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As a long time D&D (and now Pathfinder) player, I have a soft spot for the basic system and approach. But as you can read about in my review of D&D 3.5, from a modern perspective all of the D&D games (and their successors) nevertheless have some rather glaring holes. One is a mechanism to enhance the story behind the game.

Enter GUMSHOE, the brainchild of Robin D. Laws. GUMSHOE is the engine behind such critical successes as Trail of Cthulhu and is designed to facilitate “investigative” games by guaranteeing that characters can follow through on a story.

But here’s the thing about GUMSHOE: it’s really just a framework for how to keep such games on track. While the GUMSHOE games use that framework to build more complex systems, the fundamental idea behind it is a simple one. So why not apply it everywhere?

Lorefinder does just this: it takes the basic GUMSHOE framework and grafts it onto Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (1st Edition), the spiritual successor to D&D 3.5, and currently the fantasy game with the most diverse third party support. Does this marriage raise Pathfinder’s game? Or is it one step too far in complexity?

As usual, skip to the bottom if you want the short answer!

Warning: I haven’t read any of the GUMSHOE games myself, so I’m coming at this as something of a Pathfinder expert but a GUMSHOE virgin. Those of you with GUMSHOE experience may have a different take.

The Product



Lorefinder (at the moment) is a 49-page pdf; a softcover version is on its way. The color is cover but the remainder is black and white, with nice layout (lots of whitespace) and occasional art. The gray parchment background is attractive but not too easy on your printer.

The book itself is surprisingly compact for the degree of change it offers to the game. The rules themselves fill fewer than 25 pages, with a few more for GM advice, a sample low-level adventure (At Slaughter Field), a nicely-designed two-page character sheet, and two worksheets for the GM.

There are a few editing problems, though most are very minor. The biggest are in the adventure (see below).

GUMSHOE's Goal

Although the name implies a close connection to detective games, the principles behind GUMSHOE really extend much farther – which makes pasting it on to Pathfinder a more sensible endeavor. It is, essentially, a tool for information management: in any game with a plot, the PCs need enough information to stay on track without getting stuck – but not so much that the players lose their a sense of achievement as they progress through the plot.

The problem is most simply encapsulated in that icon of dungeons: the secret door. Suppose the archvillain is hidden behind a devilishly difficult secret door. For the adventure to be interesting, the PCs need to find that door – but to do so they must know enough to look for such a door and succeed on a skill check. The former often turns secret doors into a long-slog of searching every wall; the latter often means the GM ends up fudging the check result.

Lorefinder’s solution is to turn “investigative” skills into resources to be managed, rather than events following a random resolution mechanic. For example, PCs with the Search skill have a pool of points they can spend to make discoveries. Some clues – called core clues – are learned automatically by any PC with the relevant skill; others require spending one or more points to learn. The basic idea is that the PCs can automatically get to the end of the plot with just the core clues, but they will be better prepared if they have picked up extra info – and, of course, if they have put some thought into connecting those clues together.

Characters and Game Play

Implementing this idea in Pathfinder is fairly straightforward:

1 Lorefinder splits the Pathfinder skill list into two parts: “normal” skills, which typically describe actions (like Climb, Handle Animal, etc.) and “investigative” skills. This name is a bit misleading, because it encompasses much more than just “detective work” – including all skills that manage information in the game, such as perception, knowledge, and social interaction skills. For the most part the split is pretty obvious, but there are a couple of troublesome cases – Bluff and Intimidate - which also have well-defined functions in combat. These functions will be considerably more difficult in a Lorefinder game.

2 This expanded pool of investigative skills has all the usual suspects but also some new ones. For example, Search is re-introduced as an “active” Perception skill (as it existed in D&D 3.5). A new Battlefield Scout skill is introduced to give the martial characters a clear investigative role.

3 Characters do not get ranks in these investigative skills: rather, they receive a pool of points for each one that can be spent to gain information. They can also select a subset of skills to boost, which means they recover their points very quickly. Again, any character with the correct skill receives core clues for free, and they can spend points from their pool to receive more information.

4 The book provides a few pages of new “toys” that build upon these investigative skills – feats, class features, and spells (including changes to existing spells that function for investigation). The feats are pretty basic, but some of the spells are truly inspired.

5 There’s one other element ported over from GUMSHOE: drives. Each character chooses one, which describes their primary motivation in the game. That’s it, though – other than a label, there’s no mechanical import to this choice. I get the feeling drives are more important in games like Trail of Cthulhu but are more or less a vestigial organ in Lorefinder.

Gamemastering

Lorefinder then moves on to several pages of GM advice on constructing “investigative” adventures. This is fairly streamlined but quite effective: it’s at least as good as anything else I’ve read in D&D books. In particular, there’s lots of good advice on structuring adventures in terms of the core and alternate clues. There’s welcome advice on using divinations in such games – beyond the “don’t allow it!” cop-out. There’s also a great section on potential adventures and campaigns. The latter, especially, helped me see the “investigative” aspects of traditional D&D – because, after all, tomb raiding is built on information management!

Nevertheless, there are a couple of slippery areas. First, does GUMSHOE really solve the first problem mentioned above, that the players must feel a sense of achievement as they progress through the plot? The problem is that the core clues are “free” – PCs are guaranteed to have enough information to reach the adventure’s conclusion. The book distinguishes between a clue and a solution: the GUMSHOE system provides enough information to lead the PCs to the endgame – but it does not automatically let them “connect the dots,” or have enough information to succeed. Even here, part of the recommended solution seems to be to present the information subtly at first and then explicitly if the players don’t pick up on it – not too different from the traditional approach!

That’s a fine line, and it’s not entirely clear to me that GUMSHOE really “solves” the problem. The difficulty lies, I believe, in constructing a set of clues that allow the plot to progress (core clues) but still let the players think hard and discover the truth in interesting steps (mostly through alternate clues). This is the art of good story construction, and while GUMSHOE provides a solid system for isolating the crucial pieces of information, it won’t magically make your stories better. Moreover, it is rarely obvious how to construct core clues that lead to the endgame while also forcing the players to think hard about how to connect them.

Second, is the trail of core clues just a railroad? Here the answer is clearer: only if the GM makes it so. There’s nothing to say those core clues must be organized linearly. A web of interlocking clues makes it more interesting. I’d also argue that the GUMSHOE approach makes it easier to construct such webs self-consistently, by tracking the information flow in the plot.

At Slaughter Field

The last third of the book contains a sample adventure for Lorefinder PCs. This is a very basic adventure intended for PCs of 1st-3rd level – I don’t think it would take more than a single session to run. I won’t go into any substantial detail here, to avoid spoilers, but there are some highs and lows:

thumbsup There are some great examples here of how information flow can enhance a game. The plot itself is straightforward, but the trail of clues presents a couple of interesting sidelights and a lot of richness to the backstory that is often lacking in D&D adventures.

thumbsup I particularly like the creative ways in which the adventure uses information during combat – to provide clues for the players about the enemy and terrain.

thumbsdown On the other hand, from a mechanical perspective the adventure’s balance appears off – some encounters will be easy for a 1st level group, some extremely challenging for a 3rd level group. Some of the monsters’ special abilities are particularly worrisome.

thumbsdown Finally, the formatting of the advice sidebars are problematic – many are on the wrong page, which had me confused for several minutes.

The Bottom Line

So, does Lorefinder meaningfully “improve” the Patfhfinder system? For me, the answer is an unequivocal maybe.

Do we really need it? The basic takeaway from GUMSHOE is to construct your adventures so that PCs are guaranteed enough information to reach the conclusion. The investigative skill system does two things. The first is to hand out “core clues” for free. But of course that can be accomplished in any system.

The second aspect is more useful: additional information can be gleaned by spending a resource. Players can then tailor help to come where it is most needed. In standard Pathfinder, this information would presumably be distributed via difficult skill checks and so would be much more random. The resource management game gives the players more agency and so leads to more interesting games.

On the other hand, there’s a substantial increase in complexity – the rules are easy enough, but each skill has its own resource pool to track, so there’s a lot of in-game bookkeeping. The GM also has a lot to keep track of in designing the stories, because clues are tied so closely to skills they will remain unavailable to a group that lacks the appropriate skills.

Will this paradigm improve your game? Most likely, Lorefinder will enhance your stories. Remember that GUMSHOE is a tool to regulate information flow, not just to write detective stories. Any game with a plot or backstory can benefit from GUMSHOE’s clue distribution system – whether that is solving a murder, tracking the evil necromancer to his lair, or hunting a dragon. Don’t be fooled by the GUMSHOE name!

Moreover, this slim volume provides excellent advice and examples for incorporating “investigation” – meaning plot – into a fantasy game. The section on divinations is excellent, and the examples and advice for bringing information into combat is also excellent. Purely as a guide to constructing fantasy stories, this book really shines.

Does the system work? I haven’t played it yet, but it seems solid for the most part. I have particular concerns about investigative skills with combat uses and the boost system, for which advancement seems too fast. But the new feats and class features to integrate the investigative skills seem well thought out.

There is one other "disadvantage" to the GUMSHOE resource management approach: it increases the feeling of “metagame” over the standard approach. Investigation becomes a “daily power,” limited not by verisimilitude (if you know arcana, presumably you can recall trivia all day long) but by the strictures of the rules. This poses no particular problem to me, but it will be jarring to many Pathfinder players (indeed, it is the very reason many harbor such strong feelings toward 4E).

In the end, I see Lorefinder as trying to fill a very difficult niche:

Will I use the system? Most likely, no. Although I like both Pathfinder and what I understand of GUMSHOE, blending the two makes an already complex game even more complex. Together with the difficulty of implementing “unofficial” rules in most game groups, this means Lorefinder isn’t going to see much time at my table. On the other hand…

Do I recommend the book? Yes, absolutely! The brief book provides an excellent paradigm for regulating information in a fantasy RPG. Even if you follow that paradigm within the core Pathfinder rules (with skill checks), GUMSHOE is an excellent model and will enrich your game. The advice on divinations and “clues” in combat are also excellent.

Note: This is my twenty-fourth entry in the Iron Reviewer series.
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Ryan Shellito
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This is what RPG geek excels at! Introducing books I've never heard of to me, and making me believe I must own them!
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Internet rage goon
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Badger242 wrote:
This is what RPG geek excels at! Introducing books I've never heard of to me, and making me believe I must own them!

I am nothing if not an engine to drive economic growth!
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Nathan Collins
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Now that i've used the system, ive updated some things for my own table.

For me, the point of the book was to get away from metagaming, so I don't allow my players to tell me how many points they are going to give in something. They simply tell me what skill they are using on something and how they are going about it.

For instance,there are 4 statues in a puzzle room that need investigating. a player approaches them and tells me there various skills. IF they use the core skill they get bonus info. If a time elapses and no one does the core skill they automatically get it but not the bonus info. I always have 3 or 4 core skills per encounter to offer variety and eliminate the "wall". Even then the wall doesnt last long, but they don't get as helpful information or they are harmed in some way.

I"m surprise that no review has brought up the premiere problem with the system, the deemphasis on skills such as wisdom, charisma and intelligence. The system creates dumpskills out of these abilities.

My solution was to tie each one with the number of points you can receive within a given investigative section.
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TS S. Fulk
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vestige wrote:


thumbsdown Finally, the formatting of the advice sidebars are problematic – many are on the wrong page, which had me confused for several minutes.


Great review. I'll probably pick this up soon, as I prefer investigative RPGs like CoC (I have Trail, but have never played it) over Hack 'n' Slash. But the boys are in love with Pathfinder.

I want to point out that the Thumbsdown highlighted above is probably not an issue of the layout — it's a problem with your PDF viewer setting. The PDF is for print. I'm sure the book has the correct layout with page 1 coming on the right-hand side. Some PDF viewers default to having page 1 coming on the left-hand side when in 2-page viewing mode. Change it to the correct setting and you'll avoid this irritating "problem."

I could be wrong, but this is just my experienced guess given the clues above.
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