Why I Use Gumshoe, not D&D, for Role-playing Investigations



In a classic mystery story, the heroes follow a trail of clues to solve the case. But deduction is only part of the tale: car chases, shootouts, and fist fights all add to the excitement.

Investigative role-play games capture all elements of the mystery story. The DM creates a world with logical, consistent clues for the players to follow. The players role-play an investigator with unusual skills and abilities. And the role-playing system states how players can use their character’s abilities to find clues and engage in encounters.

In the investigation games I lead, clues and mystery take center stage, not the gameplay encounters. Encounters propel the story forward in surprising ways, creating tension and excitement. But I don’t want the complexity and length of the encounters to overshadow the narrative. And within these constraints I want the gameplay mechanics to maximize the tension.

Given these requirements, I think the Gumshoe system is great. The system’s small set of rules can create tense encounters, rivaling complicated systems like D&D 5e.

Why Gumshoe?

Character creation is simple (and getting simpler with modern variants). The rules are designed so the dice rolls are always driven by the player, but lead by the DM so players don’t need to know an exhaustive list of rules. Investigative abilities always work; players can’t miss out on a clue because of a bad roll. But my favorite feature of Gumshoe is the point spends.

Before each roll, a player can choose to spend a number of points from their pool to add to their result. They could add 0 points, making it a coin toss, or 7 guaranteeing a success with the max DC1 of 8. Like spell slots in DnD 5e, the points are a limited resource and have to last for multiple encounters.

The cost is a palpable source of tension in my games. Players agonize over how much to spend. They worry about how many points to save for future encounters and about a random failure failure occurring despite their spend. This feature really augments the tension set by the narrative.

The system also gives the players a surprising amount of control. During the encounter they must decide: the ability to use, whether to spend points, and the number of points to spend. Then they roll. Each decision is simple and fast, but the set offers enough complexity to feel the weight of the choice. Moreover, the points pool offers a sense of power, giving them the option for a guaranteed success.

By contrast, in D&D 5e mechanical tension is often limited to a single dice roll with no cost or risk. In certain situations, a basic attack is the best a player can do. The phrase “I guess I’ll attack” tells me my players don’t feel in control and don’t feel the tension.

Worse, D&D 5e takes a long time to learn and combat is notoriously slow. Given these reasons, I don’t like to use D&D 5e for role-playing investigations.


To learn more about Gumshoe, check out Andrew Brehaut’s Gumshoe: the kernel of the game. Shut up and Sit Down has a comprehensive review based on a campaign lead by Justin Alexander.

To learn more about designing fun investigative scenarios, read Justin Alexander’s articles The Three Clue Rule and Node-Based Design.

  1. Difficulty class, or the minimum number a player must roll to succeed.↩︎