In the latest episode of their groovy podcast, Ken and Robin talk gaming Swinging London, the rise of the horror auteurs, Gamestop in Carcosa, and the Hart Island amusement park.

“Tall, gaunt, cynical, with tragic eyes … like a man who had seen the inside of hell.”

— description of Liam Tobin by IRA mole David Neligan

Michael Collins, the George Washington of Ireland, picked a 23-year-old man named Liam Tobin to be his spymaster. If I were related to George Washington’s spymaster, I’d never stop talking about it, but I had to find out about Liam Tobin not from Pelgrane’s esteemed co-owner and managing director but on the Internet like a savage. Go figure. (According to Cat, Liam is “possibly like a sixth cousin but we haven’t really looked into it.” According to me, he was her great-great-grand-uncle. This will not be the last engaging lie I tell in this column.) Born in Cork in 1895, Liam Tobin joined the Easter Rising in 1916, where he first caught Collins’ eye. The British commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, then released him with many other revolutionaries in 1917.

Liam Tobin, hero from a line of heroes

Thoroughly radicalized, Tobin rose through the IRA’s inner circle: Dublin Brigade intelligence officer, then intelligence officer for Munster in 1918 (under the cover of an insurance agency in Cork), then IRA Deputy Director for Intelligence in January 1919. Like Washington, Collins remained his own director of intelligence; Tobin basically served as his right hand. Based at 3 Crow Street in Dublin above a print shop within 200 yards of Dublin Castle, the British headquarters in Ireland, Tobin’s operation rapidly built up a database (with photos) of British Army, G Division (the intelligence unit of the Dublin Metropolitan Police), and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC, or “Black and Tans”) officers, mostly using OSINT such as newspaper society pages, the London Gazette (which reported officers’ postings, including “special assignments” to Ireland), and Who’s Who. Tobin recruited doormen and telephone operators in all Dublin hotels, allowing the IRA to track comings and goings as well as listen in on British comms. One of Tobin’s agents got access to Dublin Castle personnel records, supplying photographs and dossiers of every typist and clerk who worked for the British, allowing the IRA to recruit and suborn agents in place throughout the occupation government.

Tobin did more than manage information gathering. One of only six men in the whole intelligence command (until it expanded in July 1920), he also ran agents in the field, identified and fingered British spies, and occasionally hands-on renditioned and killed targets when needed. In October 1919, Collins sent him to London for two weeks to case security for the British Cabinet: Tobin reluctantly decided assassinating the entirety of His Majesty’s Government was too hard. Tobin led the squad that grabbed Alan Bell, president of the Irish Banks Court (investigating IRA funding) off the tram to work and gunned him down on the morning of March 26, 1920.

That squad was part of “The Squad,” the IRA’s wet works division. IRA training commander (and CO of the Dublin Brigade, who first recruited Tobin back in 1917) Dick McKee hand-picked “The Twelve Apostles” (engaging lie note: there were almost certainly more than a dozen men in the Squad) in September 1919 to execute British officers, spies, and collaborators. The Squad reported to Tobin, although only Collins could order an execution. By March 1920, the Squad were full-time assassins, using a cabinet-making shop on Abbey Street as a front and home base. The British response to the Squad was to recruit their own team of specialized infiltrators in January 1920, the “Cairo Gang.”

So-called either from their previous service with Army Intelligence in Cairo during WWI, or from their Dublin hangout the Café Cairo at 59 Grafton Street, the Cairo Gang were officially the Dublin District Special Branch, or D-Branch. (Engaging lie note: Few of them provably had any connection to Egypt, and the term “Cairo Gang” first appears in print in 1958. They were probably just called “the special gang.”) Doggedly, they pursued the IRA command, especially Collins and Tobin; Tobin posed as an informer (using a different name) and got inside their decision loop. But not too far inside: the Cairo Gang raided Vaughn’s Hotel on November 13, 1920 while the IRA leadership were meeting there, and only iron control (and sloppy British prep work) let Tobin and Collins bluff their way out of the arrest.

Collins’ response: ordering simultaneous hits on the 20 top British assets in Dublin, including most of the known Cairo Gang. At 9:00 a.m. on “Bloody Sunday,” November 21 1920, ten teams of a dozen men each struck their targets. (Engaging lie note: About a quarter of the teams didn’t show up, and over half the targets escaped.) Seven intelligence operatives died on Bloody Sunday, along with three RIC Auxiliaries working security, two British Army court-martial officers, and two seemingly uninvolved former British officers. The Black and Tans retaliated that afternoon with a massacre at a soccer match, killing 14 and wounding 68. Although “Bloody Sunday” didn’t quite decapitate the Cairo Gang, like the Tet Offensive it scored a massive propaganda victory.

In January 1921, the British recruited a new team of Irish Unionists from the provinces (“Tudor’s Tigers,” also known as the Igoe Gang after their leader Eugene Igoe of Galway) who knew their local IRA men on sight, and sent them on hunt-and-kill missions. Tobin spent most of the next six months playing a game of cat-and-also-cat with the Igoe Gang until the Truce in July 1921 ended the war. Collins brought Tobin along on the intelligence staff of the Irish treaty delegation in October 1921, promoting him to Major-General in the Irish Army. Tobin may or may not have masterminded the “off-book” killing of arch-Unionist British General Henry Wilson in June 1922; he briefly ran the Irish CID and served as Director of Intelligence for Ireland until his political opponents sidelined him in January 1923. After leading a failed mutiny against those opponents in March 1924, he resigned his commission and ran a car-hire service until 1931. He helped organize the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, and then ran security for the Irish legislature from 1940 to 1959. He died, covered in glory and redeemed in honor, in Dublin on April 30, 1963.

Sunday Yellow Sunday

“One day or other some of these people will assassinate you.”

— Hildred Castaigne to Mr. Wilde, “The Repairer of Reputations”

If you look in the history books, especially the excellent Michael Collins’ Intelligence War by Michael Foy, you read that Tobin didn’t plan Bloody Sunday. Under Collins’ overall leadership, Tobin’s deputy Frank Thornton provided the intel while Dick McKee planned the strategy with Squad killer Charlie Dalton as tactical head. So narrow was the IRA margin that McKee was actually captured and interrogated early in the morning of November 21, and “shot while trying to escape” by the RIC that afternoon. Foy claims that Tobin had a “nervous breakdown” and was “on rest” that day.

So what was Tobin actually doing? Maybe tying off the loose ends from the late-July 1920 Denys Barry case in Kilderry in Westmeath, or shutting down the British intelligence vampire-research farm at Dun Dreach-Fhola in County Kerry (DH, pp. 235-236), or investigating porcine anomalies and time drifts at a house on the borderland of County Galway past Ardrahan. Any of those incidents might have caused his alleged “nervous breakdown.” Or maybe the “nervous trouble” was a cover for something else, something he couldn’t even tell Collins.

IRA mole David Neligan’s memoir claims that he met with Tobin at the Gaiety Theatre the night before Bloody Sunday to be briefed on the targets, which sounds like Tobin was very much involved in planning. Intriguingly, that night the Gaiety was mounting a 1914 play by Michael Morton, called The Yellow Ticket. Okay, that’s another engaging lie: The Yellow Ticket was in rehearsals then and didn’t open until December 1; the show actually running at the Gaiety on November 20 was the 1914 American version (by Harry B. Smith) of the operetta The Lilac Domino, based on the original 1912 German version by Charles Cuvillier. The Lilac Domino takes place at a masked ball in France and concerns a series of mysterious courtships somehow demarcated by dice. Cuvillier probably knew Robert W. Chambers in Paris, I note idly.

Another idle note: Among those killed on Bloody Sunday was one Leonard Aidan (nee William) Wilde, born 1891 in Reading to one Richard Wilde, who vanishes from the records almost immediately. Before the War, Wilde spent time in New York City (possibly teaching Spanish), and as a divinity student. He enlisted in the Staffordshire Rifles in 1915 and served as a second lieutenant until discharged for shell shock, upon which time he changed his middle name to Aidan. Becoming Vice-Consul in Barcelona in December 1916, he carried out a number of intelligence-type tasks, including investigating a monastery in Montserrat suspected of hosting a German radio transmitter. Discharged for running up debts in 1917, he nevertheless courted a rich American woman, Frances Rabbitts, whose pull got the happy couple a February 1919 wedding in Notre Dame in Paris, blessed by the Cardinal Archbishop in person. The Wildes returned to Spain, where amid some kind of chicanery Wilde emerged without a wife (she sailed to New York in June 1919) but with a “consular protection certificate” issued by the Foreign Office.

So yes, he could have been a spy. He could have even been in New York running a reputation-repairing blackmail operation in April 1920. He was 5’8″, and did admittedly have both his ears, along with a reputation as an eccentric and “a foreign appearance.” In August 1920 he moved into the Palace Court Hotel in London, the former home of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, for more Yellow Decade juju. On November 3, 1920 he checked into Room 22 (or 14) of the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on no clear business. And on November 20, thirteen IRA assassins (including one man with “a huge hammer”) led by Patrick Moran burst into that hotel. Section commander James Foley later listed one of the kill team as “Michael Noone,” who has no other record I can find. Tobin used false names regularly … perhaps including Michael “No One”?

According to the IRA after-action report, Wilde was in the hallway. Mistaking the IRA gunmen for British police, he identified himself as “Alan Wilde, British Intelligence Officer, just back from Spain.” Michael Kilkelly and two (unnamed) others shot Wilde in the head and leg, killing him. The manager of the Gresham Hotel found the body on the floor of his room, soaked in blood. After resigning his commission in 1924, Tobin runs his car-hire service from behind the Gresham Hotel, perhaps keeping an eye on any lingering fluctuations in reality and sending trusted former Squad comrades to investigate strange Signs throughout the 1920s and 1930s. So what do we know for sure, and what can we engagingly lie about? We know that in the “Castaigne” timeline, Mr. Wilde was killed by a cat. And in our timeline, Mr. Wilde just might have been killed by a Tobin.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

This idea was suggested to me by the Chatty DM, although in doing due diligence I found that Rob already mentioned it in a Rob says sidebar in the 13th Age GM’s Screen & Resource Book. So, the first piece of useful, actionable advice in this article is “go read the Resource Book in detail, there’s great stuff there.”

And the second piece is “steal stuff from great GMs, but do it as an easily referenceable blog post as opposed to a twitter post or a sidebar, so people can link back to it and you get all the credit.”

The third bit:

A Campaign Win is the opposite of a Campaign Loss (13th Age, p. 166) – the penalty that the players incur when their characters choose to Flee. The heroes escape and survive, but at the cost of some horrible story-based setback. The village burns, the villain finds the relic they seek, some ally of the heroes get eaten. Campaign Wins, then, are story-based triumphs – the heroes rescue a prisoner who turns out to be a presumed-dead friend; the sun breaks through the clouds, weakening the undead host; the characters find a magical item they’ve long sought. Campaign Wins and Losses should always be orthogonal to the main story – they’re wrinkles, serendipities, complications, moments of grace or horror. In general, it’s best to have the players suggest options for a win or loss, and the GM then picks the most fitting suggestion. In a campaign, let the player save up wins and losses for a few sessions, so wins and losses can be applied to the most fitting unanswered questions.

The GM awards the players a Campaign Win when recurring villains escape automatically a fight that they’re about to lose. The heroes can’t stop the bad guys escaping, but they do get a Win in recompense. Just like Fleeing, not every fight can be escaped – the villains can run away the first time you beat them, but that just means you need to track them to their lair and defeat them there!

The players might also get a win from:

  • Playing Into The GM’s Hands by willingly putting their characters at a disadvantage. Of course I drink the wine – just because this guy’s called Petros the Poisoner doesn’t mean I’m going to insult him by refusing the goblet he offered me!
  • Pressing On when they’ve already had at least four major fights since their last full-heal-up and have significantly depleted their resources. In this case, roll a d6 at the start of each fight. On a 1, the characters earn a Campaign Win. The range of success increases by 1 for each fight (so, roll a 1-2 on the second fight, 1-3 on the third fight and so on).

Encourage the players to use Wins and Losses to spotlight stuff that interest them. A player who suggests a Campaign Win might result in the discovery of an ancient dwarven mine might be signalling they want a dungeon crawl – or that they want to do a spot of domain management, where they oversee the process of re-opening the mine, while a Campaign Loss targeting that village of sympathetic non-player characters might imply that the player wants some meaty tragic roleplaying scenes. After all, the real campaign win is finding out exactly what excites your players…

In the latest episode of their well-situated podcast, Ken and Robin talk location descriptions in city sourcebooks, Watergate era horror films, the eliptony of speed reading, and eldritch photographer William Mortensen.

The paintings of the Russian-born French artist Jean Béraud (1849-1935) offer a trove of inspiring images for the Paris sequence of your Yellow King game. Straddling the warring Impressionist and Academic camps, he specialized in scenes of everyday life and worked during and beyond the game’s 1895 setting. Like the action of a typical scenario, moods range from the glamorous to the seedy. Players might find their own characters in his signature scenes of late night drinking. As Game Moderator, you might spot any number of GMCs on his canvases. He portrays places as evocatively as he does people, allowing you to illustrate scenes set anywhere from the ballet to the streets.

1895 finds Béraud at the height of his fame, having won the Legion of Honor the year before. If he shows up, play him with the sardonic edge seen in many of his images. He sits on various exhibition committees. The artists in the group may meet him as he decides whether to admit their work into one of the city’s prestigious competitions. Do the investigators have to pressure him to withdraw from exhibition a mysterious painting depicting the hideous action of a notorious play?

Typical player characters if I’ve ever seen them.

This investigator is about to give up on Bonhomie to get the next clue from this hardcore absinthe enthusiast, and switch to a little Steel.

The group’s Muse wonders if she’s been stood up for her appointment with a mask-wearing gentleman.

As the Sculptor spins theories, the Architect takes notes.

Use the Society ability to pry loose the decadent secrets this louche character can spill.

If you can’t find a witness at a smoky cabaret, it’s time to try an outdoor ball, lit by those fancy electric lights the city is now known for.

Shop for food and information at the legendary market of Les Halles.

When in doubt, create an accident as a diversion.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their rigorously temperature-checked podcast, Ken and Robin talk introducing complex settings, late 60s horror films, bad cooking advice, and the Tsarichina Hole.

I ran a 13th Age one-shot for some wonderful authors as a part of the online TBRCon (check out the full set of panels), and the fact that it was recorded gives a chance to talk about one of the most important but most ephemeral aspects of rpg play – gamemastering decisions. As a GM, you make dozens of decisions about the plot, the description, the actions of the NPCs, the interpretation of the rules, the interpretation of the scenario, and how to react to and anticipate the actions of the player characters – but it’s all in the moment, and hard to pull out and analyse.

So, in this article, I’m going to try to reconstruct my thinking as I ran the game.

Pregame Thoughts

It’s a 13th Age demo for players who are familiar with D&D, with an audience and a faintly literary vibe. So, I handed out generic pregens (no One Unique Things, Backgrounds, or Icon Relationships) in advance, and sketched out a simple scenario – the player characters are adventurers hired by a local lord, Barismus Quent, to quietly re-murder his long-dead great-grandfather Uther Quent, who’s come back as an undead monster. Lord Barismus fears that his grandfather’s come back to chastise him for marrying a member of the Hale family, the Quents’ long-time rivals. In truth, Uther’s woken up because Barismus’ brother Asfod has stolen Uther’s armour, in the hopes of undermining his brother and rousing a peasant revolt. I statted up Uther and his undead guardians, as well as Asfod and some potential combatants in any such revolt – but I left the scenes after the barrow dungeon crawl very vague. As it was only a three-hour game, I didn’t want to commit to any complex plots that I couldn’t bring to a conclusion in time.

One-shots really benefit from a strong conclusion. That doesn’t necessarily mean a strong ending – the ending of this one-shot was fairly messy – but it’s good to give the players the impression that they played through a coherent and complete story, that what happened at the beginning of the game connects to the middle and leads to the end. If the players come away feeling that the adventure made no sense, then even fun individual scenes can feel like a waste of time. Conversely, an adventure that’s only ok to play through can become more satisfying in retrospect if most of the story elements connect.

Character Creation

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=133 The players introduced their characters.
GR Matthews: Halfling “Merchant” Scrammish Framwell

Anna Stephens: Dwarf Barbarian Bunny Smallbottom, with a large family and an anger problem

Justin Lee Anderson: High Elf Wizard Arian Ravenblood, highly arrogant and inquisitive

Steve McHugh: Wood Elf Ranger Bayn Fangwhisper, rebelling against evil parents

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=341 I told the players they could add backgrounds on the fly during the game. This works really well for one-shots – it reduces the initial complexity as the player doesn’t need to pick backgrounds until they need them, it gives the players a chance to embed their characters in the story, it boosts their chances of succeeding, and because it’s a one-shot, it doesn’t matter if a character ends up with +5 in “Recognising 8th Age Pottery”. I wouldn’t do it as readily in a campaign, as you risk the player investing in something that won’t come up very often.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=385 For Icons, I dropped the number of relationship points to 2, just to speed things up. In other one-shots, I’ve insisted on a common icon (“you all have to have a positive or conflicted relationship with the Priestess” or somesuch). Icons tend to be tricky to work with in one-shots – it’s still fun to work them in, but it requires a lot of luck and mental agility to weave half-a-dozen disparate Icons into a scenario. I do try to hit at least one Icon per player character, although in this game I really only got to use the Prince of Shadows.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=628 Note Steve’s connection to the Three here, which I got to invoke later on.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=663 One Unique Things! Arguably the most distinctive element of 13th Age, and one of the trickest parts of a one-shot. Ideally, you want the game to touch on each player’s OUT, at least a little bit. In a one-shot, it’s enough to just acknowledge the player’s contribution, but often you can drag the game to a satisfactory conclusion by tying whatever plot twist you need to add to a One Unique Thing. (“And because Bob is the Only Halfling Who Can’t Cook, he can poison the dragon with botched Halfling cuisine“).

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=689 Justin takes “Eidetic Memory”. This is one of those OUTs that sounds like a really powerful ability, but boils down to “look, GM, instead of taking notes, I’m just going to ask you to describe stuff a second time later on” and generally works in the game’s favour, speeding up investigative play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=698 Anna’s dwarf Bunny is the “youngest of fourteen siblings” – which is a fine OUT for a campaign, but I never had a chance to bring it into play in the one-shot. If I had more presence of mind, I could have turned one of the NPCs into a dwarf and added some family dynamics, but it never came to pass.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=740 GR’s halfling is a penny-pincher. I encouraged the player to exaggerate this trait a little, to make it a bit more unique, and immediately planned to hit the player with a roleplaying dilemma in the barrow-dungeon crawl. Given I already had an adventure based around the consequences of grave-robbing, I knew I’d easily be able to bring this OUT into play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=766 Finally, Bayn can tell when someone’s lying. In a campaign, I’d almost certainly have put some restriction on this – either he has to do something (“I can tell when someone’s lying, but I have to be able to hear their breathing”) or there’s a tell of some sort (“I can tell when someone’s lying, because a giant ghost cat appears on my shoulder and hisses ‘lying’”). For a one-shot, I let it fly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=800 Both Scrammish and Bayn took connections to the Prince of Shadows, so I leapt on that as connective glue for the company. Those two started out travelling together, and the other two joined them. I let the other two players decide who was the long-time travelling companion of the two thieves, and who was the newcomer. Establishing simple relationships and status differentials like that early on gives players a little texture for roleplaying.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1023 Scrammish and Bayn decided they were smugglers, so I leapt on that and asked what they were currently smuggling. This meant that I was deviating from my initial outline (which started with a briefing scene giving the players the dungeon-crawl), but it did mean I could introduce the two feuding factions and give the players a bit more context. The wagon with the boxes of straw was improvised on the spot. A wagon gives the players something to defend and protect, putting the mysterious cargo in boxes defers making a decision about it until later (and gives a nice “what’s in the box” jolt of anticipation) and the straw suggests whatever’s in there is fragile.

Given that the cargo was going to the Hales, and their enemy Asfod Quent had a potential druidic connection, I guessed it was some sort of alchemical defoliant or plague – but I left my options open. (In retrospect, I should possibly have made it a potential _elven_ connection to tie into Bayn and Arian – but, equally, that might have been one level of complexity too much for a short one-shot.)

Gameplay

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1119 Mechanically, there’s absolutely no justification for this Intelligence check – it’s just purely a dice warmup and a super-basic mechanics reminder for the audience.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1313 And the party’s already splitting up…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1354 I wasn’t planning to endanger the wagon at this point anyway, but nothing gives the game away more than asking for marching order for the first time before triggering a trap. So, I started setting precedent that they’d have to worry about the wagon’s security.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1720 I have absurd hands. This is not of any relevance to gamemastering techniques, but it’s really hard to unsee.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1749 My plan here was for Bunny to find evidence of the secret passage that the lord’s treacherous brother was using to sneak in and out of the castle. Her low roll meant that this discovery never happened. I try to bring this subplot into play again later on, and the players fail again. If this subplot had been necessary to the story, I’d have skipped the roll and just had the players find the secret passage (or better – tied it to Bunny’s icon relationship. “This castle is dwarf-built, and you know from your association with the Dwarf King that…”)

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2367 One of the key skills for a GM – shutting up when the players are riffing. It’s especially tricky in online play, where table crosstalk is harder to achieve.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2543 If the players evince interest in something, like talking to the lord’s wife or visiting the local library, run with it – but think about how it can lead back to the main plot! Often, you’ll have some key plot elements you want to foreshadow, and any form of foreshadowing works. If they’d asked to look at a portrait of the dead ancestor, or talked to the kitchen scullion, they’d also have learned about Uther’s shiny armour, but the information would have been presented differently, and in a way that suggested the player had asked a very clever question indeed.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2710 Justifying the failed roll on external factors (you don’t speak this language) instead of suggesting that the genius elf is at fault.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2889 This scene with Lady Hale sets up the intended use of the cargo in the wagon, by showing her interest in the forest between the two domains. The cost was less time with Hargul, who I enjoyed playing – but as the players couldn’t understand his exaggerated gravelly grim dark voice, that’s for the best.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3269 I wanted to give Geoff a bit of spotlight time, and to hint at intrigue and disputes. The second Intelligence test would have spotted the same secret passage that Bunny missed earlier…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3468 An hour into the game, and we’re through scene one…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3511 This is a good example of giving the players a choice where both options are consequential but not entirely clear. Do they endanger the wagon by leaving it behind, or keep it with them and risk arriving at the haunted barrow by night? If the choice was “take the wagon with you or leave it behind”, it’s a lot easier for the players to default to the safest (or, rather, most controlled) option of taking it.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3660 When you say “don’t roll a 1”, players will roll a 1. My intent for this roll was just to remind the players that the wagon’s contents are perilous and fragile, but Anna’s roll of a 1 forced me to nail down the contents of the box.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3755 To a degree “the box contains an egg” is basically “the box contains another, smaller, box”, but it is forward progress. Also, it gave me a chance to use an icon relationship – specificially, Bayn’s connection to the Three – to explain the nature of the egg. And because a Red, Blue and Black Dragon comprise the Three, it makes thematic sense for the egg to either go fiery-boom, weird-magic-boom, or acid-poisony-boom as needed. Later on, for example, the players contemplate blowing up the barrow with an egg. If they’d done that, I’d probably have decided that the eggs contained a poisonous vapour that didn’t affect the undead.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4341 As Bunny examines the tomb, she spots some religious paraphernalia. I’d originally planned to have a subplot where the players meet a sympathetic cleric who tried to exorcise the haunting of the barrow, but ended up dropping this and focussing on the druidic connection.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4521 The fight here – a bunch of low-damage mook skeletons who grab on and reduce their foe’s armour class, and two tougher skeletons with a high-damage attack that has a big attack penalty. So, if the players don’t deal with the mooks, the big guys can hit them with big swords. I made the mechanics of the fight very clear, and took things easy on the players until they go to grips with their abilities.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4849 Another natural 1! Especially in a one-shot, it’s always good to make a fuss of memorable rolls, hence Scrammish gets used as a melee weapon for the rest of the fight. Note that this didn’t really penalise Scrammish that much – he was effectively Stuck but could still fight perfectly well – but it’s a memorable visual and a fun scene.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5517 It’s always a good idea to tie elements in a fight scene back to the overall story – when the dice come out and the conversation becomes all about attack bonuses and hit points, the plot can get forgotten unless you keep bringing it up. Hence, the detail that the mook skeletons are dead Hales.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5884 Technically, this shouldn’t have been a crit, but I wanted to get moving with the fight and the wizard wasn’t yet breaking out area-clearing acid arrows…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6035 And yes, this wasn’t even a hit – but timing takes precedence over rules in a one-shot.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6135 I gave each player character 4 recoveries – a full complement of 8 is too much for a one-shot, as there’s almost no chance of burning through all of them. Similarly, when running a Night’s Black Agents one-shot, I tend to drop Network and Cover scores to half their normal values.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6514 Letting players narrate kills is always fun.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6832 TFW you realise that none of the player characters have a single healing ability other than the barbarian.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7744 As soon as I made it clear that they could walk away from this encounter, the dynamic changed immediately.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7935 Arguably, this should have been an autosuccess to spot the plot, ala GUMSHOE. Then again, in 13th Age, the plot tends to be a lot more wobbly and changeable.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8153 The temporary confusion of Margot Hale with the druid is an interesting point – in a short adventure like this one, the players are going to reasonably assume that any mysterious shadowy figure is connected to established plotlines or characters.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8299 And Bayn’s Bullshit Detector ability pays off nicely here, letting the players eliminate suspects and move along smoothly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8664 Here, I use Lady Hale to draw all (fair enough, both) plotlines together – the players can use the weapons they’re smuggling for the Prince to blow up the barrow.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8739 And as we’re into the last 30 minutes of the timeslot, it’s time to bring everyone and everything together by having the druid show up.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8817 I really wish I’d brought Asfod “on-screen” earlier, as it’s really bad writing to have the villain of the piece show up only in the last scene. Oh well – that’s the nature of roleplaying games. You can’t neatly script satisfying and coherent plots. You’ve got to roll for and with it…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8948 I’m fascinated by the potential of audience input during live online games…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9378 This ability also had a cool hook into the potential peasant revolt, but again, you can’t always be sure how a scene will turn out.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9447 It’s always great when players come up with scenario-ending moves for you – and a player-generated plan should always take precedence over a GM’s solution to a problem.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9526 Hargul does deserve to be hit, to be fair.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9769 With only a few minutes left in the slot, and knowing that I needed to move towards an ending, we abandon the regular rules and move towards a looser, more narrative approach to the mechanics. You still want the uncertainty and fun of dice, so “roll high and cool stuff happens.”

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=10097 Technically, yes, the bad guys won, but it’s still a satisfying end for the players.

Page XX logo (2015_04_01 16_53_09 UTC)

Well, 2020 is over, finally!!, as is January 2021, which looked horribly like it was going the way of 2020 for a while. COVID-19 vaccines are starting to be distributed, and hopefully life will return to something resembling normalcy over the coming months. However, there’s nothing normal about our newest pre-order, The Fall of DELTA GREEN campaign The Borellus Connection, coming in at a mighty 416 pages. Pre-order now, and get Looking Glass: Saigon 1968 as a bonus download, along with the pre-layout PDF.

New Releases

Articles

13th Age

See Page XX Poll

Which virtual tabletops do you use the most?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Now that lots of you have had the chance to check it out, either in its original run on Twitch or now on YouTube, I thought you might enjoy a look behind the scenes at my process for preparing and running “Mr. Wilde’s Wild Halloween.”

These notes won’t make much sense until you check it out; it’s the Halloween game of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I ran for Misha Bushyager, Sharang Biswas, Ruth Tillman, Wade Rockett and Pelgrane magnifico Cat Tobin. It takes place in the game’s contemporary setting, This is Normal Now.

The premise for the scenario began with the desire to do something on Halloween. This led me to the thought of setting it at a Halloween party, with the players wearing their characters’ costumes.

Rather than use characters’ Freaking Weird Moments to draw them into the horror, I found reality horror inspiration in each costume.

Misha’s desire to be an Empress of Evil implied a group of would-be minions overly willing to perform horrible acts in her name—thus, the Larrys.

Cat’s flapper gear led me to invent the scenario’s central mystery. It provided an opportunity to invoke on a classic Gothic trope: the painting of an identical predecessor.

I knew that a weird scientist would hook directly into the scenario as it developed but didn’t immediately see an introductory moment. Eventually I hit on the idea of a desirable fellow party goer needing repairs to a robot costume. Sharang, it turned out, was way ahead of me, suggesting the very thing I’d hoped—a desire to meet up with someone his character was crushing on. This was a huge gift to me, as you can’t always count on tabletop roleplayers to want to bring a love interest into the mix.

My solo scene for Ruth was less about her costume than an opportunity to hang out with her favorite YKRPG character, the Dream Clown. (Her Black Star Magic scenario features this children’s TV host from the Aftermath reality.) She wound up springboarding that possibility sideways into another bit, the memories of the creepy imagined childhood staircase.

Finally, Wade’s idea that his character, James, would be half-assing his outfit led to the inevitable idea that his real costume, that of the King in Yellow, would be waiting for him at the party.

Splitting the characters up into solo scenes ensures a fair share of onstage time and narrative importance for each participant—a solution to a common problem of one-shots, where you don’t get a second session to give a neglected player more spotlight.

Having sketched these out, I worked out a backstory connected to the Robert W. Chambers story “The Mask.” You’ll find that at the end of this piece.

Then I backed up to the introduction. I wanted to start with matters already in motion, but not so abruptly that we couldn’t introduce the characters to each other and the audience. Here are my bullet points for the opening:

  • How are You Getting There?
  • Character Sheets and Rules Basics
  • Your Group Dynamic
  • What are You Hoping Happens at the Party?

Unlike a typical one-shot, this was a performance for an audience, where we wanted to fold in some system tutorial. In the end, it wasn’t that much different from what would happen at a convention table.

Just as in one-shots I run in Belle Époque Paris, I started with the opportunity for characters to encounter the evening’s horrors in an altered state. This shows off general ability tests and the Shock and Injury card system, and dovetails with the overarching theme of reality slippage.

The phantom Bugatti, visible to anyone receiving a Shock card, reenacts the accidental death of the woman in the portrait who looks like Cat’s flapper. This set up a direction not taken, in which the group finds out about her doppelganger’s death by researching the figure in the portrait, and then heads outside to get more information from the ghost.

(If no one had failed their tests, I would have given the vision of the Bugatti to the lowest successful scorers.)

From there you can see the scenario play out my sketched-out solo scenes, then reconverge the characters to commiserate, problem-solve, and investigate their way to the basement and the final confrontation.

Along the way you see my drop in a few of my fave moves:

  • the chance to make a deal with the devil
  • with the Larrys and their dance, an image that is funny yet increasingly horrible
  • an affable, matter-of-fact primary antagonist

Any scenario needs more possible paths than the players wind up taking. Otherwise you’re just ushering them through your plan, and not letting them help build the storyline. In a one-shot I’m happy to throw weird stuff at the players until they start looking for information. There is less clue-seeking here than you’d see if you eavesdropped on my home group—but our sessions tend to devote two or three sessions to each mystery. Here you see the players ignore all mention of a library in order to keep the story moving with the information they have on hand. Thankfully I had a bad guy willing to monologue the absolutely key parts to them during the climax.

The moment when everyone feels weird but no one takes a card was set up to have some of the PCs physically transforming into the costumes, as happens to GMCs at the party. This arguably happens to two of the characters anyhow, so it’s hardly a lost opportunity. Here are the cards that would have gone to characters who failed:

In an ongoing game I wouldn’t escalate the weirdness so quickly, instead doing more of a slow burn. I certainly wouldn’t kill off one of the players for having to leave early in the session! However Sharang’s brilliant characterization prior to his demise at a preset time fit the plot so thoroughly you might suspect us of colluding in advance.

But it wasn’t planned at all. I can prove that by showing you the rest of my notes. You’ll see lots of elements I had ready but weren’t needed.

Boris Yvain (1872 – 1895)

American born sculptor and chemist, parents French and Russian, died in Paris 1895

Gennady Yvain (1877 – 1941)

His brother, establishes Dragoncourt Chemicals, develops a line of preservatives (based on papers discovered in his late brother’s possessions)

Builds observatory as connection to the Hyades, crucial in developing new formulae, built in 1924

Jack Yvain (1900 – 1984)

his son, astronomer and, from the 1940s on, computer programmer

with the help of Carcosa uploaded his consciousness into mainframe at the observatory before his death

upgrades over the years have allowed him to live in increasingly comfortable servers, but he wants bodies, and with the alignment of the Hyades on October 31st he’s going to possess the bodies of multiple revelers

sure for that to work they have to mutate into monstrous versions of their costumes but hey you get embodied with the tech you have

Colette Nicolas (1902 – 1924)

Jack’s fiancee, flees the observatory after beholding the alignment of the Hyades, killed in one-car collision

distant relation of famous Lumiere brothers

at time of her death, her Lesley Gibson portrait is already in progress, it is completed and hung in the observatory in 1926

Jack has dalliances but never marries or has children, declaring the observatory his heir

Lesley Gibson (1874 – 1945)

American born painter, heir to the Gibson Shale quarry fortune

student in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts 1895-1894, friend of Boris Yvain

paints portrait of Colette Nicolas in 1923

Camille Lau – Chairman of the Yvain Observatory Foundation – she answers to Jack’s consciousness in exchange for prophetic stock tips; believes his cover story that the Halloween party is a much-needed fundraiser after the pandemic closures (which it is, but also mass possession) – dressed in stylish party dress with subtle cat ear headband

Ruben Suarez – party promoter; has a weird feeling but knows nothing; dressed as Mr. Wilde


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their plangent podcast, Ken and Robin talk international animal trafficking, more early 60s horror flicks, Erik Satie’s Vexations, and court magician Michael Scot.

Previous Entries