Sunday, 4 June 2023

Things To Steal From D&D (GUMSHOE)

Honor Among Thieves trailer

D&D was my first system but it's not my favorite for a number of reasons, probably the biggest of which is that no matter the iteration the system still drags around the carcass of its first incarnation - the skirmish combat wargame. Everything goes back to that 10x10 room with an Orc and a chest. Or an Orc with a chest. In a chest. Juggling two chests and a gnome. However you care to word it.

Its more recent incarnation as 5.0 has a lot to recommend it (and I'm glad it brought back Ravenloft) but it occurred to me that there are two things a GUMSHOE game could steal from D&D:

  • Background
  • Treasure
Backgrounds are detailed in the PHB and can be summed up as Personality, Ideals, Bonds, Flaws. Treasure is detailed in the DMG and in particular the Other Rewards section from p.227 on.

I'm not suggesting the players use Backgrounds, though they can. You as Director have more use for them, and you also have more use for Treasure.

As Director you often have to come up with NPCs more or less on the fly, which is why Cameos (p92, Double Tap) are so useful. Still, it's nice to have some NPCs in your pocket for those moments when, say, having a Nemesis walk into the room with a gun fits the narrative, or at least gets the action flowing. Each Cameo has an In Play section which does sketch out a thin personality but it is useful, for those NPCs who might have more plot function, to have something more than the In Play. 

This is where the Background section comes in handy. A Nemesis who's a former cop is going to be different from one who's a former special forces vet, and so on. How to make them feel different, though, is where the Background shines.

When I first read that section it reminded me of the Tarot, specifically the Celtic spread, which in its most basic form can be read as:
  1. The Present
  2. The Challenge/Problem
  3. The Past 
  4. The Future 
It's not an exact match but it performs the same function. It tells you where you are, where you have been, where you are going, and where you might end up. Backgrounds does this with a series of "I" statements, as in "I have been an acolyte, I idolize a particular hero or saint, I believe in tradition, I seek to preserve an ancient text, I am suspicious of strangers."

In Night's Black Agents much is said about Bad Guys (Resource Guide, p23 on) but it's mostly mechanical. Trail doesn't really cover this at all, except to say that to change up the OPFOR you can change up their appearance or stats, so a Deep One, say, might have a hammerhead as opposed to an ordinary fish head. 

Suppose instead you tackle it this way:

Connor Rowe is a Deep One hybrid proselytizer who has left his coastal area to spread the word. He:
  1. Is an acolyte of Cthulhu who believes in the critical mass theory (p 91, ToC)
  2. Believes he is a predestined agent of change.
  3. Thinks his mission is to spread the seed of Cthulhu wherever he goes so that more join the critical mass.
  4. Is prone to obsessive behavior and will not change his plans once they are set.
You don't have to change the stats to make this work. You're changing the personality instead. 

Here you have a roaming preacher who moves from place to place spreading the word. This week he might be in a flophouse in San Francisco. Next week, Chicago. Wherever he goes he spreads the word, starts cults, so that flophouse in Chicago might become an epicenter of Cthulhu worship spreading the word, increasing the critical mass. It might just be preaching, or he may have other means - narcotics, shared dreams, amulets and crystals, whatever best fits. Given that Deep Ones live long lives, as a hybrid he might last longer than the usual human lifespan permits, meaning he could first be encountered as a young firebrand in 1890s San Francisco and still be around as an aged grand master in the 1960s.

The players might not even encounter Connor, at first. They can encounter the cults he leaves behind him instead. That only builds up his reputation, so that when they finally encounter Connor himself the players have an expectation, even a dread, of what this preacher might do.

That's Backgrounds. What about Treasure?

The DMG has this to say:  As much as adventurers desire treasure, they often appreciate other forms of reward

Why? Because in D&D, treasure usually boils down to X number of gold pieces plus a scattering of magic items. Rarely is it something interesting, or memorable.

What if it were?

Let's say this is Bookhounds of London. The obvious reward for player success in that game is a mythos grimoire, or possibly even a Windfall for the shop. It's what the central concept is about, after all. 

But let's take a step back. Those are the gold pieces of the campaign. What other rewards can there be?

D&D explains it in terms of 
  • supernatural gifts (a special reward granted by a being or force of great magical power).
  • prestige (fame & power, medals, favors).
  • epic boons (special gifts given to high-level characters).
Let's say this is a Lovejoy or John Constantine situation, two archetypes that work very well in a Bookhounds universe. Lovejoy is a near-supernaturally gifted antiques dealer. Constantine is an occultist who gathers favors; in his original incarnation he acts as a kind of middleman to the heroes and villains of the DC universe, and everyone owes him for one reason or other. His best mate, Chas Chandler, becomes his go-to taxi driver for exactly this reason: Chas owes John big time.

In a Bookhounds world, what kind of supernatural gifts are there?

Straight-up Magic, of course, and Mythos pools, but there are other options. For the cost of 1 point Stability:
  • Healing Hands: once per session you have the ability to heal as if you had 2 pool First Aid, by the power of touch alone.
  • The Lovejoy Touch: you can tell the difference between a genuine Mythos artefact and a fake, and if you don't know where in the room the Mythos artefact is, you can find it by this sense alone.
  • Bane: you create an artefact from whatever happens to be lying around that, for one combat scene only, can prevent a Mythos combatant from attacking you for 2 rounds.
  • Ghost Talker: you can communicate with the recently deceased, once per session.
  • Card Shark: you can win the equivalent of 2 points Credit Rating, once per session only. Any Credit Rating not spent by the end of the session is lost. Easy come, easy go.
How did they get these abilities? That's up to you as Keeper, but they probably had to sweat blood for them.

Prestige is a bit different and usually translates into better opportunities and increased Auction pools. Because your character is an influential person the auctioneer will let them look at the merchandise in a private session before the auction. Because your character is a member of the local Ring they get 2 points Intimidation free, to use during this auction only. That sort of thing. Again, it's up to you as Keeper how they got that prestige, but it probably involves a Windfall of some kind, or a very successful adventure.

Epic boons are a little out-of-scope and may not fit your playstyle, particularly if you go Purist. However, it could be very interesting to have a Mythos entity take an interest in your Bookhound. Let's say, for the sake of discussion, that a group of Ghouls take a liking to one of the Bookhounds. They may even consider the Hound for membership of their little supper club. As a token of their affection they give the Hound a silver ring. That ring has no power in and of itself, but all the other cults currently active in London know what that ring stands for and who gave it to the Hound. It's a kind of bargaining chip for future negotiations: I can't hurt you, but you know who my friends are ...  

Alternatively, let's say a Hound has a nasty experience with a Cthulhu cult, and as a consequence gains heightened Dreaming powers. Not only can they lucidly dream, they gain the ability to invade other people's dreams and interact with them. That may seem great, but there's a problem. Every person whose dream they invade loses 1 Sanity because the Hound isn't just invading their dream, they're spreading the critical mass of Cthulhu believers needed to make the Old One return. That is cumulative Sanity damage; it's possible to drive an ordinary person permanently insane. Which some Hounds might embrace as a tactic against their enemies ... 

That's it for this week. Enjoy!


  1. "In a Bookhounds world, what kind of supernatural gifts are there? Straight-up Magic, of course, and Mythos pools, but there are other options. For the cost of 1 point Stability:"

    If you want to make a supplement that has a bunch of these i would buy it.

    1. You'll have to convince Pelgrane, not me. ;) They've been sitting on a NBA scenario of mine for a while.