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In The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Kickstarting soon at a Kickstarter near you, players portray characters linked across various eras and timelines corrupted by alien supernatural influence.

In the third of these linked settings, Aftermath, the investigators are all ex-partisans who fought in a successful rebellion against a tyrannical regime backed by Carcosa. Now they want to rebuild their nation and put their violent past, and memories of weird incidents connected to that, behind them. But He Whose Mask Is Not A Mask isn’t finished with America yet, and they find themselves drawn into a succession of weird mysteries requiring them to draw on the skills they’d sooner put behind them.

To emulate this I’m introducing* a new general ability, which goes like this:

Insurgency

Before attacking targets in a location you have the opportunity to case in advance, you can devise the most efficient plan of attack, dealing maximum harm at minimum risk.

Make an Insurgency test with a Difficulty keyed to the location: 4 for most civilian targets, 5 for a secure military target, 6 for an ultra-secure installation.

On success with a margin of 2 or less, all combatants on your side get a +1 Fighting bonus. A higher margin nets a +2 bonus for all.

This also allows you to defend against attackers using guerrilla tactics against a position you have had time to hunker down in. Here the Difficulties flip: 6 for a civilian location, 5 for military, 4 for ultra-secure. When defending you can make a Counterinsurgency Push for a +4 bonus on your roll.

Insurgency tests take the place of extended planning sessions in which players manage the tactical details of an assault, just as Preparedness skips the part where you laboriously write out every item on your equipment lists.

After a successful Insurgency test, ask the player, abetted by anyone else in the group who likes to describe skirmishes in loving Tom Clancyesque detail, to describe the clever plans they’ve laid for their soon-to-be-attacked targets. In the ensuing Fighting test, they can describe them working to superb effect (if the group wins), or the GM can describe them being countered by a victorious foe.

*       *      *

This ability only suits games where you find it desirable to collapse the tactical planning process into a single ability test. The previous setting in the cycle, The Wars, does not do this. It has the player characters fighting in a great European conflict in an alternate timeline. Planning how to grub up crucial bonuses for an upcoming scrap should take center stage there, with players weighing options, discarding some and choosing others, perhaps with the aid of intelligence they’ve gathered with investigative abilities.

In Aftermath those scenes fade back to a tertiary status, to make room for subplots about rebuilding the nation.

You could add this ability to other GUMSHOE games, probably renaming it Tactics or some other more generally apt term, in cases where quick and dirty combat planning suits the genre. It would fit a standard Esoterrorists game, for example, while feeling out of place in a Special Suppression Forces campaign frame. It would also work in Mutant City Blues or Ashen Stars, but likely not in the more combat-forward environment of Night’s Black Agents.

You might also consider your group’s tastes when deciding whether to use it. Your players might dig its abstraction even in NBA, or prefer to do the tactics in detail even when the setting takes little interest in that side of things.


*In the current draft, anyhow. A designer can never count on any new element surviving the playtest process.

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One day, the mystery of the Ocean Game will be revealed. Until then, hints and fragments skitter at the edge of perception in articles like this. Art and setting text by Dave Allsop. 

 The Phantom Birds bear a strong resemblance to Earth’s Marabou Storks – spindly, ugly, carrion creatures with bald, scab-encrusted heads. Phantom Birds tend to be much larger though, possessing all too human eyes, and the ability to talk. When found in Briny Heaven they are crowned with rusty metal halos.

The appearance or arrival of Phantom Birds is regarded as prophetic; it can mean that the Mystery Man is nearby, or that characters are approaching a region that has a strong Outer Dark influence (like the Outskirts).

The purpose of the Phantom Birds as yet remains unclear. In Trenker’s diary he refers them as the ‘angels of Briny Heaven’, but he also refers to other nonhuman entities as angels too. It is possible that these avian monsters are mutated Ocean Game players. Perhaps they failed the Mystery Man in some way, or are have simply morphed into these forms after too much exposure to the Outer Dark.

Phantom Birds are most commonly associated with ‘Monkey’ players as they are attracted to horror, extreme violence, and bloodshed; when their scalps bleed profusely it is an indication of their arousal. Phantom Birds often gather on the verges of murder scenes to copulate. Phantom Birds are rarely, if ever witnessed by ordinary people, even when they gather in large flocks.

Verbally, Phantom Birds are mostly unresponsive. They tend to dislike humans but will exchange information, and trade spells and secrets for carrion, or the gory details of a crime scene they’re attending. Deals with Phantom Birds usually come to grief.

Abilities: Aberrance 3, Athletics 6, Fleeing 12, Health 12, Scuffling 7

Hit Threshold: 4

Armor: +1 vs Shooting

Awareness Modifier: -1

Stealth Modifier: -1

Damage Modifier: +2 (beak) or +1 (claws)

Death-Memory Beak: By plunging its spectral beak into the heart of a living human and spending 2 Aberrance, the Phantom Bird forces its victim to experience the death of another living creature that died nearby. The victim must make a Stability test immediately, the magnitude of which depends on the type of death. If it’s just, say, the death of a rat from natural causes, then it might be only a 2-point test. If someone got murdered by a Creature of Unremitting Horror, then it’s a 6-point test or more. And if the Stability tested is failed, the victim takes extra damage equal to the magnitude of the Stability test, and the wounds resemble the cause of death. Experience the death of a poisoned rat, and you might take 2 extra points of damage from phantasmal strychnine. This is in addition to the usual +2 damage modifier from a beak attack.

Gory Details: Birds gain 2 Aberrance at a murder scene or in the presence of a suitably gory carcass or sacrifice. If the investigators share or uncover more details about the killing, the birds gain 1 Aberrance per significant detail shared.

Birds with Aberrance scores of 6 or more are amiable to Interpersonal abilities like Negotiation.

Thin The Membrane: Phantom Birds may spend Aberrance to temporarily thin the local Membrane. It costs 5 points of Aberrance to do so, which reduces all Aberrance and Psychic Power point spend costs by 1 for a few minutes, and makes it easier to travel between Earth and the Outer Dark. The birds may even be willing to carry a passenger across the threshold, or (if they have enough Aberrance to thin the Membrane twice) carry a passenger from one place on Earth to another, taking a short-cut through the Outer Dark.

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The scene in which the hero is taken prisoner by adversaries is as deep a staple of adventure fiction as you could ask for. In roleplaying this basic scene has always acted as bugaboo. Players cling vehemently to their characters’ agency. Some would rather have their characters killed than tossed in a cell.

If we think about these sequences in movies and fiction, they always afford the hero a way forward, after a suitable period of frustration. The hero learns something about the antagonist, gleans some other key bit of information, or makes a key alliance that drives the story forward.

While designing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I’ve found a way to get around the traditional reluctance to play that type of sequence. But we haven’t even Kickstarted that yet. But I can adapt the same principle to GUMSHOE One-2-One, which like YKRPG uses cards to represent ongoing consequences that affect the character over the course of the scenario. (Though the two games implement this differently.)

When you think your player’s Cthulhu Confidential detective ought to be knocked on the head, as happens from time to time to any self-respecting noir hero, offer this Problem card:


When You Regain Consciousness

Problem

You are knocked out and will wake up in the foe’s clutches. When you either escape, or gain a core clue while in custody, discard this card plus any one other non-Continuity Problem card you can justify to the GM.


Tell them that they can accept the card and forgo a Challenge to avoid being knocked out. Or they can take their chances on the Challenge, which might still wind up with imprisonment, plus one if not two worse Problem cards.

This signals to the player that, a) absolutely, there will be a way out of the imprisonment, b) interesting things will happen during the imprisonment and c) here’s a nice extra bribe for you.

This turns a situation in which the player fears loss of agency to one in which she has a choice and can feel in control of a temporary loss of control. As paradoxical as that may sound.

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