See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

by Kevin Kulp

It’s not an obvious choice, but the new high-damage combat system makes Swords of the Serpentine work in some very interesting ways.

When I tell a Trail of Cthulhu player that there’s a swords & sorcery game using GUMSHOE, they sometimes look concerned and ask me “…Why?” I laugh every time, in part because the impetus for Swords of the Serpentine (SotS) came from a design exercise where I started off convinced that hacking GUMSHOE for classic fantasy was damn near impossible. I quickly realized I was wrong.

The problem isn’t fantasy mysteries. Mystery is everywhere in classic swords and sorcery stories. They aren’t usually classic “whodunit?” mysteries (although they can be, as in Terry Pratchett’s City Watch Discworld series). More often they’re heroes venturing forth into unknown danger and trying to figure it out before it kills them. Sometimes they’re mysterious power groups working against the heroes (as in Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch), and sometimes they’re heroes trying to survive in hostile wilderness or cities with mysterious dangers that they really want to figure out quickly (lots of Conan stories by Robert E. Howard). Sometimes they’re even gangs of thieves stealing things the heroes want before the heroes have had a chance to steal them themselves (such as in Claws from the Night, a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story by Fritz Leiber). Even adventures for games like D&D are full of mysteries, even if that mystery is “what happened to Keraptis 1300 years ago, and why did he steal these magic weapons?”

No, the real problem I had to solve was combat. Trail of Cthulhu is a game of horror against unspeakable odds, and so it isn’t tuned to give you powerful heroes succeeding through wit and strength of arm. Damage is low in ToC and investigators die quickly.

For SotS, I instead needed epic, cinematic combat, delightful banter that allowed heroes like Cugel the Clever (in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series) to succeed without ever picking up a dagger, and a rules structure that relied far more on the hero’s own capabilities than on their gear. If this game was going to work, combat had to feel great.

GUMSHOE turns out to be perfect for this, but not through weapons. Weapons in Swords of the Serpentine have very little differentiation between them (daggers do +0 damage and greataxes do +2 damage, and that’s not exactly splashy), so combat becomes far more about what a player chooses to do than about what weapon they’re using. My big question when designing was how to turn player cleverness and a hero’s standard capabilities into big impressive combat damage.

The secret is in Investigative abilities. Early GUMSHOE games hinted at the capabilities of Investigative abilities, asking GMs to give players more information when pool points were spent. Night’s Black Agents started to have Investigative points linked to action, where having Investigative ranks got you clues but spending Investigative pool points gave players narrative control that caused things to happen. I codified this into TimeWatch (where you can try things like thwarting a villain’s escape by spending a point of Architecture, going back in time, and altering the building’s blueprints so that there’s no fire escape for her to flee down). In SotS Investigative spends are even more flexible, and they’re the primary way you achieve flashy, cinematic combat in a fight.

In SotS if you can rationalize an Investigative spend to help yourself in combat, you can do it. Such spends can boost defenses or allow special effects, but they’re usually used to boost damage by one extra die per point spent. Sometimes the ability you’ll try is obvious…

“I’m going to jump off the balcony and bury my sword in his back. I’ll spend 2 points of Tactics of Death for an extra 2d6 damage.”

And sometimes – the best times – you need to be creative. If you can explain how an ability might be useful, you can spend it for combat effects or extra damage.

“Can I spend points of Nobility to do extra damage?”

“No, that’s stupid.”

“How about this? Growing up, my parents brought in a different fencing tutor every year, and they taught me dozens of ways to kill a man so that he suffered slowly and painfully.”

“Oh, in that case? Of course you can spend Nobility points for extra damage!”

You have control over your own burst damage and usually – by how you spend your General ability points – over when you hit while attacking. Are you going to save points for a final battle? Is it better to specialize in abilities (and increase how much damage you can cause at once during a fight) or spread your points out (becoming far more flexible while adventuring)? How are you creatively managing to find combat uses for less obvious abilities?

This creates a really interesting effect in play, where players feel like big damn heroes who often have to describe the cool thing they’ve thought up so that they can gain the benefit of those points. Players are encouraged to take risks and be creative because that’s the only way they’ll gain those resources. Add the ability to pass your damage to another player with a teamwork attack, the ability to attack a foe’s Morale just by using words as weapons, and newly-redesigned Maneuvers to disarm your foe or kick them off a roof, and you end up with memorable, fast but flexible fights.

As we move towards the end of the playtest period (end of February – fill out that Google form, playtesters, and thanks!), I’m really not surprised that GUMSHOE makes a good platform for Swords & Sorcery. I’m surprised that playtesters are saying things like “we felt like we were in a Lankhmar story” and that they’re making the combat system sing so quickly. As the game gets closer to publication, I can’t wait to hear what people have done with it.

Kevin Kulp is the Boston-based co-author of Swords of the Serpentine, and formerly helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Should you decide to play The Yellow King Roleplaying Game using the baseline version of GUMSHOE found in previous games, such as Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, or The Esoterrorists, you’ll want to translate its Foe stats.

You might also decide to snag YKRPG creatures to mess with investigators from another game, and need to perform the same maneuver.

Here’s a guide to doing that, but first, standard disclaimers apply.

In no version of GUMSHOE are creatures designed according to a formula or template. They always require eyeballing and adjustment as you move from initial conception to finished set of game statistics.

Never let the rough number ranges here take precedence over what you think makes sense for a creature.

Also remember that you can always increase the threat represented by a particular monster up or down by creating situational factors that confer advantage or disadvantage on the PCs in the particular fight you want to stage.

Difficulty Modifiers in QuickShock make this explicit, also highlighting ways that information gathered by the PCs can assist them when the story gets to the fighty bit. This is a concept you can easily steal for baseline GUMSHOE, as Difficulty modifiers exist in that game, even though they don’t appear directly in the foe descriptions.


When converting, use the foe’s Relative Challenge as a rough benchmark for the range of stats it might have in baseline GUMSHOE.

Some games split use more combat abilities than the other. For this purpose we’ll use “Main Fighting” and “Secondary Fighting” as placeholders for Scuffling, Shooting, Weapons and the like. Assign them as needed for the theme of your creature and your game’s genre.

You’ll have to assign Stealth and Alertness modifiers to QuickShock creatures, which do not include those numbers. Use the theme of the creature to decide how easy it is to sneak up on the creature, and how easily it sneaks up on others.

Glance at the Injury cards a creature dishes out, as sometimes an otherwise unimpressive enemy comes with cards nastier than you’d expect, which you’ll want to take into account when assigning Weapon damages. In the case of exotic attacks with lingering effects, use the card text as inspiration for special attack details. You may wish to steal these from existing standard GUMSHOE creatures, finding one that plays the same sort of trick.

Hit Threshold is as much a factor of creature size or other descriptive qualities as a matter of strict progression up a ladder of menace. A gigantic but formidable creature might have a Hit Threshold of 2; a small and weak one, like Lovecraft’s Brown Jenkin, might be hard to hit.

Once you’ve finished, eyeball the results and fix any number that seems oddly high or low given the concept of the creature.

Anyone with sufficient time on their hands to backwards-engineer the conversion kits from standard to QuickShock GUMSHOE will spot instances where I moved a creature into a different Challenge ranking for YKRPG than a literal reading of its standard stats would call for. When it comes to creature conversions between any two systems, theme should always win.

Weak

Athletics 4-9, Health 2-4, Main Fighting 5-7, Secondary Fighting 3-5

Hit Threshold 3

Weapon -2 to -2

Armor 0-1

Tough but Outmatched

Athletics 6-8, Health 6-10, Main Fighting 7-16, Secondary Fighting 6-10

Hit Threshold 4

Weapon -1 to 1

Armor 1-2

Evenly Matched

Athletics 9-12, Health 7-9, Main Fighting 9-12, Secondary Fighting 5-7

Hit Threshold 4-5

Weapon -1 to 3

Armor 1-3

Superior

Athletics 7-12, Health 8-18, Main Fighting 13-20, Secondary Fighting 7-9

Hit Threshold 3-4

Weapon 2-5

Armor 2-5

Vastly Superior

Athletics 10-30, Health 14-21, Main Fighting 18-28, Secondary Fighting 13-23

Hit Threshold 3- 4

Weapon 2-4

Armor 3-5

Overwhelming

Athletics 18-36, Health 32-40, Main Fighting 23-27, Secondary Fighting 18-22

Hit Threshold 2-4

Weapon 4-12

Armor 4-12

Too Awful to Contemplate

Athletics 30-50, Health 30-50, Main Fighting 28-32, Secondary Fighting 22-27

Hit Threshold 2-6

Weapon 5-12

Armor 4-12


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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:

During the Kickstarter for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, I laid out one method of serving Shock and Injury cards to players electronically, as image files sent to a mobile-enabled platform. At that time, I recommended using Google Photos for this purpose. Belatedly I realize that there was a better way to do it, using the workspace application Slack.

Here’s how to do that:

If you haven’t done so already, create a Slack workspace for your game group.

(I now find this an essential tool for my group, no matter what we’re playing. The Polly poll app, for example, gives you a handy way to conduct an advance roll call and make sure you have quorum before anyone grabs their dice and heads your way.)

Within the workspace, create a separate channel for each player character. Depending on how well you remember PC names, you may want to name it after the character, or place the player’s name before or after the investigator name. Slack doesn’t allow spaces or upper case letters in channel names so you’ll have to resort to underscores:

#ella_wharton

#noelle_ella_wharton

#ella_wharton_noelle

Alternately, you could serve cards into the private message inbox of each player. However, some players like to use that for banter, out of game arrangements and other side business. Creating a channel for each player keeps that clear for cards and in-game notes, and reminds other players of the cast of investigators.

Also, if a member of your group is without a mobile device, they can sit next to a player with a laptop or tablet. With a little looking over-the-shoulder, the obliging device owner can switch between channels as needed to allow the other person to check their cards in hand.

When a character receives a Shock or Injury card, you upload it to the appropriate channel. You can do this directly from a folder if using a laptop. On a tablet, you can put the card images in Dropbox and share them from that service’s mobile app into the Slack app.

Slack permits only the creator of a message line to delete that line, so when a player discards a card, you’ll have to delete it in order for it to disappear. Be sure your players let you know when they fulfill a discard condition.

We’re currently assembling materials for our YKRPG resources page, including image files for each card. If you need them before we get that done, you can check the books for the cards you think you’ll need and turn them into images. Accomplish this either by screenshotting the PDF or by opening the PDF in an image editing program such as GIMP. Then crop the cards into separate images, save with the card titles as file names, and you’re good to go.

Some GMs will still prefer the tactile quality of paper cards printed, cut up, and handed to players. But for those, like me, who consider immediate access to all the cards in the game the ideal, a Slack full of pallid masks and black stars should do the trick.

People Have Opinions about service platforms. If you come up with an even better way, let us know!


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Only 100 copies of the faux-leatherbound limited edition The Fall of DELTA GREEN 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 gold foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed bookplate signed by Kenneth Hite which you can add to your book.

Limited edition with bookplate

It is the 1960s. The stars are coming right.

The United States declares war on poverty and sends half a million troops to Indochina; desegregates voting booths and shoots rockets at the moon. Everyone believes that if we put our mind to it and our backs into it, there’s nothing we can’t do to make the world better, for America and everyone else.

You know that this is a lie. You are an Agent of DELTA GREEN, an authorized but unacknowledged black program of the United States national security establishment, tasked to hunt and destroy the Cthulhu Mythos. You know that plans and ideals, peace and love, matter less than a single atom drifting in the galaxy. All you can do is rage against doom, burn out your mind and body, and damn your nonexistent soul keeping your family, your country, your planet, ignorant and safe for one more day.

Written by ENnie Award-winning designer Kenneth Hite, The Fall of DELTA GREEN corebook adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME from Arc Dream Publishing to the award-winning GUMSHOE system. It opens the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations both foreign and domestic, the last days of DELTA GREEN before the Joint Chiefs shut the program down in 1970.

Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies, in deadly one-shot adventures or a campaign spanning the years from hope to madness. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness.

The Fall of DELTA GREEN features:

  • Lethal combat and covert action in the 1960s, featuring assault rifles, flamethrowers, mortar shells, spy cameras, truth drugs, and getting rid of the bodies DELTA GREEN operations always seem to leave behind.
  • “Back in the World” vignettes that let you explore the human side of your Agent’s life—and often track their slow destruction by DELTA GREEN.
  • The rich world of the Delta Green Mythos, including a gazetteer of unnatural lands, the desperate truth of Hastur, and period takes on the top-secret MAJESTIC program, the Nazi Karotechia, the alien Greys, and the decadent Cult of Transcendence.
  • Detailed advice for making mysteries, magics, monsters, and DELTA GREEN operations.
  • Interoperability with Night’s Black AgentsTrail of Cthulhu, and The Esoterrorists: Use your favorite GUMSHOE rules to battle the unnatural in the 1960s!

The decade begins in sunny optimism, and ends in nighted disaster in the jungles of Indochina.

After the summer of the 1950s, now comes the fall—The Fall of DELTA GREEN.

Related Links

Stock #: PELGDG01L Author: Kenneth Hite
Artists: Jen McCleary, Gislaine Avila, Nyra Drakae, Kennedy C. Garza, Melissa Gay, Quintin Gleim, Jérôme Huguenin, David Lewis Johnson, Erika Leveque, Anthony Moravian, Ernanda Souza, and Karolina Węgrzyn Format: 368-page, full color, smythe-sewn hardback

Buy the limited edition

If you’re the kind of GM who hosts inspirational movie nights for your players, my number one suggestion for getting them in the GUMSHOE mindset has to be All the President’ Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976.)

It reinforces the two most important tips players need to get into the mindset of investigators and successfully solve the complex mysteries the game system specializes in:

    * Keep learning more

    • * You gotta talk to people

    Made gripping by Pakula’s masterfully subtle direction, the William Goldman script zeroes in on one thing and one thing only—the process by which reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) find the facts that connect the burglary of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel to the highest levels of the Nixon administration. We see exactly nothing of the protagonists’ private lives. They get scarcely a sliver of backstory—just enough to identify them as underdogs we want to see succeed. It’s all about the information gathering.

    Along the way Woodstein, as the team comes to be known, learns a third axiom of investigation that applies more to some GUMSHOE games than others. Their secret source Deep Throat tells them to:

    • * Follow the money

    Bernstein speculates his way to a correct theory of the case almost immediately. But they have to prove it to print it. Together or separately he and Woodward try to pry from scared or otherwise unwilling participants confirmations they can use. They engage in a delicate cat and mouse with reluctant witnesses. Their interview technique suggests a new GUMSHOE Interpersonal Ability called Doggedness. They worm their way into encounters with resistant informants, then rely on social norms to win a grudging, often partial, admission, by continuing to ask questions despite repeated refusals.

    When one dirty trickster, Donald Segretti, seems weirdly pleased to unburden himself, it plays as a comic twist on the already established pattern.

    The movie also demonstrates a great technique for depicting a difficulty or stymied investigation. At several points the duo hits a wall and has to dig in and keep on digging. Pakula shows the stalled progress without ever killing his film’s momentum. He does this by always making the visual depiction of the arduous legwork aesthetically pleasing in some way. The best example of this occurs in the Library of Congress, as an overhead shot pulls back further and further from the two as they sort through a stack of documents. Becoming smaller and smaller in the frame, the characters are visually dwarfed by the monumental scope of their task. As viewers, the beauty and ingenuity of the shot keep us riveted.

    Steal this technique in your games by montaging the PCs through a segment of numbing legwork with a quick and entertaining verbal flourish. You might create one yourself, or invite the players to supply the narration that then bridges them to the next core clue.

    The film is now available in a fine BluRay transfer. Its ample special features supply historical context on the entire Watergate story for anyone who needs it.


    GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

    A column about roleplaying

    by Robin D. Laws

    The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes a couple of design innovations that first appeared in Cthulhu Confidential and imports them back into multi-player GUMSHOE. Most notably, its QuickShock sub-system uses cards to represent the specific ongoing consequences of mental and physical harm. Importing them into previous GUMSHOE games isn’t a simple matter, and at any rate QuickShock’s speedy one-and-done fight resolution doesn’t fit the vibe of every setting.

    Another change, on the other hand, could easily apply to any GUMSHOE game. In fact, we’re already building it into the recently announced new edition of Mutant City Blues.

    This change drops the ratings and pools associated with investigative abilities. Instead of having a varying number of points to spend on non-informational benefits, each character starts play with 2 Pushes. You can spend a Push to gain a benefit from any of your investigative abilities. (Or in some edge cases, a benefit untethered from any of them.)

    Here’s the relevant section from YKRPG:

    Pushes

    Characters can spend Pushes to gain benefits tied to their Investigative abilities. They never have to spend Pushes to get information, especially not information vital to moving forward through the story to solve its main mystery.

    For example, you could spend an Art History Push to:

    • acquire a painting you covet at a bargain price
    • establish a friendly prior relationship with a famous artist appearing in the current scenario
    • deflate a bullying sculptor by exposing the technical flaws in his work
    • impress a snob with your fine taste, winning her confidence

    You never use Pushes on General abilities.

    Some Shock and Injury cards can be discarded by spending a Push.

    On occasion the GM may allow players to gain benefits not connected to any ability in the game, in exchange for a Push. For example, a player might ask if a flammable haystack happens to be situated conveniently close to a farmhouse she wants to burn down. That isn’t under the character’s control in any way, but for the cost of a Push can be put within the player’s.

    Your character starts each scenario with 2 Pushes.

    Unspent Pushes do not roll over from one scenario to the next.


    A few specific effects may in rare cases give you an additional Push. Mostly though you don’t refresh them until the current case ends and a new one begins.

    Pushes simplify and speed up the introduction of extra benefits into a session. They encourage you to go for a benefit only in key story moments. Also they skip a lot of head-scratching over what might or might not be a useful and appropriate expenditure of points for each separate ability.

    We’ve also heard about a few GMs who assume, never mind what the rules say, that PCs can no longer gather information with an investigative ability after spending its pool to 0. Removing the numbers next to the investigative abilities on the character sheet should eliminate stop folks from reaching this mistaken conclusion.

    Adding Pushes to an existing GUMSHOE game, or your own adaptation of the core rules to another setting, involves a few simple steps:

    • Drop the current text regarding investigative points. This includes references to the costs of specific spends in ability descriptions, scenarios, and so forth. You may decide that less than spectacular 1-point benefits can be had for the asking, and do not cost a Push.
    • Add the above text, changing examples as needed.
    • Adjust the number of investigative build points. It now becomes the number of investigative abilities in the game, divided by the number of players in your group. You may want to tack on an extra 2-4 points for a large group with unpredictable attendance, or for groups who prefer to have the workhouse abilities like Bullshit Detector and Reassurance duplicated within the group.

    Alternatively, you could drop investigative build points altogether, either:

    1. dividing the abilities into 6-8 kits inspired by the setting’s basic character archetypes
    2. distribute abilities between members of the group by going around the room at the first session, allowing each player to pick one ability at a time until all of them have been allocated to at least one PC

    Choice 1 reinforces the genre of your game, and works even if all of your players fail to make it for the first session.

    Choice 2 allows more freedom of character concept and may thus appeal more strongly to experienced GUMSHOE hands. But you’ve got to get everyone in the same room (or online channel) to make it happen.

    In the first case, abilities from unchosen kits are distributed during play, so that the first player who needs a given ability gets it. The player supplies a snippet of background detail explaining how they picked this up. Characters aren’t suddenly flash-learning the discipline, but rather mentioning for the first thing something they’ve been able to do all along. Make sure that these abilities wind up being distributed roughly equally between players.

    Sample kits for The Esoterrorists might look like this:

    Professor

    Archaeology

    Architecture

    Art History

    Astronomy

    History

    Linguistics

    Federal Law Enforcement Agent

    Bureaucracy

    Forensic Accounting

    Forensic Psychology

    Interrogation

    Law

    Research

    Homicide Cop

    Bullshit Detector

    Cop Talk

    Evidence Collection

    Interrogation

    Intimidation

    Local Knowledge

    Medical Examiner

    Forensic Anthropology

    Forensic Entomology

    Natural History

    Pathology

    Photography

    Reassurance

    Debunker / Stage Magician

    Anthropology

    Chemistry

    Cryptography

    Explosive Devices

    Flattery

    Occult Studies

    Techie

    Ballistics

    Data Retrieval

    Document Analysis

    Electronic Surveillance

    Fingerprinting

    Textual Analysis

    Con Artist

    Flirting

    Impersonate

    Languages

    Negotiation

    Streetwise

    Trivia

    (Were I designing The Esoterrorists from the ground up to support kits, I might collapse some abilities into one another, and throw in some additional Interpersonal abilities so every kit can have at least one. But that covers the existing abilities.)

    The upcoming new iteration of the GUMSHOE SRD, promised as part of the Yellow King Kickstarter, will include Pushes, along with all other elements designers will need to release their own QuickShock games.


    GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

     

    The friends are gone.

     

    The world was thrust upon us. And we cannot fail it.

    Each of the people is created with a purpose. Some have inherited the planet, helping maintain the biosynthetic earth. Others are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the people. A rare few of us are designed for troubleshooting. We are the ones who can trace, examine, and handle glitches in our refined system. Troubleshooters have not been necessary in living memory. Yet here we are, needed and newborn. Our purpose? Hope.

    Created in a world without humans, newly finished robots awaken as their home borders on collapse. As the material necessary to continue robot life becomes scarce, and terrifying glitches become more common, troubleshooters become flickering beacons of hope.  Robot Dreams puts players into the roles of those troubleshooters, robots designed to keep their community safe and free of glitches.

    The increasing glitches herald the dying of a culture. Ghosts of days past whisper in the network, threatening to undo the peaceful life the robots live. The pilgrimage to the genetic pools is meaningless and fraught with danger. Aged robots, no longer upgradeable, spew old beliefs, causing rifts in society. Aliens promise genetic salvation while offering enslavement and absorption.

    As the troubleshooters struggle to keep the people safe, old questions arise. Why did the friends create the robots? Where have they gone? But deeper questions haunt their cores: Can they be more than they were created to be? Will they forge a brave new world from the remnants of the past? Or will they flicker and expire?

    Robot Dreams, the GUMSHOE game of investigation in a haunting, synthetic world, comes to you from the brilliant mind of Kate Bullock (Bluestocking’s Organic Gaming, The Crossroads Carnival). Players tackle the role of troubleshooters, newborn robots driven to explore the forgotten world left behind by the friends and discover what corruption permeates their circuits and networks.

    Project Status: In Development

     

    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.

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