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GUMSHOE Review: Against the Unknown

Against the Unknown by Tom McGrenery is the first third-party RPG I've seen using the GUMSHOE rules. Pelgrane made a System Reference Document available under the OGL and Creative Commons license as part of the Hillfolk Kickstarter, but I haven't seen game until now.

Porcupine Publishing presents Against the Unknown as a streamlined take on GUMSHOE designed to speed up character creation and simplify task resolution. It combines investigative and general abilities into a single list, allowing any ability to gather clues or to accomplish tasks. Ratings are low, on the range of investigative abilities in other GUMSHOE games.

When making tests, you automatically add your ability rating to your die roll. In addition, you can spend points from any ability (not just the one tested) to either add to your roll or to treat the die as an automatic 6. You can even choose to spend after you've rolled the die. With the standard difficulty still at 4, this makes tests essentially impossible to fail.

This mechanic comes to a particularly ludicrous expression in combat, which is run as a contest of the Scuffling, Weapons, or Firearms. The first combatant to fail their roll (against a difficulty 4) takes damage based on their opponent's weaponry. Since it's trivial to achieve a 3 in all of the combat abilities, you can arrange to never fail a roll in combat. Fights will go on forever with competent fighters, unless either side attempts called shots (which feature in an appendix and thus could easily be assumed optional).

Correction: Author +Tom McGrenery pointed out that Against the Unknown addresses this effect by increasing combat difficulties by 1 each round after the third. Fights will still go on for a while, but eventually someone will fail.

The ability list in Against the Unknown is workable, if a bit long for a "streamlined" GUMSHOE game. Character creation uses packages presented on cards. If the investigators are members of an organization, everyone gets a common group card. Then each player chooses 3 individual cards to define their mix-and-match background. You combine all of the abilities from your cards and then spend a few more points (varying with the number of players).

For Game Masters, Against the Unknown presents no advice for either designing scenarios or running sessions. It gives a single page to opponent statistics, amounting to little more than "give them one background card."

With the core GUMSHOE investigative mechanic intact, Against the Unknown should handle mystery well enough. But it is touted as being a game of "hardboiled detectives" and "wartime spies," both calling for some amount of physical action. The rules as presented remove all tension from such scenes, either rendering them automatically successful or giving you only enough points for one or two successful rolls.

It's good to see someone trying to expand the GUMSHOE space, but Against the Unknown is not much more than a "lite" version that makes some problematic design choices. If you want to check it out for yourself, the PDF is Pay What You Want, and it's a quick read at only 40 pages.

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