Here’s an expanded use for the Sense Trouble ability one of my players, Chris Huth, sold me on recently. The basic principle can apply to any GUMSHOE game that includes this general ability.

We’ve reached the Aftermath sequence of our Yellow King Roleplaying Game playtest.

In its alternate 2017, landlines remain the basic telephonic technology. Answering machines do not yet exist. (A hundred years of tyranny has a stultifying effect on consumer electronics.)

To get messages about developments in a case, the team has to check in with an answering service hired by Chris’ character, Jerry Jean-Leon.

On learning that a police detective had called to ask them to come in for an interview, Jerry asked the answering service receptionist whether the tone of the call sounded routine, or worrisome.

I started by playing her as not savvy enough to tell that on a call from a cop. As standard procedure, he’d be pretty good at keeping it neutral. The receptionist wasn’t a trained investigator.

Chris wanted to specify that he went out of his way to hire someone who would actually be able to read that kind of nuance, even from a pro. He offered to make a Sense Trouble test to get this result.

We normally think of Sense Trouble as happening in the here and now, as reflecting what the hero can directly sense.

Here we were talking about a situation where the sensing would be done by another character, a GMC some distance away.

Plus, it would reflect an action taken in the past—Jerry’s extra cautious effort to make sure he had hired a messaging service with ultra-sharp employees.

GUMSHOE precedent already exists for tests that establish an action you’ve undertaken in the past. The Preparedness test lets you declare that you happen to have already packed a particular item you need.

The end result would still stem from Jerry’s ability to anticipate trouble, so I agreed with Chris that this could work. Finding an answering machine service with security instincts sounded tough to me, so I set a Difficulty one point higher than the standard 4.

Chris made the test, so the receptionist told him that indeed, the detective sounded like he was after them, but trying to be cool about it.

In any game where the PCs might have made arrangements with a functionary like the answering service receptionist, you could likewise use Sense Trouble to measure that person’s ability to anticipate danger. Whether it appears as a robotic monitoring device, an Ordo Veritatis auxiliary on stakeout duty or a blood magic ward depends on which flavor of GUMSHOE you’re playing.

In the latest episode of their luxurious robe-wearing podcast, Ken and Robin talk riffed murder suspects, Chicago film fest, our stand against vampires and Josephin Pela About Stuff.

In the latest episode of their ultraterrestrial-busting podcast, Ken and Robin talk social spirals, Jeanne Rousseau, Abramsification and the Aurora Airship Crash.

The latest edition of See Page XX is out now! Featuring the limited edition Cthulhu Confidential, along with High Voltage Kill, the next Dex Raymond PDF adventure, and the PDF of the 13th Age Bestiary 2, plus a number of spookily-themed articles for Hallowe’en and tips on gamifying TV shows like Star Trek: Discovery and Stranger Things S2.

It’s all in this month’s See Page XX!

No one celebrates Halloween in 1895 Paris, the first sequence of the reality-spanning Yellow King Roleplaying Game. Observance of that holiday won’t start until sometime in the 20s or 30s in the United States.

However, the proximity of All Soul’s Day may provoke an uptick in the ghostly activity triggered by the publication of a certain madness-inducing play.

In the spirit of the holiday, check out this trio of supernatural foes, among those added to the game thanks to the stretch goal-busting actions of our well-attired and sophisticated Kickstarter backers.

Egregore

Investigators with the Occultism ability know the concept of the egregore. Believers describe them as discarnate thoughtforms capable of influencing groups of people. Some describe them as the great forces that move human history. While certain ritual magicians seek them out as sources of arcane insight, Christian occultists like the Martinists warn that they are really a form of demon.

As with so many other occult beliefs, the opening of the gates to Carcosa have realized that which was once imaginary. This egregore is the shade of a dead Carcosan noble, held together by spite and glee in the suffering of others. Translucent and insubstantial, it acts as a spirit guide to questing occultists. It uses its ghostly powers to grant would-be magicians the entirely illusory impression of spiritual progress. Sometimes the deluded protege undergoes experiences convincing him that he can manipulate external events through magic.

In return for these gifts, the egregore requires the protege to commit acts of calculated cruelty. Seemingly trivial at first, the entity steadily escalates them to encompass sabotage, assault, kidnapping and murder. Egregores gain a particular charge from acts of cultural desecration, from arson in churches to the destruction of beloved art works.

To remain anchored to a protege, the egregore must arrange for its true name to be hidden in a place significant to the manipulated person. If the investigators discover this, and then find the name, they can call it out, causing the egregore to assume substantial form, which can then be physically dispatched in a fight.

An insubstantial egregore cannot be captured or killed, and deals out shocks instead of injuries.

Numbers: 1

Difficulty: Superior 6 / 8

Difficulty Adjustments: +2 for each character who can fight but doesn’t;

Toll: 2

Injuries, Minor and Major:

Korrigan

In Breton folklore the term “korrigan” may refer to any faerie creature, or to a version of the classic alluring faerie maiden who lures young men away from this world into an unholy supernatural realm.

Do these tales reflect past eras of Carcosan influence on earth, when they came here to take slaves?

With the gates open (perhaps again) between our world and Carcosa, slave-hunters, either following an old pattern or mimicking folk tale imagery, have come here to collect healthy young human specimens to serve its noble courts.

Korrigans look like red-haired humans of great physical allure, but of indeterminate age. Their delicate beauty may strike wary observers as alien or eerie. When aroused to anger or passion, their eyes glow a fiery red.

They hunt by emotional entrapment, winning the love of their victims over a period of weeks or months. At the end of the mysterious courtship, the target signs an agreement consigning his (or, more rarely, her) soul to the korrigan. The korrigan then takes the subject to Carcosa and sells the contract to the head of a noble Carcosan household. The victim loses vitality but does not otherwise age, regretfully toiling for his new masters for many generations before fading away into nothingness.

Korrigans prefer flight, or the use of psychic influence, to combat. A few prove physically formidable when cornered. PCs resist the psychic attack dealing a korrigan’s Shock cards, which it can use on one investigator per scene, with Difficulty 5 Composure tests. Once one character has one of these cards, it reuses its power only when desperate.

When revealed or pressed, the hypnotic beauty of the korrigan may give way to the pale, mask-like visage typical of Carcosans.

Numbers: 1

Difficulty: Evenly Matched 5 / 7

Difficulty Adjustments: +2 for each character who can fight but doesn’t;

Toll: 2

Shocks, Minor and Major:

Injuries, Minor and Major:

Petroleuse

During the Commune a cadre of female anarchists terrorized the bourgeoisie by roaming the city with gasoline bottles, which they set alight and tossed through the basement windows of well-appointed homes. Compared to vengeful maenads, they sometimes committed these acts of revolutionary arson with their children in tow.

The Yellow Book has conjured them back, in ghostly form, translucent and wreathed in flame.

Numbers: equals number of player characters

Difficulty: Evenly Matched 5 / 7

Difficulty Adjustments: -1 if the party has already learned of the historical significance of the petroleuses, +1 if not

Toll: 2

Injuries, Minor and Major:

Download the cards here.

The Yellow King pre-order is about to vanish like the ghost of a murdered arsonist. Jump on before it’s gone!

Cthulhu City, our new Trail of Cthulhu setting about a monstrous, mythos-haunted city adapts the Night’s Black Agents Heat mechanics to model Suspicion. Think of Suspicion as a slow simmer compared to Heat’s flash-fry. Rising Heat means police SWAT teams chasing you through the streets and airports shutting down; rising Suspicion implies police detectives knocking at your door in the middle of the night, or mysterious figures sabotaging your car to stop you leaving.

If your Night’s Black Agents game involves the characters spending extended time behind enemy lines, you may want to use these Suspicion mechanics in stead of Heat. Maybe they’re in a vampire-controlled city in Eastern Europe or maybe you’re running a historical Edom scenario with the Agents operating being the Iron Curtain, or a post-apocalyptic fantasy where greedy, sociopathic, inhuman monsters rule the world.

(Hat tip to “Nooch” over on rpg.net for requesting this adaptation.)

Suspicion

While in occupied territory, investigations into strange events and other vampire hunting activity may draw unwanted attention. This  is measured in Suspicion. The entire group of Agents has one Suspicion score in common; they are each other’s known associates. The group’s Suspicion begins at 0.

The groups’ Suspicion only rises once per game session; use the highest Suspicion gain incurred in the session.

Gaining Suspicion

Criminal acts, especially assault or murder, are the most common route to increased Suspicion, but showing undue knowledge of the supernatural or the Conspiracy also draws unwanted attention. Anything that raises Heat boosts Suspicion, but so do actions like:

  • purchasing large amounts of garlic or UV lamps
  • acquiring occult books
  • associating with other suspects
  • trespassing in vampire-controlled areas
  • possession of a foreign passport or legal-but-suspicious equipment like bugging devices
  • forbidden web searches
  • travelling by night
  • having no visible source of financial support

Averting Suspicion

Precautions: The agents can avoid increases in their Suspicion by ensuring that the city authorities do not connect the suspicious events with the hunters. Such precautions usually require spends from abilities. For example:

  • Make extra spends of Bargain, Intimidation or Reassurance to convince witnesses not to mention the agents’ presence to the authorities
  • Spend Cop Talk to convince police to look the other way
  • Spend Evidence Collection or Forensics to wipe away fingerprints and sanitise a crime scene
  • Hide incriminating notes with Cryptography
  • Make untraceable home-made explosives with Chemistry instead of purchasing them on the black market
  • Use Disguise or Infiltration to avoid unfriendly eyes

Averted Suspicion can come back to burn the agents if circumstances warrant. If a witness comes forward later, or new evidence comes to light, or the investigators’ deceptions are penetrated, the Agents can gain Suspicion for older actions. Old Suspicion gains are automatically reduced by 1 point, representing the authorities’ lack of urgency in prosecuting old offences.

Losing Suspicion

There are three ways to lose Suspicion.

  • Wait It Out: Low levels of Suspicion diminish over time. If the agents’ Suspicion score is 2 or less, then reduce it by one point after a game session in which they avoid adding to their Suspicion. Suspicion scores of 3 or more do not diminish over time.
  • Buy It Off: A good Credit Rating and friends in high places can avert the attention of the authorities. The agents may reduce their Suspicion by one if, as a group, they spend Cop Talk, Reassurance, High Society or Tradecraft points equal to the number of agents multiplied by their current Suspicion score. For example, if four agents have a Suspicion score of 3, then they could reduce that score to 2 by spending 12 points from the listed Investigative Abilities.

These points don’t have to be spent all at once; the agents can put a few points aside after every game session until they have enough to buy down their Suspicion. However, if the agents gain any more Suspicion, then points allocated but unspent are lost.

  • Make A Deal: Various powerful patrons can intercede on the investigators’ behalf to shield them from the authorities.

Effects of Suspicion

Increased Scrutiny: As Suspicion rises, so does scrutiny of the Agents. At low levels of Suspicion, that’s largely cosmetic – mysterious figures watching them from across the street, threatening letters shoved through their door. It escalates through surveillance (phone tapping, bugs, intercepted emails, mysterious figures following them) and harassment (associates and contacts get arrested and questioned) until the agents themselves get arrested and questioned on suspicion of being vampire hunters.

Increased Watchfulness: Generally increased security – more guards, more alarms, more supernatural guardians.

Blowback: Rising Suspicion may also draw blowback from whatever Vampyramid you’re using.

Cover Identities

Suspicion acquired by different Covers is tracked separately; however, if a Cover is blown, then double the Suspicion attached to that cover and add it to the agents’ total.

 

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(No spoilers for Season 2 in here.)

Even if this column appeared somewhere other than a website for tabletop roleplayers, it’d be impossible to write about Stranger Things without talking about gaming. Gaming is the metaphor the series uses to talk about monsters and dimensions, but it’s also how the kids see themselves, and how the show-runners and writers structure the plot – which makes it insanely ripe for conversion and dissection here. The show has three distinct tiers of ‘player character’ – the kids, the teens and parents, and the combat experts (Hoppers and Eleven). They’re clearly using the skill cap rules, but one character in each tier can be an exception and buy a few points in a combat ability normally reserved for the next tier. So, Dustin’s wrist rocket lets him Scuffle with an adult, and Nancy has that 4-point Shooting pool. (Presumably, the kids have all invested in Hiding and Fleeing, or just given a pile of build points each over to Eleven’s character so she can keep buying new Psychic Powers.)

In Fear Itself terms, the show nicely illustrates the concept of the Spiral of Misery setup. In the first season, you’ve got Will Byers at the centre of the spiral; he’s connected to the other kids, to his mother Joyce, and to his brother Jonathan; Joyce connects to Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan and Mike connect to Nancy, and the whole cast gets pulled in through those connections.

The show’s monsters are also perfectly set up for gaming. The Demogorgon pops in and out of our dimension, showing up to threaten the player characters before vanishing, leaving behind only clues that will get ignored by the authorities and picked up by the player character using their Investigative Abilities. It can move quickly enough to threaten the player characters wherever they are, but it’s also got plenty of tells (the flickering lights, the ‘scar tissue’ in the dimensional breaches) to give the players a chance to detect and prepare for its emergence.

 

Demogorgon

Abilities: Aberrance 9, Athletics 10, Health 12, Scuffling 16

Hit Threshold: 4

Armour: None, but firearms attacks only deal one point of damage.

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: +1 (claw), or +3 (‘bite’). It can only bite downed or stunned foes.

Dimensional Tear: By spending 3 Aberrance, the Demogorgon can open a portal connecting the parallel reality of the Upside Down with our reality. These portals appear like wounds or breaches on a surface like a wall, floor or the bole of a tree. Once created, a breach remains active for some time (usually a few minutes, but it’s proportional to the size of the breach). The Demogorgon can pass through an active breach for free; other creatures can also wriggle through breaches, but it requires an Athletics test (Difficulty 4). Even after a breach reseals itself, reality is still wounded in that spot; the Demogorgon can reopen an old breach with a 1-point Aberrance spend.

Feed: The Demogorgon regains Aberrance when it eats.

Its hunger means the creature’s drawn to the smell of blood or the presence of meat.

Regeneration: When in the Upside Down, the Demogorgon may heal using Aberrance. 1 Aberrance point restores 2 Health.

Telekinesis: The Demogorgon may spend Aberrance as Telekinesis.

Unnatural Speed: For 2 Aberrance, the Demogorgon may:

  • Make another claw attack
  • Cover a short distance instantly
  • Automatically dodge a Shooting attack.

 

All That Remains

  • Investigative Procedure: The victim was mauled and partially eaten – but the bite marks look more like the mess that would be left by a shark.
  • Mechanics: Hey, those electric lights are flickering. Someone should check the circuit.
  • Notice: Hey, what’s this weird slime on the tree. It’s like a scab on reality. What happens when I pick at it?
  • Outdoor Survival: It’s hunting us by scent. It can smell our blood.
  • Science: But what if this gate already existed? Well, if it did, I I think we’d know. It would disrupt gravity, the magnetic field, our environment. It would deflect compass needles, cause electrical surges…
  • Trivia: It’s in the Monster Manual!

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“Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Curse of Yig”

H.P. Lovecraft had a huge sweet tooth and a morbid streak a mile wide, so of course he must have loved Halloween. His wizardly characters do, too; they make endless Halloween plans that range from kidnapping to time-shaping to world-ending. I count seven cases of Halloween ceremonies (or crimes, or both) in Lovecraft, which seemingly depend on this liminal time for their effect. In “The Dunwich Horror,” the Whateleys commune with Yog-Sothoth “on Hallowe’en” with bonfires on Sentinel Hill. In “The Man of Stone,” the sorcerer “Mad Dan” Morris attempts to sacrifice the Black Goat “at Hallow Eve” and to perform “the Great Rite that would open the gate.” Although in “Dreams in the Witch House” Walter Gilman meets Nyarlathotep at the infant-sacrificing Black Mass on Walpurgisnacht, both Brown Jenkin and “childish cries” manifest “near Hallowmass” as well.

The titular “Very Old Folk” plot their ceremonies for “the first night before the kalends of November” (October 31). The Cthulhu cult in the bayou south of New Orleans kidnapped their victims the night before November 1, 1907, i.e., on October 31. In both of those stories and “Dreams in the Witch House,” the holiday requires human sacrifice: spirit or energy sent through the gate even as the dead mass to travel the other way on All Souls’ Night (November 2). Even the gods themselves are constrained by the calendar: In “The Curse of Yig,” the Lord of Serpents sends “his monstrous children on “All-Hallows’ Night” (technically November 1). And finally, Joseph Curwen’s spell to manipulate fate (and Yog-Sothoth?) must be intoned on May 3 and October 31, or as the ancient wizard put it himself: “This Verse repeate eache Roodemas and Hallow’s Eve; and ye Thing will breede in ye Outside Spheres.”

“Not a breath of the strange grey gods of change
   That tore from the past its own
Can quicken this hour, when a spectral power
   Spreads sleep o’er the cosmic throne,
   And looses the vast unknown.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “Hallowe’en in a Suburb” (1926)

But why would cosmic forces such as Yog-Sothoth, Cthulhu, and Nyarlathotep care about Halloween? The arbitrary quartering of the northern hemisphere’s calendar is just that, and questions of goat-breeding time, winter wheat harvest, or even the returning dead should seem irrelevant to the Great Old Ones. Halloween isn’t a holiday to these forces, it’s a marker, a regular shift in the curves and angles of Euclidean space-time. Lovecraft’s narrator L. Caelius Rufus gives us the clue in “The Very Old Folk”: “The whole cohort now remained at a standstill, and as the torches faded I watched what I thought were fantastic shadows outlined in the sky by the spectral luminosity of the Via Lactea as it flowed through Perseus, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, and Cygnus.”

Cetus, by Johannes Hevelius (1690)

It’s not the earthly dead that matter on Halloween. It’s the stars, which perhaps almost come right that night. The Pleiades, for instance, rise in the east in October and November, and are directly overhead at midnight on November 21. But twelve hundred years or so ago (call it the 9th century), they were overhead at midnight on October 31 — more than enough reason, say people who like precession no more than I do, and accurate chronology much less, for the Druids (or whoever) to mark that date as Samhain. The Pleiades thus represent the dead, a cluster of dim stars (some still invisible to all but the best Sight) brightening briefly as they return.

What else can we see in the skies just before “the Kalends of November,” then? In Lovecraftian sky lore, we can take note of Algol, the “Demon-Star” from “Beyond the Wall of Sleep.” An angry red variable, Ptolemy identified it (based on much older tradition) as the eye in the head of Medusa wielded by Perseus. But Algol is only one of four variable stars all in the Halloween sky, all in constellations associated with the myth of Perseus: Delta Cephei, Gamma Cassiopiae, and Omicron Ceti, also called Mira, which falls just on the sky’s meridian at midnight. Being variable stars, they make admirable keys to the lock of dimensions, and perhaps their shifting wavelengths just happen to combine or resonate on Halloween: the stars aren’t right that night, but they’re less wrong than on any other date.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia are Andromeda’s parents, Algol is Perseus’ weapon, and Cetus … Cetus is a giant sea monster turned to stone by Medusa’s head. The name “Cetus” comes from the Greek ketos, meaning “sea monster” or, intriguingly, “abyss.” Its further etymology is unknown, but we do have that C-t combo to inspire us to speculation. (In Hawaii the constellation is called Kuhi, another evocative name; in China it was Xuánwu, the “Black Tortoise” depicted with serpentine extrusions.) Early Christian astronomers just followed Ovid and called it Belua Ponti, “the Beast of the Sea,” while the late Chaldean astronomer Berossus may have called it Thalatté, a variation on Tiamat, the Chaos Serpent (cognate with the Hebrew tahom, “the Abyss”).

C-t and Th-l, now. Manilius describes Cetus in the (1st century CE) Astronomicon: “Ocean clamors in every quarter, and the very mountains and crags quake at the creature’s onset.” A mountain walked … or stumbled. Return with me to the myth again: Perseus wields the head of Medusa (Algol) to petrify Cetus, the Abyssal Monster. A variable star — a change in the stars — turns C-t/Th-l to stone, or perhaps merely seals him up in stone. Manilius or Berossus or Ptolemy guessed (or perhaps knew) that these four variable stars were the four keys to awakening the Great Old Ones. They linked each of them with the tale of Andromeda knowing that every year the tale retells itself in heaven: Cetus is unleashed and frozen again in a night. A very special night that we call Halloween.

by Rob Heinsoo

One of the great touches that Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan added to the unique hellholes he created for the upcoming Book of Demons is a customized random demon ability table for each hellhole. While developing the book, I realized that Gareth’s work was pointing to something that has bothered me for a while: I’m not fond of the way I designed the original Random Demon Abilities Table (13th Age core rulebook, page 209). My problem with the table I wrote for the core book is that several of the abilities it generates don’t often make the game more fun. A couple of the abilities (true seeing, resist fire) are irrelevant in many battles. Another ability, gating in a lower level demon, is interesting (and highly traditional!), but adding another lower level enemy to a fight interferes with pacing and may not warrant the trouble.

There are still times I’ll use the original table, but I’m more likely to use one of Gar’s customized tables or the new table I’ve added to the monster-stats section of Book of Demons. Here’s the new table.

There’s a bit more commentary on sources of random demon abilities and using the new table in the book. As you’ll see, the point of these new abilities is that they’re most always capable of having some form of impact on a battle. In one case, that impact could even be on future sessions.

New Random Demon Abilities (d6 or d8)

1: Deathwish—The demon takes a –2 penalty to all defenses and gains a +3 attack bonus.

2: Entropic warp—When an enemy deals miss damage to the demon, that enemy also takes half that amount of damage.

3: Bad ending—While staggered, the demon gains a +2 bonus with its attacks.

4: Big hate: Each battle, the demon gains a +4 attack bonus until the end of the battle against the first enemy that hits it with an attack.

5: Loophole—When the demon starts its turn with 10 hit points or fewer, it can teleport out of the battle as a move action. If it does it will return to face the PCs soon. Add the full-strength demon to an upcoming battle as a nasty complication to an upcoming battle, having it teleport in during the first or second round of combat. (Champion tier: 25 hp or fewer; epic tier: 50 hp or fewer).

6: Teleport 1d3 times each battle—As a move action, the demon can teleport anywhere it can see nearby.

7: Demonic speed—The demon can take an extra action each turn while the escalation die is 4+.                                                                                                                                                             

8: Theft of fate—At the start of each round, the demon rolls a hard save. If the save succeeds, it steals the escalation die that round, adding the escalation die to its own attacks but preventing the PCs from adding the die to their attacks.

 

In the latest episode of their nutrient-rich podcast, Ken and Robin talk green children of Woolpit, a granola bar ethos, auteurism, and the death of Henry V.

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