Scene Types in GUMSHOE Games

GUMSHOE divides each scenario into a number of scenes. In each scene, the Investigators visit a different location and/or interact with different NPCs, gather clues, and in some cases deal with obstacles and enemies. To help the GM plan scenarios, GUMSHOE presents a few basic types of scene, and each game may present a typical arrangement of these scenes that form the spin of most mysteries fitting that game.

What are the different types of scene that make up a GUMSHOE scenario? What should you keep in mind when preparing each type of scene? How might you improvise a scene when you need to add another element at the table?


“Core scenes present at least one piece of information necessary to complete the investigation and get to the climactic scene.”

Core scenes are the most important ones in any scenario. They present core clues, which point the Investigators toward other scenes (usually also core) and allow them to move forward in the scenario. In theory, an entire scenario could consist of only core scenes, and as long as you varied the locations and characters and included multiple paths between the scenes, it could be totally satisfying.

When you are preparing your scenario, you will probably start with these core scenes. In particular, you should start by thinking up a number core clues that provide the investigators with ideas of where to go next, one after another, until they reach the climax and solve the mystery.. With a list of these clues in hand, you also have a list of locations and/or NPCs to interview. You could string these locations and characters together with a scene each and core clue leading to the next item on the list, but that will feel very linear and may make players feel railroaded.

Instead, take the list of clues and divide them up among a smaller number of scenes. Include one or two—even three—core clues in each core scene, so the investigators have options at each step for where to go next. Even though the solution to the mystery is fixed, the scenario becomes about how the investigators discover it and the choices they make along the way.

Each core scene doesn’t need to focus on a new location or character. If a core clue leads the investigators back to a person or place they’ve already investigated, but with new information to color what they find there, that’s a new scene. It’s essential to keep this in mind for scenarios that take place in a confined setting, like the traditional cozy style of mystery story.

Core scenes are perhaps the hardest to improvise. But if you’ve prepared that list of core clues in advance, you can use it to seed core clues just about anywhere, even if it’s in a scene that isn’t even close to what you had planned. Just remember what the important information is and where the investigators can find more, and you’ll be able to run core scenes with the barest of preparation.


“Alternate scenes provide information which may be of some use in understanding and solving the central mystery, but aren’t strictly necessary to reach the conclusion. They often provide context and detail.”

Alternate scenes exist to help the investigators make sense of the core clues they uncover in core scenes. They can be the GM’s secret weapon if the investigators get stuck and need a nudge, but they really are optional. You may not use Alternate scenes in every scenario.

Alternate scenes are also a great place to put optional Investigative spends that let the investigators show off, look awesome, and get some special benefit that will help them in other scenes. Calling in a contact, following a hunch, or even making a lucky guess can give the investigator the insight she needs to break a case wide open.

Like Core scenes, improvised Alternate scenes may be daunting. But in much the same way, you just need to think about what kind of scene would lead to the most fun for the group or would make the investigators look good. If you have an idea for an Alternate scene in the middle of a session, go for it. It can be as long or as short as you need it to be.

Antagonist Reaction

“This is a scene of danger or trouble in which supporting characters opposed to the group’s success take action to stop them or set them back.”

Sometimes an investigative scenario can devolve into a lot of scenes of the investigators doing research, asking questions, and closely examining crime scenes after the fact. Sometimes you just need to spice things up with a little action, and that when you throw an Antagonist Reaction scene at them. Get the blood pumping and let them know that there is still a lot at stake.

Of course, the Antagonist Reaction is also a good signal that the investigators are on the right path. If the players have made a clever guess or put some pieces together but haven’t fully recognized their accomplishment, launch one of these scenes to “reward” them. To really make the message stick, plant a clue that confirms their suspicions on the attacker’s body or whatever.


“A hazard scene presents the crew with an impersonal obstacle to their safety or ability to continue the investigation. It must typically be overcome through tests or contests.”

Like the Antagonist Reaction, Hazard scenes exist to inject excitement and reinforce the stakes of the scenario. Unlike those other scenes, Hazard scenes are just as often triggered by the investigators being proactive. If they need to get to the next clue scene, but there’s a series of obstacles in the way, that’s a Hazard scene that leads immediately into another type of scene once the obstacles are cleared.

Hazard scenes are most common in more action-oriented GUMSHOE games like Ashen Stars or Night’s Black Agents. Especially in NBA, investigators in such genres find themselves facing physical obstacles including security systems, bombs, medical emergencies, and so on.


“A sub-plot scene gives the characters an opportunity to wheel, deal, explore and interact without directly altering the course of the investigation. These may arise from personal arcs, side deals, public relations efforts, or simply the curiosity of one or more agents.”

Sub-Plot scenes exist to flesh out the investigators as characters outside of the scope of the “mystery of the week.” Games like Mutant City Blues and Ashen Stars make sub-plots an overt part of character creation, so you’ll want to include a few scenes of this type in those games. But even the focused spy thriller action of Night’s Black Agents could stand to humanize its protagonists in counterpoint to the inhuman monsters they face. And anyone could stand to make their Trail of Cthulhu investigators richer, deeper characters—it makes the horror that much greater when they eventually go mad and die.

Unlike most other scenes, you’re probably better off improvising most Sub-Plot scenes. Once your players are comfortable with their investigators and their personal sub-plots, they will pursue these scenes at their own pace. You just have to be ready to respond when they do. The best way to do that is to have clear, simple images in mind for the NPCs important to each investigator, including what they know and what they want from the investigators in return. That way you can be ready to play these supporting characters whenever you need them.


“The conclusion brings the group to the end of its investigation and often confronts it with a moral dilemma, physical obstacle, or both.”

Naturally, you’ll only have one Conclusion scene in a scenario. This is where all the pieces come together and the investigators corner the perpetrator with their evidence. Of course, rarely does the villain of a scenario “go quietly,” so this type of scene should present one last bit of excitement for your investigators. That may be a shoot-out, a chase, or the unearthly ritual of a Trail of Cthulhu cult.

It’s best to start at the end when plotting an investigative scenario, so you probably should plan your Conclusion scene out in advance. Unless you are running a collaborative improv campaign like Armitage Files or Dracula Dossier, you’ll have a clear idea in mind of who is responsible before the investigation starts, so you can plan for an interesting final confrontation.

By combining these basic types of scenes in different orders and proportions, you can create countless different investigative scenarios. If you are comfortable improvising around a list of core clues and aiming for a satisfying conclusion, you can GM a great mystery game without leaving the players feeling restrained or railroaded at all.


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