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.