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Get Punched in the Flattery: Investigative Refreshes Through Set-Back

In +Greg Stolze's film noir game A Dirty World, he presents a mechanic in which your character's traits can increase scene by scene based on their experiences during the scene. In many cases, you become better at something by having something bad done to you that relates to that trait.
  • You become better at taking a beating (the Endurance quality) by surviving losing a fight.
  • You become more observant (Observation) when you get taken by surprise.
  • You become more truthful (Honesty) through suffering a deception.
This feeds the emotional interplay you expect from film noir and encourages players to not only accept bad things happening to their characters but to seek those situations out.

It occurs to me that this idea could be brought into GUMSHOE easily. One thing most GUMSHOE games do not provide is a way to refresh Investigative abilities during an adventure. There's a good reason for this. Your Investigative ability points are a currency you spend to buy spotlight time for your character. By making them scarce and difficult to recover, you keep their value high.

But what if you could get at least a few Investigative points back by suffering a set-back? If you suffer, particularly emotionally, you can earn another chance to be awesome later. Consider this optional rule:
Once per session, when your Investigator has suffered a personal, emotional, or professional set-back, you can describe how they react to or learn from that experience. If the GM agrees with your description, you can immediately refresh one Investigative ability related to that experience.
So, if your Investigator spends a scene being belittled or mocked by her social betters, you could describe how she steels herself and vows to dazzle them with grace when next they meet. You could then refresh all of your spent Flattery points.

Other ideas for set-backs include (with abilities from Trail of Cthulhu):
  • Your paper-pusher Investigator is passed over for a promotion, again. (Refresh Accounting.)
  • Your Investigator's father is diagnosed with cancer. (Refresh Medicine.)
  • Your Investigator is slipped a mickey and wakes up somewhere unsavory. (Refresh Pharmacy.)
  • The cops haul your criminal Investigator in for questioning. (Refresh Interrogation.)
This is a great way for the GM to introduce complications into an investigation. The free refresh soothes the pain of "being screwed over" as some players may see it. Alternately, it can incentivize party rivalries and get everyone roleplaying. If you've run out of an important Interpersonal ability, get into a fight with another Investigator and steer it in that ability's direction.

If you're willing to accept a few set-backs in your game, this rule can make things more interesting while restoring your precious opportunities to be awesome, your Investigative points. Give it a try in your next GUMSHOE game.

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