Ripped from the history books, here’s a great choice the next time you’re asked to create a Trail of Cthulhu player character: Bessie Coleman, aka Queen Bess, pioneering African American aviator. An active protagonist if ever there was one, she taught herself to fly when neither women nor black people were supposed to do so. So she went to France to get her pilot’s license, dated two years before Amelia Earhart’s. Unable to get conventional piloting work back in the states, she returned to Europe to learn barrel rolls and other aerobatic techniques, then toured the US as a popular barnstormer. Coleman forced promoters to desegregate her audiences, and turned her back on a Hollywood career when asked to play a stereotypical role.

(In some of her publicity shots, she bears a striking resemblance to Janelle Monae. Somebody call somboedy’s agent.)

History tells us that she died in an air accident in 1926. Those of us steeped in horror adventure can see the flaws in that story, in which she allowed her mechanic to fly the plane, and it went out of control due to a literal wrench left in the engine case. A little too on the nose, surely—clearly she’s signaling to those in the know that she’s faking her own death. And if she’s doing that in ‘26, clearly she has to drop from sight to settle some business with Nyarlathotep.

That’s her backstory when it comes time to play her a few years later, in the Trail era.

Pilots can be a little hard to work into the action of a standard multiplayer game. As a GM you might build a Cthulhu Confidential series around her, with lots of aerial Challenges and problem solving. She speaks fluent French, so one of her globe-trotting Mythos-busting cases could take her to Paris to rub elbows with the Dreamhounds of the surrealist movement. Chauvinists like Andre Breton and Luis Buñuel might not know what to make of her, but a romp into Unknown Kadath with Gala Dalí and Kiki de Montparnasse might be just the thing. Perhaps she would also insist on taking Josephine Baker along, too. I’m sure she’ll be entirely careful while buzzing Mount Hatheg-Kla in the butterfly ornithopter Kiki has dreamed up for her.

See Page XX

a column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Carrying on from last month, here are some more Problem cards to use with GUMSHOE One-2-One mythos creature encounters. For context, see the previous installment.

You can download the laid out Problem Cards here.

Great Race of Yith

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Lightning Gun Hit

When you run into a conical clawed nightmare out of a surrealist painting, it comes as a surprise when it just pulls a gun and plugs you. Even if its piece did shoot electricity instead of bullets. False assumptions sure can burn you.

-2 to Fighting and -1 to other General / Physical tests. Discard when you get a Setback on any such test.

Problem from Stability Challenge:

The Suffocating Vastness

When the cone-shaped thing was whispering, it was in an alien language you couldn’t understand. But now its unspeakable words worm themselves into your knowledge of history. Suddenly you firmly believe in an incomprehensible time scale that throws all known archaeology into a cocked hat.

When anyone refers to conventional historical chronology, you must make a Difficulty 4 Cool quick test to stave off a self-destructive compulison to insist upon the unbelievable truth.

Discard by destroying a Yithian or banishing it from this time. If still in hand at end of scenario, becomes a Continuity card.

Hunting Horror

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Dropped from a Height

It picked you up, carried you into the sky, and dropped you to the ground below. Now you know what a grass snake feels like when a falcon grabs it.

-2 to General / Physical tests until you Take Time to see a doctor. After that, -1 to Fighting and Fleeing. Then, when you next get a core clue, discard this card.

Problem from Stability Challenge:

The Croak of Ravens

As massive and impossible as that creature was, the sound it emitted was all too familiar. It sounded like the caw of a raven. Now you can’t see a black bird and not think of an unearthly winged worm.

Whenever you see a crow, raven, blackbird or anything like it—or hear its cry, or simply see an illustration of a dark-colored bird—make a Difficulty 4 Stability quick test. If you fail, take a -1 penalty to General / Mental tests until you gain your next core clue. If you succeed with a 6 or more, discard this card.

Hounds of Tindalos

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Schrodinger’s Chest Wound

The strange emanations, or creatures, or whatever they were, slashed open your chest and explored around inside. Then the wound was gone. Until it came back again. It’s both there and not there, and you’re not sure which disturbs you more.

Take a penalty to General / Physical tests equal to the number of Problem cards you have in hand. Discard by destroying a Hound of Tindalos. Each time you get a core clue, roll a die. On an even result, discard this card.

Problem From Stability Challenge

The Angles are Against You

Before you saw these things, you thought geometry only worked one way. Now, if you squint wrong, you perceive it as a soothing illusion concealing a terrible reality of constant, writhing uncertainty.

While inside any man-made structure with angles and architecture more elaborate than a shack, take a penalty to Stability tests equal to the number of Problem cards you have in hand. Discard by destroying a Hound of Tindalos, or by spending a Push immediately after you get a core clue.

Nightgaunt

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Barb Lash

It’s a good thing you’ve trained your doc not to ask questions. Because the last thing you want to explain about these lash marks is that you got them from a hornless, faceless flying being.

-1 to General / Manual tests. Discard by Taking Time for medical attention, or after discovering two core clues.

Problem from Stability Challenge (assumes physical contact)

Tickled

The creature tickled you. Tickled you! That’s preferable to ripping your head off, but the experience leaves you in the depths of a skin-crawling, existential humiliation.

-2 to Cool tests. After Taking Time to engage in a memory-repressing activity, like going on a bender, -1 to Cool tests.

Servitor of the Outer Gods

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Tentacle Strike

When it lashed you with its tentacle, the flute-playing insect-mollusc-blob sure hurt you. Moments later, you can’t see any sign of injury. But you know you have one, and it’s not the kind that’s going to make sense down at the emergency ward.

Roll a die.

On a 1-2, -1 to General / Mental tests.

On a 3-4, -1 to General / Manual tests.

On a 5-6, -1 to General / Physical tests.

Discard the next time you score an Advance while in the presence of a mythos creature or manifestation.

Problem from Stability Challenge:

Infernal Piping

Continuity

Even afterward, the hideous anti-music emitted by their twisted flutes stays in your head, haunting you. Altering you.

-1 to Cool tests. Each time you score an Advance on a Cool test, penalty increases by 2. Each time you score a Hold, penalty increases by 1. When you get a Setback on a Cool test, roll a die. On an even result, discard this card.

Shoggoth

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Wrenched Muscle

If it had succeeded in snaring you and pulling you toward it, that enormous tidal wave of goo would have crushed your bones to paste. So maybe you should be grateful that it merely contused your arm muscle.

-1 on General / Physical tests. When you score a Hold on a General / Physical test, roll a die. On an even result, discard this card. When you score a Setback on a General / Physical test, discard this card.

Problem from Stability Challenge:

A Terrible Enormity

Keep telling yourself, it was only a big blob of goo. It was only a big blob of goo. It was only an impossibly, stunningly, terrifyingly big blob of goo.

-1 to Cool and Stability tests. When you take a Setback on a Stability test, discard this card. After a Challenge in which you took on an Extra Problem, roll a die. On an even result, discard this card.

See Page XX

a column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Adversaries in GUMSHOE One-2-One don’t have game statistics per se. This applies to mundane foes and Mythos creatures alike. Instead, when your investigator encounters something nasty that might want to do her harm, a Challenge block describes all the dangers and difficulties of dealing with it, treating its fighting capability as one of those various factors. The threshold numbers assigned to the three outcomes (Setback, Hold, Advance) reflect that particular situation in that scenario. In another scene in the same mystery, or when you next run into that creature in a completely different adventure, the Challenge block might be framed quite differently. The GM or scenario designer starts with the role the Challenge plays in the story and then creates descriptive factors to justify why this Deep One dust-up is tougher (or easier) than the one before it.

One-2-One encounters never lead to the immediate and sudden demise of a character, or a likewise abrupt, story-stopping descent into Lovecraftian madness. Instead a bad result gives you a Problem card. (Or two, if you chose to accept a higher price for an added possibility of success.) Certain Problem cards destroy the character at scenario’s end, after the mystery has been solved, if you still have them on hand. Naturally, you’ll do everything you can to get rid of fatal Problems before the story ends, so that you can continue to have adventures as Viv Sinclair, Langston Wright or Dex Raymond. Otherwise you have to grieve your character’s demise and then create a replacement PC.

Although the Problem cards you take from meeting with a mythos creature, whether you fight it or merely behold it and feel your mind go snap, might vary from one Challenge to the next, the prepared GM might enjoy seeing some samples to either use as is, or to modify to fit her own Challenges.

So for this month and next in See Page XX, I’ll be providing some free-floating Problem cards that might stem from Challenges involving various classic Mythos creatures. These include both Problem cards that come with Setbacks from:

  • Fighting Challenges, resulting in physical injuries
  • Stability Challenges, resulting in emotional or philosophical stress

You can download the laid out Problem Cards here.

Byakhee

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Bruising Bite

Something about the way that bat-winged monstrosity beak clamped into your flesh makes you think the damage hasn’t stopped. You’re not a doctor, but that hideously spreading bruise might be your first clue.

Each time you get a core clue, roll a die. On an odd result, place a tick mark on this card. Erase a tick mark by Taking Time. If you end the scenario with three or more tick marks on the card, your character dies from a cranial blood clot.

Problem from Stability Challenge:

Fear the Skies

Those awful flapping things could come back at any moment. They could tear you limb from limb. How do you defend yourself against something like that?

Put a tick mark on this card. Each time you move about in an isolated outdoors location rendering you vulnerable to aerial attack, add another tick. Take a penalty to Stability tests equal to the number of ticks. Take a penalty to Sense Trouble tests equal to the number of ticks— except when the danger actually comes from the sky, in which case, gain a bonus equal to the number of ticks.

Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath

Problem from Fighting Challenge

Trampling Hooves

You didn’t know what to expect from a walking tree, even when you got closer and saw that the branches were really tentacles. But being trampled under giant hooves? Not what you anticipated.

Until you Take Time to recuperate, -3 to all Physical / General tests and -1 to all Physical / Manual tests. After that, -1 to all Physical / General tests. Discard when you solve the central mystery.

The Trees Are Watching

You know those things weren’t trees, but out of the corner of your eye trees sure look like those things.

Whenever you can see a tree in the distance, you are unable to make Pushes and take a -1 penalty to Physical / Manual tests. You may attempt to discard by Taking Time to visit your shrink contact. Then roll a die; on an even result, discard. On an odd result, this becomes a Continuity card.

Dimensional Shambler

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Clawed

That ape-insect thing raked through your clothing to lacerate your arm. The black goo weeping from the wound strikes you as something to get looked at. Or to try desperately to put out of your mind. One or the other.

Discard by Taking Time to visit your scientific or medical Contact. If still in hand at end of scenario, you die from blood poisoning.

Problem from Stability Challenge:

Dimensional Awareness

Ever since you saw that insect-ape thing, weird images have spun through your mind, of other spheres, other realities. Each one more appalling and predatory than the last.

In ordinary circumstances, -1 to Physical / Mental tests.

In the presence of a Mythos creature or manifestation, -2 to Physical / Mental tests and -1 to Physical / Manual tests.

Discard by destroying a Dimensional Shambler.

Flying Polyp

Problem from Fighting Challenge:

Banged Up All Over

That airborne jellyfish summoned a blast of wind that hit you like a tornado. You can’t decide which part of you hurts worse.

-2 to Fighting and -1 to all other General / Physical tests. Discard when you score a Hold or better on a General / Physical test.

Problem from Stability Challenge:

Invisible Foes

The creature came out of nowhere, like it was invisible. That means there could be a creature watching you, right now. You can’t help it if that leaves you looking a little twitchy.

To make an Interpersonal Push, you must first succeed at a Difficulty 5 Cool test, which then permits you to discard this card.

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The release date for Cthulhu Confidential, flagship product of the GUMSHOE One-2-One game, creeps up on us daily. For International Pelgrane Day, I ran its intro scenario for gamer and science TV presenter Marty Jopson, which you can check out here.

This mystery features one of our three starting characters, hardboiled L.A. detective Dex Raymond. “The Fathomless Sleep” delves into the case of a young heiress whose memory has been stolen, sending Dex on a collision course with cultists, gangsters, and maybe even a screenwriter or two. The video spoils the scenario from top to toe, so leave it unwatched if you want someone to run it for you at some point.

With our without a look at the actual play video, a basic tour of the differences between One-2-One and good old regular GUMSHOE would seem to be in order.

To start with the obvious, this version of the game facilitates play between one GM and one player. Though it works quite well on an online platform like Skype or Roll20/Google Hangouts, it’s also perfectly suited for in-person play.

One-2-One play unfolds in a much more intense and focused way than multiplayer. Here you get no breaks to kibitz, drift off topic, or confer with fellow players.

This results in an experience that feels much more than a mystery novel than the delightful chaos of a collaborative group game.

However, being onstage throughout can be daunting. The book’s play advice prepares the GM to help the player deal with the format’s pressure and demand for concentration.

The GM also contributes more than in multiplayer. Without the inter-player banter, planning and problem-solving, you have less time to do the mental vamping required to improv your way around surprises while delivering a coherent mystery.

This dynamic calls for tightly written scenarios you can rely on to deliver the goods.

It also allows us to take advantage of an angle normally denied to adventure writers—they’re tuned to specific characters. In Cthulhu Confidential, these are whip-smart journalist Viv Sinclair and indefatigable scientist Langston Wright, along with the aforementioned Dex Raymond. Viv, written by Ruth Tillman, gets the scoop in mythos-haunted NYC, while Chris Spivey’s Langston moves the timeline a bit forward to overcome the added twists of solving Lovecraftian mysteries as a black man in wartime Washington DC.

Early in each intro adventure, the player gets the chance to customize the character, building on what the authors provide to create a distinct, personalized take—just as Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe differs from Dick Powell’s, Robert Mitchum’s, or Elliott Gould’s.

You start this process by picking one of four possible starting Problems, represented by cards. Your Dex could be broke, lonely, tempted by various vices, or subject to a fatal curiosity. In the course of play, you might get the chance to dispose of that Problem card—perhaps at a steep price, perhaps as a reward. However you’ll also likely pick up other Problem cards which, if not neutralized during the story, lead you to a dire fate during the case’s denouement.

This mechanism becomes necessary because with a single character, the possibility of death has to be handled differently than in multiplayer. It’s derailing enough in standard play when a key PC bites the dust. At least other characters remain to carry on the story while the affected player lurches for the blank character sheet. Here you can still die or wind up forever mentally incapacitated, but that happens only at the end of the scenario. That run-in with a knife-wielding numbers runner might leave you with a Problem card called Stabbed, whose text specifies that you die during the story’s coda if you still have it in hand. Stopping to take actions that justify the discard of a Problem card has its own cost, but it’s better than pushing up daisies.

This mechanism replaces the Health and Stability points from standard GUMSHOE. Neither physical injuries nor traumas measure themselves as a declining point total.

Life with only Problems would be a little too tough even for gumshoes willing to go up against Deep Ones and Mi-Go. Hence, Edge cards, which either convey an ongoing benefit, or can be cashed in for a one-time advantage. Some of them let you dispose of Problem cards, which you might be especially grateful for if they bear the Continuity tag, meaning they would otherwise keep dogging you in future cases.

Edge and Problem cards arrive in your hand via Challenges, One-2-One’s equivalent of the test. Instead of general ability pools, you have either one or two dice in the abilities like Fighting and Shadowing that accomplish tasks other than information gathering. Challenges typically have three possible results, giving you either an Advance, Hold, or Setback. Advances not only move you further into the story but also often grant some other benefit—generally an Edge card. Setbacks worsen whatever trouble you’re in, often in the form of a Problem card. In most cases you can gain an extra die by taking on an additional Problem card. So to get over that fence you might take on, say, the “Pulled Muscle” Problem card, which levels a penalty in upcoming situations.

Ability pools in standard GUMSHOE help divide spotlight time between players. In One-2-One, the spotlight’s all on you, so that mechanism isn’t needed.

Still, you might want to gain an additional, non-informational benefit from investigative abilities every now and then, so your character starts with three Pushes. You can use these as you would standard GUMSHOE spends. Whenever you gain an Advance on a Challenge with one of your permitted dice unrolled, you gain an additional Push.

It makes no sense for a noir detective to have mastered every field of inquiry. But that doesn’t stop you from gathering clues outside your specialties. In those cases you seek out one of your Sources, reliably helpful and friendly NPC contacts who perform lab tests, serve up obscure historical facts, or hip you to the ancient traditions of the occult.

Once you get used to these changes, they fade into the background, keeping the focus on the complex web of clues you must untangle before the cosmic indifference of the Mythos and the human corruption of noir combine to destroy you, your clients, and the city whose mean streets you both love and hate.

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of GUMSHOE we invited fans and Pelgrane pros all over the world to play their favorite Pelgrane Press games today! Here’s a sampling of the day’s goings-on and shenanigans thus far.

Games were streamed:

Upcoming books were playtested:

Upcoming campaign settings were playtested.

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Designers shared their work:

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Monstrous Dramaturgy: Kostroma

Adventures were had:

Existing gaming plans were quickly changed.

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Campaigns launched:

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Heroes made (and their horrible deaths predicted):

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There are still quite a few hours left, and we look forward to seeing what else Pelgrane fans are up to in other time zones! If you want a social media banner or icon you can get them here.

I’m currently incorporating playtest feedback from GUMSHOE One-2-One into the final manuscript. We’ve never had more respondents take part in a test for any GUMSHOE project, so having this much material to work with represents a huge luxury. The higher the number of reports, the easier it becomes to identify and address the most common needs players and GMs will face when taking one’s game for a spin.

The rules themselves require adjustment on only a couple of small points. I expected this, albeit with crossed fingers, given the smoothness of in-house testing before we sent the rules out into the wider world. It helps that the rules are either familiar (baseline GUMSHOE) or very simple (the new resolution mechanic for the one GM, one player dynamic.)

People responded very positively to the game overall, and that’s encouraging but not the main benefit of a thick sheaf of in-depth notes.

Especially in this case what I was really looking for was a sense of what additional guidance GMs and players would need to make One-2-One work for them. It’s only in the questions one gets back from respondents that the designer knows what play style advice has to go into the finished book.

Everyone reported a much more intense and focused experience than standard multiplayer. Without the byplay, off-topic kibitzing, discussion and decision-making between players, the solo player remains in focus the whole time, with the burden of investigation squarely on her shoulders. This can be simultaneously exhilarating and daunting, so I need to write more text both preparing gamers for that, and assuring them that this is the expected way of things.

Pretty much anyone experienced enough to take part in a playtest can work out what an RPG’s play style ought to be. Certainly testers, while questioning whether they did it right, invariably did do it right. Often play style advice is less about showing GMs how to do it as in assuring them that they were right to trust their instincts. These passages answer the question, “is the game meant to be this way?”, allowing players to relax into what they’re doing and get on with the fun.

Which is not to say that everyone who is doing it right and having fun is doing it the same way. A couple of testers wanted to know how much real-world time the scenario should take. Well, one duo played it for 9+ hours and loved it, while co-author Ruth Tillman, when I ran her through the same scenario, proudly blazed through it in less than 3. Who was doing it right? Both!

It seems simple when I say it like that, which is why the final text will have to do exactly that.

(By the way, if you just inherited a strange old house from an uncle you didn’t know about and need someone to find out what all the screaming from the furnace is all about, you might want to drop Ruth a line and see if she’s available to check it out.)

In One-2-One player characters rely on GMCs called Sources for the use of investigative abilities they don’t have themselves. Sources also provide low-intensity scenes of friendship and camaraderie to momentarily take the pressure off the player. One respondent wondered if it was all right that the player spent a lot of time with Sources. Again, the player wants to do it so it must serve a need for her. Here the text can provide specific tips for keeping these scenes fresh, but mostly the job of that passage will be to assure players that they’re operating within Acceptable Enjoyment Parameters whether they spend a lot of time with Sources, or just a little.