Harry Potter and the Story of GUMSHOE, Part One

In the Harry Potter novel series, JK Rowling draws on a number of genres, including the boarding school story, the thriller, and the modern fantasy. But at its core, the story of Harry Potter is a mystery. Harry, and by extension the reader, begins with no knowledge of the magical world he is heir to and must discover everything as he goes. At the same time, he must piece together his own history and his relationship to the returning dark wizard Voldemort.

So when translating the books to a gaming context, the obvious system to start with is one tuned specifically toward presenting mysteries: GUMSHOE, designed by Robin Laws. In this series, I will proceed through the seven Harry Potter novels and present critical moments as if they were played out in a GUMSHOE system campaign. I will discuss possible abilities used, points spent, and game mechanics behind the outcome.

Note: Any page references will be to the US hardcover editions published by Scholastic Press, as those are the editions I own.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

As good as chapter one is at drawing us into the familiar-yet-strange world we are going to inhabit, Harry is basically absent as a character. We will ignore this opening, or write it off as the GM presenting an elaborate backstory vignette as the campaign begins.

Chapter Two: The Vanishing Glass

The incident at the zoo's reptile exhibit showcases a special ability of Harry's, one which few other wizards possess: Parseltongue, or the ability to speak to snakes. We learn later in the series that Harry gained this gift when Voldemort tried to kill him, and that Voldemort himself is a Parselmouth, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

If we were to write Parseltongue up in GUMSHOE, it would be an Investigative ability, as the chance of it succeeding or failing is never questioned. You either speak to snakes, or you don't. And we'll see later one that it is a valuable ability in certain situations (especially in book two).

Still, it is a rare and actually quite powerful gift among wizards. In GUMSHOE, special abilities like this have an increased cost. The first level of Parseltongue will cost five build points, while each additional level costs one as normal.

Chapter Three: The Letters from No One

In this chapter, we see our first core clue, as Harry realizes his aunt and uncle know who is sending him his letters. This explains Uncle Vernon's vehemence that Harry not be allowed to read them.

The clue comes as Uncle Vernon takes the letter from Harry on p. 35:
"His face went from red to green faster than a set of traffic lights. And it didn't stop there. Within seconds it was the grayish white of old porridge."
While it might seem obvious to anyone in the room, this is an example of the GM handing out a core clue. She could have left out the detail altogether. But since it's important and it propels the story, she gives it to the player with a proper use of an ability.

Which ability? In most GUMSHOE builds, there is an ability that tells you when someone is lying. As this is a family-friendly book series, we'll go with the name from Trail of Cthulhu: Assess Honesty. Assess Honesty can also give a basic "read" on a person, judging their emotions and motives. That's exactly the kind of information Harry is getting here. What's more, he uses the lie-detecting aspect of Assess Honesty on p. 37 when Uncle Vernon tells him that the letter was addressed to him by mistake.

The GM spends the rest of the scene (the chapter) giving more detail around this basic clue. Whoever is sending the letters is insistent and possessed of strange means. Uncle Vernon is just as set that Harry not receive any of them. Ultimately, the battle of wills comes to a head in a tiny shack on a rock in the sea.

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