancient text, or some other specific in-game experience. That prerequisite experience conveys “potential points” in the ability; when the character spends build points from experience on that ability, she can only do so up to her “potential.”


[In some games you may wish to require players to select drives for their characters, ensuring that their characters are well motivated to get into the kinds of investigative trouble the genre demands.]

Each PC follows a drive, a personal motivation giving him, her or it good reason to act heroically and curiously. By following your drive, you keep the story moving and ensure that your behavior is in keeping with the [insert name of genre] genre.

Sample Drive: Altruism

You instinctively act for the benefit of others, especially when they’re unable to help themselves. As far as you’re concerned, the fees the crew earns for its cases are just a means to an end. They keep the ship operational and the group sufficiently equipped to go out and do good in the world. If the Combine were still active, you might well have signed on with them as a patrol officer. Without them, the need for strong men and women to act selflessly is greater than ever. This sector of space has taken some hard knocks, and people are scared and discouraged. But if enough folks put the common good over their own petty interests, someday—maybe someday soon—the Bleed will go back to what it was before the war.

[From Ashen Stars]

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