How To Succeed At Gumshoe CombatGeneral advice on how to approach Gumshoe fight scenes.
- Spend Points. Lots of them. Enough that you never actually have to roll, because even a "1" on the die will still be a success.
- The goal is to end every fight with zero points left over in your three best General Ability pools. You will almost always have the ability to restore all your points in any three pools between any two fight scenes.
- The consequences of "wasting" points by spending too many are very minor. The consequences of not spending enough are far more dire. I'll go into more detail on this at the end of the post, but trust me, it's always better to over-spend.
And now for the specifics of one particular scene, and how it went horribly awry...
The SceneNight's Black Agents is a game about Spies and Vampires.
During the session, a PC got a phone-call from an adversarial NPC who wants to arrange a meeting at the PCs hotel room. The meeting is, of course, an ambush, and the players knew it. None-the-less, this PC chose to handle this scene by themselves, with no other PCs involved.
The NPC shows up at their door, and the PC looks out the peephole. I give the player a Sense Trouble roll, which he makes, and I tell him that he can tell there's two thugs with the NPC, at the edge of view on either side of the door. The player dithers, tells the NPC to leave because he's not feeling well. The thugs smash the door open, and combat begins.
The PC's StatsThe PC on question is the team's sniper, and thus a bit of a "glass cannon".
His big advantage is 10 points of Shooting, and the Cherry that gives a 3-point refresh per scene. If shooting runs out, he does have 4 Hand-to-Hand points he could fall back on.
He has the default Hit Threshold of 3, and has only 6 Health, which is tied for lowest in the party. Since he's a player character, he can operate from health 0 to -5 with just a -1 to his die rolls, which is a minor (but risky) advantage over the NPCs.
The OppositionThere's two Thugs plus the named NPC. The thugs have guns, the named NPC has just a wooden stake. The thugs are low-level Russian mafiya goons, and no stranger to violence. The named NPC is a corrupt Russian Orthodox Priest, with exorcism experience. He's got a touch of athletics and plenty of occult, but not a lot of combat skill. The Priest thinks the PC is a vampire, the goons think they're just getting paid to be muscle.
The Thugs are Hit Threshold 3, same as the PC. They have Health 3 each, to the PCs Health 6, but unlike the PC they go down when they hit 0 Health. They have a combat pool of 4 points.
The misguided Priest is very determined, but lacks the skill-set for this kind of work. Hit Threshold 2, and no combat pool to speak of. He does have as much Health as the PC (so twice that of his thugs), but is out of the fight the moment that is reduced to zero.
GM's Game PlanThe thugs will follow the "Opposition Spends" rules on page 52 of NBA. That means they will only use 1 point from their attack pools on the first round, and only escalate beyond that if 1 point per round is failing to get results.
I picture the fight as follows:
Round 1: PC has the higher pool, and goes first. He spends 2 (of 10) shooting, and drops one thug. Since they're at point-blank range, it's literally impossible for the gunshot to not take the thug out, as the thug has 3 health and the PC is doing 1d6+2 damage. The second thug returns fire, and probably hits the PC for 1d6+2 damage. The priest, having never been shot at before, freezes up for a second and does nothing.
Round 2: PC fires at the second thug. They spend either 2 or 3 points (depending on whether or not they are wounded), which would be enough for an automatic hit. Again, at point blank range any hit kills a thug. So, he's down to either 5 or 6 Shooting points left, before he invokes his Cherry and refreshes his Shooting pool back up to an 8 or 9. At this point, the Priest will no doubt have seen his two bodyguards die bloodily, and will probably bail.
Round 3: The PC either shoots the Priest in the back, or chases after him and knocks him out with hand-to-hand, or decides to just flee the scene before hotel security responds to the sound of gunshots. The PC is probably wounded at this point, but in no real danger unless something really unusual happens.
What Actually HappenedRound 1 goes as expected. The PC spends 2 shooting, and drops one of the thugs, but then takes a bullet from the second one. The thug rolls maximum damage (8), leaving the PC at Wounded (-2 Health).
Round 2 is where things get weird. The players are worried because the PC is wounded, and still has 2 foes to fight. They've drawn some inaccurate conclusions about the Priest, and expect him to be attacking this turn as well.
One of the other players suggests the PC should make a called shot to ensure that whoever he shoots goes down. This wasn't really necessary if the PC shoots the thug at point-blank (since any hit will kill him), but it would matter if the PC decided to plug away at the named Priest instead. That would be a tactical error, but the player doesn't know that because they don't know the hit point total of the unwounded enemy.
This leads to conversation about how called shots work. It's kinda fiddly and there's a chart, but it basically works along the lines of "add N to difficulty, to add N-1 to damage if you hit." There were too many people talking at once, and little fiddly details getting mentioned and discarded.
I think in the process, the player of the PC in question got a bit confused. He announced that he was targeting the face of the thug, raising difficulty by 4 to get +3 damage. To hit he would need to roll a 3, increased to a 4 because the shooter was wounded, increased to an 8 because of the called shot. He then announced, to my horror, that he was spending 2 points of Shooting, and rolled the die. His total was, as probability would suggest, less than an 8 on 1d6+2. He missed entirely.
Naturally, the thug returns fire. I spend zero points on the roll (he'd hit the previous round), but he still only needs to roll a "3" to hit, which he does. I proceed to roll maximum damage again, for the second gunshot in a row. The player is now at -10 health, and thus must make a difficulty 10 roll to remain conscious. Suffice it to say, that didn't happen.
Round 3: The PC is lying on the floor, bleeding out. The thug bails before the cops can arrive. The Priest is left with a very messy situation on his hands, and is still there when the rest of the party shows up.
What I, As GM, Should Have Done DifferentlyPrior to the fight, I probably should have more strongly encouraged the party not to split up. I wasn't too worried, because the PC should have been able to take the bad guys in a couple turns with only minor injuries. Still, if I had kept the group together, this would have been a cakewalk for them.
I should have made the NPCs breaking in the door take more than 1 turn. That I would definitely do differently if I ran this scene over again. If the player had a couple turns to think and act while the thugs kicked at the door, he might have come up with a clever plan, or just gone out a window to escape.
On the first round of the fight, perhaps I should have given the player an explicit reminder of the rules for taking cover, and the rules for invoking Tactical Fact Finding Benefits. Either would have made the fight look a lot less intimidating to the players. Ironically, a less-threatening fight probably would have resulted in the player being more inclined to spend points. It's a little counter-intuitive, but basically by presenting the fight as being a challenge, I inadvertently encouraged the player to horde their points for later rounds. This desire to stash points away in case things get worse later is a fairly common reaction when you haven't yet figured out how Gumshoe really works, and it almost always backfires.
I'm still not sure if I should or should not have told the player: "Don't bother with called shots, this guy will go down with one hit without it". In this situation, that particular player character option didn't really help at all. Since a two-point spend without a called shot was sufficient to kill the thug, there was no point in using a fancy combat option that raised the difficulty. Some GMs would be inclined to help the player out here, and others tend to keep the bad guys HPs (etc) secret or leave strategy up to the players. I was on the fence, and could have gone either way.
At the very least, I should have taken better control of the table so we weren't all bombarding the player with different bits of rules detail. I think we overwhelmed him.
Certainly, if I'd processed that he was only spending 2 points before the die left his hand, I would have encouraged him to spend more.
Not my best moment as a GM, but not game-breakingly bad either. I've fumbled worse before, and will likely do so again at some point.
Arguments In Favor Of Spending More Points
Not convinced that it's better to spend your points now then save them for later? Here's some rambling arguments to support my position:
Refreshing pools is easy, so there's no need to save points. Most NBA characters have some sort of Cherry that lets them refresh 3 points in their best skill, once per scene. Even without that, if you get an hour's peace and rest between fights or chases, you get a full refresh of any three General Ability pools. That's a standard rule in Gumshoe. If 24 hours go by without a fight or chase, you'll refresh all your General Abilities. If you accomplish a major success that wraps up an "Operation", you can expect for the whole party to refresh everything. It should be very rare that you go more than one session without a refresh of some sort. You can routinely drain three entire Abilities per major fight or chase scene without suffering any long-term consequence.
The secret of Gumshoe is that it is actually a diceless system. Rolling the die should be the thing you do only when you're out of points. Anything worth doing is worth spending enough points on that you auto-succeed.
The point of Gumshoe is avoid the narrative collapse that can happen in normal systems when a bad die roll derails an investigation. The GM wants you to solve the mystery, so the rules ensure that you can't accidentally fail it because the dice suck. The same logic applies to combat rolls as well. The GM wants you to win the fight, and hates to see you fail just because of a bad die roll. If you spend lots of points, the die roll won't matter.
Gumshoe is not d20, you're not going to have to make dozens of attack rolls per battle. Most foes will go down in one or two gunshots. You don't need to hold back points in case the fight "goes long". You need to spend points early so that your victory happens quickly and decisively.
On a related note, if some NPC in NBA doesn't die after the second gunshot, that almost certainly means they are a wickedly-powerful supernatural entity and your guns won't save you. Time to flee. Come back later with holy water, lots of explosives, and the element of surprise.
If that sounds like gunfights in Gumshoe (especially NBA) are intentionally lop-sided, you're getting the picture. It's intentional. Long drawn-out fights are bad, and generally a sign that the players should have fled several turns ago. If you can win, you'll do so very quickly. By turn 3 of any battle, you should either be mopping up the stragglers of your obvious victory, or running for the exits because your life depends on it.
If the PC in our scene had spent 4 more points on his second roll, he would have killed the second gunman and thus won the whole fight. Instead, he saved himself 4 Shooting points but "paid" 8 health instead. As this left him with 6 Shooting and -10 Health, it was not a good trade.
The consequences of "wasting" points by spending more Shooting (for example) than you needed to on early rolls is fairly minor: in some later turn you might have to take some action other than shooting. You might use hand-to-hand to keep fighting, or athletics to escape. You might take cover, and let some other PC do the shooting for a while. These are pretty minor consequences.
The consequences of not spending enough points on a Shooting roll is usually that you miss, and then you get shot later that round or the next when your foe survives to counter-attack. That is a far worse consequence then wasting a point here or there. It does you no good to hold back 2 points of a skill "for later" if not using them right now gets you killed. You can't spend those extra 2 points after you die, so you might as well use them this turn instead.