Roll Perception Plus Awareness: Mutant City Blues and the Gumshoe System
Ever since the Sudden Mutation Event, people have been able to fly. Phase through walls. Read minds. Shoot bolts of energy from their fingertips. Walk into dreams.
As members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit, you and your fellow detectives solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. When a mutant power is used to kill, you catch the case. When it’s a mutant victim in the chalk outline, you get the call. And when it comes time for a fight, you deploy your own extraordinary abilities to even the odds.
With new human capacity has come new science. Your squad brings forensic science to bear on the solution of mutant crimes. Need to know if a suspect is the victim of mind control or dream observation? Perform an EMAT protocol to detect the telltale signs of external influence. Was your victim killed by a light blast? Use Energy Residue Analysis to match the unique wound pattern to the murderer, as surely as ballistic science links a bullet to a gun.
Does your crime scene yield trace evidence of two separate powers? Use your trusty copy of the Quade Diagram, the infallible map of genetic relationships between mutant powers, to tell if one suspect could have used both-or if you have two perps on your hands.
If chases, interrogations and mutant battles weren’t enough to handle, you also serve as a bridge between the authorities and your mutant brethren. To successfully close cases, you must navigate the difficult new politics of post-mutation society, and deal with your own personal issues and mutation-caused defects.
Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column meant to introduce SF Signal readers to the world of roleplaying games. This time out, we’re going to look at a game and a system from the prolific people at Pelgrane Press: their Gumshoe investigative system, and a specific iteration of it: Mutant City Blues, as designed by Robin D. Laws.
Bad rolls happen all the time in role playing games. Anyone who has critically failed their roll to hit the troll with their war hammer and bonked their own head with it can tell you, bad rolls happen and they suck. But what if you are playing a game involving investigation, and the players roll poorly to find the secret door in the library that will lead them into the secret lab? What if their rolls cause them to miss a crucial detail that is essential to figuring out that Mrs. Tarkas is, in fact, an agent of the Deep Ones? In a dungeon, if the PCs can’t get past a door, they just go on to another part of the dungeon. Maybe they rib the thief for not picking the lock, but they move on. In a procedural or investigative game, it’s much more difficult. Sometimes, for the PCs to get ahead, they need to make that roll, to find that clue.
What do the players do? By Jove, what does the GM do? Fake it until they make it? Give them unlimited bites at the apple until they find that clue? Hand them the solution?
Gumshoe was invented as a way around this problem.
“Investigative scenarios are not about finding clues, they’re about interpreting the clues you do find.”
The various investigative shows on television, and there are many, focus far more on trying to figure out what clues mean rather than actually trying to find the clues. Typically, the shows do not spend their running time having Grissom or Ducky trying to find the clue fruitlessly. The joy of the shoes is for the viewers to watch the investigators, with all the pieces of the puzzle on the floor, put it together and figure out the problem.
Gumshoe does this by making gathering clues nearly automatic, if you have the right investigative skill and are in the right place, you get the clue. Now, you can sometimes get extra special and additional information by using points from a pool you get equal to your rating. For example, in talking to a murder scene witness, an investigator using the Forensic Anthropology skill will be told that the witness is distracted above and beyond the fact of the murder. If that investigator decides to take that knowledge and spend 2 points, they will be told that they notice that the witness is, in fact, pregnant. If that extra knowledge was worth 2 points, and the player actually spent 3, the GM would refund the extra cost back to the player. And if there was no extra clue to be found, the GM would refund it, too.
That pregnancy though would not be what is called a “Core clue” that advances the plot and is absolutely essential to solving the mystery, but it would make putting the clues together to solve the murder easier. The system takes great pains, as I have said above, to allow investigators who are in the right place at the right time with the right skills to get the clues they need. The rules even give a method to dispense with players spending points . Instead, the GM allocates such extras for the player characters behind the scenes, so that all players, not just the most aggressive ones, get to find out extra bits to help crack the case.
The unusual thing about Gumshoe is while Investigative skills run in this manner, physical skills do not. If you want to use a skill (in combat or not) you do have to make a roll. All rolls in Gumshoe are a single six sided die, but you can add to the roll from a pool of points equal to your rating (similar to the points in the investigative skills) These points don’t replenish within a scenario, so they are a resource to be used carefully. Unlike the Investigative skills, they are NOT refunded. For example, your Athletics skill is an 8 and you want to climb a wall to try and catch the fleeing antagonist who climbed the wall ahead of you to try and escape you and your investigative team. The GM might tell you “That wall is pretty tall and smooth. An ordinary person couldn’t climb it.” Thus, you might decide to spend 4 of your points to be added to the roll. If the difficulty to climb the wall was a 7, then it was a good idea, no? It’s an odd distinction, I admit (and the various games say so in print) but it does ratchet up the tension. While the gathering of clues that led you to the miscreant might have been nearly automatic, the actual conflicts once the investigators figure out what’s going on are definitely NOT automatic.
So what is Mutant City Blues in the context of the Gumshoe system, then? I can sum it up in two words: CSI: Wildcards.
Take the investigative skills from Gumshoe, and add in mutant powers. In the context of the game world, a virus that came out of nowhere ravaged the planet. Some months after the ghost flu burned itself out, mutant powers started appearing in the population of people who had the ghost flu. in people of all ages from puberty to the elderly. The game is set ten years later, around ten years from “now”. Mutants are a fact of line, both for ill and will. Roughly one in one hundred people in the industrialized world possess one or more heightened abilities. That means 1 in 100 of the criminals, too. As police departments began to confront these superpowered criminals, they found it necessary to fight fire with fire, recruiting tactical officers with the outlandish abilities necessary to apprehend them. The player characters are law enforcement officers who have gotten to the level of a detective, and are part of the Heightened Crimes Investigative Unit. Stir in the aftereffects of a society still coming to grips with mutants’ existence, putting the characters in the center of the social and political whirlwind, and you have Mutant City Blues.
The mutants and superpowers of Mutant City Blues are, in fact, a not completely understood science that is being studied by experts. The powers are logically arranged in a schema called the Quade Diagram. When characters build characters’ superpowers, they use the diagram to build a suite of connected powers–and sometimes have to take drawbacks as well!
This diagram doesn’t only provide a way to build characters with superpowers in a rational and structured manner–it has use for the player characters in the plot as well.
For example, if evidence at a scene shows the use of acid spit and a lightning discharge, then, judging from the diagram, the player characters could deduce there are at least two mutant criminals at work, since its unlikely in the extreme that one mutant could have both.
There is a brief section suggesting how to convert a city into a 10 years ahead mutant-laden city. I think myself this is among the weaker sections in an otherwise excellent game. It’s possible I’ve been spoiled by the comprehensive section in the Dresden Files Role Playing Game on converting a city to use for a game. This game just provides some things to drop into the city of your choice, but it feels a little too much plug-and-play.
What the game does better, and the GM can have a hand on the tiller for how much it influences a campaign, is the social commentary. With society just getting used to the idea of mutants, there is a lot of friction, prejudice and special problems. Is a cop using telepathy to interrogate a suspect a violation of her rights? And if that is not, is a bank loan officer doing it to make sure a potential loan applicant is telling the truth legal? Themes explored in Marvel comics such as the X-Men can be explored, with the characters in the middle of such thorny questions.
I am a fan of the Gumshoe system, and this is one of its more unusual iterations. But it makes an enormous amount of sense. If a swath of the population of the world suddenly and randomly gets superpowers, that’s going to include criminals. And so all of the assumptions in the game fall from that premise.
So, who would be interested in playing this game? Well, fans of the Wildcard books, for one thing. People who enjoy police and crime scene procedurals and want it dipped in the fantastic. Alternatively, people who do want a game with superpowered humans running around, but want a structured, scientific approach to superpowers will appreciate the logic of the Quade diagram. X-men (and its kin) comic book fans are natural people to appreciate Mutant City Blues, too.
There are plenty of other Gumshoe games out there, too, if you like the idea of the Gumshoe system but mutants aren’t your cup of tea. Trail of Cthulhu, the “flagship” of the Gumshoe family, takes the Gumshoe system and sets it in a Lovecraftian milieu. The Esoterrorists have modern day investigators tackle the reality-bending occult fueled supernatural but without the explicit Cthulhu mythos. Ashen Stars, their newest product and on the verge of release, will bring Gumshoe to a gritty Space Opera universe. And the busy people at Pelgrane are working on another Gumshoe system product, set in a post-Cold War spy environment–with vampires. They won’t sparkle.
It takes some work for a GM to get used to the Gumshoe system, especially if they are not running a published scenario, but Mutant City Blues, like all of the Gumshoe games, it provides a consistent and interesting framework to play investigative games with superpowered criminals.
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