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 their planet, Carcosa.

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

  • Belle Epoque 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 2017 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

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.

The Handout to End All Handouts

The City Guide That Shatters Reality

At the end of the 19th century, an American art student went to Paris, read a play, and lost his grip on reality.

The play was called The King in Yellow.

Having read it, head reeling from absinthe, bedeviled by unseen adversaries, he realized that the alien world it described, Carcosa, had sunk its traces throughout the City of Lights.

As he explored Paris in search of its decadent influence, he created a scrapbook. A guide for himself, and for those who would come after him.

Yoked together from existing travelogues, newspapers, and the disquieting ephemera of the occult tradition, it laid out a skewed portrait of a haunted city:

  • Art student life, from hazing rituals to fabulous bacchanals at the Moulin Rouge
  • Hangouts and nightspots, from everyday beaneries to ghoulish cabarets
  • Neighborhoods and attractions, with useful maps
  • Sources of knowledge, from museums to institutes of technology
  • Operations of the justice system, from the city’s police to its prisons
  • Rites of death, from funeral fees to the notorious, bone-stacked catacombs
  • Details of everyday life, including currency, communications, and essential phrases
  • A timeline of recent historical events

In the margins appear the increasingly fervid scrawls of the anonymous compiler. Through them determined investigators of the Yellow Sign mystery will learn:

  • Who to seek aid from
  • Where madness lurks
  • And to never waver in their distrust of clowns

Absinthe in Carcosa is an indispensable city guide for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game and a stunning, full-color visual artifact in its own right.

Give it to your players and let them find the mysteries of Paris.

Or let them buy their own deuced copies and keep their snack-festooned fingers off of your pristine edition.

Brought to you by document blandisher extraordinaire Dean Engelhardt and feverish scribbler supreme Robin D. Laws.

Articles and Interviews

  • All The Yellow King RPG articles
  • Shannon Appelcline speaks to Robin D. Laws on RPG.net
  • Brie Sheldon speaks to Robin D. Laws on their blog
  • Ben Riggs looks at The Yellow King RPG on Geek & Sundry

Miscellaneous

by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Love is eternal… if you’re an alien monstrosity from beyond all sane conceptions of space and time, an undying horror that seethes and defies our pitiful understandings of entropy and existence. For the rest of us, love’s a brief candle, a momentary delusion to distract us from the horror of existence, our cells blindly pushing towards pointless self-replication, perpetuating the cosmic torture upon a million future generations until humanity is mercifully extinguished and there’s nothing left upon the Earth but dust and coleopterans.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Here are three love-themed mythos seeds.

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

(or so they are seeming)

In his house in Rlyeh/Great Cthulhu

(lies dreaming)

A dilettante investigator from a wealthy or influential meets an alluring young woman. She’s charming, eerily beautiful, erudite, and apparently of considerable independent means. Also, she proves to be remarkably well-informed about the Mythos, and is ready to aid the investigators in their struggle against cosmic horrors. All she asks is that the investigator come home with her to Innsmouth to meet her family…

The investigator is in no danger; he’s welcome in Innsmouth. After all, the elders want him to be part of the family. He doesn’t have to stay – in fact, they encourage him to take his bride-to-be home with him. The elders of Dagon intend to establish a second enclave of Cthulhu-worshipping Deep One hybrids, and have chosen the investigator to be the human progenitor of a new line.

How can he refuse? Can the other investigators interrupt the wedding in time?

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yithians in your time-stream want to date you.

One of the investigators suffers a mysterious period of amnesia, during which she acted in a bizarre fashion, travelling to various occult sites and trafficking with ghastly entities. Afterwards, the investigator discovers bizarre messages left for her across the aeons – an archaeological dig in Cyprus finds a statue that’s the image of her, her name crops up in the secret oaths of cults, there are prophecies about her recorded in cryptic passages of the Necronomicon. Eventually, she find a Yithian library buried under the sands of Australia, and there she discovers the truth. She was abducted by the Great Race, and while imprisoned in prehistory, she fell in love with a mighty sorcerer of Hyperborea. Her starcrossed lover swore that he would find his way back to her once they both returned to their home time periods – even though he lived thousands of years before the present day.

All the hints and clues in the various occult tradition suggest that the sorcerer still exists in some form. Maybe he’s travelling forward in time through arcane rituals, or prolonging his life through vampirism, or he’s reduced himself to his essential salts so he can be resurrected by the cult he founded in ancient days. In any case, he’s unlikely to be the cone she fell in love with fifty million years ago – what eldritch horror, sustained by mad obsession, now shambles towards the investigator out of the aeons?

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yellow, though, is the unhealthiest of hues.

In a gallery in Paris, the investigators glimpse a painting of a young woman. In the image, she strolls by a strange, misty lake, glancing over her shoulder as if daring the viewer to follow her.

Over the course of the next few weeks, all the investigators are beset by memories or dreams of the woman. In each case, they remember having a torrid, passionate romance with her at some point in their pasts. Some details are common to all their recollections – in every case, her name was Camilla; in every case, she abruptly ended the affair and fled, saying only that she had to find “truth, not its phantom”. Other details vary – in some cases, she was a student the investigator met at university, or a shepherdess in the village where the investigator grew up, or an artist’s model, or a friend of a friend. She appears ageless – some investigators remember her from their distant youth, for others, they recall her so vividly that they can still smell her perfume in their rooms, but she is always the same, always young and beautiful.

The memories become more intense, more alluring – and more detailed as the investigators dwell on them. Spend time thinking about Camilla, and you’ll recall how you picnicked on the banks of the Seine, or how she led you up the steps of a crumbling Roman ruin in the woods, or how she taught you the secret speech of ghouls. Memories of Camilla are suffused with a warm yellowish glow, and it is far more pleasant to dwell in melancholic remembrances of lost love than it is to exist in the harsh light of the present day. Spend enough time with her in the past, and she reveals more hidden truths, even hinting that the investigator can find her again in the present if he or she ensures that their love is the only true one – by killing the other player characters…

Is Camilla a curse conjured by the mysterious artist who painted the portrait, hired by some rival to destroy the investigators? Is she some Carcosan phantom, a memetic horror that’s colonising their histories? Is she a creature of possibility, trying to fix her own ever-shifting history by attaching herself to the timeline of one of the investigators? Or is she an innocent who became trapped in Carcosa, and is now trying to escape as best she can?

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

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

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.

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Work on the Yellow King Roleplaying Game has been chugging along since the Kickstarter closed in July. A master document containing the elements of Absinthe in Carcosa is now in the hands of hand-out artist extraordinaire Dean Engelhardt. In the months ahead he’ll be transforming them into a unique and stunning presentation of the setting sourcebook format. Art direction is well underway for the four books that comprise the core game.

The first playtest round, focused on Paris, is now in progress, with actual play reports beginning to filter out into places like the GUMSHOE Facebook community.

With Absinthe turned over to Dean, I’ve turned my attention back to completing the core game. This task entails both the three remaining introductory scenarios and the many stretch goals crowdfunded by you (or gamers like you.)

Here’s a taste of the latter—a few of the GMC profiles from the Occultists of the Belle Epoque stretch goal.

Did you miss the Kickstarter? The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Pre-Order exists just for you.

Camille Flammarion

Astronomer and Science Fiction Writer

53, 1842-1925

The polymathic Camille Flammarion crosses not only the streams of science and spiritism, but throws the arts in for good measure. He believes both in evolution and the transmigration of souls, continually improving as they find new incarnations throughout the universe. His science fiction titles, such as Lumen and Imaginary Worlds, envision alien life from a naturalist’s perspective. Like Albert de Rochas he applies the scientific method to parapsychological research. Since souls go to other planets after death, he reasons, manifestations at séances must emanate from the extra-sensory powers of the mediums who conjure them. Always ready to write a foreword or appear at an occult talk, he might be found in the corners of any event held by any other figure in this chapter.

Physically his mane of white hair, incisively cocked eyebrows and flowing Van Dyke underline his grand old man persona.

As a Patron: Flammarion might recruit the heroes to round up copies of the book, drawing on his contacts in the scientific and occult communities.

Alexandre Saint-Yves

Synarchist

53, 1842-1909

Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves, the Marquis d’Alveydre, invented the term synarchy to refer to the secret rule of mankind by occult masters. He believes that Abraham and the Hindu deity Ram are really the same figure, a primordial lawmaker and father of all peoples. Though the surface world has lost touch with the truth, millions dwell in Agarttha, a subterranean realm benevolently overseen by a trinity of rulers: a Brahatmah (God-soul), Mahatma (Great Soul) and Mahanga (Great Path.) It relocated underground, far below the plateaus of Tibet, during the Hindu dark age three thousand years ago, protecting its people and advanced technology from encroaching disaster. He knows this because he communicates with Agartthan officials telepathically.

The Marquis claims the power of astral travel. When characters ask about it, he proves notably stingy with the details.

He writes the popular Mission series of books in which various groups are issued instructions for bringing about the synarchy on the surface world: Mission to the Sovereigns, Mission to the Jews, and so on. When not occupied with synarchy he studies possible commercial applications for seaweed.

Saint-Yves became independently wealthy through marriage and was granted his title fifteen years ago by the Republic of San Marino. Describe him as a dour-looking man with a thick, pensive mustache.

Charles Richet

Physiologist and Parapsychologist

45, 1850-1930

A gaunt man with searching eyes, the physiologist Charles Richet studies a range of medical subjects and is destined to win the Nobel Prize for his work on anaphylaxis. His interests range from aviation to theatrical writing. The investigators however will care most about his role as a scientific psychic investigator. Last year he coined the term “ectoplasm” to describe the strange material mediums produce during séances. He believes that paranormal powers exist but will all be rationally explained through scientific inquiry, without the need to invoke spirits or an afterlife. In our reality, he falls for, and in at least one case helps to cover up, hoaxes perpetrated by mediums. In the universe of the Yellow King, he might instead fail to see the supernatural causes behind their effects.

Richet dedicates himself to pacifism, eugenics and hardcore racism, especially against blacks. Calibrate the way you deal with these last two according to your group’s desired level of unsavory social realism.

Léo Taxil (Gabriel Jogand-Pagès)

Conspiracy-Promulgating Con Artist

41, 1854-1907

Setting a pattern unknown to our own innocent age, pundit Léo Taxil (real name Gabriel Jogand-Pagès) masterminds a convoluted series of hoaxes, in which he appears to ricochet between extreme ideologies, selling books and calling attention to himself all along the way. He started as an anti-clerical rabble-rouser, writing books that mock Biblical inconsistencies or depict Catholic ecclesiastics engaged in Sadean debauchery. He infiltrated occult circles, convincing Jules Doinel (above) and others that he was one of them.

Ten years ago he staged a public conversion to Catholicism, tarring Freemasonry with similar sensational slanders. Taxil is the one who took Levi’s famous image of Baphomet and forever associated it with Satanism. He described a global conspiracy, the Palladium, led by a Masonic worthy of Charleston, South Carolina named Albert Pike. Three years ago he published the best-selling The Devil in the 19th Century, introducing to the world the reformed Satanist arch-priestess Diana Vaughan. Anecdotes include her encounters with incarnate demons, including a crocodilian specimen that plays the piano. He is now writing her first-person book of prayers and confessions.

Two years from now he will announce a press conference with Vaughan, at which he instead reveals that it was all a hoax. Reverting to his original persona, he says he has been showing the stupidity of the Church’s fear of Freemasonry.

But that’s the historical timeline. Might the ambient madness of Carcosa cause thoughtforms of the demons described in Taxil’s books to realize themselves?

Previous Entries