A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foe Difficulties have been scaled down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your next Interpersonal Push costs 2 Pushes.

Discard after it applies, or at end of scenario.

But in the final version has become more overtly interactive:

-1 to Presence.

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

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

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

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

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

Collage illustration for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game by Dean Engelhardt


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

Limited edition with bookplate

Night’s Black Agents won two silver ENnie awards for Best Game and Best Writing, and was nominated for Best Rules, Best Interior Art and Product of the Year. Find out why with the limited edition!

Only 100 copies of the faux-leatherbound limited edition Night’s Black Agents exist. 50 are available to customers in the U.S. and Canada, and 50 are available to customers outside the U.S. and Canada. The books are faux leather with silver foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed book plate signed by Kenneth Hite, which you can add to your book.

Night’s Black Agents puts you in the role of a deadly secret agent, taking down the forces of darkness.

Bring your favorite high-octane spy thrillers to the table with Night’s Black Agents from legendary designer Kenneth Hite (Trail of Cthulhu). Have friends who love console shooters? This is the tabletop RPG for them! Access the eyes-only Resources page for blank agent dossiers, quick-reference sheets, a 20-minute demo and more — but sweep for tracking devices first.

 

Buy the limited edition

The Cold War is over. Bush’s War is winding down.

You were a shadowy soldier in those fights, trained to move through the secret world: deniable and deadly.

Then you got out, or you got shut out, or you got burned out. You didn’t come in from the cold. Instead, you found your own entrances into Europe’s clandestine networks of power and crime. You did a few ops, and you asked even fewer questions. Who gave you that job in Prague? Who paid for your silence in that Swiss account? You told yourself it didn’t matter.

It turned out to matter a lot. Because it turned out you were working for vampires.

Vampires exist. What can they do? Who do they own? Where is safe? You don’t know those answers yet. So you’d better start asking questions. You have to trace the bloodsuckers’ operations, penetrate their networks, follow their trail, and target their weak points. Because if you don’t hunt them, they will hunt you. And they will kill you.

Or worse.

Night’s Black Agents brings the GUMSHOE engine to the spy thriller genre, combining the propulsive paranoia of movies like Ronin and The Bourne Identity with supernatural horror straight out of Bram Stoker. Investigation is crucial, but it never slows down the action, which explodes with expanded options for bone-crunching combat, high-tech tradecraft, and adrenaline-fueled chases.

Updating classic Gothic terrors for the postmodern age, Night’s Black Agents presents thoroughly modular monstrosity: GMs can build their own vampires, mashup their own minions, kitbash their own conspiracies to suit their personal sense of style and story. Rules options let you set the level of betrayal, grit, and action in your game. Riff from the worked examples or mix and match vampiric abilities, agendas, and assets for a completely custom sanguinary spy saga.

The included hook adventure gets the campaign going; the included city setting shows you what might be clotting in Marseilles’ veins even now. Rack silver bullets in your Glock, twist a UV bulb into your Maglite, and keep watching the mirrors … and pray you’ve got your vampire stories straight.

Designer’s blog entries

An interview with the publisher

Free downloads and resources for Night’s Black Agents

Listen to Ken Hite talk about Night’s Black Agents on the Fear the Boot podcast

 

 

Review Highlights

Read all the reviews here.

As good as the toolkits that Night’s Black Agents provides are, the rules and advice deliver on the game and genre that they promise. Whether it is blood pumping action or heart stopping shocks, Night’s Black Agents is probably best shaken, and definitely has the “Vampire Spy Thriller” staked. – Matthew Pook

Vampires and spies – once you’re past the initial surprise, you’ll see that they work tremendously well in tandem. Well, I think they do, and I think the book’s an absolute knockout. – Sidney Roundwood

 

In Part One, I discussed the basics of running a pre-written GUMSHOE adventure. Based on a recent poll about half of you write your own adventures, or adapt ours, with a few brave souls improvising completely. This article covers the improvisation that’s required when characters go in unexpected directions or ask unexpected questions, whether in a pre-planned adventure or not.

Investigative Recap

I’ll start by reiterating a few core concepts for Investigative abilities:

  • If you have any rating in an Investigative ability at all, you are good at doing that stuff. If you run out of points, you are still good at it. If you walk into a scene, you are doing it through the lens of being a great architect, painter, researcher, or evidence collector. As the GM, you should deliver information to people with that ability anything which is obvious to a person with that ability, and if they ask questions using their ability, endeavour to provide as much information as possible through the lens of that ability.
  • Point spends should be confined to special benefits—information should be free. Benefits might speed up clue acquisition, but shouldn’t stop you from getting the information. For example, if you found a book, zero points and a few hours might extract what you need, or you could spend a point to have a flash of insight.
  • GUMSHOE doesn’t care whether the information is provided by the GM, or requested by the players. You can balance these approaches in reaction to your players’ style or even their energy on the night. But in general, it’s better for the players to interact with the scene in their imagination and suggest abilities they will use. Not only does it make the players more involved, it’s more likely to lead to fun improvised clues.
  • If a player with a suitable ability isn’t in a scene, there are three approaches for dealing with it. Either assume that everyone is kind-of, sort-of along for every scene, have the character remember a fact or technique taught to them by their absent teammates, or tweak the clue so it matches the abilities of the characters who are present.
  • Your attitude to giving out information will strongly affect the way your players act in-game. If they know they are going to extract all reasonable information in a scene, then they will stop the nasty habit of entirely tearing places apart and being too concerned they have missed something. So, my advice is, give out information, and if necessary, let them know there is nothing else to be found.
  • Finally and most importantly, Investigative abilities are not a straightjacket. Always err on the side of giving out information to players who propose plausible methods of obtaining information, and offer new ways of advancing to the next scene if they don’t get anywhere. Improvise around any blockages.

What Are Clues?

The investigative side of GUMSHOE is a way of delivering information that we call clues to the players. By a clue, I mean:

  • Information which takes you to another scene (a matchbook with a fingerprint on it)
  • Something which helps you prepare for a future encounter (you find the blackmail letter)
  • An item or information which provides a direct benefit like refreshing a pool or adding a new ability (a Mythos tome)
  • Background information which adds colour (the painting was created by famous cat artist Louis Wain)
  • Something which highlights themes of the game (a mummified foetus in a horror game)

Investigative abilities determine how the players will interact with the shared imaginary space of the game.  Sometimes these interactions provide pre-planned clues. When the adventure presents clues, it also suggests methods by which the clues can be delivered—one or more Investigative abilities. Any credible attempt to get information that would yield a given clue yields that clue, whether or not this is the ability you’ve specified in the scenario. So far, so good.

Improvised Clues

But what if the players examine something you didn’t consider or suggest great ideas in passing you want to incorporate? They really tend to glom on to things in the scene you hadn’t even considered—and that’s a great thing. For example, “Is there any correspondence around?”, “Is there a sale note for that painting?”, or “I look for scuff marks on the floor.” These are improvised clues.

The first thing to consider is what ability could plausibly interact with the clue? Encourage your players to be the ones to suggest what ability they use. Otherwise, check the ability matrix to see which abilities they have and might match (or just ask if they have an ability).

The next thing to consider is what type of improvised clue you want to deliver:

  • It can duplicate a pre-planned lead which takes you to another scene. This is easy, and very good practice as it encourages inventiveness and makes players feel clever. (Instead of the matchbook, it could be a cypher in a diary, an auction record, or some very distinctive mud marks on the floor.)
  • It can take you to another scene you hadn’t planned—an improvised lead (“We must visit cat painter Louis Wain to find out the provenance of this image.”). If you do this, you’ll need to consider how to move from the new scene back into the planned adventure, or whether it will lead to more improvised scenes. You don’t have to worry too much about when to do this—usually in a gap between scenes, and it’s easy to put another interesting breadcrumb in the way. First, for example, they might need to dig out Wain’s home address—throw it at the players how they might do this, and plan the encounter while they discuss it. If you have a scene diagram—add an arrow leading to this new scene.
  • It can provide a direct benefit. This one is easy and rewarding. In this case, it’s best to offer the benefit in conjunction with a point spend—see below. (For example, finding a case with antique guns and re-enabling the firing pin, or improvising gunpowder in a pharmacy.)
  • Background information which provides colour. If the players do you the courtesy of being fascinated by something in a scene, then add colour. (“Yes, the painting is very new, and you spot some ginger cat hairs on the antimacassars.”) These clues can easily turn into an improvised lead if players are really taken with them. If you aren’t feeling particularly inventive, or want to get things on track, make it clear that there isn’t anything special about it.
  • Something which highlights the theme of the game. If they insist on poking around in crevices in a horror game, reward them with something unpleasant. (There is a desiccated cat corpse under the bed, strangled by its own collar.)

Special Benefits

Finally, a note on special benefits. These are what players get if they spend their Investigative points. The mechanical role of Investigative pool points is to manage spotlight time, indicate to the GM how important something is to the player, and as a method for the players and GMs to signal “oncoming coolness” to each other. A player who says, “Can I spend a Bureaucracy point here?” is requesting something cool for his agent to do or discover during the scene. When the GM offers a spend she’s signaling that there’s something awesome available during this scene that she thinks the player (or players) would enjoy. This repartee will eventually become nearly seamless and automatic.

To reiterate core GUMSHOE rules, benefit spends include:

  • Giving you an advantage in a future contest of General abilities
  • Making supporting characters have a favourable impression of you
  • Giving you a flashback scene
  • Speeding up an investigation

In a more improvised game, special benefits can also be a way of players feeding the GM interesting suggestions without them explicitly having a GM role. These are usually in the form of a question: for example, “These old buildings often have priest holes, is there one around?” or “Is there another sketch concealed beneath the cat painting?” If this suits your group and play style—encourage this behaviour in your players. It will lead to more player involvement, and even take a little work for you.

Make sure that every point spend feels worthwhile, and if it’s at all possible, let them know what they are getting, and how many points it will cost before they spend.

By Hao Zhang

There’s an idea, a saying that when a thing travels, evolution, alteration, and other unexpected outcomes go with it. This idea sometimes can lead one to pleasant views. And this is how we at Labyrinth see it.

Before we formally begin the mumbling, we’d like to notify you dear readers that we wrote this article majorly based on our personal impressions and memories, therefore it would not be a bad idea to treat what we are about to recount as a mere story:

[the beginning]

By the end of 20th century, there were rumors and legends being told on the Chinese-speaking part of the Internet of stories about a sort of game, a unique kind of playing, which allows its players to freely act out the characters and to experience their adventures in a way that no other form of gaming can provide. It’s called Tabletop Roleplaying Games.

For many of us players in China—a place that’s literally a half planet away from where TRPG was born, this was how we first heard of it.

By the end of 1999, an article was published on the nation-wide magazine Popsoft, it was likely the very first systematic introduction of TRPGs written in the Chinese language. Due to the magazine’s popularity, we can also safely say that it was likely the first time TRPG was introduced to the mass-public of Chinese players.

Shortly after that, the Dragonlance novels and RA Salvator’s Forgotten Realms novels were published.

Following this, the D&D 3.0 edition core rule books.

For the first time, TRPG doesn’t just exist in the “introduction threads,” for the first time those who formerly could only say “I’m curious about this TRPG thing” could actually become a player.

And this was the beginning of an actual TRPG player population in China.

Since the stories about TRPG were mostly spreading within the video gaming communities (Popsoft itself can be arguably deemed as a video game magazine, too), most of these early players are also video game players. It’s interesting to mention that before many of these first TRPG players ventured into the world of TRPG, they first played CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.

That said, due to the fact that the fantasy novels were basically introduced to Chinese youth at the same epoch, among the first TRPG players we also have a lot of fantasy novel readers. But in most cases a Chinese TRPG player is both a fantasy novel reader and a video game fan.

To put this on a larger scale, we can say that most of the first TRPG players were the Chinese young people who are fascinated by western pop culture in general.

And since then, TRPG began to flourish in China… as many of us once so hoped.

Actually, since then, until the D&D 3.5 and 4.0 rule books both got published in 2009 by two different entities, it was mostly just silence.

The number of TRPG players in China remained relatively low for many years, the lucky ones who managed to talk their friends into TRPGs mostly play in local board game cafes, and the less-lucky-but-determined ones could only play online.

Due to the lack of actual games, many TRPG players here formed an online reading habit and became rather knowledgeable about various pop culture subjects. At first it was heavily focused on D&D and genres like high fantasy, but soon other games/systems (like World of Darkness, Sword World RPG, and GURPS) and other genres were explored.

Thanks to these knowledgeable pioneers and their activeness in all sorts of video game forums, while TRPG itself seemed very insignificant and marginal in China, the influence it had on the entire Chinese pop culture is tremendous: together with fantasy novels and animations, it inspired a whole generation of web novel writers and game designers, it’s like the Illuminati society for Chinese pop culture aficionados, you just cannot call yourself an insider without stating your admiration and interest in TRPG…

Speaking of Chinese pop culture, it’s also hard to avoid mentioning animations and other Japanese pop culture works. If the the influence of earlier works like Slayers was still largely limited to the anime fan community, the impact of classics like Record of Lodoss War was just huge.

As more animes and light novels were made since the late 2000s, this impact from Japan got more significant and began to turn Japanese pop culture fans into TRPG players.

From the Japanese pop culture fanbase emerged a wave of new players whom are introduced to the TRPG via light novels, manga, J-CRPG, anime, and Japanese-style visualized AARs (in some of these AARs the characters have “Yukkuri” version portraits of Touhou characters and they often talk in the voice of Google), a considerable part of these AARs are CoC AARs.

And thanks to Nyaruko: Crawling with Love, today a lot of people among us here in China are used to refer Nyarlathotep as Nyaruko even in non-anime discussions.

Despite that many earlier “western school” players are also anime watchers, due to the cultural differences that existed in the two different worlds, the “Japanese school” players have a small cultural gap with the “western school” players. That said, fusions can be also widely observed.

And while TRPG in China slowly evolved here, “another secret cult”—the Cthulhu culture also crept into the Middle Kingdom and gained its own place.

It’s hard to tell which one arrived first: the CoC game, or the literature works associated with Cthulhu mythos, or maybe they appeared at the same time in one online thread? We can only tell with certainty that some of the literature was published along with some other fantasy novels here in PRC during the first decade of 21st century.

If TRPG is a marginal cult, then in general the Cthulhu culture was even more marginal, when TRPG was still recognized by the pop culture geeks and hailed as an important source of inspiration, Cthulhu mythos was like a whisper, only murmured in the least visited corners of Chinese-speaking Internet.

The very reason for the Cthulhu pop culture itself looking so alike to the in-work secret cults and mysteries, was probably that the Cthulhu-associated works were never (or at least just rarely) systematically introduced, if somebody in the 2000s would have searched “克苏鲁” (the Chinese transcription of Cthulhu), he would most likely only get scattered information: a couple of books, some short introductions to HP Lovecraft, some longer articles full of specific terms, and some “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” replies here and there.

Of course this mystery doesn’t last forever, as the Chinese pop culture community grows and the earlier fans expand their explorations into more and more different worlds (resulting in more translated works and even original works), and as the Japanese creators started to use more Cthulhu-related references in their works, now it becomes much easier for anyone interested to get information. On top of that, we at Labyrinth even have Trail of Cthulhu translated and published.

We’ve been saying that a majority of the Chinese TRPG fanbase are into western pop culture (and they play western characters more often than not during games), but as most of them are still born and raised in China, a cultural difference still exists. Here’s a quick example, for many Chinese players, the Prohibition Era is something they are unfamiliar with, and thus moonshine and bootlegging can be interpreted in unexpected ways…

This doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the games though, many players smartly avoid such issues with characters from backgrounds they are unfamiliar with. And the Chinese players are sometimes very into playing out their characters’ personalities and charms , some creative folks here even play with largely minimalized rules to have greater freedom (meanwhile some others deem this unorthodox).

So this is how the things feels like at a glance and how they became so. So far TRPG culture and Cthulhu culture have grown slightly bigger than they originally were when they first arrived, but these cultures are still young here and will have a long way to go to until they can be considered as fully fledged.

But as long as the legends of TRPG are still being told and the Lovecraftian mysteries are still being whispered, this story will just live on.


Hao Zhang is the founder and CEO of Labyrinth Culture
Ever after his engagement in the localization of D&D 3rd Edition Core Rule Books in 2000, Hao has always been an over-serious aficionado and a zealous promoter of TRPG. He founded Visionary e-magazine, the first magazine in China that focus solely on TRPG in 2005 and co-founded Khan Kon in 2011. The games he brought to Chinese players include Fiasco, Trail of Cthulhu, and Pathfinder.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Improvement Roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Players like it.

They’ve been trained to expect it.

It makes them happy.

So in the end, they get it.

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

by Simon Rogers

In most cases, GUMSHOE puts the dice in the hands of the players. Instead of the GM making a Stealth test for a creature to sneak up on a character, players make a Sense Trouble test to avoid being surprised. When the roles are reversed, it’s the players who make a Stealth test to get the drop on their opponent. We call this approach “player-facing.” The only time GMs make die rolls is in combat and in other, longer contests.  This article suggests how we can tear the dice from the GM’s warm and clammy hands during combat and put them in the warm clammy hands of the players.

How It Works

In standard GUMSHOE, when a GMC opponent makes an attack, the GM makes a test against the PC’s Hit Threshold, adds some points from the creature’s combat pool, then rolls damage if the test is successful.

In this new player-facing combat, the player makes a test to resist the attack and takes consequences if they fail. Conceptually, with this approach, it’s easier if the players think of their Health pool as Defense or Endurance rather than a measure of how much actual damage their character is taking. If this better for your group, simply rename Health as Defense.

Calculate the Difficulty of the Health Test

The base Difficulty for the player’s Health test is 3. This is increased by any points the GM spends from the creature’s Attack pool. We call this number the Attack Difficulty.

Instead of adding points from the Attack pool, another, quicker approach, is that the GM just adds a fixed amount to the Attack Difficulty equal to the creature’s Attack pool divide by three and rounded down.

Attack Pool Modifier
0-2 +0
3-5 +1
6-8 +2
9-11 +3

In most GUMSHOE settings, the GM will state the Attack Difficulty, unless the PC has no combat training, or the PCs are entirely unfamiliar with the creature.

Make the Health Test

The player makes the Health test against the creature’s Attack Difficulty. The player adds their Hit Threshold minus three to the roll plus any Health points they want to spend. Usually Hit Threshold is 3, meaning you add nothing, or 4, so you add +1.

Take the Consequences of Failure

If the player fails the test, they take damage equal to the creature’s Damage Modifier, with a minimum of one, and will take a Condition. The Conditions are Staggered, Hurt, Seriously Wounded, and Dead. Staggered is new to GUMSHOE, the others, you know already.

The first time a PC is hit in a combat (whether they take damage or not), they are Staggered. Being Staggered increases the Difficulty of Health tests by 1, and means the next time you are hit you are Hurt, regardless of your Health pool, the time after that Seriously Wounded, and then, you guessed it, Dead. After combat, any Staggered PCs can lose this status simply by resting for a few minutes. If you are Hurt by an attack, your Heath falls to zero. If you are Seriously Wounded by an attack your Health falls to -6.

If the PC is not yet Hurt and hits zero Health through spends on Health tests and damage, then the standard wound rules apply, but if a PC is already Hurt, they become Seriously Wounded (and their Health falls to -5),  and if Seriously Wounded, Dead.

Regardless of how they end up Hurt or Seriously Wounded, the PC must make the usual Consciousness test to stay on their feet.

Armour

You can use armour to avoid taking a Condition, but only once per battle, for each +1 the armour provides. So, for example, light armour (+1) will give you one chance to avoid being Staggered, Hurt, or even Dead on a failed Health test. Heavy Armour (+2) gives you two chances.

An Example of Player-Facing Combat

Bertha Wiseman is facing off against a thug armed with a knife. She is wielding an épée. Her Health is 10, and her Hit Threshold is 4 (she has 8 in Athletics). Her Attack pool is 5.

The thug has 7 Health, a Hit Threshold of 3, and an Attack pool of 8. Using the quick approach, the thug’s Attack bonus is +2 (his Attack pool divided by 3, rounded down). A knife has a-1 Damage Modifier. The minimum damage is 1, so that -1 becomes 1.

  • Bertha goes first as she has the highest Attack rating, spends two points from her Attack pool to ensure her blade strikes and rolls 3 points of damage.
  • Now it’s the thug’s turn. The GM announces the Difficulty of Bertha’s Health test. It’s 3 plus the thug’s Attack bonus of 2, so 5.
  • Bertha makes a Difficulty 5 Health test against the thug’s attack, choosing to spend zero points of Health. She has a Hit Threshold of 4, so she adds one to her roll and luckily rolls a 4, so she takes no damage.
  • She makes her attack, again spending 2 points, and rolling 4 damage. The thug’s Health is now 3.
  • The thug attacks. Once again Bertha makes her test against her foe, spending 4 points of Health to ensure she isn’t hit. Her Health is now 6.
  • She attacks again, but she has no Attack points to spend, and rolls a 2—a miss.
  • Bertha makes her Health test against the attacking thug, spending no points, and fails to make the test. She takes 1 point of damage and her Health is 5. She is now Staggered. If she gets hit again, she will be Hurt.
  • Bertha lashes out at the thug with her poker. She needs to roll a 4 or higher rather than a 3, because she is Staggered. She rolls a 4, and does 2 points of damage to the thug. He is at 1 Health.
  • Bertha spends 4 points of Health to avoid being hit, leaving her with just 2 points left, but ensuring that she doesn’t get Hurt.

Now it’s Bertha’s turn…

We will leave the Staggered Bertha facing the thug, and wish her the best.

An alternative approach which was an inspiration for this article can be found in Diceless GMing in GUMSHOE by MP Duxbury.

For a more abstracted, quicker, and entirely placing-facing alternative to this suggestion, take a look at The Yellow King RPG.

 

 

 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Since investigative roleplaying first burst from its sunken atoll and called itself Call of Cthulhu, mystery solving and horror have always been linked in the gamer mind.

As a result, when Simon first asked me to design a system for investigative play, it made sense to debut GUMSHOE in the horror genre, with The Esoterrorists.

Since then many of our other GUMSHOE games have also essayed variations of the horror genre. It’s what we like, what many of you like, and a natural fit.

Each time we’ve returned to this well, we’ve explored a different ethos, or variety, of horror.

The Esoterrorists might be termed topical horror. It posits that the true terrors we face today aren’t hiding in graveyards or haunted houses, but in the headlines and our social media feeds. The game’s occult conspiracy gains power by leveraging the cognitive dissonance and collective dread we experience when something terrible is transmitted to us by the global media. It taps into, and mediates, the feeling that our broader world has spun out of control. In my bid to create an original setting, I devised a type of horror without a huge corpus of preexisting examples. Satirical horror sometimes has a topical horror vibe, so you might point to the works of Larry Cohen or Joe Dante’s “Masters of Horror” episodes as existing in the same territory. The Purge franchise delves deeper into topical horror with each installment.

Fear Itself, in which ordinary people try to survive horror situations, is pitched as personal horror. Players define the worst thing their characters ever did, and the running and shrieking and losing Stability invoke the human flaws those backstory events suggest.

Trail of Cthulhu follows two traditions established by Call of Cthulhu, which it adapts to the GUMSHOE system.

In its purist mode, Trail confronts players with cosmic horror: the psychic and moral devastation accompanying the full realization of humanity’s insignificance in a vast and indifferent universe. Whether you’re beholding the incarnation of an ancient god-beast or discovering that history stretches back through inhuman eons, Lovecraft’s creations all speak to the collapse of humanocentric worldviews in response to 20th century science.

In Trail’s pulp mode you play in an adventure horror universe. Characters may pay lip service to the philosophical implications of cosmic materialism, but in the meantime there’s ghouls and Deep Ones and cultists in need of a good machine-gunning.

Night’s Black Agents fuses two genres, for a heady mix you might call gothic spy thriller. It takes Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its many 19th century cousins and mixes them with Bourne-movie urgency, not to mention munitions. NBA takes the baseline paranoia of the spy genre and links it to a hidden demimonde of gothic menace and predation. In the spy genre, any of your so-called allies might be a mole; here, that mole might also mesmerize you and drain your blood. You can walk into a honeypot operation and come out not only compromised, but undead.

Cthulhu Confidential likewise finds the commonalities between horror and another genre to arrive at what you might call cosmic noir. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and the hardboiled detective tale evolved at about the same time. The existential alienation of the noir genre thus easily slots into the alien existentialism of the Mythos. Cthulhu Confidential pairs the psychic disintegration of Mythos awakening with the moral disintegration discovered by hardboiled detectives as they uncover the social rot the city’s high and mighty wish to conceal. Terrible truths lie behind the surfaces of history and the local power structure.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game explores reality horror. Taking its cue from the original cycle of stories by Robert W. Chambers, it locates its fright in the idea that both our minds, and reality itself, can be altered, upended and ultimately destroyed by a work of art. Or a symbol, even. You can try not to see, then discover you’ve read the play all the same.

YKRPG takes this a step further by encouraging you to play similar or connected characters across four distinct realities, not all of them in the same timeline. To give a sense of contrast to the reality-hopping, each of its four settings provides a distinctive genre sub-flavor.

Paris, set in the original 1895 of a couple of the Chambers stories, evokes a variant pulp horror, one where the sources of inspiration are not the magazine pot-boilers of the 30s and 40s but the thriller fiction of the 19th century. This starts the series off on a note of derring-do, as you confront vampires, Frankensteins, magicians and gargoyles, all given a Carcosan spin.

The Wars takes a journey into the rare but redolent weird war horror subgenre. Although it can take on a pulpy flavor, especially with the setting’s bizarre war machines, references to the true horrors of war remain below the surface.

Aftermath, set in an alternate America just after the repressive Castaigne regime has been overthrown by insurgents like your player characters, combines political machinations with reality horror. You might call it topical horror from an imaginary history.

And This is Normal Now, set in what initially looks like our own world and time, plays with a growing and contagious perception. The characters learn that the underpinnings of our lives are swirling away in favor of a new and sinister set of possibilities. Though not far from the feeling of Fear Itself, this sequence encourages the GM to find horror in contemporary trends, from the latest app to the nightclub that’s all over Instagram. And if you bump into some Cronenbergian science horror along the way, well, don’t say you weren’t warned.

That gives you, the GUMSHOE GM looking for a new horror game, a wide variety of sinister spices and styles to choose from.

And us a challenge the next time we get the itch to unleash another horror game.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Previously on See Page XX, I talked about the difficulties we occasionally hear about when GMs who have trained themselves to say “no” come to the GUMSHOE system with those assumptions in mind.

This time I’d like to look at how early roleplaying culture took on that mindset, and how assumptions are shifting during the current RPG renaissance.

GUMSHOE, along with many other games, actively works to move the story forward. When we spot a barrier to narrative development, we add tools to help GMs and players push them out of the way.

For example, the Drives system found in many GUMSHOE iterations, from Fear Itself to The Yellow King, puts the onus on players to engage with the premise and take actions that lead to an engaging story.

It works to correct a previous prevailing unspoken assumption, in which it is the GM’s job to entice reluctant players to take risks with their characters. Drives remind them to make active choices a perfectly rational but uninteresting character might go to some trouble to avoid.

This assumption, like so much else, arises from the early history of the form, which thought more about reward and punishment than about building a fun story together. Early players learned at their peril not to make “stupid” mistakes that would kill off their characters. Drives work to change the question from an older model, “how can I avoid deadly mistakes?” to “what inspires me to make exciting choices?”

To repeat a Thing I Always Say, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson weren’t trying to create a new narrative art form when they developed the ideas that turned into Dungeons & Dragons, the original roleplaying-game-as-we-know-it. They were working in the wargaming tradition, inventing a new game that reduced the unit size from a squad, battalion or legion to a single individual with a sword or pointy hat.

Included in that brainwave was the brilliant, habit-forming concept of the experience point, a currency you continue to accrue to your character over time. That persistence and growth led by inevitable consequence to narrative.

But it also created an adversarial dynamic between DM and players. The DM has an infinite supply of experience points, creating an environment that withholds them from players until they fight the world and pry them loose.

Early DM advice advised against excessively punitive treatment of the players and the characters, not because the game wasn’t a contest between the characters and the world, but because the game stopped working when DMs abused their unlimited power. DMs had to remind themselves that they weren’t there to crush the players, but to give them the most exciting set of challenges.

Power-mad Dungeon Masters weren’t a mere matter of folklore. When I interviewed him for 40 Years of Gen Con, Dave Arneson recalled the time when he sat down to play with a young DM, who promptly narrated a massive anvil plummeting from the heavens to squash his character to a pulp. “I killed Dave Arneson! I killed Dave Arneson!” the kid cried, to the delight of surrounding tables. Such were the terrible lessons of the early dungeon wars…

Along with warnings against this sort of stuff in early books came contrary messages. DMs were advised to punish uncooperative players with bolts of electrical damage to their characters, or presented with the infamous instant-kill traps in Tomb of Horrors.

We often think of adversarial roleplaying as something that the DM inflicts on players. Anyone whose original Gaming Hut really had shag carpeting, wood paneling and a Peter Frampton album for a screen no doubt remembers players coming at them hard. They rolled at you either in search of those addictive XP and the new levels they brought, or just the opportunity to screw with The Man, who happened to be you. The greater the emphasis on the reward, the more the DM had to ride herd, controlling cheating, minimaxing, and rules lawyering. This was not an era of “yes and” but of “duh, no!”

The experience point still rules the land of D&D, but these days in a more enlightened tyranny. Over the years XPs have become a pacing element measuring the rate at which your characters inevitably get better. Years of design adjustments have cut out exploitable jackpot effects. Later customs of play encourage the whole group to progress at the same rate, and for replacement characters to rejoin at par with the rest of the party. No longer do we assume that they restart at level 1 and try to stay alive long enough to catch up on the XP curve.

Other games carried over the assumptions of rapacious players you had to say no to. Build point games such as Champions and GURPS rewarded system mastery and the search for bargain-priced powers and disadvantages. They relied on GMs to watch for and curtail abuses.

Assumptions of power and control extended to authority over the narrative. The idea that a player could invent a useful prop to describe during a fight scene seems like a dead obvious collaborative element today. When it appeared in the original Feng Shui, it blew minds. Even so, the first edition of that game is nonetheless rife with passages assuming that the players want to hose you, the GM, and that you can turn that thirst to your benefit.

With decades of story-emulating play devices behind us, players have not only become less rapacious overall, but also less movable by either bribery and punishment.

GUMSHOE’s first version of Drives included a mechanical penalty for players who refused to go along when the GM invoked them. This proved unnecessary; once reminded of a Drive, no halfway cooperative player refuses the adjustment.

In a world where thirteen year olds exist, the hunger for advancement and putting one over on the GM will never vanish entirely. But their version of fun is no longer the baseline for every table. Our latest generation of new players is as much influenced by actual play podcasts and the hunger for character and story as by an unruly desire to minimax and grub for XPs.

As player behavior has changed in the aggregate, what the designer needs to do to facilitate maximum fun for all has altered as well. Design change has both shaped, and been shaped by, cultural shifts within the roleplaying community writ large.

Gaming culture can change invisibly as our personal assumptions remain fixed and unexamined. That’s why, I think, when a GM who has played many games over the years misreads a rule, that the misreading will default to the forbidding, even in a system built to be permissive.

That presents a communications challenge, it’s also a tribute to the complexity of a form that continues to evolve in dialogue with its audience of collaborators.

GUMSHOE

GUMSHOE is a system for designing and playing investigative roleplaying games and adventures, emulating stories where investigators uncover a series of clues, and interpret them to solve a mystery.

In a GUMSHOE game, the player characters discover something which triggers their investigation, and then the Game Moderator (GM) narrates them through a number of scenes, during which they use their Investigative Abilities to gather the core clues they need to move the narrative forward. They must then put the clues together to uncover the secrets behind the mystery.

GUMSHOE One-2-One

This is a new iteration of GUMSHOE, designed for one player, and one GM. You can find out more about it here.

GUMSHOE links and resources

GUMSHOE Games

Any RPG which uses the GUMSHOE system redefines it for that setting, and so there is no “GUMSHOE book”. Each of the RPGs below contains the full GUMSHOE rules for creating characters and playing in that world, as well as guidance on designing your own investigations for that particular setting.

Follow the links below to find out about our GUMSHOE games:

A Column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Many moons ago I encountered a phenomenon I later termed an unrule.

A rule, as goes without saying, is text the designer includes into a game to explain how it is played.

An unrule is text you have to include to prevent players from making a mistaken assumption about your game, based on their experience of other games.

This first cropped up during playtesting for the Shadowfist card game. Players were tripping themselves by expecting its characters to act just like Magic: the Gathering creatures.

If you came to Shadowfist cold without having played MtG, it would never occur to you to expect characters to act in this way.

But if you had already learned Magic, as of course many potential Shadowfist players had, you might have assumed this. Or you might see that we didn’t use same rule, but ask rules support just to be sure.

So we had to include an unrule–a piece of rules text telling you not to do the thing you would do if this was Magic you were playing.

Unrules needn’t arise from comparison to a specific equivalent rule in another game. They can come about simply by substituting general familiarity with a game form–roleplaying let’s say–to general familiarity for a close reading of the rules.

We all do this. Roleplaying games are full of rules, and we learn by analogy. The more previous RPG books we’ve read, the greater the chance that we let our eyes dart quickly over a section that seems to be saying the standard thing we’re used to seeing that section say. Missing out how a given part of the system works is absolutely par for the course.

For example, Simon recently spoke to a GM who was having trouble with GUMSHOE because you can run out of points in an investigative ability, and therefore can’t continue to use it, stopping you from solving the mystery.

Which would in fact be a terrible flaw in the game, given that the whole point of the system is to ensure that investigators always get the information they need.

The rules directly explain, in clear and explicit detail, that investigative points are never required to get the crucial clues you need to move through the mystery.

You are never required to spend to get pivotal information–especially what we call core clues, the ones that signal the appearance of brand new leads and avenues of investigation. If there’s a new person you need to talk to, place you need to poke around in, or area of research you must embark on, you always get that info, period. No point spend required.

Instead point expenditures give you special extra spiffy benefits above and beyond access to vital clues. In early GUMSHOE scenarios you sometimes got especially impressive information that didn’t directly impact the case, or gained the standard clue in a particularly impressive way. Over the years we’ve put that thought aside in favor of practical benefits to the character. You might learn how to kill a creature more easily, cement an alliance with a helpful GMC, convince an angry bystander not to slug you, and so forth.

Spending every single investigative point on your character sheet never stymies you. You can always continue to gather the clues the scenario provides, just as before. Assuming your character looks in the right place and has the needed ability, you get the info. If you look in the right place but don’t have the ability, another PC will have it. Is that player not present this week? We have workarounds for that, too.

Since you don’t need to spend investigative points to gather key clues, running out of investigative points is extremely rare in practice, when playing the rules as they appear on the page. Spending them all means that you’ve accrued a bunch of benefits, and can’t garner any more of them. It never stops you from proceeding.

Likewise if you have a general ability, used to overcome practical problems and dangesrs, and spend all of your points in it, you continue to use it. You have less of a chance of succeeding, as you can no longer spend points to add a positive modifier to your result. But you will still succeed at least half the time against the most common difficulty number.

Mistaken assumptions like this are hard to head off. Where players are reading a rule into the text that doesn’t exist, you can write a rule telling them not to do that. Though it may be odd to explain what a game doesn’t do, implicitly heading off a comparison to another game can be done.

Reaching players who assume Y when you explicitly write X is a tougher conundrum.

Misperceived rules prove particularly thorny during playtest. Playtest draft documents are a mess, littered with bits to be written later, sections not yet optimally placed, and no index or graphic elements to help one’s saintly playtesters find the references they’re looking for.

You may get an account of a failed game session but never realize that the results were based on misunderstood versions of the rules. Ideally you get enough context to see what has gone wrong and take action. Depending on the misperception, you might flag the existing rule with more insistent visual cues, add redundant text to hammer the point harder, or emphasize it through repetition in various sections of the book. The best way to have this problem is to find out you genuinely wrote an unclear rule, because then you can simply fix it by rewriting for clarity.

The real headscratcher comes long after playtest, when most everyone gets the rule as written and you discover a surprising misinterpretation standing between a pocket of players and enjoyment of your game. Simon has been investigating the possibilities of a squirrel-based system, where his favorite urban rodents fan out from Clapham and across the world, watching Pelgrane’s games play at the tabletop and then reporting back in their distinctive angry shriek when they see rules misunderstandings in action.

Until we get that up and running, GUMSHOE fans, we’re going to have to rely on you to keep watch for misperceptions preventing unfortunate others from enjoying a rules system that works perfectly well for you. Show them the light with the gentility our readers are known for. Remind them GUMSHOE always wants them to get the information. It always wants them to have what they need to solve the mystery. When it comes to clue-gathering, GUMSHOE says yes.

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