Some players find damage dealing  in baseline GUMSHOE emotionally unsatisfying. This becomes an issue especially when they’ve spent a lot of points, or gotten a high die roll, only to roll low on the damage die, plinking the opponent for a miserable 1 or 2 points of Health.

Rolling high to hit and then minimum damage is the longstanding plight of RPG characters. But spending lots of a resource to do next to nothing heightens the sting. And in GUMSHOE an opponent with an Armor value knocks that off your damage, worsening the plink effect. If your group feels that pain, give them the following option.

After rolling for damage, a player may choose to substitute the margin from the successful attack for the damage die result. The margin is the difference between the test result (spend plus roll) and its Hit Threshold.

Professor Wingate swings her katana at the ghoul. Her player, Maia, spends 4 points of Wingate’s Weapons ability and rolls a 5. The final result, 9, beats the ghoul’s Hit Threshold of 3. Maia then rolls for damage but gets 1. Combined with the katana’s damage of 1, this would result in a miserable 2 points of damage. The ghoul’s rubbery flesh Armor of 1 would decrease that even further, to 1. Maia calculates the margin: the result of 9 minus the Hit Threshold of 3 equals 6. She swaps the margin of 6 for the die roll of 1. The katana damage bonus and the ghoul’s Armor cancel out, and its Health drops by 6 points, from 8 to 2. It meeps in furious dismay.

Possible drawbacks of implementing this variant rule:

  • This introduces another decision point for the player on each successful hit, probably slowing combat slightly. It won’t happen every time though–just when great hit results are followed up by lousy damage rolls.
  • It gives the players power to mow through opposition quicker by upping their attack spends. If you find that this weakens creature stats too severely, increase enemy Health ratings by 20% across the board.

For obvious reasons, this rule applies only to iterations of GUMSHOE that include damage rolls. It does not affect GUMSHOE One-2-One or the new quickshock combat system found in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

After nearly a century of supernatural tyranny, the Castaigne regime has fallen. Your player characters fought in the underground Struggle, then emerged from the shadows with grenades and rocket launchers to bring about the Overthrow. The gates to Carcosa have been closed. But not all the horrors that kept the Empire in place have been banished. As your hardbitten band of ex-partisans adjusts to civilian life, they discover that their very special skills are still needed—both to rebuild the nation, and to protect nascent democracy from the monsters left behind.

Pelgrane Press and designer Robin D. Laws need you to jump aboard the playtest for the Aftermath sequence of the Yellow King Roleplaying Game. Drop a line to colleen@pelgranepress.com to participate!

by Mikhail Bonch-Osmolovskiy

For all their seeming simplicity, Icon relationships can be tricky to use in a game, as some GMs, myself included, occasionally struggle to offer a satisfying use for them. Icons are just too abstract, too detached, too far away from the daily life of a low-level adventurer. They need intermediaries, something to connect the dungeons to the floating towers, the blood to the idea, the PCs to Icons. They need factions.

At their most basic, factions are NPC organizations who serve one or more Icons. In this article you’ll find advice on preparing factions and their use, as well as optional mechanics for tracking the changing influence of factions.

Making and using factions

Like any organization, factions form in order to achieve a goal. It can be something specific, like “return the Lich King to his rightful place as the ruler of the Dragon Empire”, or abstract like “keep the citizens of Axis safe”. That’s where we start: for each faction you have in mind, figure out its agenda. You’re not writing the faction’s manifesto, a single sentence will do.

Not every faction declares its agenda outright – a decadent high society faction dedicated to opening a new Hellmouth probably doesn’t advertise the fact to outsiders. But it’s this true purpose you’re interested in. Leave lies to your NPCs.

Speaking of NPCs, a faction needs a face (or three), someone the party will interact with when they deal with the faction. It can be the faction leader, but it can just as easily be an approachable rank-and-file member.

Similarly to PCs, factions have relationships with Icons, though these relationships are never rolled, and are purely indicative of the faction’s allegiances. As a rule of thumb, a faction should have at least one positive and one negative relationship, and no more than three relationships overall. The faction’s agenda should make it clear which Icons a given faction supports and opposes. And just as with PCs and their relationships with Icons, thinking of the relationships your factions have may reveal unexpected facets of their “personality”.

Ideally, your factions will cover every Icon with which the PCs have a relationship with both positive and negative relationships of their own. For the frequently referenced Icons, you may wish to have multiple factions that are interested in them. Ties to other Icons are nice, but less essential. In this way, the Icons your players pick will impact your worldbuilding, helping you to further focus on the aspects of the world your players find interesting.

If you use the “Icon relations story-guide results” table from the core book, you may wish to amend it with names of factions supporting or opposing the Icons.

Armed with this information, the next time your players want to use a relationship roll, you’ll have a faction or two with the same Icon relationship that fits the bill. Maybe one of its “face” NPCs shows up to offer assistance, or you suggest the PCs visit them to ask for help.

If the relationship die was a 5, you have a starting point for what the faction may ask for in return for its help – its agenda. Alternatively, a 5 on a positive relationship could indicate the involvement of a faction with a negative relationship to that Icon, and vice versa.

Note that this doesn’t rule out any other use of Icon relationship rolls the books suggest or you come up with. Indeed, factions merely offer a framework for some of these suggestions.

Faction influence level

In case you’re looking for some extra granularity in distinguishing between factions, you can assign levels to them. A faction’s level determines the average level of its significant assets and personnel. To put it another way, kicking down the door to the faction’s headquarters and taking them on would constitute an adventure of the faction’s level.

A level 1 faction is not much more than a group of local thugs, a level 5 faction can run a town, while a level 9 faction is a continent-spanning organization.

A faction’s level indicates the resources they have access to, helping determine what kind of assistance or opposition they offer to the PCs. An adventurer-tier faction can’t hand out champion-tier magic items, for instance. Additionally, faction levels provide some ideas for the likely outcome of a faction-vs-faction conflict.

Faction levels aren’t set in stone. At the end of every adventure, as well as whenever some significant change happens, ask yourself: did any faction get more powerful or otherwise achieve a major victory? Did any faction lose major holdings or important allies? Adjust their level by 1 in either direction. Where appropriate, campaign loss caused by PCs fleeing may also result in a faction losing a level.

As a rule of thumb, PCs can’t affect the level of a faction that is three or more levels above theirs without major plot upheaval to assist them. However, large and high-level factions are rarely monolithic. Consider introducing local chapters or sub-factions of a level closer to the level of PCs so they can more easily influence each other.

The changes to faction influence levels represent tangible consequences to the PCs’ efforts, making it easier to see how their adventures affect the world around them.

Example – factions of the Sea Wall

Let’s say your group has decided upon the Sea Wall as the starting location for the campaign. Sea breeze and giant monsters, what can be better. The player characters have positive relationships with the Archmage, the Dwarf King, and the Prince of Shadows; they have conflicted relationship with the High Druid and the Diabolist; and a negative relationship with the Three.

Looking at the map, we see a slight problem: there’s the Iron Sea on the one side, the Blood Wood on the other, and not much else. With the chosen Icons in mind, let’s start with the obvious options and expand to accommodate the more esoteric choices.

Sea Wall Maintenance Crew

Level 5 faction

Agenda: keep the wall standing. Currently occupied with repairing a massive breach that occurred last month. Nominally subordinate to the Sea Wall Guard (a faction with positive relationship to the Emperor, in which we’re not as interested).

Relationships: positive with the Archmage and the Dwarf King, ambiguous with the High Druid.

Faces: Prince Azbarn Stonebeard, fifteenth in line to the Dwarven Throne (dwarf, naturally), and magister Ariel Thornfist (high elf) are in joint command. Both are highly ambitious and competitive, with views of distinguishing themselves and leaving this backwater post behind.

Leviathan Hunters

Level 3 faction

Agenda: to safeguard the Blood Wood (and the Empire, as a secondary consideration) from the sea monsters.

Relationships: positive with the High Druid, ambiguous with the Orc Lord, negative with the Diabolist.

Face: Uzg (orc) left his clan and his clan name behind to serve High Druid. An unlikely but enthusiastic guardian of Blood Wood, he’s assembled a warband of other renegade orcs, wood elves and beasts of the forest. Currently weakened from their continued skirmishes with the sea monsters that got through last month, Leviathan Hunters would love to live up to their name and take the fight to the enemy – if their level reaches 5, Uzg will lead an expedition beyond the Sea Wall.

Red Right Pincer

Level 4 faction

Agenda: to bring down the Sea Wall by summoning a mighty leviathan from the depths.

Relationships: positive with the Diabolist, negative with the High Druid, the Emperor, and the Archmage.

Face: Deep priest Kashtarak (sahuagin). The designated bad guy for the first few levels of the campaign. Red Right Pincer currently hunts for mystic beasts to slaughter in the Blood Wood, in order to use their hearts for an unholy ritual that would weaken the magic protection of the Sea Wall. Should the Pincer’s level exceed that of the Sea Wall Maintenance Crew, a new massive breach is all but guaranteed.

Storm’s Bane

Level 2 faction

Agenda: recover the treasure that has cursed them to undeath.

Relationships: positive with Prince of Shadows, negative with the Three.

Face: Captain Sam Kellock (human) was a daring pirate, his ship Storm’s Bane feared by all. That is, until he robbed one too many ships that belonged to the Three, fled from their pursuit into the Iron Sea, and met his end in the jaws of a leviathan. That would have been bad enough, but unbeknownst to him the treasure he carried was cursed. Now ghostly remains of his crew plague the shore, looking for fools to help them recover the gold and break the curse. After a century of torment, Kellock is desperate and sees the PCs as his last best hope. Should their relationship go awry, he would even help sahuagin bring the leviathan that swallowed his treasure to the shore, in hopes of someone killing it for him.

 


Mikhail Bonch-Osmolovskiy is a game designer and a writer. He’s currently looking for a publisher for his board game, Passages & Plunder; writing a blog, PonderingsOnGames.com; and planning on resuming his YA horror serial at newvalenar.wordpress.com. He lives in Sydney, Australia and has given up on teaching the locals how to pronounce his name.

In the latest episode of their steady-handed podcast, Ken and Robin talk scenario process, Hellenistic 13th Age, classic Hollywood character actors and Grover Cleveland’s secret nautical surgery.

In the first 2018 episode of their immaculately planned podcast, Ken and Robin talk emotionally engaging RPGs, military operation names, the American anti-hero, and eclipse child conception.

The latest edition of See Page XX is out now! Featuring everything you need to know about running your first GUMSHOE game from Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, and Simon Rogers, along with a number of bonus items for Hillfolk and Dracula Dossier Kickstarter backers, and Cthulhu Confidential purchasers. Plus, pick up the 13th Age Demonologist class among other hellish goodies in the Book of Demons, and get the latest Langston Wright adventure for Cthulhu Confidential, The Shadow Over Washington.

It’s all in this month’s See Page XX!

This month’s column introduces a new monster that will be useful for people playing with the two newest 13th Age books, Fire & Faith and Book of Demons (as of now, both available for pre-order). The mini-adventures collected in Fire & Faith feature the same icons who are most prominent in Book of Demons: the Diabolist, Crusader, and Great Gold Wyrm, icons who are tangled with demons, one way or another.

Book of Demons includes monster stats for a number of demons, including hellhole denizens and the creatures summoned by demonologists. But as I compared the two books, I realized there’s a specific demon that appears more often than I expected: the despoiler from page 210 of the 13th Age core rulebook. Fire & Faith includes a named despoiler, Fastulii, who has a couple of special abilities and is less of a wimp in melee; but in lots of other places, Fire & Faith refers to normal despoilers and the higher-level despoiler mages.

Despoilers are an interesting monster, but why do they appear so often? I suspect it’s because they’re the only normal-sized demon spellcaster that’s presented as a generic demon. Maybe there’s room for another demon caster that might appear anywhere in your campaign rather than in a specific adventure or hellhole.

The demon caster below should also be useful when you’re running the hellhole adventures in Book of Demons. As we did for the despoiler, I’ve also provided a higher level version, since building battles is a lot easier when you have normal monsters to work with as well as large and huge creatures.

As the flavor text suggests, you should make them look like anything you wish! I think it might be more fun to have demonic spellcasters occupying a variety of forms, instead of putting them into a single mold.

Abyssal Mage

Sometimes they’re stocky and twisted little creatures, easy to overlook until they’ve set you on fire. Other times they’re tall hooded demons in flamboyant robes that mock the Empire’s arcane traditions.

5th level caster [demon]

Initiative: +8

 

Warp rod +10 vs. PD—14 damage, and teleport the abyssal blaster to a nearby location it can see

   Natural 1-5: Deal 2d6 damage to both the abyssal mage and the target, and this warp rod attack no longer teleports the mage when it hits.

 

R: Abyssal blast +10 vs. PD—14 fire damage

   Natural even hit: 1d6 ongoing fire damage per point on the escalation die when the attack hits.

   Natural 18+: The abyssal mage can make another abyssal blast as a quick action.

 

Nastier Special

Fed by fire: Add +2 to the abyssal mage’s defenses for each enemy taking ongoing fire damage.

 

AC   21

PD    19                 HP 68

MD  17

 

Greater Abyssal Mage

By now you know they’re going to look like whatever worries you most.

8th level caster [demon]

Initiative: +13

 

Warp staff +13 vs. PD—30 damage, and teleport the greater abyssal mage to a nearby location it can see

   Natural 1-5: Deal 2d12 damage to both the greater abyssal mage and the target, and this warp staff attack no longer teleports the mage when it hits.

 

R: Abyssal blast +13 vs. PD—30 fire OR negative energy damage (greater abyssal mage chooses)

   Natural even hit: 1d12 ongoing fire or ongoing negative energy damage per point on the escalation die when the attack hits.

   Natural 18+: The greater abyssal mage can make another abyssal blast as a quick action.

 

Nastier Special

Fed by calamity: Add +2 to the greater abyssal mage’s defenses for each enemy taking ongoing fire and/or negative energy damage.

Unholy pyres: Also add +1 to the defenses of other demons in the battle for each enemy taking ongoing fire and/or negative energy damage.

 

AC   24

PD    22                 HP 136

MD  20

 

Have you, or someone in your game group, always wanted to give GMing a shot, but haven’t yet taken the plunge? What if we told you that by the first week in February, you could be an honest-to-goodness GM—and it’ll be easy!

January is New Gamemaster Month, and we’re joining our friends at Monte Cook Games and Atlas Games to give prospective GMs everything you need to run your first game of Trail of Cthulhu. Starting on Tuesday, January 9th, we’ll run a month-long course in the form of twice-weekly posts, which will take you through a step in the process, and include a brief lesson on an aspect of GMing followed by some quick, enjoyable activities that actually get you ready to run your first game.

It’s not all academic, by any means—this is a hands-on seminar. By the end of the program, in early February, you won’t be a “prospective” GM any more: You’ll have GMed your first full-on RPG session, running it without a hitch and having a great time doing it!

So make a New Year’s resolution to join us, and finally take that leap into GMing! Follow along on the website, join the Facebook group and let us know how you’re getting on by tweeting us @NewGmMonth.

It might take more than one swallow to make a summer, he said from a city where it would take about eighty Fahrenheit degrees along with any number of migratory birds to make it summer right now. But it only takes one monster to make a mystery. That, at least, is the thesis, or among the theses at any rate, of Hideous Creatures (providentially forthcoming, and long before the swallows do). Given enough attention to the monster, you can put together a fully satisfying evening or two of Trail of Cthulhu play even if the adventure might look a little bald just laid out there on the page.

Temptation of St. Anthony, from the Isenheim Altarpiece by Grünewald

Thesis, meet example. I’m going to use a subset of the clues as printed (or mostly) from Hideous Creatures: Byakhee, and reproduced below if you’d like to follow along at home and didn’t pick up that fine release. I’ll work sort of backward from them to create a short but stark adventure. Each story element I establish grows out of the flavor detail in a clue.

Our villain is summoning a byakhee for foul doings, and the clues give us the witch-cult (History) and a last name (Müller, from the Oral History clue) so let’s go with a witch named Karin Müller. Are the Investigators in Alsace-Lorraine or is she on their turf? Either one works, but seeing as Germans just got bounced out of Alsace-Lorraine in 1918 let’s have our Teutonic witch scion move to America — with a load of valuable art to sell (Art History, Chemistry) to pay for her passage.

So she’s an art dealer and a witch. What’s her goal? Maybe it’s tied in with both: she wants to inspire the genius of madness in an area artist, Paul Kerenyi (Art History, Assess Honesty) and also consecrate a temple to Hastur (Archaeology, Languages, Library Use) so she can re-start the cult here in Chicago.

Now, by reversing the process we can feed the mystery right back out.

Müller sent a byakhee to inspire one artist — Sarah Jones — but it got out of hand and Jones died; this brings in the Investigators (Forensics). They see the thing’s prints (Evidence Collection) and the weird effect on the vegetation where it landed, somewhere near Müller’s house or temple site (Biology).

Müller also stole the variant Euclid she needed for the consecration (Library Use) from the University of Chicago library. This might also bring in the Investigators, if they’re Book-houndly types.

They find out about Jones’ connection to Müller via Interpersonal talk with Jones’ friends or family; researching Müller points us to Alsace-Lorraine. This might not be time to drop the History clue, but it can be a leveraged clue for when they suspect witchcraft or when more than one clue points Müller’s direction. Such as when they meet her and she’s wearing an amulet of the Pleaides (Cryptography, Occult). Or when they see the genuine Schongauer print for sale in her gallery (Chemistry) and know (Art History) that he too was from Alsace-Lorraine.

Observation with Flattery (or gossip with a different Interpersonal ability) tells them she’s cozying up to Paul Kerenyi now. If they follow her or Kerenyi they hear her whistle, smell juniper (Sense Trouble), and then see her byakhee snatch him up (Art History). They can see the frozen ground here, too (Biology). If they stay home, they’ll see the byakhee and think of the art another time and make the connection: you can always throw in a rival Müller wants to kill or another unfortunate artist for another byakhee encounter if need be.

Kerenyi comes staggering back crazy talking to the Investigators about winged monsters and begging for their help. He’s got a heck of a sunburn, too (Medicine). The next day, though, he’s feverishly creating art based on his experience and now claims it was all a dream (Assess Honesty). This might be when to drop the clue about the “earth diver” and its role in artistic inspiration (Theology). He’s got another date with Müller two nights from now or whenever suits the game’s pacing. If you think there’s more than one whistle, or a player really grooves on Geology, Müller gave Kerenyi a whistle and mead to try out on his own; the Investigators can get ahold of it that way.

If they take advantage of her date to toss Müller’s house they find her mead (Pharmacy), her temple-consecrating cornerstone (Languages), maybe Shrewsbury’s book (Theology), and a map to wherever her sacred Hastur stone is unless it’s just in her backyard.

But the site or her yard is full of not just byakhee spoor (Evidence Collection, Biology) but also stones and mirrors (Library Use)! Which one is the sacred stone? The one aligned with the Pleiades of course (Astronomy)! If they start messing with stuff, sniff for juniper (Sense Trouble)! Müller comes riding back on a byakhee and the Big Fight ensues. Blowing up the sacred stone might dismiss the byakhee, or at least weaken its connection to Hastur.

Not a particularly challenging scenario, I admit. But it makes a nice, straightforward monster-of-the-week, and still has enough weird juju to keep the players happy and creeped out, especially if you run it with any or many of the variations on the monster from the rest of that Hideous Creatures installment. As a bonus, see if you can get some extra inspiration from the Manly Wade Wellman story “O Ugly Bird!” which is not at all about a byakhee, unless it is.

Clues

Archaeology: The Parthenon was oriented to the rising of the Pleiades – perhaps this temple shared the same alignment. In which case, the high altar should be over here. (Architecture, Astronomy)

Art History: The black-winged demon tormenting St. Anthony in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) is supposed to be the result of an ergot hallucination – so why does it perfectly match the eyewitness’ description of the “devil bird” that took Kerenyi right out from under our noses?

Assess Honesty: He claims that the winged monsters and the flying through space was all a dream brought on by drinking “too much mead” – but he doesn’t believe his own denials! Is he crazy, or is he driving himself crazy thinking he’s crazy?

Biology: The grass here was frozen and then broken from the top down, as though something unutterably cold landed here. The spores growing here are new – I’ve never seen anything like them before, although they slightly resemble nitrogen-fixing fungi.

Chemistry: The parchment and ink are absolutely authentic for a print struck in Colmar during Martin Schongauer’s life (1440-1491). But why would he run off a print study of just one of the demons in his Torment of St. Anthony? (Art History, Document Analysis)

Cryptography: The symbol cut into the crystal is Agrippa’s emblem for the Pleiades. (Occult, q.v.)

Evidence Collection: The prints generally resemble those of carrion birds, but are not deep enough to indicate anything heavy enough to batter a human ever stood in them. (Outdoorsman)

Forensics: The body is slashed and torn almost to rags, and blood spatter evidence indicates it was carried around the area during the struggle. Although the throat is ripped out, there is surprisingly little blood either on or in the corpse.

Geology: This whistle isn’t made of any kind of stone I’m familiar with. It seems like iridium-bearing ore, rather than the natural alloy one expects to find. It could be igneous rock or clay, subjected to intense heat – possibly meteoric in origin, as I’ve never seen anything like it on earth.

History: This whole Alsace-Lorraine region was a hotbed of witchcraft outbreaks from 1410 to 1690; testimonies (not all extorted by torture) record witches and wizards flying to the Bavarian Alps (or the court of the Devil) at unearthly speed on their demonic steeds after drinking a golden potion.

Languages: The tablet we found in her sink is inscribed in ancient Babylonian, beginning with MUL.MUL, the “Star of Stars” or the Pleiades. The basalt stone is incredibly weathered, but the cuneiform looks like it was carved yesterday. (Geology for stone)

Library Use: This is the 1511 Strasbourg edition of Euclid. It incorporates a number of “improvements” by the translator Bartolomeo Zamberti taken from Theon of Alexandria’s Catoptrica – the study of mirrors – and “Alhazen’s” De crepusculis – a treatise on shadows at twilight. Why go to the trouble to get this specific edition? Does it have anything to do with the mirrors set up to reflect the western horizon right on the Pleiadean alignment? (Astronomy)

Medicine: He’s suffering from shock and severe hypothermia – and those red spots all over his skin are purpura from exploded capillaries. The dark tan indicates high ultraviolet exposure, too.

Occult: According to Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia (1510-1530), a properly prepared talisman “with the Moon conjunct the Pleiades rising or at midheaven, preserves the eyesight, summons demons and the spirits of the dead, calls the winds, and reveals secrets and things that are lost.”

Oral History: Talking to peasants and townsfolk all through the area, you notice that some families are – not shunned, precisely, but less connected to the rest of the region. More insular, apt to marry among themselves. The Weylands and the Müllers seem to be the leading families in that group.

Pharmacy: I can’t tell what this so-called mead is supposed to be, but it’s not just fermented honey. Or if it is, the bees took pollen from a literally impossible collection of plants, fungi, and epiphytes, and then added some ethylene glycol and neurotoxic heavy metals to finish the job. This will either put you into a mild coma or give you the worst hyperaesthesia you’ve ever had. (Chemistry)

Sense Trouble: A waft of icy air seems to rush past you, and an astringent smell like rotting juniper stings your nostrils.

Theology: Shrewsbury’s work references the “earth-diver” myth of creation common amongst Siberian and Amerind peoples, in which a sky deity sends a (sometimes infernal or demonic) bird to the bottom of the ocean to raise up the land at the beginning of time. He thus postulates a primordial antagonism between Water-Chaos and Sky-Art, and implies these “demonic birds” also “dive” into our subconscious to raise up artistic and religious impulse.

Ken and Robin talk live at Dragonmeet in their final podcast episode of 2017. We’ll be back on January 5th with more stuff to talk about. Until then, have a safe happy time at holidays, with all the egg nog you desire.

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