In the latest episode of their copiously authenticated podcast, Ken and Robin talk forgery vs magic, drama scenes that matter, and Ken vs Powell’s.

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.

The LARP season is upon us. Cat and I are off to Poland to play Fairweather Manor, then it’s Consequences, and On Location. I am relatively new to live action roleplaying, but I’ve really taken to it – I recommend it to anyone who enjoys table top roleplaying.  With our recruitment of an administrative assistant underway as well, we are rather squeezed for time, so this will be short. Nonetheless, we have a new Dex Raymond adventure for Cthulhu Confidential High Voltage Killour gorgeous new limited edition  Cthulhu Confidential Limited Edition, and The 13th Age Bestiary 2 is out as a PDF.

13th Age

The Book of Demons has been polished into shape, and it’s finally ready to lay out. I am sorry it’s taken so long – the Demonologist has been a tricky class to create, but it’s been thoroughly playtested, and it’s ready to step out of the shadows and summon up some trouble.

Fire & Faith and the Map Folio is with the printers.

Rob continues to work on Book of Ages and Shards of the Broken Sky.

And, The 13th Age Bestiary 2 is available for order now as a PDF.

Everything Else

Sorry for my brevity – there will be a fuller article next month.


Happy Hallowe’en! We’ve got a spookily themed See Page XX for you this month, with articles on incorporating this most gamerish of holidays into your Pelgrane games, as well as looks at GUMSHOE-adjacent TV shows like Stranger Things 2 and Star Trek: Discovery.

We were very excited to see the beautiful Cthulhu Confidential Limited Edition at Gen Con, and this month, it can be yours, too. We’ve also got the PDF of the 13th Age Bestiary 2, and the latest PDF adventure for Cthulhu Confidential, the Dex Raymond adventure High Voltage Kill, available now.

New Releases


13th Age

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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 for requesting this adaptation.)


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.




(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.



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!


Face Madness and Corruption… Alone!

This beautiful faux-leatherbound version of the first GUMSHOE One-2-One game comes in rich black, embossed with gleaming silver. It includes a limited edition bookplate signed by all three authors.

Langston Wright is an African-American war veteran and scholar in WW2-era Washington, DC. Vivian Sinclair is The New York Herald’s most determined scoop-hound in 1930s NYC. And Dex Raymond is a hard-boiled private detective with a nose for trouble in 1930s Los Angeles.

Each is a lone investigator, equipped with smarts, fists, and just maybe a code of honor, uncovering their town’s secret truths. But what happens when you scratch the veneer of human malfeasance to reveal an eternal evil—the malign, cosmic indifference of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos?

You get Cthulhu Confidential™.

You get GUMSHOE One-2-One™.

Buy now

Cthulhu Confidential Limited Edition features three protagonists each in their own setting, with three fully-featured adventure, which serve as a complete model for further mysteries of your creation.

The Fathomless Sleep

How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.


Fatal Frequencies

In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?


Capitol Colour

Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops, and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?



Buy now

Stock #: PELGOC01L Authors: Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, Ruth Tillman
Artists: Stephanie Brown, Jérôme Huguenin, Christian Knutsson, Anthony Moravian, Leonard O’Grady Pages: 328 pages, casebound book






Already got your book, and have a question about page 8? Check out this post.

Spine-Tingling L.A. Mythos Noir from the Casefiles of Dex Raymond

You are Dex Raymond: a hard-boiled L.A. private eye with a nose for trouble. Equipped with your smarts, fists, and just maybe a code of honor, your job is to walk the streets of this dirty town and uncover its darkest secrets. But when your production designer Source Max Weyl puts you on the case of missing and dangerous movie props, the laboratory set pieces from 1931’s Frankenstein, you encounter a man so determined to get revenge he’s willing to kill anyone who gets in his way, be it bystander, cop, or hardboiled private eye. Can you solve the case with your hide—and sanity—intact?

“High Voltage Kill” is the fourth PDF adventure for Cthulhu Confidential™. This one-GM, one-player RPG drops your hero into a noir nightscape where, beneath the merely human corruption, an eternal evil lurks: the malign, cosmic indifference of HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos!




Stock #: PELGOC05D Author: Robin D. Laws
Artist: Christian Knutsson, Laura Martin Type: 38-page PDF

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by Mike Shea

We live in a marvelous time for tabletop roleplaying games. Over the past ten years we’ve seen an explosion of wonderful game systems, each bringing a unique take to this hobby we love. We gamemasters can learn a lot by reading, and even playing, as many different RPGs as we can. We can find all sorts of ideas to bring back to our RPG of choice and—who knows—might even find ourselves regularly playing a variety of systems instead of just one. While most RPG players are familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, these other systems bring a unique take on the worlds they help us create.

13th Age is one such system. Its designers took their own vast experience building previous versions of D&D, and refined them into a system they thought would bring the most fun to the game.

Their philosophy diverged from the philosophy of the designers of the fifth edition of D&D, which carries the torch of a 40-year history. 13th Age is not bound by any such history, and thus Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo were free to build the d20 system of their dreams: their love letter to D&D.

With the increasing popularity of 5th edition, more new players and GMs are entering the hobby. This article delves into the ways 13th Age differs from 5e, and the distinctive features that 13th Age brings to the table. These features include:

  • A focus on superheroic fantasy
  • Character relationships with the Icons—the great powers of the world
  • Open backgrounds and “one unique things” that tie characters to the world
  • Escalating power across 10 levels of play
  • Two-dimensional monster design
  • Abstract combat mechanics which are perfect for narrative battles

As GMs, we grow by taking in new experiences and adding them to our previous knowledge. Trying out new game systems is one way to engage in these new experiences. We have no edition wars here: We play no favorites. With such a wide and rich variety of RPGs, we can try many of them out, learn from each of them, steal features we like, and focus on the one that best fits our needs.

So what can 5th edition DMs and players expect from 13th Age? Let’s have a look.

Superheroic Fantasy

At lower levels, D&D 5e focuses on the gritty and realistic feeling of local heroes growing up. Adventurers begin as careful explorers of a large and dangerous world. As they gain experience, their power grows—but not until the highest levels do they begin to change the world around them.

In 13th Age, the characters are powerful and unique beings at the moment of their creation. They aren’t just heroes, they’re superheroes. We can see this both in the mechanics of the game (such as a character’s high initial hit points) and in the flavor of the game (such as defining each character by their One Unique Thing that defines them in the world). As 13th Age characters gain levels, their power grows steeply. They become even more superheroic, roaring across the lands and venturing into the depths of living dungeons.

The world in 13th Age, the Dragon Empire, is as superheroic as the characters. The world is a flat disk, with the overworld of flying cities above and the Abyss below. The lands are scarred by hellholes, and trod by beasts as big as cities.

From the very beginning, 13th Age dives into the deep end of high adventure.

The Icons

Most fantasy RPG settings have higher powers, whose agendas and conflicts provide the background for adventures. In D&D, this usually takes the form of a pantheon of gods and demigods, either good or evil (or a bit of both). 13th Age focuses instead on the icons.

These powerful beings, such as the Prince of Shadows, the Elf Queen, the Orc Lord, and the Crusader, rule over the Dragon Empire. They are the movers and shakers in the world. Though mortal, they are rarely threatened in battle. They’re not boss monsters: they’re the moving pillars of the world. The web that lies between the Icons (there are 13 of them in the Dragon Empire) binds the world and weaves the player characters into it, for good and ill.

During character creation, the players decide which icons their character is connected to and whether those connections are positive, negative, or conflicted. The characters may not be powerful at 1st level, but they are important. They are are significant players in, and help define, the larger power struggles of the world.

In addition to signaling to the GM what the players want from the campaign (Lots of magic? Battles with orcs? Heists and intrigue?), the icon mechanics help drive the improvisational aspects of 13th Age, something that the game heavily embraces. At the beginning of each session, the players roll 1d6 for each icon relationship. 1 to 4 mean nothing. 6s offer some advantage to the character based on that relationship. 5s also give an advantage but with some complication.

Backgrounds and the One Unique Thing

In the 5th edition of D&D, characters are defined by their race, class, background, traits, and skills. Race and class selections in 13th Age will feel familiar, but 13th Age combines the aspects of skills and backgrounds into a larger character background feature.

Players create their characters’ backgrounds themselves: there is no pre-existing list of backgrounds to choose from. These backgrounds further define and refine the character and their place in the world. A player invents a number of relevant backgrounds for their character (usually two or three) and assigns eight points among them, with no more than five in any one background.

Whenever a character in 13th Age attempts something that would require a skill check, the player rolls and adds their attribute bonus. If they have a background relevant to the situation, they can add the points they have allocated to that background.

The open-ended nature of these backgrounds help players define their characters’ role in the world. Instead of “Sage”, a player may define part of the world with a background like “former sage of the Crusader’s inquisition, now on the run”.

Example: A paladin with the +3 background “Student in the Hidden Monastery of the Great Gold Wyrm” has to cross a tightrope across a pit. The paladin’s player says to the GM, “The monastery I trained in as a youth sits on a mountain cliffside, and all the buildings are only connected by tightropes. So I’m really good at walking tightropes.” The GM agrees that the +3 bonus applies to this skill check, and quietly writes a note to herself, “Future adventure: party goes to the hidden monastery, has awesome battle on tightropes.”

13th Age characters are further defined by their “one unique thing”. This trait sets their character apart from everyone else in the world. This can be something relatively personal like, “is guided by three ghost witches only she can see” or something larger in scope like, “is the only person in the world who can hear the laments of the Koru”. Like backgrounds, these unique features help the player define parts of the world beyond the bounds of the character sheet.

Abstract Combat

Though we can play the fifth edition of D&D without a map or miniatures, the distances, ranges, and areas of effect in D&D are defined in five foot increments. For this reason, many players and GMs choose to play D&D on a gridded battle map, with each square accounting for five feet of distance.

13th Age ignores fixed distances and instead talks about distances in abstract terms such as “nearby”, “far away”, “grouped”, and “engaged”. While we can play 13th Age with physical maps and miniatures, these abstract distances let us ignore individual squares and focus on the big movements and motions of the characters. These abstract distances still have mechanical effects in the game, such as a fireball being able to hit 1d3 nearby enemies in a group (or 2d3 enemies if you’re willing to hit your friends!).

Because of these abstracted distances, it’s as easy to run a 13th Age battle completely in the “theater of the mind” as it is with miniatures and a map. It also means we don’t have to worry about the small details of things like positioning and specific movement, and can focus on the high fantasy and superheroic action that’s central to 13th Age. Players and GMs who enjoy a map and miniatures can still use them with 13th Age, but we are no longer bound to the squares on those maps. Only relative distances matter.

For players and GMs used to running games on a gridded battle map, this can take some getting used to but it’s worth the effort. Battles in 13th Age feel less like chess and more like an explosive action movie.

Flat Versus Escalating Math

13th Age embraces the drive of superheroic fantasy in the game’s mechanics as well as its story. Those familiar with D&D 5e’s character growth recognize that the statistics of characters grow on a shallow curve (often called “flat math”). Armor classes are set by the armor of the character and don’t increase with the character’s level. A character’s attack bonus does go up with level, but slowly.

In 13th Age, a character’s power grows steeply from level to level. 13th Age only has ten levels but each level feels like two levels of growth in D&D. A 10th level character in 13th Age is roughly equivalent to a 20th level character in D&D 5e.

Not only do attack bonuses, saving throws, and armor classes go up as a character levels but the amount of damage dice a character uses on attacks also increases. Fifth level fighters roll five dice worth of damage on each attack. High level characters roll huge handfuls of dice on attacks, dishing out triple digits of damage. (Although at higher levels of play, to speed things up the rulebook recommends averaging some or all of the damage dice instead of rolling all of them.)

This steep curve once again reinforces the superheroic feeling of 13th Age.

Two Dimensional Monster Design

The monster design in 13th Age follows a design similar to the 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons (but don’t let that scare you away if you weren’t a fan of 4e). Monsters not only have levels, but also sizes or strengths independent of level. These sizes and strengths include mooks, normal monsters, double strength (or large monsters), and triple strength (or huge monsters). These sizes and strengths mean that a level 4 triple strength monster is roughly equivalent to three level 4 characters. This two-dimensional monster design makes it much easier to build “balanced” encounters to challenge a group. A simple chart gives us a gauge of how many monsters of what types will balance well for a party at a given level.

Monsters in 13th Age use static damage instead of rolling dice, which may seem odd at first but becomes totally natural. Like characters, they also scale significantly in power as they level. The balor, for example, dishes out a whopping 160 damage on a single hit with its lightning sword.

Nearly all monsters also have attacks or powers that are triggered by dice results and other circumstances in the battle. For example, here are the balor’s attacks:

Abyssal blade +18 vs. AC—160 damage

Natural even hit: The balor deals +1d20 lightning damage to the target and to one other nearby enemy of the balor’s choice. Then repeat that damage roll against the targets once for each point on the escalation die (so if it’s 4, that’s four more d20 rolls)

Natural even miss: 80 damage.

C: Flaming whip +18 vs. PD (one nearby enemy)—50 fire damage, and the target is pulled to the balor, who engages it.

Natural even miss: 25 fire damage.

Limited use: 1/round, as a quick action.

Because each monster is “scripted” to take action on random die results, they’re capable of surprising both the players and the GM.

A Differentiated Game of High Fantasy

Unbound from the need to embrace the elements of traditional fantasy RPGs, 13th Age gives us an RPG that thrusts us deep into high fantasy. Our characters are big and bold. They’re unique actors in a unique world torn by the forces who rule over it. 13th Age is a world of hellholes and living dungeons. It is a world of floating cities and underground labyrinths. The game system itself embraces this superheroic fantasy with bold mechanics that handwave common wargaming details and thrusts its players into the actions of our limitless imaginations.

I love 13th Age. I also love 5th edition D&D. These games are not mutually exclusive. We can love many roleplaying game systems and each one gives us things we can use in the others. In a single volume, 13th Age gives us a beautiful system of high fantasy roleplaying that every GM should try. Whatever system you prefer, you’re sure to find ideas in 13th Age you can use in any system. And who knows? It just might become your system of choice.

Mike Shea is a writer, gamer, technologist, and webmaster for the D&D website Sly Flourish. Mike has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and wrote the books The Lazy Dungeon Master and Sly Flourish’s Fantastic Locations. Mike lives in Vienna, Virginia with his gamer wife Michelle and their dire worg Jebu.

“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.

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