a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

On a recent episode of our podcast, Ken and I talked about adapting Dreamhounds of Paris as a GUMSHOE One-2-One setting. In a moment of rash exuberance I promised to provide character cards for some of its key figures. Use these as a model for your own conversion if I failed to include the surrealist your player most wants to portray. You’ll need a copy of Dreamhounds to make use of this.

Luis Buñuel

Two Fisted Filmmaker

Investigative Abilities: [Academic]

Anthropology [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Chemistry [Technical]

Dream Lore [Academic]

History [Academic]

Inspiration [Interpersonal]

Intimidation [Interpersonal]

Languages (Spanish, French) [Academic]

Photography 3 [Technical]

Streetwise [Interpersonal]

Theology [Academic]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Filmmaker) 2 dice

Athletics 2 dice

Cool 1 die

Devices 2 dice

Disguise 1 die

Dreamscaping 2 dice

Fighting 2 dice

First Aid 1 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Starting Problem

Pugnacious

Continuity

You let your hot temper and Iberian machismo, not your superior intellect, determine when your fists go flying.

-1 to Cool tests to keep your fists in check when your temper flares.

Jean Cocteau

Resplendent Anathema

Investigative Abilities

Architecture [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Chemistry [Technical]

Cthulhu Mythos [Academic]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

History [Academic]

Library Use [Academic]

Literature [Academic]

Medicine [Academic]

Occult [Academic]

Pharmacy [Technical]

Seduction [Interpersonal]

Streetwise [Interpersonal]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Visual Art, Film, Fiction, Playwright) 2 dice

Art-Making (Poetry) 1 die

Athletics 1 die

Conceal 1 die

Cool 1 die (-1 penalty in real world, +1 bonus in Dreamlands)

Disguise 2 dice

Dreamscaping 2 dice

First Aid 2 dice

Fleeing 2 dice

Hypnosis 1 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 1 die

Starting Problem

White Dragon

Continuity

You’ve kicked your opium habit a number of times. Which is the optimistic way of saying you never quite kick your opium habit.

-1 to Cool tests when tempted by the opportunity to smoke opium, or any of its Dreamlands equivalents.

Salvador Dalí

Calculating Visionary

Investigative Abilities:

Anthropology [Academic]

Archaeology [Academic]

Architecture [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Biology [Academic]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Chemistry [Technical]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

History [Academic]

Languages [Academic]

Library Use [Academic]

Theology [Academic]

General Abilities

Art-Making (Visual Art) 2 dice

Art-Making (Film) 1 die

Art-Making (Poetry) 1 die

Athletics 1 die

Dreamscaping 2 dice

Cool 1 die

Fleeing 2 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 1 die

Sense Trouble 1 die

Stealth 1 die

Starting Problem

Dependent on Gala

Continuity

Without your tigress wife by your side, even ordinary tasks, like crossing a busy street, paralyze you with fear.

-1 to Cool and Stability tests when away from Gala. After reuniting with Gala, gain +2 to Cool and +1 to Stability tests until next interval.

Gala

Protective Devourer

Investigative Abilities

Accounting [Academic]

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Biology [Academic]

Bureaucracy [Interpersonal]

Interrogation [Interpersonal]

Intimidation [Interpersonal]

Languages (Russian, French, English) [Academic]

Library Use [Academic]

Locksmith [Technical]

Medicine [Academic]

Occult [Academic]

Seduction* [Interpersonal]

Streetwise [Interpersonal]

*After making a Seduction Push, roll a die. On an even result, regain the Push.

General Abilities

Athletics 1 die

Card Reading 2 dice

Conceal 1 die

Cool 2 dice

Fighting 1 die

Filch 1 die

Fleeing 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Sense Trouble 2 dice

Shadowing 1 die

Stealth 2 dice

Starting Problem

Grasping

Continuity

Survival means everything. Your brother’s death during the Russian Revolution taught you that. And in this world survival means one thing: money.

-2 to Cool tests to avoid the temptations of avarice.

Kiki de Montparnasse

Free-living Muse

Investigative Abilities:

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Bureaucracy [Interpersonal]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

Locksmith [Technical]

Photography [Technical]

Reassurance [Interpersonal]

Seduction [Interpersonal]

Streetwise [Technical]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Visual Art) 1 die

Art-Making (Dance) 1 die

Art-Making (Singing 6) 2 dice

Cool 1 die

Athletics 2 dice

Conceal 2 dice

Filch 2 dice

Fleeing 2 dice

Instability 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Sense Trouble 2 dice

Starting Problem

Hard Liver

Continuity

You adore nothing more than another drink. Except of course for the drink after that.

-1 to Cool tests to avoid overindulgence in intoxicants.

Valentine Hugo

Little Swan

Investigative Abilities:

Archaeology [Academic]

Architecture [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

History [Academic]

Medium [Academic]

Occult [Academic]

Pharmacy [Technical]

Photography [Technical]

Reassurance [Interpersonal]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Painting/Illustration) 2 dice

Athletics 1 die

Cool 1 die

Conceal 1 die

Disguise 1 die

Driving 1 die

Dreamscaping 1 die

First Aid 1 die

Fleeing 2 dice

Hypnosis 1 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Stealth 1 die

Starting Problem

Lovesick

ContinuityWhen you fall in love, you fall hard, and never give up, no matter how much resistance you face. Others call you a fool. You call yourself a lover.

-2 to avoid throwing yourself humiliatingly at the current object of your obsession, Andre Breton. Void during the brief period after 1931 when he finally gives in to you.

The scene in which the hero is taken prisoner by adversaries is as deep a staple of adventure fiction as you could ask for. In roleplaying this basic scene has always acted as bugaboo. Players cling vehemently to their characters’ agency. Some would rather have their characters killed than tossed in a cell.

If we think about these sequences in movies and fiction, they always afford the hero a way forward, after a suitable period of frustration. The hero learns something about the antagonist, gleans some other key bit of information, or makes a key alliance that drives the story forward.

While designing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I’ve found a way to get around the traditional reluctance to play that type of sequence. But we haven’t even Kickstarted that yet. But I can adapt the same principle to GUMSHOE One-2-One, which like YKRPG uses cards to represent ongoing consequences that affect the character over the course of the scenario. (Though the two games implement this differently.)

When you think your player’s Cthulhu Confidential detective ought to be knocked on the head, as happens from time to time to any self-respecting noir hero, offer this Problem card:


When You Regain Consciousness

Problem

You are knocked out and will wake up in the foe’s clutches. When you either escape, or gain a core clue while in custody, discard this card plus any one other non-Continuity Problem card you can justify to the GM.


Tell them that they can accept the card and forgo a Challenge to avoid being knocked out. Or they can take their chances on the Challenge, which might still wind up with imprisonment, plus one if not two worse Problem cards.

This signals to the player that, a) absolutely, there will be a way out of the imprisonment, b) interesting things will happen during the imprisonment and c) here’s a nice extra bribe for you.

This turns a situation in which the player fears loss of agency to one in which she has a choice and can feel in control of a temporary loss of control. As paradoxical as that may sound.

See Page XX

a column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

In his influential book on the films of Howard Hawks, the late film critic Robin Wood identified one of the director’s key themes as “the Lure of Irresponsibility.”

This phrase has stuck in my head over the years, connecting itself to a subject far from its original intent.

One of the key appeals of roleplaying is the lure of irresponsibility.

Like the stoic bands of adventurous outsiders populating such Hawks films as Rio Bravo and Only Angels Have Wings, player character groups leave behind the strictures of ordinary society. Whether they’re killing monsters and taking their stuff, solving occult mysteries, or bringing rough justice back to the spacelanes, they no longer have to take the standard guff of bosses and paychecks and paying one’s parking tickets.

In the extremest form of this phenomenon, you get your murder hoboes. The band of outsider heroes becomes a gang of bandits, subjecting others to the rule of the sword and suffering no consequences for its depredations.

Even when the fantasy of irresponsibility stops short of a fantasy of violent psychosis, it can come into conflict with other elements that make a roleplaying session feel satisfying.

As much as a GM may want to establish a particular tone for her series, even after getting explicit buy-in from the players at its outset, the lure of irresponsibility can rear its head and send those plans spinning into the gutter.

Everyone might agree, say, to play Night’s Black Agents in gritty Dust mode, evoking the real-world despond of a Cold War Le Carre novel.

Tone requires ongoing player cooperation. To maintain itself, all the players have to make decisions the way Le Carre characters would, and not as James Bond or Xander Cage.

All it takes is a player or two to show up to the game table punchy and looking to blow off steam, and suddenly the GM faces two choices, both unfortunate:

1) Stick with the tone and slap the characters with the realistic consequences of acting like superheroes in a gray and workaday universe, like Vin Diesels in an Alec Guiness world.

2) Give them their steam-venting, shifting the series to roleplaying’s default mode of crazy, violent nonsense.

As the creator of Feng Shui, I can hardly shake a fist a crazy, violent nonsense. But while some games are conceived with that in mind, all will devolve in that direction without tone enforcement from the GM.

Players don’t necessarily thank you for either choice. Derail the story with realistic consequences, and you’ve followed the setting’s internal logic straight to a disappointing narrative dead end. Shift the tone to Kookytown and even the player who made everything blow up may later wish the series had stuck with the original tone, which was one of the factors making it special and different.

In complex rules systems with lots of moving parts, you can blame the system for outcomes that break one’s sense of what ought to be possible in a story like this. Yep, you stacked that spell with that magic item and rolled a 20, so of course you topple the tower down onto the village and kill all the orcs. Never mind the desire to play in a low-fantasy world; the rules and that die roll had other ideas.

GUMSHOE One-2-One, as seen the system’s flagship title, Cthulhu Confidential, helps with tone maintenance in several ways.

One, there are only two of you, and the experience of playing the game is unusually intense. If one or both of you feel punchy or tired, you’re probably going to either lock in and achieve focus, or you’re going to choose to do something less demanding with your block of time.

Two, much murder-hoboism happens because players are either showing off for each other or egging each other on. Outside of a group setting, that goes away. Likewise the syndrome where one player decides, consciously or otherwise, to steal focus from everyone else by doing something crazy and stupid. You know the drill: the player who has his character punch the king in the face at the royal audience, starts a bar fight where the secret rendezvous has been set up, or decides to murder the prisoners while the rest of the group has its collective back turned. In multiplayer this then forces the rest of the group to deal with the consequences of the focus hog’s actions instead of having the expected story about the entire group unfold. In One-2-One, the focus hog gets all the attention he can handle. He doesn’t have to make it all about him—it already is. (But then maybe This Guy doesn’t choose to play One-2-One in the first place, because his fun comes from wrecking it for everyone else.)

Three, you can frame Challenges to only yield tonally appropriate results. If the player still insists on doing something the audience would reject as stupid in the movie or novel version of the same story, you can ensure that it happens within the bounds of your prevailing tone. Let’s go with the gratuitous bar fight. Where in standard GUMSHOE with its Health thresholds and weapon stats you could conceivably kill an innocent bar patron and throw the rest of the storyline into a cocked hat, here the Challenge could look like this:

Meaningless Bar Fight

Fighting

Advance 9+: You manage to deck a guy and somehow make it seem like he had it coming. His pals drag him off before you can do any damage that would lead to an arrest warrant.

Hold 4-8: A typical inconclusive tavern struggle breaks out. The chump you wanted to deck has friends, and they hold you at bay until the bouncers can drag you out and throw you out of the bar. “And don’t come back!”

Setback 3 or less: As per above, but the bouncers take you outside and beat you black and blue. Gain Problem Card “Beatdown.”

You wouldn’t write this out ahead of time, but rather improvise something along those lines.

Unless you have a player you know will pull this stuff, who you inexplicably want to run One-2-One with. Then you might want to have a few on hand as responses to his most obvious usual tone-busting moves.

The Armitage Files is Robin D Laws’ groundbreaking adventure of improvised Mythos investigation.

Cthulhu Confidential is Robin D Laws’ groundbreaking game of solo Mythos investigation.

Putting two groundbreaking products together is hazardous for Gamemasters. You run the risk of collapsing the ground beneath you.

However, the risk can be worth it: improvised play supports the deep investigative dives of one-on-one play.

Improvising On The Run

In a Trail of Cthulhu game using the Armitage Files, the Keeper can take advantage of the times when the players are arguing or speculating amongst themselves to plan ahead and decide on what the players might find when they follow the next clue. While the players argue whether or not they can trust Austin Kittrell, the Keeper feverishly reads over the Sinister and Stalwart versions of the Kingsport Yacht Club that Kittrell mentioned and decides which incarnation the players will encounter.

There are few such downtimes in one-on-one play. You can stall the player by giving them a handout such as a new Armitage Letter, but mostly the game will be relentless investigation and action. (There’s a reason that Cthulhu Confidential scenarios tend to be longer and more intricate than regular Trail games.) The best approach is to study the Armitage Files material thoroughly in advance, internalising it as much as possible so you can decide on the fly to connect the Yacht Club to the Nophru-Ka Panel, which of course means a visit to the Anthropologist and he can see invisible horrors clinging to the investigator which means you’ll need to set up an invisible horror encounter before the player gets there…

Sketch out potential plots and connections in advance. Identify (or ask your player) which clues are most likely to come up in the next session, work out two or three follow-ons from each clue and then pick the most appropriate one in response to player decisions. It’s a gamemastering high-wire act.

Where possible, bend the plot around the protagonist. The Armitage Files includes several handouts that reference player characters by name (Document 3, Document 4, Document 6, Document 9) – but is otherwise light on personal connections to the investigators. After all, in a regular Trail of Cthulhu campaign, there’s every chance that one or more investigators will perish before the end. That’s not the case in Cthulhu Confidential, so take advantage of the protagonist’s privileged status to ensure that the mystery revolves around them. (For those fill-in-an-investigator’s-name gaps in the handouts, put the investigator’s name in one of them and fill the others with Sources and compelling GMCs.)

Look For Solid Ground

Cthulhu Confidential uses cards to track Problems and Edges and to give detail and texture to the character’s experiences. Instead of just losing four Health, the investigator might have been Clawed by a Deep One or Punched by Butcher Brown or Fell Down A Hole – each of which causes an injury, but has different consequences and solutions. In a regular scenario, these cards can be designed in advance because the GM knows the likely encounters lying ahead. In an improvised campaign, this approach is reversed –  design the cards, and then improvise encounters that lead to those cards. For example, if you’ve prepared the Fell Down A Hole problem or the Mob Tie edges, then look for ways to push the protagonist into a pit or get a favour from a mobster. Prepare a stack of Problems and Edges in advance and look for ways to bring them in (start with the Mythos Problems articles by Robin, as well as the Generic Edges and Problems in the Cthulhu Confidential appendix and build from there.)

Of course, improvised games always include unexpected events, so have a stack of blank cards to hand that you can fill in when warranted. Mark important plot twists and consequences by turning them into Problems and Edges.

For Problem cards, include specific ways to remove each Problem. For Edge cards, note exactly what benefit it gives and when it can be cashed in. Be as concrete as possible – if that Mob Ties edge gives you a bonus when dealing with mobsters, then that’s a prompt for the Gamemaster to include some mobsters to justify the Edge’s existence. (Improv thrives on constraints and prompts.)

Problems and Edges usually arise as a result of challenges; have a copy of the Challenge Difficulty table on p. 45 of Cthulhu Confidential to hand while running the game.

The Armitage Sources

The various academics and scholars in the Armitage Inquiry make excellent sources for most topics. Between them, they cover virtually every academic investigative ability imaginable, with non-academic assistance provided by the redoubtable Mrs. Pickman and Dr. Sprague. With so many professional abilities available through sources, the obvious route for the protagonist is to concentrate on practical investigative abilities like Streetwise and Evidence (although any of the usual Cthulhu Confidential protagonists could be used in an Armitage Files campaign by transplanting them to Arkham country.)

Dreadful Correlation

To reiterate – running an improvised One-2-One game isn’t easy. Don’t pick up the Armitage Files and assume that you’re good to go. In a conventional improvised campaign with multiple players, the Keeper has a whole group to riff off and steal ideas from. Here, it’s just you and one player, alone in a whirlwind of possibilities. Running this sort of game will be tough and exhausting – but it will also be a genuinely terrifying experience for one lucky player.

 

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.