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!


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