GumCypher? CypherShoe?

Investigative Abilities in Cypher-System Games

On the left, we’ve got The Strange and Numenera, two games from Monte Cook Studios focusing on exploration and adventure, with killing things and taking their stuff very much on the sidelines.

On the right, we’ve got the GumShoe games from Pelgrane Press – Night’s Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Fear Itself, Timewatch.  Games focussing on solving mysteries, exploration and adventure, with killing things and taking their stuff very much on the sidelines.  The beauty of GumShoe is that, following a wildly successful Kickstarter, the mechanics of the game are available to download for free.  Grab yourself a copy of the GumShoe SRD!  GumShoe ensures the heroes get the basic clues they need to move through the story.  What the players do with the information once they’ve got it is another matter entirely.

Firstly let’s have a look and see why you would want to combine the two.

At their hearts, both Cypher games are about investigation and exploration.  The Strange takes things further, adding “Defend” and “Create” to it’s remit, but “Explore” is there front and centre.

Taking The Strange as a starting point, PCs are operatives for an organisation whose remit is all things relating to The Strange.  Pretty broad remit.  Characters can be tasked with investigating potential Strange occurrences.  It’s this investigating angle that ties in with GumShoe.  Of course, certain types of characters are more likely to have these Investigative Abilities than others – a character with the Solves Mysteries focus, f’rinstance.

The GumShoe system is written to emulate the detective genre – a genre in which the heroes are always able to get the clues they need.

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. (GumShoe SRD)


GumShoe’s Investigative Abilities allow players to get clues from a scene without having to know the right questions to ask the specific GM.  “I’m going to spend 2 points of Forensic Science.  What do I know about the crime scene?”  “I’m going to spend a point of Architecture.  Anything significant about the building?”  Often it’s as simple as “You’ve got Anthropology, you recognise those books on the shelf – that one does not belong there…”  Players can get information simply by having skills, get more information – or create some sort of in-game effect – by spending from that skill’s pool.  Most GumShoe games have a GM’s reference sheet that allows them to keep track of which players have which Investigative Abilities like this one for Trail of Cthulhu.

Hmm… Skill pools.  Sounds familiar…

Skills in Cypher work a little differently.  They can be absent, Trained, or Specialised.  And they’re a lot broader than GumShoe’s.  And, come to think of it, I don’t think there’s actually a list of skills for Cypher!  So we need to work out how we can specialise, how we can pick out what a character would know.

In Cypher skills fall under Speed, Intellect, or Might.  In GumShoe, abilities are split between General and Investigative.  No real help there, you’d perhaps group the Investigative Abilities under Intellect – but there are ways you could get benefits from just about any skill…

So let’s see what we can do to mash these 2 systems together.

Cypher characters who are Trained in a skill can be considered to have a point in that pool to spend on an action assuming you can justify it.  Someone who’s Specialized will have 2 points.

e.g. Mark, a Sharp-Eyed Paradox who Solves Mysteries, is trained in Initiative and specialized in Perception.  Thanks to a few well-spent XP, he’s also trained in Firearms.  Simply by having Perception, he’s going to notice things other characters don’t.  The GM can inform him about the blood smears going under the sofa, the CDs all jumbled up on the shelf.  By spending a point of Perception he might get further details without having to ask more questions of the GM.  Further benefits might be there for a 2-point spend, they might not.

Bigger spends can get bigger benefits…  A 2-point spend in Archaeology might get you a temporary contact at a local university – perhaps you studied with her, were her student for a class or two – work with the GM to set this up.

Training in combat skills might give the character an advantage in fighting certain foes – reducing the difficulty to hit because you’ve an in-depth knowledge of their fighting style, or you know there’s a weak spot on a particular creature.  Or it might give you a benefit when defending against attacks because you know steel spiders always crouch back for a second before pouncing.

Refreshing Pools

GumShoe’s ability pools refresh as the GM and story dictate.  For a fast-paced Night’s Black Agents game emulating the spy thriller, they may refresh at the end of each game session, having the PCs back to full speed at the beginning of the next.  For a depressing, bleak, Trail of Cthulhu game they may only refresh at the end of the adventure, making your choice of when to spend those points to gain benefits particularly hard – spend now and get the information and run the risk of running out when you most need it.

In Cypher games, similar rules can apply.  For example…

  • Advance a tier, automatically refresh all pools
  • Spend 2XP, refresh 1 pool for one ability
  • End of game session – refresh 2 pools of your choice
  • End of adventure – refresh all pools

And Finally…

I put the draft of this post up on the internet for comment a few days ago.  On Google+, Joey Mullins came up with this elegant and simple suggestion:

Seems the easiest way to emulate gumshoe “clue” mechanic is to allow players to trade effort for clues, no rolling just like Gumshoe.

In my strange game I ran the other day I had my players going to a crime scene. The “solves crimes” player had a tool set and skill. Since I set the level of all clues at three the expenditure of one effort was an auto clue.

So for 1 effort from a particular pool, you get a clue related to a skill from that pool.  Since you’re already tracking effort, this makes perfect sense and saves having to keep track of any other values, pools, refreshes and the like.

In Conclusion

I hope this has given you some idea as to how the core GumShoe clue mechanic can work in Cypher system games.  Or any other game, for that matter.  Questions, comments, superb examples of this in use in your games – or how you’ve taken this and tweaked it for your games, all are welcome!

The End of an Era – #TheEndlessRiver #PinkFloyd

Back in 1987 I bought an album by a band I’d sort of heard of.  The album was Momentary Lapse of Reason, the band Pink Floyd.  Every so often, you listen to an album and realise you’ve come home.  To this day I’m not entirely sure what drew me to the album – it didn’t have the visual appeal of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe, it didn’t have the “already heard it in school” pedigree of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.  But I bought it.  And the rest, as they say, is history.


Y’see I’ve not really had much of a musical education from my parents.  My dad had Queen’s Greatest Hits in the car pretty much all the time, and he’s now graduated onto much more mellow Rod Stewart stuff *shudder*.  Mum?  Still not sure what she’d choose to listen to – Terry Pratchett audiobooks, at a guess.  So I’m largely self-taught when it comes to my musical taste.  If I’d had the internet, and known about Music Map, I’dve known that my progression through Yes, Deep Purple, Genesis and Marillion would’ve led me to Pink Floyd sooner or later. Probably sooner.

From that starting point, I got my hands on Delicate Sound of Thunder, the live album from the tour that followed.  From there, I filled in the gaps backwards to Dark Side of the Moon, introducing my then-girlfriend to the music along the way.  She picked up Animals, and somehome we’ve never quite managed to own The Final Cut.  Between us we’ve never really got into the pre-Dark Side stuff, it’s just a bit too raw, too un-finished.  Songs like Arnold Layne hint at the greatness that is to come, but it’s not quite there yet.


Skip forward to 1996 and two poor students on a coach down to London from Edinburgh, off to see Pink Floyd on The Division Bell tour.  What an amazing night that was!  A packed Earl’s Court singing along to Wish you were Here is one of my treasured memories.  At the time, I think we all knew on some level that another studio album was unlikely.  The live album Pulse was recorded during that tour.  Still, not a bad run for a band – 7 solid albums without a bad track on them.  Not many bands can say that.


Then in early 2013 rumours started circulating on the internet that there was going to be a new album.  And maybe a tour!  The tour rumour was quickly quashed but more and more information about the new album started to come to light…

The album would come from sessions recorded while the band were recording The Division Bell – and before the death of their keyboard player.  It would take it’s title from one of the last lines of High Hopes, the last track on The Division Bell.

The Endless River was released Monday 10th November 2014 and I, like many who had pre-ordered, had it downloaded and ready for the morning commute.

It is simultaneously quintessentially Pink Floyd while being unlike any other album they’ve released to date.  Broadly speaking, it’s just 4 tracks – but each is nearly 15 minutes long.  Largely instrumental, it flows and weaves through what feels like the entire history of Pink Floyd.   It is a thing of beauty.


If you’ve not had the pleasure of Pink Floyd, do yourselves a massive, massive, favour and start listening.  Pick an album at random, from Dark Side of the Moon to The Endless River.  Don’t just listen to it once, listen to it over, and over, and over, and over.  Listen to it in darkened rooms where your brain isn’t distracted by anything else.  Listen to it with friends, tell them to shhhh when David Gilmour’s guitar solo for On the Turning Away starts.  Tell them to listen to the lyrics!  Above all, listen.

And do not mourn that there will be no more.  Celebrate that there is.

Book Review – Dying by the Hour, @koryshrum

eBook cover

The sequel to Dying for a Living,  Dying by the Hour returns us to a world where death isn’t the handicap it used to be.

For those of you coming cold to Book 2 in a series, here’s the “Previously on Angel” sum-up.

  • A significant percentage of the population don’t stay dead when they die.
  • You don’t know it’s going to happen to you until it happens.
  • If you’ve got this, it’s called “Necro Regenerative Disorder” and the term “disorder” should tell you everything you need to know about how it’s perceived by Joe Public.
  • If you’ve got NRD, you can replace people at the point of death – literally dying for them.  The officially licensed, US-Government-sanctioned people doing this are Death Replacement Agents.
  • There’s a large, influential, and powerful church out to remove everyone with NRD as it’s against the wishes of God (and perfectly in line with the wishes of the head of the order).
  • Certain individuals with NRD are more special than others…

Got that?  Good.

Right.  Always tricky coming to book 2 of a series when book 1 was so good.  You’ve got to juggle the information you’re giving people who are new to the series with the information people coming straight from book 1 already know.  You run the risk of having large chunks copy-pasted across.  Simon R Green seems to feel the need to explain everything from chapter to chapter just in case you’d forgotten that “this is how things are… in the Nightside” from one page to the next.  Jim Butcher goes a little overboard in explaining how magic works in the Dresdenverse in every new book.  Kory gets the balance just about right.

Much of the “this is how NRD works” stuff is delivered in the form of a mandatory meeting all state employees have to attend.  Yes, this was done in book 1 but it’s not an out-of-place infodump in this book.  The rest is delivered piecemeal as the story needs it.

The whole thing does an excellent “this is book 2, let’s explore the world a little more” thing – more of the rules around death replacement are revealed, we meet the other factions out there vying for control, and we find out more about the Big Bad.  It’s all delivered from the point of view of either Jesse (NRD) or Ally (assistant) and the two storylines weave around each other, moving swiftly to the climax.  Nicely done, just as you’re getting somewhere with 1 character, you’re diverted to the other.

It’s not as self-contained as book 1 was.  With book 1, there wasn’t a need for a sequel built in.  Yes, it’s good to know there’s a sequel out there but it’s not essential reading.  With book 2, it feels much more like a set-up for book 3.  It’s half (or maybe 2/3) of a story that needs book 3 to complete it.  Strings are dangled, questions are unanswered.

There’s elements I didn’t like in this one.  One aspect of the storyline (trying to avoid spoilers here) is very like the TV show “Heroes” and I’m not sure how it will fit in with the wider world in book 3.  Will have to wait and see.

The politics in the world Kory’s created are rather involving.  I could picture articles in The Economist discussing some of the points raised and the laws being proposed in some US states regarding individuals with NRD.

To conclude…

Worth reading?  Yes.  Self-contained?  No – go and read book 1 first, then this.  Arguably, this book is “The Empire Strikes Back.”  Our heroes achieved victory in the previous book because they were under-estimated.  This time, they’re not so lucky.  Yes, they win some, but they lose more.  The game is changed.

Am I looking forward to the next one?  Yes.

My copy was kindly provided by Kory in exchange for a review.