For the last couple months, I’ve been running Night’s Black Agents, an absolutely fantastic GUMSHOE game by Kenneth Hite about burned spies investigating a globe-spanning vampire conspiracy. If any of those words sounds fun to you, I 100% recommend taking a look. It’s a ridiculous amount of fun.
The core premise of the GUMSHOE system (designed by Robin D. Laws) is that in an investigative scenario, the interesting part of the game isn’t finding the clues, it’s interpreting the clues. So, Robin came up with the idea of “investigative” abilities. These include stuff like Archaeology, Forensic Pathology, and Negotiation. Generally speaking, if you have a point in one of these abilities, you’re considered well-trained. If you’ve got two, you’re an expert. If you have three or more, you’re probably the world’s foremost authority on the subject.
Here’s how they work in practice: If there’s a core clue (something that’s critical to advance the plot) in a scene and you have any points in the appropriate ability, you get the clue! No rolling, no chance for failure, no muss, no fuss. Also, you can also choose to spend one or more points from that ability (don’t worry – they refresh at the end of each scenario) in order to get even more information.
For example, suppose my players are about to break into a military installation to steal deployment plans for the Vampire Lord’s supernatural hit-squad. They’re scouting the facility, so I look around the table and ask if anyone has the Military Science skill. Alice’s character has Military Science at 2, so she gets the core clue: “You can see through your binoculars that the guards are wearing Russian special forces insignia. You know this means they’re highly disciplined and well trained. Their patrol patterns are tight, but predictable.”
Alice could also choose to spend one or more points out of her character’s Military Science ability pool. According to my notes, if Alice spends one point, her character will know some specific information about the special forces unit these guards belong to, which could prove useful during the infiltration. And if she spends two points, it’ll turn out that her character also actually knows the commander of this unit and his specific quirks and weaknesses, which could prove even more useful down the road!
I can’t overemphasize how much I love the investigative abilities system. It simplifies and streamlines play at the table, removes the roll-to-failure problem inherent in finding clues in most games that use skills, all while still emphasizing interesting player choice (do I want to spend pool points and, if so, how many?). It’s legitimately brilliant.
Let’s Put It In D&D 5e
“But Manswell,” I hear you ask. “Why the heck would we want this in D&D 5e?”
Because, dear reader, most of the time, rolling skills sucks.
Most of the skill rolls you make in 5e are to acquire information, right? Would you like to know about the pit trap lying in wait in the dark room you just barged into? Roll Wisdom (Perception). Want to know the weaknesses of the bad-ass mega-lizard you’re about to throw down with? Roll Intelligence (Nature). How about convincing the cultist to divulge his evil cabal’s heinous plans? Roll Charisma (Persuasion).
And what happens when you fail? Best case scenario, you still get the information, but at a cost. Worst case, you get nothing and your bad-ass adventurer gets to feel like a chump. In a lot of situations — like that trapped room, you not only get no information, but you get some pain on top. Which, honestly, isn’t fun.
Instead, let’s use GUMSHOE as our influence for all investigative uses of skills. Heck, the framework’s already there! One of the best updates for D&D 5e is the proficiency system. Not only does it unify skills, magic, and combat abilities, but it gives a ton of weight to the interesting choices you make during character creation and, occasionally, throughout the rest of the game.
Here’s the mechanic I’m proposing: Each skill you are proficient in gets a pool of investigation points equal to your proficiency modifier. If you are proficient in a skill, your GM has to give you the core clue in the scene. Then, you can choose to spend one or more points out of your skill pool to get more information. Skill pools refresh at the end of an adventure.
Pretty simple, right? Let’s go back to that trap example…
When Bob’s cunning rogue (who’s proficient in Perception) steps into the dark room, they’ll immediately notice slight draft and the lack of dust on one part of floor (our core clues pointing to the pit trap). Now, Bob can either use this information to carefully search the room (OSR-style) or he can spend points from his skill pools to get more information. A pit trap isn’t a huge threat, so Bob would probably only have to spend one point (from either his Perception or Investigation pools) to figure out the exact nature of the trap.
Also, depending on what skills players choose to use, you can give them different but equally useful information. Even skills that don’t normally seem like they’d have an investigative use could be helpful! Are the players investigating an assassination? Carol’s character is proficient in Acrobatics, so she gets information about possible slippery escape routes the murderer might have taken!
Now, of course, this doesn’t apply to uses of the skill where there’s active opposition. If, instead of a trap, there’s a monster hiding in the room, Bob will still have to roll his Wisdom (Perception) against the monster’s Dexterity (Stealth)… and face the consequences as usual if he beefs it.
As usual with this sort of thing, I haven’t had a chance to play-test any of this, so all the usual caveats apply. If you give this a try, please drop me a line and let me how it went!