[Contains a mild spoiler for the most recent episode of Discovery…]

A note on tone in Ashen Stars invites you to think of it as the gritty reboot of a beloved TV space opera show from the past.

Enough episodes of Star Trek: Discovery have dropped to see that it is very much reading out of the gritty reboot playbook.

This raises the question: what kind of model does it give us for Ashen Stars scenarios?

Discovery asks itself how many of the bedrock assumptions of past iterations you can strip away and still have a Trek show. In particular they’re taking out the bits that made it SF comfort viewing: the overlit old school TV look, the absence of conflict between main characters, the idealized view of humanity in the future.

My guess is that if the show survives long enough to execute its overall arc, its intention is to withhold and then restore all of the above except the wash lighting.

Plus new photon f-bombs, of course.

Another element the show has switched out is the structure. In place of the episodic, space mystery of the week setup we’ve seen before, the show uses the structure pioneered by J. J. Abrams in Alias. Procedural problem-solving still plays a key role, but now comes second to serialized emotional drama. As is common in so many post-Alias shows, the drama can take up most or all of the fourth act, with the problem of the week dispatched at the end of act three.

Discovery still uses the device in which an investigation leads to a moral dilemma which must be resolved to bring the story to a conclusion. You see this in the most recent episode, “Choose Your Pain,” where Burnham uses her Xenobiology ability to realize that the ship’s experimental propulsion system is ethically insupportable.

This introduces a conflict with the episode’s action-oriented plot thread, the resolution of which leads to dramatic scenes in which pairs of main characters make or grant emotional petitions, as seen in Hillfolk.

In other words, I’m glad to live in our dimension, where Modiphius and not Pelgrane has the Trek RPG license. In the mirror universe where that is reversed, alternate me has to finally figure out how to fully merge GUMSHOE with DramaSystem!

GUMSHOE Rules Summary

GUMSHOE is a system for designing investigative roleplaying games and adventures, emulating stories where investigators uncover a series of clues, and interpret them to solve a mystery. In GUMSHOE, the players always get the clues they need to move the narrative forward.

Character Creation

In a GUMSHOE game, you create player characters (PCs) by choosing your character concept – the sort of mystery-solving character you want to play – and then spending build points to buy ratings in Investigative Abilities and General Abilities.

Investigative Abilities allow you to find the core clues your character needs to move forward in a mystery-solving narrative, and give occasional additional benefits.
General Abilities help you survive while you’re gathering information and solving problems.

Mystery Structure

Every GUMSHOE scenario begins with a crime, conspiracy, or other act of disorder committed by a group of antagonists. The PCs must figure out who did it and why, and put a stop to their activities. Game Masters (GMs) design a GUMSHOE adventure by creating the following:

  • An investigation trigger. This is the event that attracts the attention of investigators.
  • A sinister conspiracy. This sets out who the antagonists are, what they’ve done so far, what they’re trying to do, and how the investigation trigger fits into the overall scheme.
  • A trail of clues. Working backwards from the sinister conspiracy and their plans, the GM designs a trail of clues leading from the investigation trigger to an understanding of the sinister plot and its players, sufficient for the players to get to work destroying it.

Game Mechanics

In a GUMSHOE game, the PCs progress from scene to scene, interviewing people and using their Investigative Abilities to find core clues, which advance the story and help the players solve the mystery. If a scene contains a core clue and a player character uses an Investigative Ability relating to that clue, the character will find it.

Investigative Ability ratings also function as pools, from which players can spend 1 to 3 points to get additional clues, providing more information or other benefits about the situation. Investigative Ability pool points are refreshed between scenarios.

General Abilities are used when the outcome of an ability use is in doubt, like at dramatically important points in the story, or for tasks of exceptional difficulty. For these tests, GUMSHOE uses a six-sided die, which is rolled against a Difficulty – usually 4, although it can be modified from 2 to 8 depending on how hard the GM thinks the task is. If the die roll is equal to or higher than the Difficulty, the PC has succeeded in her action.

A player can spend as much of their General Ability pool on a die roll as they want – each point spent adds 1 to the roll. General Abilities pools are refreshed between scenarios, and sometimes during play.

In GUMSHOE,when your character needs to do something tricky and where randomness adds tension, you roll a d6, add points you spend from an Ability pool, and if you make the Difficulty number, you succeed.

The number of points you spend on a test can represent the effort a character is making, but usually they reflect the player’s judgement on whether a success on a particular test is important. You might not care as much if your punch connects in a brawl, than if you have the master vampire in your sights. When these points run out, players look to other abilities which still have points in them.  This encourages players to use more than one method to deal with problems.  For GMs, ability pools are a method of managing spotlight time. Play naturally passes to the character with the points left in an ability which can be used for the particular problem the players face.

The archetypal example of this kind of character resource is hit points, – Health in GUMSHOE games. In many games, until you hit zero hit points, there is no effect on your character’s performance. So a character might take no measurable harm from the first gun shot, and yet the player knows that now they are on low hit points, the next bullet with most likely kill their character. It’s not that the first bullet didn’t have the same potential to kill as the second, it’s just not narratively satisfying or plausible for a protagonist to drop dead on the first hit.

So, I think of Health as a measure of the narrative plausibility of you not being damaged by a particular attack. As your Health gets lower, the chance of the next bullet not harming you decreases. That’s pretty abstract.. However, while almost all players accept that these abstract hit points can affect your chance of being wounded by an identical attack, there are a few who don’t like the idea that a Shooting resource affects your chance of wounding someone. GUMSHOE aficionados look at the characters’ success and failure across the entire game – picking and choosing which attempts to shoot are important – objectors look at the probability of individual rolls and see a sudden decrease when the points are gone. The resources management of hit points feels OK for them, but for shooting, not so much.It’s too “meta.” I entirely accept this is a matter of taste, and I’d like to offer an option to people who have an issue with this.

The argument goes like this. When my character uses Firearms, I can spend points to be sure to hit, or increase my chance of hitting. So, when I have run out of points being sure to hit, it feels like my character is bad at shooting. It feels strange to “decide” when a character is successful.

The first thing to say is that characters in most GUMSHOE are pretty good at what they do. If you have any Firearms at all, under normal combat circumstances you’ll hit half the time. So, spending all your points doesn’t make you “bad” at shooting just worse! However, that’s an aside. Here is the solution.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care about a lot of things – and here is another thing GUMSHOE doesn’t care about.

GUMSHOE doesn’t care when you spend your points. It’s entirely in your hands. If you don’t like the idea of sometimes being sure to hit, then don’t spend the points to do it!  Spend a fixed number of points every time.  Spend one each time if your pool is less than 8; two if it’s more. The chance of you running out of points is pretty low and your chance to hit will still be good. You can sit beside spendthrift, probability-manipulating meta-loving players, knowing that your character is obeying the laws of probability on a shot-by-shot basis. (The option to spend more is always open – and I hope you are tempted – but it’s not necessary).

Another option to consider which give a similar feel – but enforcing this restriction on all players –  is capping spends. This deals entirely with the auto-success issue by making it impossible for high levels of difficulty.

On an aside, it’s a joy to watch Annie Oakley blowing things away in this early movie shot at Edison’s studios.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then trading down to this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is Kickstarting now.

A scenario seed for The King in Yellow Roleplaying Game

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

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

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

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

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

Before the struggle started, who were you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Page XX

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Since Cthulhu Confidential’s arrival in foyers and post office boxes worldwide, a couple of folks have asked me how one might go about combining GUMSHOE One-2-One with Trail of Cthulhu’s standard multiplayer format.

The short answer is, uh, I didn’t design them to fit together like that.

The rest of this column will consist of a longer answer that boils down to, uh, here’s a few things you can try but they’re not playtested so get ready to kludge on the fly.

When designing One-2-One my goal was not to seamlessly port the player from solo to group play, but to make the solo play as fun and functional as possible in its own right. Making the two games interoperable would have introduced a layer of complexity that taxed One-2-One GMs and players to no immediate payoff. A big chunk of the audience for One-2-One turns out to be people introducing previously unfamiliar friends and loved ones to roleplaying, so that would have been a serious mistake.

Tuning the game for solo play meant reexamining basic elements we take for granted in multiplayer, like hit points that slowly tick away and can lead to a character’s death at any moment in the story. To serve the one-player format, I came up with Problem card mechanism, which is not only different from Health pools in standard GUMSHOE, but in a completely other ballpark.

So that leaves us with two games that share an overall feeling but on the granular level don’t plug together.

The easiest way to merge them is to move from one to the other without ever looking back.

If you’ve been running a Trail series for one player, you can work with them to adapt that PC to One-2-One. Conversely, once you recruit a new crop of players to start a Trail series, you could then turn that One-2-One PC into a ToC investigator.

The key word here is adapt, not convert.

Mathematical conversions from one system to another almost invariably wind up with weird imbalances and often a less playable character than you’d get by starting from square one.

Tell the player to keep in mind what she knows about her character from having played her, and especially what the investigator has actually done in the course of scenarios to date. Forget the numbers; remember the core concept.

For Trail, go through the standard steps of character creation, recreating the idea of the One-2-One PC in that system.

To adapt into Cthulhu Confidential, sit down with the player to follow the recommendations for new character creation on p. 294 of that book: around 14 investigative abilities and 18 dice in general abilities, with no more than 2 dice per ability.

Since the ability lists differ, you’re not trying to get everything to line up absolutely. Think of this as resembling the process by which a character from a comic or series of novels becomes the protagonist in a TV show: it’s the broad strokes that matter.

A One-2-One character will need Sources to fill her in when she runs into a clue her abilities don’t illuminate. If you’re moving the investigator from an actual multiplayer Trail game, that’s simple—just use the other players’ characters, who you’ll now be portraying as GMCs.

If you were playing Trail solo, work with your player to invent outside experts she can consult as needed.

When devising scenarios, remember to limit the number of times the investigator will need to call on Sources.

Having a character who moves between Trail and Confidential poses the biggest design conundrum.

If the character suffers the shattering of a Pillar of Sanity in Trail, you may wish to acknowledge that in Confidential with a Continuity Problem card. Whether it imposes a story or a mechanical effect or both depends on the situation. Other ongoing consequences of past Trail events might also become One-2-One Problem cards. Conversely, you could reward exceptional problem-solving in a Trail session with an Edge card that can be spent to good effect in the following Confidential episode.

Going the other way around, you might decide that Continuity Problems picked up in Confidential might come into play in Trail.

Narrative-based card effects, as with “Charlie Chaplin Owes You” (CC p. 139), are the easiest to pull off. Your player’s detective, self-taught physics genius Ethel Peaslee, gains the movie star’s confidence when the two of you play your version of “The Fathomless Sleep.” Then, in a Trail session, her player makes use of that card, getting the entire group into an exclusive garden party to brace an otherwise unapproachable witness.

Continuity Edges that exert a mechanical effect in One-2-One might grant a +1 bonus to some or all general tests. Continuity Problem cards could likewise impose a -1 penalty.

Like the design of the Problems and Edges themselves, this is all situational. You’re not doing much more creative work than you would normally do when constructing a One-2-One scenario.

Crossing the streams might see you building individual side quests into an epic Trail series. An investigator might come back from the Dreamlands, the Plateau of Leng, or the twisting boulevards of Los Angeles to share the results of an individual mission undertaken between this Trail scenario and the last one. After the group decides to steer clear of a disturbing mystery in Trail, a player can follow it up solo in Confidential.

Think twice before running One-2-One interludes only for certain members of your group. If one or two players are having a richer experience because they’re getting to also play Confidential with you, the remaining members of the Trail game may come to feel like second bananas. You might be able to remedy this by building in hooks that require the frequent soloists to cede spotlight time to the others in multiplayer mode. That gem Ethel found in D’yath-Leen might provide the key to finding J0e Morgan’s long-lost sister, say. Be doubly wary of an imbalance of perceived attention when you’re personally closer to the One-2-One player(s) than the ones who only take part in the Trail game.

This is all speculation, as I have yet to try to interweave the two games and don’t see that as a likely possibility for my own GUMSHOE play. If you do give it a whirl, let us know how it goes!

In 1895 Paris, young Erik Satie has already written his most haunting pieces and plays piano for seekers of mystical awareness.

The world’s most famous can-can dancer, Louise Weber, has decided to strike out on her own.

Painter Odilon Redon paints spiders with weeping human faces—like the one you saw in your studio.

Auguste Rodin rages at you if you ask him about statues and corpses.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec supplies info if you buy him his favorite cocktail, a devastating mix of cognac and absinthe called the Earthquake.

Gossip columnist on the make Marcel Proust wants to know what juicy secrets your investigations have uncovered.

And Émile Zola is about to throw himself headlong into the Dreyfus Affair.

Add all of them and more to The Yellow King Roleplaying Game by knocking down the rest of the Artists and Models stretch goal.

One of the great things about in-house playtesting is that an off-the-cuff improvisation can suddenly prove so apt that it goes immediately into the rules draft.

Or rather, the players can suddenly all at once cry, “That’s so cool! You’ve got to make that a rule!”

[Cue flashback music as image goes swirly]

Why, I remember it like it happened just last night, during the ongoing in-house test for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Kickstarting now

The players have now entered the third segment of the game, Aftermath, in which they play ex-partisans who took part in the toppling of the Castaigne regime. Investigating the murder of a colleague, they entered his home, from which delicious cooking aromas wafted.

Now, the number of rodeos my players have been to greatly exceeds zero, so this detail elicited a terrible groan. The conclusion was obvious: they were about to find the rest of the victim, charred to an appallingly tantalizing-smelling crisp.

So terrible did they find this prospect that only two of the players were willing to send their characters in to brave the awful sight—and face the Shock cards they might wind up holding if they failed the Composure tests that would surely result.

Except that’s not what happened at all.

In that classic horrible-thing-turns-out-to-be-innocuous moment from horror films and literature, it transpired that the victim had a pork shoulder in the slow cooker.

Not thinking much of it, I rewarded the two courageous players with 2-point refreshes of their Composure pools. This reflected the positive benefit this moment of extreme relief would grant them.

That’s so cool, the room collectively cried. Is that in the rules?

Uh, I thought, surprised by their delight, it is now.

Rules that exert a palpable emotional impact on players are rare and golden. They get to go to the big show.

So this morning I added it to the YKRPG rules draft, where it goes something like this:

Whew

One type of partial refresh is the whew. It emulates the moment of relief in a narrative when the trepidation surrounding a daunting circumstance turns out to be nothing. Whew!

A whew provides a 2-point refresh.

The whew most often applies to Composure. Award one when players clearly dread an upcoming story turn which instead proves completely innocuous:

  • A tantalizing cooking aroma wafts from the apartment where the investigators expect to find the rest of a murder victim, horribly charred. Nope—he just had a pork shoulder slow cooking in the oven. Whew!
  • A thumping emanates from the attic above. The group steels itself to confront the scythe-wielding cannibal they’ve been hunting. But no, it’s just the cat. Whew!
  • Cassilda left the group a flask of absinthe she claimed will heal any wound. The students won’t get Ida out of the cavern with her leg broken like that. She’s halfway sure the potion will kill her on the spot, or eradicate what’s left of her free will. But when she swigs it down it her leg heals, as promised, to no further ill effect. Whew!

To maintain the emotional power of the whew, use it sparingly and only when it fits. Often the players will set up a whew for you, by showing genuine terror of an upcoming moment you never intended to play as anything other than innocuous.

Look particularly for situations where the group sends in only some of its members to confront the imagined awfulness. That way the brave get the reward and the cautious lose out.

Whews that refresh other general abilities don’t come easily to mind but if one that makes sense presents itself during play, rule it in.

Even if my players hadn’t explicitly demanded it, I like to think that I would have spotted their enthusiasm for this little fillip and written it into the rules.

So much of alpha playtesting consists of discovering that the ideas that worked on paper flop at the table. It’s always refreshing when you make something up on the spot and it immediately declares its place in your manuscript.

This rule works perfectly well with any existing GUMSHOE game that uses Stability. Just swap out the word Composure and replace it with Stability and you’re good to go.

As I write this, The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Kickstarter perches a mere £636 away from hitting the stretch goal that adds its new rules content to the GUMSHOE Open Source reference document.

Make the humble whew, born full-fledged from its own scrappy determination and propelled by a bootstrap attitude we can all admire, part of Open Source GUMSHOE, by helping us smash that stretch goal threshold today.

The sky has turned white; the stars pulse with inky blackness. This unexpected Carcosan weather pattern has trapped company principals Cat and Simon in the wilds of Ohio. Yet the commands of the pallid mask may not be delayed!

The Kickstarter for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, by Robin D. Laws, launches this Wednesday, June 21st, at 8 pm Eastern.

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