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?

In a previous post I laid out the basics of Shock and Injury cards in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game (now on Kickstarter.)

Let’s now dive in a bit more detail into the way certain of the cards evoke the sense of a multi-step recovery.

Like anything in GUMSHOE, they emulate the way things work in fictional stories, rather than simulating reality. Often in a genre narrative the hero will be in a hospital bed in one scene, limping in the next, and basically as capable as ever after another little while.

YKRPG handles this with cards that replace the full discard with a trade. You fulfill a condition and get a less onerous card, but aren’t out of the woods yet.

An example appears on the card you receive when your character gets shot.

This, you will note, is a card the player will want to deal with rather than leave in hand.

On the Mend belongs to a class of staple cards. It represents a step down from a number of worse Injury cards.

An equivalent Shock card is Unease; among the more serious Shocks that require you to trade for it is Dread.

With YKRPG cards the fun often lies in the way specialized cards break from established formulas.

After your players have grown used to getting Shot, winding up In the Blast Radius or suffering from Massive Injuries, and then trading down to On the Mend, they might see it as a bit of a curveball when one of them receives this:

And then trading down to this:

We’ve all seen TV episodes where the hero who leapt out of his hospital bed does well for a while, then collapses. The cards allow you to emulate that—but only in specific circumstances, unlike a wound track hard-coded into the core rules.

Sometimes wounds work one way, sometimes another—just as they do in serialized genre storytelling.

Forgetting to pledge to The Yellow King RPG Kickstarter leaves you with a sorrow that can’t be traded for a lesser card. Only 4 days left!

As those who’ve read the preview draft of the Yellow King Roleplaying Game (available to all backers of its Kickstarter) already know, its iteration of GUMSHOE takes a new approach to the emotional and physical wounds horror characters suffer in the course of their exploits.

When something debilitating happens to your character you receive Shock cards, which result from mental hazards, or Injury cards, which you can get either when attacked in combat, or when you wind up on the wrong side of other sources of physical harm: fire, artillery shells, falls from balconies and the like.

When you receive either a third Shock card or a third Injury card, your character is either dead or otherwise irreparably damaged and out of the game.

You can however have 1 Shock card and 2 Injuries or vice versa and still continue.

So instead of losing a resource you want to hold onto (like hit points, or Health and Stability in other GUMSHOE games), you’re getting stuck with a thing you want to get rid of.

Whether you’re engaged in a fight or dodging harm by making Composure, Health or Athletics tests, these cards come in pairs: Minor and Major.

If you do poorly in a fight, you will get the Major Injury your foe deals out, unless you pay a toll of pool points keyed to the foe’s relative strength. Then you get a Minor Injury card.

When you do well in a fight, you might still get nicked—taking a Minor Injury unless you pay the toll.

Here are the Minor and Major cards you might wind up with after a fight with violent fellow students—an all too common problem in 1895 Paris.

(Note: prototype only. Ace graphic designer Christian Knutsson’s final versions will look much better than mine.)

Against an impersonal hazard or mentally stressful situation, you take a Minor Injury if you fail the test by 2 or less, or a Major card when you fail by more than 2.

Here’s the Minor and Major cards you might take after failing the Composure test that comes when, for the first time in your life, someone tries to murder you:

The text of a card probably imposes some sort of negative consequence on your character. Although just having a card is bad, because you’re one step closer to some sort of doom.

The card often, but not always, includes a discard condition, telling you what you have to do to get rid of it. Sometimes it requires you to do something on the mechanical side, like receive a successful First Aid test performed by another player, or score a failure on another test in the future. Or it can require you to do something in the story: punch somebody, go indulge in a vice, or kill the creature who did this to you.

A card without a discard condition leaves your hand only at the end of the scenario.

When a Shock or Injury changes you permanently, possibly irrevocably, it becomes a Continuity card. Until you somehow discard it, it stays with you from one scenario to the next.

And those are your basics. Just those few elements allow for a huge range of possibilities and surprises in play.

At this moment the stretch goal up for grabs on the Kickstarter is for Card Design Workshop, a section in the GM advice chapter of This is Normal Now that will help you design new cards from these basics.

In a future post or two I’ll go into some examples in detail, unveiling some of my favorite cards—including ones that will be new even to careful perusers of the current preview draft.

Avoid the shocking injury of missing the Kickstarter for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game!

The elements of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Game currently exciting folks who’ve read the preview version are its new, quick, player-facing combat system and the alluring status effects of its Shock and Injury cards.

What players who take part in your campaign will most remember about are the interconnections their different characters experience between the game’s four variously shattered realities.

How this works can be a little hard to spot in the preview version, because the key bits appear in the character generation rules for the three later segments: The Wars, Aftermath, and This is Normal Now. Their simple elements create an emergent dynamic in play. Once it happens, any GM capable of basic improv will see what’s going on, react accordingly, and before you know it, you’ll see all the possibilities for an epic, player-driven arc flower before your Yellow Sign-besotted eyes. Trust yourself, and the tools provided to you by the game, and when you need it to turn on, the light bulb will turn on.

I’ll be getting at this more directly in the finished books with additional detailed GM guidance, thanks to the room supplied by a recently-toppled stretch goal.

But for the moment, let’s look at a bit of actual play from my own in-house game.

A couple of weeks back we switched settings for the second time, moving on from The Wars to the Aftermath segment.

As previously described, the versions of the characters fighting The Wars were bedeviled by awful fox creatures. They were introduced into the arc by a player who made a creepy fox part of her Damned Peculiar Thing. Each player supplies this vignette of haunted backstory during character creation.

(The foxes do not appear in the books. Rather than supply you prefab foxes to creep out your players, the game gives you a mechanism encouraging players to make up their own equivalents.)

Now another player—admittedly one who has just joined us and has a more sanguine attitude about the foxes—brought them back in with this segment’s equivalent of the Damned Peculiar Thing. When he described his Worst Memory, as a flashback from the successful revolution the heroes of Aftermath recently fought in, there were the foxes, grinning at him and eating people.

Needless to say this provoked a degree of groaning from other players.

But what kind of continuity doesn’t from time to time bring back its big bad in a new guise and context?

That’s basically what you’re shooting for—the idea that elements from past segments show up as Easter eggs in the current one. They may remain as cool references, or return to occupy center stage once more.

The last session of The Wars began to heavily suggest the interleaving of the settings. While house-to-house fighting raged overhead, the squad met a villain from 1895 and some weirdly modern opponents in the sewers of Marseille.

Whether this reality leakage becomes a big element of Aftermath or fades into the scenery for a while depends on what feels right as we explore this new reality and the similar-but-different set of characters.

Seeing the fox move, another member of my crew decided to try it in reverse. He figured that he could introduce into dialogue the fact that they’d killed an antagonist from the first few segments. He said that they’d killed an enemy clearly meant to be the vampire who scared and frustrated both in Paris and The Wars.

Of course, this was a throwaway line of dialogue, not part of his character creation.

I guess that completely stymies me because there’s no possible way as GM I can think how to bring back a vampire the heroes think they’ve bumped off. He couldn’t think that the vampire is dead but turn out to be wrong about that. Nope, the beginning of every Hammer Dracula movie offers me no guidance whatsoever.

On the other hand, I could let this stand for this segment, as a change of pace and establish that she really is dead in this go-round.

As I said, the way it unfolds will become apparent by doing.

Just don’t tell the players who had to be absent that night about the foxes…

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is Kickstarting now.

…or so concluded Melissa Gay, artist for The Wars, one of the four books conjuring the interwoven, skewed realities of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game (now on Kickstarter.)

Technically I asked Melissa to draw not an ornithopter but an odanathopter, as this aircraft from the weird battle zones of Europe’s 1947 Continental War is called a dragonfly.

I supplied Melissa with the decription from the game:

This helicopter equivalent consists of a glassed-in cockpit divided into two bubbles recalling the eyes of its eponymous insect. A segmented body section houses up to eight soldiers. Combat dragonflies have mounted machine guns for gunners to strafe the battlefield. These do not appear for craft detailed for medical or cargo use. Special grabbers attached to the bottom of the fuselage allow for added cargo. The dragonfly’s four wings flap up and down, granting it flight in either vertical or horizontal mode. Each wing consists of a wrought iron frame into which dozens of stained glass panels are fitted. These panels are made from levitation glass, a Carcosan technology. The dragonfly’s great maneuverability comes at the cost of fragility: dragonflies are vulnerable to small arms fire and crash all too frequently.

Melissa prepared this visual to show her preparation for the illustration:

Her model turned into the following piece, in which dragonflies take fire from one of the highly ornamented artillery pieces typical of this conflict.

Note the Yellow Sign on the fuselage, drawing energies from the King in Yellow’s realm to power the levitation glass.

When Melissa came on board the project I created a mood board of references, prominently featuring war art of the 20th century. When giving artists inspiration like this, you’re hoping that they’ll pick up on a color palette and an emotional quality. You don’t expect them to so fully immerse them in the style that they replicate it and then make it their own, but that’s exactly what Melissa has done here.

Our current stretch goal is a 13th Age crossover. After backers put that away, the next one in the queue will see Melissa converting some of her concept sketches into schematic’s for the war’s alternate reality battle machinery.

Pledge today to The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Kickstarter and help make that happen.

A scenario seed for The King in Yellow Roleplaying Game

As heroes of the revolution that deposed the Castaigne regime you’ve been invited to take center stage at the first 4th of July celebration in 97 years. In 1920, backed by the King in Yellow, the Imperial Castaigne dynasty took over the US.

Six months ago, in the climactic moments of the great uprising, you helped take it back.

Today is no longer Empire Day; once more it is the good old Fourth of July.

Every fireworks display, every bandshell concert worthy of the name wants a squad boasting a rep like yours to stride up on stage under the red white and blue bunting. All you have to do is say a few words and accept the clamorous applause of the crowd.

Since the struggle ended, you’ve been trying to settle back into your civilian life.

Before the struggle started, who were you?

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When you arrived on site, you noticed that security wasn’t set up the way you would have done it. As a former insurgent, you can see four different ways regime holdovers might strike at the platform. If any of them are planning to do that. Which they’re probably not, you tell yourself.

Despite of, or maybe because of, that observation, your overall attitude to this event is:

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Suddenly you sense movement from the corner of your eye. A shadowy, inchoate shape skulks between two garbage bins.

Looks like the fight’s not over, and the party’s only getting started.

Aftermath is the third of the four interwoven settings that make up The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Arm patriots with the stretch goals needed to fully banish the Castaignes and their influence by supporting our Kickstarter today.

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