The book has been written.

The book has been read.

Now it rewrites you.

Across time it spreads, creating dread new realities.

And you’re in all of them.

Written and designed by GUMSHOE master Robin D. Laws, YKRPG takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines.

Inspired by Robert W. Chambers’ influential cycle of short stories, it pits the characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. This suppressed play, once read, invites madness or a visit from its titular character, an alien ruler intent on invading and remolding our world into a colony of his planet, Carcosa.

Four books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront your players with an epic journey into reality horror:

  • Belle Époque Paris, where a printed version of the dread play is first published. Players portray American art students in its absinthe-soaked world, navigating the Parisian demimonde and investigating mysteries involving gargoyles, vampires, and decadent alien royalty.
  • The Wars, an alternate reality in which the players take on the role of soldiers bogged down in the great European conflict of 1947. While trying to stay alive on an eerie, shifting battlefield, they investigate supernatural mysteries generated by the occult machinations of the Yellow King and his rebellious daughters.
  • Aftermath, set later in the same reality, in 2017 North America. A bloody insurrection has toppled a dictatorial regime loyal to Carcosa. Players become former partisans adjusting to ordinary life, trying to build a just society from the ashes of civil war. But not all of the monsters have been thoroughly banished—and like it or not, they’re the ones with the skills to hunt them and finish them off.
  • This is Normal Now. In the 2018 we know, albeit one subtly permeated by supernatural beings and maddening reality shifts, ordinary people band together, slowly realizing that they are the key to ending a menace spanning eras and realities.

New GUMSHOE features include:

  • A completely new player-facing combat system.
  • A fresh, evocative approach to wounds, physical and psychic, inspired by the innovations of GUMSHOE One-2-One.
  • Linked character creation across multiple settings.

Status: In playtest

Pre-order now

During the Kickstarter for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, I laid out one method of serving Shock and Injury cards to players electronically, as image files sent to a mobile-enabled platform. At that time, I recommended using Google Photos for this purpose. Belatedly I realize that there was a better way to do it, using the workspace application Slack.

Here’s how to do that:

If you haven’t done so already, create a Slack workspace for your game group.

(I now find this an essential tool for my group, no matter what we’re playing. The Polly poll app, for example, gives you a handy way to conduct an advance roll call and make sure you have quorum before anyone grabs their dice and heads your way.)

Within the workspace, create a separate channel for each player character. Depending on how well you remember PC names, you may want to name it after the character, or place the player’s name before or after the investigator name. Slack doesn’t allow spaces or upper case letters in channel names so you’ll have to resort to underscores:

#ella_wharton

#noelle_ella_wharton

#ella_wharton_noelle

Alternately, you could serve cards into the private message inbox of each player. However, some players like to use that for banter, out of game arrangements and other side business. Creating a channel for each player keeps that clear for cards and in-game notes, and reminds other players of the cast of investigators.

Also, if a member of your group is without a mobile device, they can sit next to a player with a laptop or tablet. With a little looking over-the-shoulder, the obliging device owner can switch between channels as needed to allow the other person to check their cards in hand.

When a character receives a Shock or Injury card, you upload it to the appropriate channel. You can do this directly from a folder if using a laptop. On a tablet, you can put the card images in Dropbox and share them from that service’s mobile app into the Slack app.

Slack permits only the creator of a message line to delete that line, so when a player discards a card, you’ll have to delete it in order for it to disappear. Be sure your players let you know when they fulfill a discard condition.

We’re currently assembling materials for our YKRPG resources page, including image files for each card. If you need them before we get that done, you can check the books for the cards you think you’ll need and turn them into images. Accomplish this either by screenshotting the PDF or by opening the PDF in an image editing program such as GIMP. Then crop the cards into separate images, save with the card titles as file names, and you’re good to go.

Some GMs will still prefer the tactile quality of paper cards printed, cut up, and handed to players. But for those, like me, who consider immediate access to all the cards in the game the ideal, a Slack full of pallid masks and black stars should do the trick.

People Have Opinions about service platforms. If you come up with an even better way, let us know!

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

This is the second in a series of four columns demonstrating what a full arc of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game might look like, with events from my own game as an example.

In The Wars, the players leave behind the roles of Belle Epoque art students, becoming soldiers in the 1947 Continental War. As French soldiers, they fight on the Loyalist side, with the identity of the enemy, the Crowns, determined in part by the events they played out in Paris. In that game they worked with the German foreign office against the Yellow Sign conspiracy—so here, the French and Germans are democratic allies against the authoritarian English, Russians, and Nordic nations. Your Paris game will probably inspire in a different configuration of forces when you get to The Wars.

Characters were:

 

Player

Character

Civilian Occupation

Drive

Damn Peculiar Thing

Connection

to Previous PC

Chris

Sgt Cerf

Career Military

 

 

 

Duty

Recurring nightmares about the coming mission – fake tanks are filled with corpses whose faces he knows

Comes from family of longtime anti-Carcosan operatives, Gus was grizzled American friend

Justin

Pvt Jean Edouard

Writer

Curiosity

entered an empty plain and was surrounded by spectral horsemen

had Aaron’s old diaries

Paul

Pvt Marc Logres

Med Student

Heard grandpa’s stories about Carcosa

On three occasions, food in the mess tin look like topographical features – then you’ve gone on a mission to that place and found a mutilated corpse–face gone but the same person maybe?

Georges’ grandson

Shel

Pvt Ange Vanel

Photographer

Morbid Curiosity

ran into a woman who looked like one from the book of portraits

has a book of Ida’s portraits

Scott

Pvt Thomas Gerard

Merchant

Can-Do Attitude

Voices on the camo recordings are saying his name

supplied O’Brien’s architectural firm with building materials

Sue

Lt Rose Cheval

Career Military

Vindication

sky turned white and the rest of the platoon was killed

Jurie

Pvt Georges Renard

Accountant

Truth

saw that people were made of paper and tore apart a little girl

 

(This is the list of characters as of the end of the series, with replacement characters coming in after the deaths of original PCs. Hence, Lt. Cheval’s lack of a connection to a Paris character. Jurie joined us in progress, and so had no Paris PC to link up to.)

For this series I assigned my players the premise I figured they’d find the most fun and flexible: they became a Shadow Squadron, engaged in advanced camouflage activities, with the occasional foray into intelligence operations.

Sometimes my players like to squeeze every last drop of soup from the bones. When I ran the scenario from the book, “A Feast for Wolves,” they spent four sessions on it. I imagine that will remain something of a record. Again, I don’t want to spoil the contents of the published adventures, so let’s just say they took the option that required the most reactive improvisation from the GM. So it became much more of an epic than you see on the page.

Week five was a haunted house / constrained location scenario, with the wartime twist being that the squad couldn’t leave the scary place because they’d been ordered to hold it as a strategic location. This was the session in which the terrible cries of foxes became an ongoing horror motif that continued to echo through the rest of the arc. I’ve already described it in detail here.

Week six, “The Installation”, had the group investigating weird activity around a French research facility. They discovered a mad science experiment to imbue walkers—the many-legged equivalent of tanks in this reality—with the consciousnesses of unwilling experimental subjects. Addhema, their vampire Big Bad from Paris, made her return as the brigadier general in charge of the program. When your villain is immortal, her reappearance two generations later requires no additional explanation.

The next two sessions featured another reimagining of an opponent from Paris, as the group discovered that a town they’d been sent to spread disinformation in was under attack from animated statues, including a winged Salome. Deep in the woods, they found the studio of a now elderly Gus Morley, Chris’ character from the previous sequence. Now played as as GMC, I ensured that he was as truculent as a typical Chris character. So of course Chris’ current character grew impatient with him and shot him dead. I would never second-guess my players in public, and so won’t mention that the group hadn’t gotten the clues from him when the fatal point of annoyance was reached. GUMSHOE promises that you can get all the information if you look in the right place with the right ability, not that you won’t pull your sidearm and shoot the information dead when it mouths off to you.

Weeks nine and ten found the group on assassination prevention detail, as a supernatural killer sent by the Crowns attempted to take out the French high commander—Isaac Philipson, the baby from Carcosa introduced at the end of the Paris sequence, now an adult. Addhema made another appearance as a trusted ally of Philipson’s—again in a position where the group was unable to move against her.

Next came a classic murder mystery in a military setting, as the group tried to figure out which member of an infantry squadron killed their medic. They found their culprits, who had been driven to homicidal unreason by exposure to the terrible play, The King in Yellow.

The twelfth week foreshadowed the coming big battle sequence. The squadron was reassigned from camouflage duty to muster for an assault against enemy-occupied Marseilles. As Loyalist forces massed, the group learned that soldiers were falling prey to mysterious fratricidal urges. They traced this malign influence to a ghostly figure of vengeance luring the unwary to a woodside brothel.

A final two-parter culminated in a set-piece action sequence that sent the squad plunging through Marseilles as climactic battle raged all around them. When the characters took refuge in the sewers, I introduced the cross-reality motif by having them bump into weird scientists from our modern day.

In the end they captured Camilla and took her to Cassilda (or was it the other way around?), and one revealed the suicide vest that destroyed them both—along with several of the PCs.

Or did it destroy anyone but the mortals?

With a big finish to this sequence, but also more unanswered questions, we were ready to move on to Aftermath, which I’ll encapsulate next month.


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

 

…didn’t stay in Paris

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the key distinguishing features of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is its quadruple arc structure. When played in its fullest campaign mode, your YKRPG series spans four timelines/realities, with connections between the four sets of PCs reverberating from the past of Paris, to the weird battleground of The Wars, to the alternate post-revolutionary Aftermath and finally to what looks a lot like our present day in This is Normal Now.

As our publication date draws closer, I thought GMs would find it useful to see an example of how this works in play. Over the this and the next three editions of this column I’ll be sharing a precis of my own series, starting with the events of Paris as revealed by the choices of my players.

Characters were:

 

Player

Character

Field

Drive

Deuced Peculiar Business

Chris Huth

Augustus “Gus” Morley

Sculptor

Ennui

That organ didn’t look like it was designed to play by itself—and I didn’t see anyone entering or leaving the organist’s booth

Justin Mohareb

Aaron Ravenwood

Poet

Family Propensity

strange shoreline, staring up at a bone white sky with ebony stars

Paul Jackson

Georges Dubois

Landscape Painter

Thirst for Inspiration

instead of the cathedral he’d drawn a stone circle atop a hill with a human sacrifice being performed by something that is not quite human

Shel Kahn

Ida Phillipson

Portrait Painter

Taste for Danger

Followed a tall dark haired woman, to a place without time

Scott Wachter

Arthur O’Brien

Architect

Youthful Naivete

Followed by winking lion-faced gargoyles

Susan Davis

Sophie Dupleix

Muse

Taste for Decadence

her man is gone and so is his house and no one remembers him

 

As you’ll see, some of the Deuced Peculiar Businesses selected by the players bubbled up into the plotline more than others.

The first two episodes I improvised in response to Sophie’s Deuced Peculiar Business, the disappeared lover. This represented a very strong choice on Susan’s part, as it created an immediate crisis that had to be dealt with. I decided to weave this into an opportunity for the group to pick up a patron to help nudge them along the path to occult investigator status. My players respond well to a bit of external help and ongoing motivation. You might go in another direction with a group that prefers to sandbox their way toward a storyline.

The hunt for Sophie’s man, Henri Cheval, led to agents of the German foreign office intent on quelling the growing influence of the Yellow Sign. For a supernatural menace, I took advantage of the fact that we had a sculptor in the crew, making the antagonist one of his statues. Because of course it had gained sinister animation.

I had already used the same plot device in an earlier preview run for the Pelgrane crew and recommend it as a choice that reliably delivers.

Our art students heroes discovered that Gus’ statue of Salome had eaten the son of their future German patron and arranged for it to be melted in a foundry. They also gained the first inklings of the Carcosa conspiracy, including the possibility that they had somehow aided the publication of The King in Yellow during some kind of memory fugue.

These events took two sessions. The next two we devoted to the sample scenario found in the Paris book, “The Ghost of the Garnier.” I won’t spoil it by describing how they solved its mystery.

Sessions five and six featured the appearance of Ida’s overbearingly bubbly mother, Elsie. Mrs. Philipson had discovered a doctor with a miraculous rejuvenating process she intended to bring back to America. As she became as outwardly young as her daughter, the students smelled danger, especially when the doctor’s office was found ransacked and bloodstained. The investigation led to a circle of sorcerers who had granted themselves superhuman powers by pledging themselves to the King in Yellow. The scenario also involved the hideous secret of how medical leeches are farmed, and the first historical figure to appear in the series—the occultist Gerard Encausse, aka Papus.

Session seven was our Christmas episode, in which the group left the city in pursuit of a copy of the play. In a rural village they discovered that it was being used in a ritual to turn an imminent birth into a dread anti-nativity, giving the King a flesh and blood form in our reality. The team dispensed with this threat in time to return to their favorite Parisian student hangout for mulled wine. A great deal of mulled wine.

Sessions eight and nine introduced the broader political implications of the Carcosan menace, as the group investigated an Italian diplomat intent on drawing on the Pallid One’s power to fight his country’s war in Ethiopia. Using the liqueur he employed to contact the king, Ida entered a hallucinatory, dream-like state and was able to converse with the masked overlord, and to again meet his daughter Cassilda. This scenario also recapitulated the events of Robert W. Chambers’ story “The Yellow Sign”, pitting the group against a corpse animated by the king.

Week ten was another one-shot, in which a vagrant was found murdered near Notre Dame wearing a coat he had stolen from Arthur. This led to his Deuced Peculiar Business, as the cathedral’s gargoyles turned out to be the culprit, and him their real quarry. The art students pioneered explosive munitions by deploying a device called a land torpedo against the gargoyles.

The final three weeks of the Paris sequence introduced a new Big Bad—the Comtesse de Potocki, eventually revealed to be the legendary vampire Addhema, as seen in Paul Feval’s wildly pulpy 1865 novel The Vampire Countess. After plenty of obstacles, mind control, and barbed mockery from an opponent too powerful to defeat directly, they pestered their foe enough to prompt her to abandon her Paris HQ.

In parallel with this struggle, in another liqueur-fueled journey to Carcosa, Ida met with Cassilda and was given a baby to “take care of.” Choosing to interpret this instruction in a kinder light than the Carcosan princess clearly meant, she brought the baby, named Isaac, back to earth.

I could have spun out another episode or two to bring the Paris sequence to a conclusive end, but instead chose a sudden shift to The Wars, where Isaac Philipson’s story would continue. For more on that, tune in next month.


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


We can say relatively little for certain about the life of Robert W. Chambers, but it is clear from his work that knew France and its history. For this reason it is tempting to believe that the name Hildred Castaigne, unreliable narrator and protagonist of the classic Yellow King story “The Repairer of Reputations,” took its inspiration from the early 19th century murderer Edme Castaing.

Castaing, a young and impecunious doctor, befriended a pair of wealthy patients, the brothers Auguste and Hippolyte Ballet. In 1822, the consumptive Hippolyte died while in Castaing’s care. His fortune went to Auguste, who made Castaing his heir. Half a year later, after drinking wine and then milk given to him by Castaing, Auguste also died after a prolonged fit of vomiting.

Both victims had been in their early twenties. This fact, added to Castaing’s financial activities, triggered official suspicion. Investigation focused on his purchase of a then-new medicine, morphine, before the deaths. Castaing was arrested and tried for murder. The jury found him innocent of Hippolyte’s death but guilty of destroying his will, and of murdering Auguste. He went to the guillotine on December 6, 1823.

In the entangled realities of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, the mere difference of a few letters in a surname doesn’t stop us from identifying Castaing as an unlucky link in the dynastic chain running from the Pallid King to Hildred Castaigne. He had all the sinister predilections of his family without a Mr. Wilde to fully usher him to his destiny.

Ghosts feature heavily in Chambers’ other, lesser horror tales. In keeping with those, the characters from your Paris sequence could meet up with this earlier, slightly misspelled member of the bloodline in phantom form. Perhaps they encounter Castaing’s shade at the Place de Greve, the site of his guillotining. Or in Saint-Cloud, the bucolic Parisian suburb where he poisoned Auguste, during their stay at the Tête Noire Hotel.

Like other Chambers ghosts, Edme might not look or sound dead at all. He could seal his friendship with the occult-busting art students with much-needed medical treatment. His unearthly healing powers might allow the discarding of Injury cards that aren’t normally gotten rid of with a First Aid success. Over time Edme might abuse his friendly GMC status to mislead the group into spreading the influence of the Yellow King, increasing his own powers. Only by researching the seventy-year-old story of Edme Castaing can the group discover that their apparent benefactor is neither alive nor on their side.

Naturally, if he suspects they’re onto him, he’ll reach for the syringe full of phantasmal morphine he keeps in that little black bag of his.


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

 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is now out of my hands and progressing through the next stages of production on its way to actuality.

Thanks to the eagle efforts of our dauntless playtesters, I received lots of extremely useful feedback on game play, resulting in a number of changes to the final version.

Kickstarter backers have a preview version representing the state of the manuscript as of mid-summer last year. Playtesters saw and played intermediate versions from the fall and then the end of last year.

The most consistent message from testers was that the game was deadlier than I thought, cycling through PCs at a higher than expected rate.

And here I was worrying, based on the foe-smashing exploits of my own in-house group, that the combat system was too lenient!

If you have a previous draft, then, you’ll see a number of changes to lengthen investigator lifespan.

Foe Difficulties have been scaled down.

More of the foes at the higher end of the Relative Challenge scale now appear with additional ways to lower their Difficulty numbers by gaining information about them before you fight them.

Starting general ability build points have been nudged upwards, to give you more points to spend on key survival abilities.

Perhaps most effectively, the text now explicitly gives players guidelines for the number of points the system expects them to invest in such character-preserving abilities as Fighting, Composure, Athletics and (in The Wars) Battlefield.

Also in The Wars, Scrounging, a theme for an ability in search of a vital game purpose, can now be used to refresh other characters’ Battlefield ability. That’s what you use to avoid bombs, barrages and other means of mass death on the front lines of the Continental War. Scrounging now mirrors the way Morale can be used to boost Composure for PCs in that sequence and in Aftermath.

To complete the adjustment, GMs can now choose between two toughness settings, Horror and Occult Adventure modes. In Horror, your character leaves play after accumulating 3 Injury cards or 3 shock cards. The more forgiving Occult Adventure mode takes you out after 4 Injury or 4 Shock cards.

Another common theme in playtest reports: players hated paying Tolls. These mandatory point spends, which you can make from any combo of Athletics, Fighting and Health, model the low-grade wear and tear you suffer even when you win a fight. Weaker foes now have Tolls of 0, so you don’t start to deal with Tolls until you’re fighting someone big and bad. Also, Tolls dropped across the board.

I didn’t dump them entirely. Experience with past systems has shown that players also resist a combat system that lets them emerge from a victory totally unscathed. The final rule strikes a balance between two opposing flavors of cognitive dissonance.

On my final design pass I eliminated a number of rules that went unmentioned by playtesters and unused in my own group. They hit the cutting room floor for not generating enough engagement to justify their presence.

In Aftermath I removed War Footing, a state of high alert players used to be able to declare for their characters. It gave them a bonus to Fighting and a penalty to Composure—the idea that they were risking their hard-won adjustment to civilian life by falling back into their insurgent mindset. War Footing didn’t get used because players had to remember to invoke it, and already had plenty of other stuff to think about. Also it has to be a hard tradeoff to achieve its thematic end, and brains don’t like those. As one of those ideas that shows a certain logic on paper but never pays off in practice, War Footing hit the bricks.

Another rule that added complexity for a thematic payoff that paid off was a distinction, in This is Normal Now, between sapient and non-sapient Foes. My original thought was that it ought to be harder for the ordinary people of that final sequence to kill intelligent beings. In the end I dropped it in favor of a simpler set of foe difficulties. If the distinction had factored into player decisions in an interesting way it could have justified its existence. But in an investigative game a Difficulty bonus doesn’t much change who the PCs choose to attack and who to run from. So out it went.

The greatest number of revision waves happened in the Shock and Injury card sections. Familiarity with play honed my feel for the sorts of effects and discards that made a splash, and which ones fell flat, were hard to implement, or rarely applied.

So for example The Tremors, a workhorse, low-intensity Shock card, started its life looking like this:

Your next Interpersonal Push costs 2 Pushes.

Discard after it applies, or at end of scenario.

But in the final version has become more overtly interactive:

-1 to Presence.

Discard by going to a scary location. Discard by initiating an encounter with a scary person, creature or entity.

The updated version prompts action, where the original makes a particular, not terribly common action less likely or impossible.

While remaining true to its core idea that failing to gain information is never entertaining, GUMSHOE has continued to evolve since its debut more than a decade ago.

Someday I may well find myself creating a bunch of new sub-systems for some genre or setting we haven’t tackled before, tossing about half of them before the book goes to layout.

All with the help of our indispensable playtesters, who we can’t thank enough for making our games better.

Collage illustration for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game by Dean Engelhardt


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is Pelgrane’s mind-shattering, era-spanning game of reality horror based on the classic stories of Robert W. Chambers. Coming in December 2018.

As the project increasingly leaves my hands and heads to Pelgrane HQ and post-production, it’s time to show off a smidgen of the reality-shattering art you’ll see in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Brittany’s legendary city of Ys rises from the waves, by Shel Kahn, from Paris

A postcard of malign implication, collage by Dean Engelhardt, from Paris

Weeping mines descend on a battlefield, by Melissa Gay, from The Wars

Battle for the Imperial Palace, by Jessica TC Lee, from Aftermath

The Surveiller Surveilled, by Aaron Aurelio Acevedo, from This is Normal Now

Absinthe in Carcosa cover by Jérôme Huguenin (text placement in progress)

Character sheet from The Wars, by Christian Knutsson


A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game rules debut a new iteration of GUMSHOE, which we’re calling QuickShock GUMSHOE.

The name combines two of the features of the new rules set:

  1. combats take way takes less time than in standard GUMSHOE
  2. mental setbacks a character may suffer in the course of a scenario are represented by Shock cards (in place of the depleting Stability pools from standard GUMSHOE)

You can also take Injury cards, representing physical harm. But QuickInjury just didn’t seem as appealing a name, brand-wise.

I’ll get back to those features in a moment, but let’s first look at a third point of departure between classic and QuickShock GUMSHOE: Pushes.

In YKRPG, Investigative abilities no longer have pools or ratings. You take the ability, or get it as part of a package of such abilities, and you’re done. No point allocation, no other decisions to make during character generation.

That speeds up the character creation process, a goal I’ve been pursuing since The Gaean Reach and its ability packages.

Instead of points variously arranged between Investigative abilities, you get two Pushes. You can spend a Push exactly as you would a point spend in classic GUMSHOE: to get any non-informational benefit from an Investigative ability.

Mostly you can refresh your Pushes once per scenario.

This recognizes the general rarity of Investigative point spends in play. Most players use them maybe once or twice per scenario. This approach, lifted in its entirety from Cthulhu Confidential, spares players a relatively complex decision set at the beginning of a game, and simplifies the process of getting special benefits during play.

I’m not even sure I want to call this a part of QuickShock, as it’s entirely modular. You could borrow it right now and plunk it into any GUMSHOE game, gaining the same advantage, without adjusting anything else about Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Night’s Black Agents, or whatever other current rules set you’re using.

The rest of QuickShock does all fit together, and would require considerable adjustment to retroactively install into any of our existing games.

Classic GUMSHOE combat takes a more-or-less familiar approach to RPG fights, with initiative, a series of rounds, damage dealt to foes when you hit, and a hit point-adjacent resource slowly ticking down into a danger zone for PCs and enemies alike.

QuickShock instead collapses the fight into one Fighting test per player.

(It also treats Fighting as a single ability, with no distinctions between weapon types or ranged versus close combat. You could however conceivably re-complicate QuickShock to bring multiple combat abilities back in.)

Order in which tests get taken matters only in generating suspense, and in how you choose to narrate. Unlike initiative it doesn’t alter the outcome of a fight.

Against tough foes even a winning combatant may have to spend a few points from a supplied list of abilities, called a Toll. This represents the attrition you’d undergo in a fight that musses you a bit without any other lasting consequence.

The GM no longer rolls dice for your foes. Instead players test against a Difficulty number for a foe, which varies depending on which setting of the game you’re in, and most crucially, the collective objective you’re fighting for.

You might be trying to kill your opponent, as is the case in most RPG fights. But you could be pursuing other goals, from escape to grabbing an object and getting out of there, to blowing through an enemy position, to laying down a non-fatal beatdown and walking away.

After everyone makes that one Fighting test, describing what they’re doing, and the GM adds narration reflecting their success or failure, the running total of results is tallied. If it meets or beats 0, the players win and achieve their goal. If not, the foe wins.

Even when the bad guy triumphs, characters only die if they now have too many Injury cards.

Too many = either 3 or 4, depending on whether the game takes place in the dangerous Horror mode or the more forgiving Occult Adventure setting.

Whether or not the group won, characters who failed their Fighting tests take Injury cards. Each foe profile supplies a Minor and Major Injury card. If your margin (difference between target and result) is greater than 2, you take the Major Injury.

Each type of foe dishes out a distinctive brand of hurt, more flavorful and consequential than a loss of Health points. How you get rid of them also varies from card to card.

A fight outcome you see all the time in movies and fiction finds the heroes beaten by the bad guys and dealt a setback, without any of them winding up dead. With their emphasis on dealing and taking damage, traditional RPG combats can give you this result in theory. In practice they rarely ever do. With QuickShock that outcome, the most common form of defeat in the source material, is also the most common one in the game. This opens up all kinds of narrative possibilities we traditionally struggle to pull off—like multiple fights against the big bad until you finally bring it down.

You can also take Injury cards when failing other tests, against for example Athletics or Health, when confronted by physical danger outside of combat. A tree falls on you, or you tumble down into a crypt, or you succumb to poison. The GM picks a pair of Injury cards that matches the situation, and you hope your General ability spend plus roll beats the Difficulty, so you don’t get a card.

In YKRPG, mental and emotional hazards can land you with Shock cards, which work exactly the same way, but employ the Composure ability.

For added context, check out this post for some sample cards.

You could in theory do a QuickShock game with only Injury cards. We might do that in future when we tackle a genre where your mental resistance doesn’t matter as much as it does in horror.

I wouldn’t want to see every GUMSHOE game use QuickShock. Night’s Black Agents, for example, needs more rule handles for its guns versus vamps premise to wrap itself around. But for YKRPG I’m more than pleased with the results and looking forward to seeing it reach more game tables.

Collage illustration for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game by Dean Engelhardt


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is Pelgrane’s mind-shattering, era-spanning game of reality horror based on the classic stories of Robert W. Chambers. Coming in December 2018.

 

A steady improvement curve for heroes makes sense in certain roleplaying genres. Fighting foes, getting stuff from them, and becoming increasingly powerful is not incidental to F20—it’s the core activity. The journey of a D&D character from first to twentieth level mirrors that of Conan as he progresses from scruffy barbarian to implacable king. Improvement features in other genres, too: training sequences are a staple element of “Arrow” and “The Flash,” for example. (Though I’d argue they’re more about getting bonuses for the problem of the week than permanent changes to the character sheet.)

That kind of zero-to-hero career trajectory doesn’t feature in the mystery genre. We don’t see Sherlock Holmes gradually eke his way to polymath status, or Marlowe progress from greenhorn to jaded private eye. That goes double for occult investigators, from Constantine to the Winchesters, who if anything go from damaged to more damaged.

GUMSHOE characters start out highly competent, and give players the ability to decide when their best successes occur.

So there’s no intellectual justification for character improvement in GUMSHOE. Neither is there a game balance necessity. Adding General ability points too quickly just throws the system out of whack, forcing an upward adjustment of Difficulty numbers for no good reason but to keep up with the looser ability economy. Investigative ability creep, over time, makes the PCs more similar to one another.

While designing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, I decided to test whether I could get away with curtailing Improvement. Rather than remove it entirely, I started out with an approach where you’d get less than 1 Improvement point per scenario, timed unpredictably:

Improvement Roll

At the conclusion of each scenario (which may have taken one or more sessions), decide who the focus player for that scenario was.

If the scenario sprang from a particular player’s Deuced Peculiar Thing, designate that player as the focus.

Otherwise, pick the player you think took the crucial role in figuring out the scenario’s mystery, or did the most to solve the problem the investigation exposed.

Don’t worry about singling the player out for a special reward. Being the focus carries no particular benefit, but somebody has to do it.

Check to see how many players are holding Shock or Injury cards. Ignore Continuity cards acquired during previous scenarios.

This determines the target number needed for a die roll the focus player makes.

If at least one player has an Injury card and at least one other has a Shock card, the target is 4.

If the group has at least one Injury card but no Shock cards, or vice versa, the target is 5.

If no one was left with an Injury or Shock card, the target is 6.

The focus rolls a die; on a result that meets or beats the target, all players get 2 Improvement points.

You’ll see that this adds complexity in order to arrive at its result—one that players found emotionally frustrating.

Instead I went with something simpler, but more generous—though less so than standard GUMSHOE. You get 1 Improvement point per scenario, full stop.

Although there is no intellectual or structural justification for Improvement in GUMSHOE, another factor trumps that:

Players like it.

They’ve been trained to expect it.

It makes them happy.

So in the end, they get it.

In the collaborative medium of roleplaying games, practice always matters more than theory.

The Internet has certainly jacked up standards for what a GM is supposed to improvise these days.

My home group’s Yellow King Roleplaying Game series has now progressed to the final sequence, the contemporary reality horror of This is Normal Now.

Accordingly, a recent session found several characters wearing Urchins, Fitbit-like devices that can’t be removed, appear to exhibit some kind of sentience, and may be linked to the powers of Carcosa. Or maybe they’re just part of a weird marketing campaign, as at least one PC persists in believing.

Once hooked up to the accompanying phone app, the voice of the Urchin supplies information and exhortations in an unpleasantly chipper manner. Often it concludes its answers with the rote signoff, “Urchin — it’s a lifestyle brand!”

Being stuck in an urchin has already driven one PC to suicide. On the plus side, it has wildly increased another’s Instagram following.

Given verbal access to this possible Yellow King surrogate led one player, Justin Mohareb, to put me to the improvisational test.

He asked Urchin to compose a poem for him.

That had me scrambling to the Quick Poem Generator, which asks for three words of input. I chose Urchin (something belonging to a person) and the two adjectives Carcosan and yellow. This is what it returned, for me to perform aloud in Urchin’s friendly singsong:

Whose urchin is that? I think I know.
Its owner is quite happy though.
Full of joy like a vivid rainbow,
I watch him laugh. I cry hello.
He gives his urchin a shake,
And laughs until her belly aches.
The only other sound’s the break,
Of distant waves and birds awake.
The urchin is yellow, Carcosan and deep,
But he has promises to keep,
After cake and lots of sleep.
Sweet dreams come to him cheap.
He rises from his gentle bed,
With thoughts of kittens in his head,
He eats his jam with lots of bread.
Ready for the day ahead.

All trembled at this chillingly cheerful verse.

In another victory for pattern-seeking within randomness, the reference to “kittens in his head” created an accidental callback to events featuring alternate versions of the PCs in Aftermath. There a swarm of cats came to follow one of the investigators after they got involved with The Process, a franchised service promising to relieve people of their traumatic memories.

In these oh-so normal times, reality horror remains just a Google search away.

——

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Pelgrane’s upcoming RPG of reality horror inspired by the classic tales of Robert W. Chambers, Kickstarted last summer and remains on track for a December 2018 release.

A novel by Robin D. Laws

Imperial America has fallen.

Emperor Castaigne, who ruled the nation with secret police and even more secret sorcery, has fled. The portals that connected him to his rumored source of power, the alien realm of Carcosa, have been destroyed.

After a century of tyranny, democracy has returned to the USA—if those who fought for it have what it takes to keep it.

Along with his loyal crew, the man they called the Technician helped win the struggle. Now he seeks a return to civilian life.

Specifically, he wants to eliminate his job. He repairs the suicide machines known as the Government Lethal Chambers.

His determination to decommission these instruments of death brings him to the People’s Hall. There a generation of political pioneers works to jumpstart a disarrayed provisional administration into a fairly and freely elected government.

But when the body of a murder victim shows up in flagship Lethal Chamber in Washington Square, the Technician sees that the skill set of his crew hasn’t quite gone out of fashion.

The ensuing investigation takes him on a journey through the secrets of the old regime, with fugitive war criminals, haunted hide-outs, urban firefights and dread parageometrical rituals along the way.


Read The Missing and the Lost as a thrilling, thought-provoking mystery of a dread-drenched alternate reality.

Or use it as a model for your sessions of The Yellow King Roleplaying game when you play in its mind-bending Aftermath setting.

Cover reveal pending.

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