by Bryant Durrell

The Yellow King RPG can be daunting for a Keeper: four different settings, potentially lengthy campaign arcs, and to top it all off the canonical kick-off asks the Keeper to improvise connections between the Deuced Peculiar Things invented by the players and her carefully crafted scenario. I’ve always struggled a little bit with crafting GUMSHOE scenarios because I tend to get stuck on the obvious Investigative abilities. Meanwhile, I know my players will want to use Painting from time to time rather than just relying on a series of clues revealed by Occultism and Research.

I recently kicked off a long-term Yellow King RPG campaign, so solving this problem was a matter of some urgency. I’d been running a lot of RPGs with extensive randomization tables recently, and I’d noticed that creating a random event table forced me to explore a wider range of possibilities. I thought that perhaps I could use that kind of forcing function to flesh out a scenario.

I started out by sketching out a mystery more or less as recommended in the rules. First, I wrote down the basic spine of an adventure: Hook, Development, Antagonist Reactions, Alien Truth, and Climax. Second, I needed a premise. My theme for the Paris era was masks. Since I wanted to get right to the meat of each era, I embodied that concept as blatantly as possible: I decided there were a bunch of thrill seekers with living masks running around Paris. By unwisely using certain Carcosan rituals, a savvy occultist could mold one of these masks into a duplicate of a living person. I expected to jolt my players into asking questions about identity and self.

From there, I mind mapped my ideas around the spine. I left the Hook blank, since it was going to be tied to someone’s Deuced Peculiar Thing. The mind map wasn’t terribly dense, as can be seen in the picture. I just wanted enough detail to hang a plot on. Some details were only hints; for example, I knew there was a sinister figure behind the masked thrill seekers, but I didn’t want to nail down the specifics until I’d seen the characters.

But this didn’t solve my core problem! If I just improvised a story around this skeleton, I’d wind up with repetitive Investigative ability use and bored players. Back to devising a technique that would force me to be creative.

Since my problem was failing to cater to all the Investigative abilities, I gritted my teeth and pasted a list of the abilities into the corner of my notepad. Then I started working my way down the list, adding a potential clue next to each ability. As one can see, I was meticulous for about the first ten abilities. After that I started to skip around a little bit, with an eye towards making sure I was covering a good range of abilities even if I didn’t add a note for each one.

This worked very well for me. While devising the clues for Art History and Painting, I wound up adding a potential Vermeer theft subplot. Coming up with a Sculpture clue made me think about how the masks were created, and the source of clay for Greek ritual masks wound up being a key pipe clue. The Natural History clue — a cat with a dog’s face — wasn’t a pipe clue, but it’s a great bit of cosmic creepiness that was guaranteed to disturb pet-loving characters.

When I sketch out my second scenario, I’ll also note which character has which Investigative ability. That way, I can balance my potential clues across all the players and reduce my creative workload a bit. I’ll also balance clues across the three types of Investigative ability.

How did all this work out in play? As we created our characters, one player decided that his character Herbert had been seeing this weird person following him for months, both in his home country America and in Paris. That was perfect for the masked villains. Since Herbert’s Deuced Peculiar Thing only involved a single person, I quickly dropped the idea of a pack of mask wearers, although our villain had an interest in drafting the player characters into his service.

By the end of the scenario I’d only used a few clues from my sheet; every other clue I tossed in was either ad hoc or sketched out between the two sessions it took us to play through the scenario. (I didn’t work in the Vermeer, much to my regret.) However, the forced creativity exercise pushed my initial scenario design into places I wouldn’t have taken it on my own, so the scheme was certainly successful.

The lightweight skeleton combined with a rich set of prospective clues also had an unexpected effect of creating a dense feel to our campaign’s Paris. I had so many potential scenario directions, it was easy to improvise based on the direction the characters went. I want to capture the classic blurred line between the play and reality; by treating one player’s Deuced Peculiar Thing as if I knew it even before he’d said the words, I made good progress in that direction.


Bryant Durrell makes a living keeping servers healthy; in his copious spare time he watches wrestling, writes, and pretends to be fighting orcs. You can find him on Twitter as @bryantd and he blogs (rarely) at Population: One.


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.

 

You won’t guess Rob Heinsoo’s favorite GUMSHOE ability, but you will find it deeply Heinsovian.


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In our third Pelgrane Video Dispatch, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan reveals his favorite GUMSHOE ability. Robin’s was obvious. Many guessed Ken’s. But can you predict Gar’s answer? Only a click on the video will tell the tale!


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

Our new Pelgrane Video Dispatches series continues with Ken’s favorite GUMSHOE ability. Robin’s was easy to predict. Will Ken’s choice come as a surprise?


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

With most of us stuck at home, either all day or after returning from a day’s work of essential service, we at Pelgrane figured it would be a good time to get plans for video content off the backburner. The contents of my own YouTube subscription list are looking pretty sparse these days, with mainstream producers off-line and scrambling to create their own work-from-home alternatives.

We hope to get some longer-form pieces out to you eventually. As con season rolls around we’ll all be hungering for the panels and events we’d otherwise be enjoying at in-person events.

First though we’re getting our feet wet with a series of Pelgrane Video Dispatches, starting with various members of the team revealing their favorite GUMSHOE abilities.

Once we’re done with that question we’ll tackle others. Feel free to pitch us suggestions to add to our list!

Collect every installment by subscribing to the Pelgrane Channel on YouTube.


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the present COVID-19 crisis, many of us, myself included, have canceled our in-person roleplaying sessions to comply with social distancing or shelter-in-place public health regimes across the world.

This Thursday, after a hiatus, I’ll be switching my in-person game to remote. (I’ve just started “Canadian Shield”, an extremely variant Fall of Delta Green series.)

As more tips and tricks for remote play come up I’ll share them with you here on the Pelgrane site. Let’s get started, though, with what I’ve learned during previous forays into online tabletop.

1. Use the platform you already know.

Everyone who has already racked up extensive remote play experience expresses a preference for a particular combo of tools for video conferencing and the virtual play space.

For video, Discord, Zoom, Google Hangouts and to a lesser extent Skype all have their adherents. Each brings its own set of pluses and minuses. In the end your choice of video app may depend on the quirks of each player’s device setup. You may wind up shuffling through a bunch of them before you find the one that happens to function for your entire group.

As far as play spaces go, Roll20 already has resources for 13th Age and GUMSHOE. We’ve just added DramaSystem.

If you’re already familiar with a video conferencing app and/or virtual tabletop, skip the learning curve and use that. It works; don’t fix it.

2. If you haven’t done this before, I prefer Google Hangouts and Slack.

Google Hangouts hasn’t let me down yet. It’s free, and pretty seamlessly handles switching to the person currently speaking. That’s the most important feature of a video app for game play and it does it well. Google has announced that they’re ending this service soon, but if I understand their PR correctly, what they’re actually doing is rebranding their video chat to sound more business-friendly. Google can hook you on a service and then whip it out from under you like a rug, but I’m guessing that we’re safe when this one changes to its new incarnation. I wouldn’t bet on that happening according to its original timetable, either.

For GUMSHOE and DramaSystem, I use as my virtual tabletop a tool not remotely designed for that, the group project messaging platform, Slack. It is a platform I use for other purposes every day and know how to use. I already use it for face-to-face when running The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, having found it the best solution for serving electronic Shock and Injury Cards. When teaching that system I upload a card image to the game’s main channel so everyone can feel its horror. I also drop the cards to each player, in our private message inbox. When they discard cards, I delete them from the private message inbox, so that it contains only the cards currently held.

Maps, images, and other handouts I upload to the main channel as well.

Slack’s advantage over its competitors in its category lies in its ease of use. A newbie can immediately figure out its simple and intuitive interface.

I’d use Slack for any game that relies primarily on dialogue and description, which describes both GUMSHOE and DramaSystem.

In fact I’d probably use it to run 13th Age. I don’t use a battlemap when running that in person, so wouldn’t bother with one in remote play either.

A game that does require a tactical map will naturally push you toward one of the purpose built virtual tabletops. These all have to handle D&D and Pathfinder. If you’re playing a game of that crunchiness online you’ve bought into the extra handling cost.

3. Leave in the Socializing.

Especially now, much of the point of an online game is to feel the connectedness we might ordinarily seek out around a table, at a con, or in a game cafe. The formality of the online experience might tempt you to cut right away to the case. You may know each other less well, or not at all, if playing online. Even so, give everybody time to chat a bit before getting started.

4. Expect a shorter session.

Though this varies for every group, in general the online meeting format promotes an efficiency you may find yourself envying when you return to face-to-face. Video conferencing requires participants to be conscious of who has the floor at any given moment. It reduces crosstalk and kibitzing. People used to conducting real meetings on video tend to step up to help guide the discussion and move toward problem-solving. The software does a good bit of your traffic management as GM for you.

For this reason you’ll find that remote play eats up story faster than a leisurely in-person session. The pace of any given episode more closely resembles the tighter concentration typical of a con game group that has found its rhythm. Your group will likely decide what to do faster, and then go and do it with fewer side tangents, than they would at your regular home table.

When this happens, you may find yourself wondering if you shouldn’t add more plot to keep your ending further away from your beginning. Instead, embrace this as the dynamic operating as it should. If it takes you three hours to hit five or six solid scenes, where in person it would take four, that’s a good thing.

5. Expect a more taxing session.

In addition to respecting the pace your session wants to have, you should aim for shorter sessions because the experience of gaming remotely takes more out of you, and each of your players, than face-to-face will.

Many of you will be sitting in less comfortable chairs than you’re used to being in. Those with home offices may already have been in those chairs for an entire work day already.

The concentration required to pay attention to people on video conferencing taxes the brain more than face-to-face. You’re trying to assimilate the same amount of communication from one another with fewer cues to work with. This tires any group, physically and mentally. Expect that and pace your game accordingly.

When you see a time-consuming setpiece sequence coming up, check the clock to see if you’ll be able to do it full justice given these constraints. Never be reluctant to knock off early and leave folks wanting more next time you all join up.

6: For Slack, use the Dicebot app.

To return to a platform-specific point, the Dicebot Slack app allows any participant to roll dice right in the channel. It easily does the d6 plus spend modifier for GUMSHOE. It inherently reminds players to announce their pool point spends before rolling, another neat advantage over physical dice.

Speaking of games that scorn the battlemap, Dicebot also handles the more complicated positive d6 + negative d6 + modifier roll seen in Feng Shui.

7. Whatever the platform, use a dice app if you players can possibly be coaxed into it.

Some players need that tactile dice-touching fix. I wouldn’t force online rolling on them, but having rolls take place visually in front of everyone does enhance their emotional impact by allowing everyone to see and react to the results.

Dice provide suspense . A die roller, in whatever platform, shares that edge of the seat moment when you see who succeeds and who’s about to take a Shock card.

8. Use a shared Google Doc for note-taking.

Since they’re all on a device anyhow, encourage your players to contribute to the group chronicle by setting up a shared Google Doc. Gussy it up with a graphic touch or two to build tone and theme.

9. Keep online versions of character sheets.

You’d think players won’t lose paper character sheets if they’re not leaving the house, but of course we misplace stuff in our own places all the time.

For GUMSHOE, the highly recommended Black Book app does all of the work of keeping online character sheets for you. It has just extended its trial period for player accounts.

Absent a specific tool, keep updated character sheets in a Dropbox folder or, for games where characters are simple as they are in DramaSystem, in a Google Sheet. I’ve done this for my “Canadian Shield” game.

Stay tuned for more tips. I look forward to the day when I can update this post to remove references to the pandemic as a current event. Until then, stay safe and, as much as you possibly can, the hell inside.

St. Patrick St. Patrick. Your only man, really. Taken as a slave to Ireland, escaped, then went back to bring Christianity to the heathens of Ireland. A grasp of both theology and vegetation, by all accounts. Got rid of the snakes, so he did, so he did. Best known now for being a really effective marketing campaign for Irish tourism, but put that aside for now – and grapple with seven shamrock-flavoured GUMSHOE scenario seeds. Most of these are best taken with a pinch of salt… or a generous portion of Writer’s Tears whiskey…

Trail of Cthulhu

St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland, and we all know what snakes are a metaphor for, right? Tentacles. The pagans of Ireland had associations with underwater prehuman civilisations and monstrous gods – clearly, an outpost of the Deep Ones. The only question is, who was Saint Patrick working for? He’s said to have been inspired by a dream – which might be the mocking meddling of Nyarlathotep. Another tale speaks of his staff sprouting into a tree, which smacks of the Black Goat’s work. Or maybe his abduction wasn’t to Ireland, but to Yuggoth – was St. Patrick a tool dispatched by the Mi-Go to rid Ireland of the Deep Ones (or Serpent People)?

In 1937, your investigators are about to find out, when the draining of a bog reveals an ancient ruin…

Night’s Black Agents

A parade’s always a good place for a fight scene. It’s usually Chinese New Year or Carnivale, but there’s no reason you can’t have a cinematic chase sequence with the participants dodging through brass bands, Irish dancers and leprechauns. (Of possible use – plenty of police offices and priests, just what you need when hunting vampires). Bonus points if you set it in Ireland, maybe while pursuing clues from the Dracula Dossier – Irish Patrick’s day parades tend to be rather shabby and dull compared to American extravaganzas, so you’ll have heroic life-and-death battles on the back of a float advertising some local insurance company…

Mutant City Blues

The victim’s a mutant, so the case landed on your desk. How do they know she’s a mutant? Her skin’s bright green, shifted as part of the celebration using the Alter Form ability. It’s fading, though, which gives you time of death – about three hours after the parade. Alter Form’s correlated with Impersonate – and there was an incident during the parade where a firework went off right in front of the mayor’s stand, clouding the whole area in smoke. Could that have been cover for a switch-out? Was this mystery mutant mimicking the mayor? And if so, why? And who killed her?  

The Esoterrorists

The Irish are, in general, relatively easy-going. Cultural stereotypes of drunken brawlers with a dozen kids and a pig under one arm? Sure, ‘tis all in good fun. 800 years of oppression? Well, aren’t we all Europeans now?

Calling it “St. Patty’s Day?” War to the knife.

Why? Why does that error trigger blind rage? Why do other countries insist on doing it, when “Paddy” is right there? I mean, that’s not great either. And “St. Pat’s” is fine – what strange, esoteric sorcery is there to implant such horror in two little letters?

And once the Esoterrorists have refined this sigil, what else might they attach it to? The Illuminati had their fnords – what if the Esoterrorists successfully create a magical rune that can cause outbreaks of fury in anyone who unwittingly sees it?

Ashen Stars

The synth-culture planet of the Old Country was created to appeal to Human nostalgia for some vanished past that never was – it’s a planet of scenic little cottages, dreary bogs, dancing at the crossroads, and lively village pubs. During the Mohilar War, however, a Durugh warfleet occupied the peaceful Old Country. These Durugh refused to believe the war was over, have rejected the Durugh king’s command to switch sides, and have dug in, constructing underground shelters accessible only by phasing. Down there, they’re experimenting with last-ditch doomsday weapons including time-manipulation technology obtained from the Mohilar…

So, you’ve got an idealised fiction of mid-19th-century Ireland, occupied by heavily armed fairies. The Lasers get called in to find a way to convince the Durugh to lay down their weapons and accept that the war is over.

TimeWatch

No St. Patrick, no Christianity in Ireland. No Christianity, no monasteries. No monasteries, no preservation of knowledge during the Dark Ages. No preservation of knowledge during the Dark Ages, VICTORY OF THE SOPHOSAURS! The TimeWatch team need to guard young Patricus and ensure he meets his destiny…

EXCITING BONUS CONTENT!

Here in Ireland, and across much of the rest of the world, St. Patrick’s Day parades have been cancelled due to the, er, world-wide pandemic. There are plans afoot for virtual or roleplayed parades – kids will be sticking appropriately green-themed artwork in the windows across cities – and moving real-world events into imaginary or virtual spaces is a skill we’ll all have to master very quickly in the weeks to come. So, join us in our festive St. Patrick’s lockdown, and stick a shamrock in the window.

One of the Things I Always Say is that a GUMSHOE investigative list is basically a list of questions the players can ask the GM – but it’s also a useful list of questions to ask yourself when writing an adventure. Certainly, when I initially conceive of an adventure, I’ll come up with three or four cool scenes or concepts, and I’ll link them together with a few clues.

For example, if I’m writing a Mutant City Blues case about a scheme to harvest mutant organs for transplant in the hopes of transferring mutant powers to criminals, I might go vanished mutant -> seedy fixer -> secret lab in hospital -> criminal mastermind, and then link the scenes with a core clue each. So, Data Retrieval connects the vanished mutant to the seedy fixer, Interrogation gets him to flip on the organ harvesters and point the agents at the hospital, and forensic accounting lets them connect the hospital lab to the main criminal. That’s a perfectly workable spine.

Now, with that central chain of clues in place, I need to flesh out the scenes, and one way to do that is to look at the list of investigative abilities and consider what information that can be gleaned by each of them. Some are obvious – what can Streetwise reveal about the seedy fixer? What about Fingerprinting? If the players look around the vanished mutant’s apartment with Art History, what do they find? What about Chemistry?

Obviously, only a fraction of the abilities are going to yield any information at all, and there’s no guarantee any of this information is going to be useful, but it’s still a useful prompt to fill out a scene.

This technique really comes into its own in occult investigation, as it’s deliciously weird to explore the side effects of the supernatural. A Deep One attack in Trail of Cthulhu obviously leaves clues to be discovered with Evidence Collection or Reassurance, but what about Theology? Might the traumatised victim couch their description in biblical terms, and babble about Leviathan abd Behemoth? What about Astronomy or Geology? Might the Deep One have dragged up a carved stone that’s millions of years old, or maybe they only rise when Fomalhaut is in the sky…


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 core concept of GUMSHOE can be simply stated (or shouted from the rooftops) as “it’s always more fun when the players get the clue”. One could argue, though, that it’s sometimes more accurate to say that the players always get the lead.

A lead is a clue that leads in to another scene. Leads are usually (but not always) core clues, and core clues are usually (but not always) leads, so it’s easy to get the two confused. It’s worth disambiguating the two in your thinking.

So – a lead is a clue that points to another scene. It can be something that the players uncover (Evidence Collection: you find a matchbook with the name of a bar written on it), or something the characters know (Bureaucracy: the victim was a student at the local university; it might be worth checking college records, interviewing his associates and lecturers there). Follow the lead, and you get to another scene.

A core clue is something the players must find for the scenario to progress. While most core clues are leads pointing to the next core scene, you can also have core clues that foreshadow weirdness or lay pipe for future plot developments. (Biology: My god, it’s like this student is growing gills! That doesn’t immediately lead anywhere, but it’s important for the players to later discover the mad ichthyologist in the university).

You could even disambiguate further, splitting things-gained-through-investigative-abilities into four buckets:

Core Leads: points to a core scene. The players must find this lead for the scenario to work.

Leads: points to a non-core scene (alternate, hazard, subplot, etc)

Core Clues: a piece of vital information needed for the scenario to make sense. The players must get this clue.

Clues: Any other piece of information.

Note #1:  In general, every scene should have a lead (or multiple leads) that lead-in to it. The exceptions are scenes like antagonist reactions, which are triggered by the GM, or fuzzy “stuff to do in town” catch-all scenes that usually occur when the players are gathering information early in the game.

Note #2: There’s a subtle distinction between a core clue and an important clue. A core clue might tell you that the bad guy is a vampire and that he’s hiding in that castle over there, because that information is vital to your progress through the mystery. A clue that says “oh, this particular sort of vampire can only be slain by a silver bullet” isn’t core, as you don’t need it to make progress. You do need it to survive, but GUMSHOE is agnostic about whether the player characters live or die – as we said, getting the clues is always more interesting, which isn’t the same thing as safe…

It’s official – the GUMSHOE Community program is live!

We announced in our Swords, Spies and Shoggoths panel at Gen Con (which you can listen to here, thanks to our friends at the Plot Points podcast) that we were launching the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of Ashen Stars (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own Ashen Stars content on DriveThruRPG.

We’ve got a number of great Ashen Stars PDFs already available, to show you what’s possible. These include:

If you’re interested in learning more about the GUMSHOE Community program, check it out here.

Previous Entries