A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

My designs for Pelgrane have all been modular. Each includes
several sub-systems one could drop out without affecting the way other parts of the game operate.

(I say “for Pelgrane” because one of my games does use a universal engine in which every action is handled in the same way as any other. That’s HeroQuest, from Moon Design, which isn’t paying me for this column, removing my need to fit that into any kind of grand theory.)

This enables you to take the bits you like and replace them with a system from another design, if desired.

You can pair the investigative approach from GUMSHOE with a replacement for
general abilities from whatever system you find most comfortable to work in.

Same with the procedural resolution system from Hillfolk.

Sometimes, as in both of the above cases, I’ll design a sub-system so that it doesn’t pull focus from the main point of a game, even to the point of allowing it to be aesthetically displeasing.

Procedurals from Hillfolk do the job but they aren’t meant to be sleek and fun to handle. I didn’t want those rules to be alluring. Instead, whenever a situation comes up that tempts someone to call for them, I want everyone around the table to ask, “Do we really need a procedural here, or can we just agree to narrate it?”

My approach to general abilities in GUMSHOE isn’t so extreme, but they’re not meant to outshine the simplicity of the investigative bit.

When first creating a new rule or sub-system I don’t worry about its additional implications. I’m only working to solve a problem immediately before me.

For example, for the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game one tool I needed was a way to get the players speaking like Jack Vance characters. So I came up with the tagline system. This naturally carried through into Skulduggery, the goal of which was to preserve the DERPG mechanics outside of the setting they were originally built for.

When I was assigned to turn Vance’s Gaean Reach SF books into a game, I assumed it would use the new, simplified Skulduggery mechanics—until I read the books and found that they were almost all investigative in their plotting. So The Gaean Reach became a GUMSHOE game. Yet the need to get players talking like Vance characters remained, so I ported taglines into GUMSHOE. Once there I was able to hook them into an entirely different context, GUMSHOE’s need for ability pool refreshes.

That said, now that I (and Ken, and Gar) have created a shelf full of games, that means a box full of tools stands ready to serve when I need X to do Y in a new design.

This always starts with the need first. I don’t ask myself how can I repurpose starship combat from Ashen Stars or the Quade Diagram from Mutant City Blues. Instead I start with the problem and see if a sub-system already exists that can do the trick. (Also I’m leery about stealing the defining element of an existing game, each of which needs to sustain its own distinct feel within the GUMSHOE line.)

In the case of GUMSHOE One-2-One, all the problems I needed fixes for were new to the one GM, one player format. Since we’ve never done a game tuned for that configuration I had to invent new tools to solve its problems—Challenges to contain possibilities in a way that protected the character from prematurely being taken out of the story, Problems to replace the sense of deterioration and attrition fostered by dwindling general ability pools, Edges to counter-balance problems and generate a sense of reward, Sources to give players access to a full suite of investigative abilities without making every PC a polymath.

Now that I’m embarking on the design for the Yellow King RPG, I’m looking at the solutions I need and seeing some of them already in the ever-growing toolbox.

One key campaign frame has the players portraying versions of their characters refracted through time and reality. Since you might be playing several characters throughout the course of a series, character generation has to be fast, yet allow for creative input and modification. That means borrowing the Gaean Reach modular card-based chargen system, which has already been modified from Skulduggery, to yet another purpose.

Not all borrowings are from GUMSHOE. There might also be a touch of Hillfolk in the character generation.

Yellow King focuses on Robert Chambers stripped of retroactively applied Lovecraftian elements. (Don’t worry; if you own Trail of Cthulhu you can stick the Hounds of Tindalos back in if that’s your desire.) Accordingly I want an approach to subjective horror other than the Stability / Sanity system that works so well for a classically Mythos-driven spiral into cosmic despair. It just so happens that the approach to mental disintegration taken for unrelated reasons in Cthulhu Confidential fits that goal swimmingly.

Or at least I think it does. Everything’s up for grabs when theory meets play table.

And presumably problems I have yet to discover will call out for new solutions, which one of the Pelgranistas can later slot into a new need, as yet undreamt of.

confidential2
Cthulhu Confidential
, the flagship title for GUMSHOE One-2-One, is now available for pre-order! GUMSHOE One-2-One is designed for two players: a GM and a player who takes the role of a solo investigator, solving Mythos mysteries. In Cthulhu Confidential our PCs are hard-boiled shamus Dex Raymond, investigative journalist Vivian Sinclair, and private eye Langston Montgomery Wright.

We asked the Pelgranistas—as well as some friends of Pelgrane—which fictional characters they’d most like to have a GUMSHOE One-2-One mystery adventure with. This is Robin D. Laws’ choice (and apostrophe preference):

christmas-bogartSam Spade and/or Philip Marlowe

For my ideal One-2-One character, I’m going to cheat only slightly and say “any film noir detective played by Humphrey Bogart”. That enables me to encompass two of the canon’s great detective noirs, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. It gives me both Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, and I’ll brook no literal-minded rules interpretation from the likes of a mug like you. A true movie star, Bogart in any performance is always Bogie before he is anything else—sardonic, contained, restlessly intelligent. An outer toughness covering a brittle core. His Sam Spade is the Spade of the novel, yet also Bogie. Likewise with Marlowe. If I’m mentally casting Bogart as Cthulhu Confidential’s Dex Raymond, well you can hire any actor in your mind, can’t you? Whether my scenario invokes the international intrigue of Falcon or the dream logic of Big Sleep, he’ll bring it—especially if the grim coda requires a jab of pathos amid the stoicism. Plus he’d bring quality bourbon for the egg nog.

Preorder Cthulhu Confidential at the Pelgrane webstore, and get the PDF plus a preview of the first Dex Raymond adventure, straight away!

———————————–

GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and future GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Field agents of the Ordo Veritatis, take heart: the research bureau has authorized the release of a new forensic test, the ODCR. (Outer Dark Contact Residue test.)

To perform the test, gather up detritus from an investigative scene such as: dust, hair, discarded tissues, fingernail clippings, organic recycling, food crumbs, pieces of paper, writing implements, or other personal objects.

Place materials in one of the provided plastic evidence bags (NOT A COMMERCIALLY AVAILABLE SANDWICH BAG.) The active compound of the ODCR test is a clear organically active liquid, which will also be provided to you, disguised as a bottle of liquid tears. Using the bottle’s dropper, dribble 4-5 drops into the detritus. In ten to twenty minutes, if the contents release a dark bilious foam, they have tested positive.

This tells you that one or more individuals present for a prolonged period in the area from which the evidence was collected has been in sustained mental or physical contact with entities of the Outer Dark.

Research Division has yet to precisely determine a minimum range for “prolonged period.”

The residue appears to be caused by occult radiation from beyond the membrane, which alters the structure of certain molecules.

Research Division has yet to perfect a test to find residue in living cells, so there is as of yet no test one can directly perform on a suspect or victim to see if they have been exposed to the Outer Dark or its malign intelligences.

The absence of residue does not rule out Outer Dark involvement. It may simply indicate that the area is cleaned regularly. Even messy environments inhabited by known Esoterrorists do not necessarily yield positive test results. Research Division hopes to pinpoint what separates a scene containing residue from one that ought to but doesn’t.

To summarize: a positive ODCR rules in Outer Dark contact, but a negative result does not rule it out.

Warning: if you use eyedrops, take special care not to mistake the disguised ODCR bottle for part of your personal grooming kit. Contact with the eye may cause minor discomfort, excruciating pain, or instantaneous and irreversible retinal damage. If this does happen to you, please contact your Mr. Verity. Lab techs will schedule an appointment for testing and measurement, adding the results of your regrettable experience to our database.

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The release date for Cthulhu Confidential, flagship product of the GUMSHOE One-2-One game, creeps up on us daily. For International Pelgrane Day, I ran its intro scenario for gamer and science TV presenter Marty Jopson, which you can check out here.

This mystery features one of our three starting characters, hardboiled L.A. detective Dex Raymond. “The Fathomless Sleep” delves into the case of a young heiress whose memory has been stolen, sending Dex on a collision course with cultists, gangsters, and maybe even a screenwriter or two. The video spoils the scenario from top to toe, so leave it unwatched if you want someone to run it for you at some point.

With our without a look at the actual play video, a basic tour of the differences between One-2-One and good old regular GUMSHOE would seem to be in order.

To start with the obvious, this version of the game facilitates play between one GM and one player. Though it works quite well on an online platform like Skype or Roll20/Google Hangouts, it’s also perfectly suited for in-person play.

One-2-One play unfolds in a much more intense and focused way than multiplayer. Here you get no breaks to kibitz, drift off topic, or confer with fellow players.

This results in an experience that feels much more than a mystery novel than the delightful chaos of a collaborative group game.

However, being onstage throughout can be daunting. The book’s play advice prepares the GM to help the player deal with the format’s pressure and demand for concentration.

The GM also contributes more than in multiplayer. Without the inter-player banter, planning and problem-solving, you have less time to do the mental vamping required to improv your way around surprises while delivering a coherent mystery.

This dynamic calls for tightly written scenarios you can rely on to deliver the goods.

It also allows us to take advantage of an angle normally denied to adventure writers—they’re tuned to specific characters. In Cthulhu Confidential, these are whip-smart journalist Viv Sinclair and indefatigable scientist Langston Wright, along with the aforementioned Dex Raymond. Viv, written by Ruth Tillman, gets the scoop in mythos-haunted NYC, while Chris Spivey’s Langston moves the timeline a bit forward to overcome the added twists of solving Lovecraftian mysteries as a black man in wartime Washington DC.

Early in each intro adventure, the player gets the chance to customize the character, building on what the authors provide to create a distinct, personalized take—just as Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe differs from Dick Powell’s, Robert Mitchum’s, or Elliott Gould’s.

You start this process by picking one of four possible starting Problems, represented by cards. Your Dex could be broke, lonely, tempted by various vices, or subject to a fatal curiosity. In the course of play, you might get the chance to dispose of that Problem card—perhaps at a steep price, perhaps as a reward. However you’ll also likely pick up other Problem cards which, if not neutralized during the story, lead you to a dire fate during the case’s denouement.

This mechanism becomes necessary because with a single character, the possibility of death has to be handled differently than in multiplayer. It’s derailing enough in standard play when a key PC bites the dust. At least other characters remain to carry on the story while the affected player lurches for the blank character sheet. Here you can still die or wind up forever mentally incapacitated, but that happens only at the end of the scenario. That run-in with a knife-wielding numbers runner might leave you with a Problem card called Stabbed, whose text specifies that you die during the story’s coda if you still have it in hand. Stopping to take actions that justify the discard of a Problem card has its own cost, but it’s better than pushing up daisies.

This mechanism replaces the Health and Stability points from standard GUMSHOE. Neither physical injuries nor traumas measure themselves as a declining point total.

Life with only Problems would be a little too tough even for gumshoes willing to go up against Deep Ones and Mi-Go. Hence, Edge cards, which either convey an ongoing benefit, or can be cashed in for a one-time advantage. Some of them let you dispose of Problem cards, which you might be especially grateful for if they bear the Continuity tag, meaning they would otherwise keep dogging you in future cases.

Edge and Problem cards arrive in your hand via Challenges, One-2-One’s equivalent of the test. Instead of general ability pools, you have either one or two dice in the abilities like Fighting and Shadowing that accomplish tasks other than information gathering. Challenges typically have three possible results, giving you either an Advance, Hold, or Setback. Advances not only move you further into the story but also often grant some other benefit—generally an Edge card. Setbacks worsen whatever trouble you’re in, often in the form of a Problem card. In most cases you can gain an extra die by taking on an additional Problem card. So to get over that fence you might take on, say, the “Pulled Muscle” Problem card, which levels a penalty in upcoming situations.

Ability pools in standard GUMSHOE help divide spotlight time between players. In One-2-One, the spotlight’s all on you, so that mechanism isn’t needed.

Still, you might want to gain an additional, non-informational benefit from investigative abilities every now and then, so your character starts with three Pushes. You can use these as you would standard GUMSHOE spends. Whenever you gain an Advance on a Challenge with one of your permitted dice unrolled, you gain an additional Push.

It makes no sense for a noir detective to have mastered every field of inquiry. But that doesn’t stop you from gathering clues outside your specialties. In those cases you seek out one of your Sources, reliably helpful and friendly NPC contacts who perform lab tests, serve up obscure historical facts, or hip you to the ancient traditions of the occult.

Once you get used to these changes, they fade into the background, keeping the focus on the complex web of clues you must untangle before the cosmic indifference of the Mythos and the human corruption of noir combine to destroy you, your clients, and the city whose mean streets you both love and hate.

A rules option for GUMSHOE horror games

In situations where a Sense Trouble test might reveal the presence of danger from an otherworldly or eerie source, offer the players a chance to pay a price later in exchange for a benefit now.

One player gets an automatic success at a Sense Trouble test by agreeing to take on a Stability penalty that lasts for the rest of the scenario. Let’s call this a Stability Handicap.

In the typical situation in which Sense Trouble merely allows the element of surprise in a fight already guaranteed to happen, that penalty is -1.

If the test lets them entirely avoid a significant hazard or skip a fight with something nasty they don’t want or need to tangle with, the penalty rises to -2.

In the story, the moment represents a sudden flash of eerie awareness, attuning the recipient to eldritch energies. Depending on the situation, you might narrate:

  • a jackhammering heart

  • the nearly overwhelming urge to vomit

  • a jolt of rootless anxiety

  • an epiphany of cosmic dread

  • the appearance of a rash, welts, or other psychic injuries

  • an overpowering smell unsensed by anyone else present

  • an awful vision of monstrous violence that surfaces in the mind for a split-second and is then immediately suppressed

Make this a rare option, keyed to specific story events. You may decide that it only makes sense for characters already exposed to the supernatural, or those who have succumbed in some way to its influence.

Offer it only when the rest of the scenario holds out the possibility of at least 2 Stability tests.

The more physical symptoms for the Sense Trouble success might instead call for an Athletics or Scuffling Handicap. Instead of increasing your mental vulnerability, that rash that came out of nowhere makes it harder to throw punches.

For an additional fraught choice, you could even let the player choose which of the three abilities to Handicap. In that case you can allow the Handicap even if you aren’t sure that 2 or more tests of each ability still remain in the scenario. Correctly predicting which Handicap will hurt the least becomes part of the player’s challenge. Here the cost lies in the anxiety of decision making as much as in any actual penalties dished out in later scenes. If players always guess right, and Handicaps start to feel like a free gift, make sure they pay the piper next time around. See to that a penalty happens, in a situation with truly harrowing stakes.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Over the years I’ve occasionally been asked, most often by Simon, how GUMSHOE and player narrative control might work together.

My answer has always been the same—uh, they kinda mostly don’t.

GUMSHOE assumes that the solution to the mysteries the PCs investigate remains fixed once established in the GM’s mind. You and your fellow players aren’t trying to hit a moving target, but instead pursue the answer to a puzzle that makes sense and won’t change on you in mid-stream. Players recognize that some details surrounding the mystery might be indeterminate until they hit the gaming table, but not the mystery itself.

For example, no one’s going to much object if an Antagonist Reaction does or doesn’t occur based on how well the group has been doing and how far away the end of the session is.

But if you play half the scenario with the GM thinking that Mrs. Hatch was carried off by Deep Ones but then she decides to rearrange everything so that it was degenerate man-apes of the Everglades, and you find that out, you’ll feel cheated.

Allowing players to narrate details in scenes frustrates the investigation process of a fixed mystery. If you say, “and then I find an envelope with a blurry photo of degenerate man-apes in it” when your character searches the boat house, you’ve forced the GM to alter the mystery. Assuming she can even keep up with all of the player-inserted details and weave them into an internally consistent story on the fly, it’s still not the puzzle you were all working on before you brought that detail in.

If everyone at the table instead wants to play out a fungible mystery that becomes fixed only when the story reaches its conclusion, the apparatus of GUMSHOE’s investigative abilities and scene structures isn’t just unnecessary but counter to your needs. Instead, seek out Jared Sorensen’s Inspectres, which is all about creating the mystery collaboratively. Unlike GUMSHOE, it’s built to do that.

It might be tempting to say that players can add details to scenes that don’t relate to the central mystery. But those scenes can be hard to identify and wall off from the clue-gathering part of the game.

Even an Antagonist Reaction scene in which the investigators battle mercenaries or vampires or backwoods cannibals can contain info that could muddy the mystery.

With sufficient definition of who gets to describe what, you could let the players narrate simple elements of their environment during fight and action scenes, as is par for the course in Feng Shui. (Though you probably want to tone down the craziness in anything other than TimeWatch.)

If you say that there’s a garbage can nearby you can throw at the oncoming motorbike, or describe a rocky outcrop that ought to give you a decent vantage over activities down in the gravel quarry, the GM can probably roll with that—especially if she takes care to stage the actiony bits away from clue-bearing locations.

However, if the backstory driving the mystery’s logic depends on there not being a way to observe the quarry from above, the GM finds herself in a spot. By vetoing this detail, she may be pointing you to an avenue of investigation the characters didn’t earn.

Maybe that’s not such a big deal. While disallowing your proposed description of the landscape, the GM could charge an investigative spend, asking you to describe the sudden hunch that led your character to realize that lines of sight around the quarry matter to the case in some way.

It feels to me that this calls for a lot of fine meta-fictional hair-splitting that isn’t worth the effort. Declaring GUMSHOE a trad game when it comes to player narration remains the simpler and therefore clearer way to go.

That said, in certain games the solution of the mystery doesn’t end the story. In Night’s Black Agents you may learn who assassinated your contact at The Guardian, and then decide what to do with them. Ashen Stars mysteries often lead to a science fictional moral quandary the crew must then resolve for good or ill. The GM could declare that certain scenes freely permit player narration, including all post-mystery sequences. The Veil-Out at the end of an Esoterrorists run works more or less this way already.

GMs might look for other roped-off areas of a scenario in which player narrative can run and play without impinging on the central mystery. The collaborative process by which Gaean Reach players define Quandos Vorn, the interstellar arch-villain all the characters have sworn vengeance against, already fits that mold. Some similar elements will find their way into Yellow King. These happen at the outset of play but you could just as easily ask players to narrate interlude scenes between cases.

Maybe someday we’ll come up with a GUMSHOE game premise that requires a solution to this issue I’m not currently seeing. When we do that we’ll have to check to make sure that we haven’t merely stapled a Fear Itself cover around a copy of Inspectres.

I’ve been binge-watching last year’s seasons of “Arrow” and “The Flash.” One moment both shows frequently resort to, in keeping with their balance of superhero action and emotive interactions, is the inspirational exhortation. One character, the figure everyone else needs to save the day, succumbs to doubt. Another cast member then breaks the self-doubter from self-pitying despair: “You can do it! Because that’s who you are, Barry!” (Or Oliver, or Willa, or Cisco, or whoever it happens to be.) Buoyed by these words, the subject then summons previously untapped reserves of will and determination and steps forward to make the extra heroic effort required to do the impossible.

To model this in GUMSHOE, a character with Inspiration (in games that have it) or Reassurance (in those that don’t) can spend 2 points of it to aid another PC in the accomplishment of a task thought lost. The recipient then refreshes the general ability in question. Let’s call this the Refreshing Exhortation.

Conditions apply: the prospective recipient has to have already failed at a related task, either in the current scenario or the one immediately previous. Whenever it occurred, the player must have already portrayed the character as being in a funk over that past failure. The crisis of confidence must be seen at least one scene prior to the one in which the Refreshing Exhortation is attempted.

Also, both players have to sell the moment through roleplaying. The inspirational character gives a stirring speech, in character dialogue. The recipient perhaps interjects with thoughts of doubt, and certainly must play the moment when the turnaround occurs and heroic certitude returns.

Finally, in most genres you’ll want to restrict its use to once per scenario.

If playing a game with Drives, you might suggest that the exhorting character reference the nature of the recipient’s Drive. In series laden with an atmosphere of doom, such as The Esoterrorists, purist Trail of Cthulhu, or dust mode Night’s Black Agents, the GM might allow Refreshing Exhortations only in situations where successful ability use offers the recipient a good chance of attaining self-sacrificial destruction. Some genres might call for speeches in a different tone. In The Gaean Reach, a reminder of the many crimes of Quandos Vorn, and the character’s burning desire to see him destroyed, would better befit its dark, dry humor.

See P. XX

a Column About Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

Was it a whole ten years ago that Simon Rogers and I sat by ourselves at a small table on the far fringes of the Gen Con exhibit hall? It feels like only yesterday, that forlorn time when we had nothing to lure passersby but a stack of The Esoterrorists first edition and some Dying Earth books. Yes, it’s the tenth anniversary of GUMSHOE and although we were slow burners at first, the system has gradually inveigled its way into gaming’s collective consciousness. We could have no more humbling/ego inflating proof of that than Pelgrane’s amazing showing at this year’s ENnie Awards. I should count myself lucky that Simon, Cat, Ken and Gar left a few medals on the table for Feng Shui 2.

View from Pelgrane Gen Con booth, 10 years ago (Artist’s Rendering)

On such occasions, one’s thoughts naturally turn to think pieces, and Simon has asked me to look at ways in which GUMSHOE scenarios have changed since the early days.

To me the key innovation has to be the addition of Lead-In and Lead-Out lines to the scene headers. These immediately show the GM where the scene probably fits in the investigative sequence the players create as they wend their way through the mystery. For example:

Harp’s Place

Scene Type: Core

Lead-Ins: The Bait, What’s Up With Chuck

Lead-Outs: Irland is Missing, Dawley, The Water Commission

Although we sometimes also still do scene sequence diagrams, they only really work for very simple, more or less linear scenarios. The more possible ways through the investigation a scenario provides, the more tangled and confused the web of scene connections looks when expressed in diagram form. Instead of acting as a play aid, a diagram makes the scenario look more daunting than it really is. Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs put the information in front of GMs when they really need it—while they’re running the scenes.

From a scenario design standpoint, they encourage the writer to include multiple ways in and out of their scenes, giving players additional options and fighting linearity.

* * *

The other big change, Gar has pointed out, can be seen in the way Investigative point spends are treated. Some early scenarios went a bit off-model by requiring overly high spends for benefits. If you see a 3-point spend in an early adventure, you can almost always strike that out in exchange for a 2 or even a 1. Other early adventures sometimes get stingy by making only the core clues free, and charging for other information you don’t need. Since those first scenarios we have more consistently adopted the approach I have always used, which is to provide plenty of info for free and make the players separate the pertinent from the incidental.

Over the years we have also learned how emotionally invested players become when they choose to spend an investigative point. I initially conceived of investigative spends as just a grace note, a fun minor occurrence that would happen every now and again. No big deal. That thought underestimated the cognitive difficulty of letting go of a resource—any resource. Early scenarios allowed you to find out information in an especially cool way, or add dimension to your character, in exchange for spends. For example, in one of the Stunning Eldritch Tales adventures you can specify that you already know one of the key characters—but it’s up to the player to squeeze a concrete advantage out of that. It turns out that players want a bigger, clearer gain when they spend points. So in more recent scenarios you’ll see us moving more toward palpable game advantages, like bonuses to general ability tests, or being able to avoid a clearly undesirable plot outcome.

You’ll see this thought carried through into the simplified equivalent of investigative spends that appears in GUMSHOE One-2-One. In that iteration of the game they become scarcer resources, and must always deliver something strong when they are spent.

* * *

Roleplaying scenarios in general sometimes lapse into extended passages of background information that might be of interest to the GM while reading but has no likely way to come up in play, and will thus remain undiscovered by the players. GMs need enough information to run the scenario and understand the logic behind the actions of the supporting characters they’ll be playing, in case players hit them with unexpected questions. But when writing it can be tempting to just start spinning out details of the fictional world without finding a way to make them pay off at the table. Even in the early years I think we mostly caught and fixed such passages during the development phase. The Great Pelgrane who sits atop our London eyrie remains vigilant against them today, snapping up transgressors of this principle with his piercing beak.

Another factor I’ve been more cognizant of over the years: the possibility that GMs will over-interpret a throwaway line of in-world description. For example the tradecraft Ordo Veritatis agents use to conceal their identities isn’t mean to become an obstacle during play. Instead the GM should describe it as challenging without making it a genuine uninteresting additional hassle. But if I don’t come out and say this while writing, I can easily mislead the GM into making a big deal of what I regard as an atmospheric element. The general fix for issues like this is to break more readily from fictional world voice to speak directly, designer-to-GM about what I hope to help you make happen at the gaming table.

Other than that the changes to scenarios mostly come from the emulation of the new genres we take on. Ashen Stars required a look at the way investigation works in shows like “Star Trek” and “Firefly.” Likewise with Night’s Black Agents and contemporary spy thrillers like the Bourne Trilo… er, Quadrilogy I guess it now is.

With Cthulhu Confidential and The Yellow King on the horizon, we’ll continue to refine GUMSHOE for particular experiences. I look forward to seeing what our scenarios will look like in another ten years’ time.

A column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

At the height of the Combine’s prosperity prior to the Mohilar War, recreational drugs had been rendered safe by technology. All manner of pleasurable sensations could be delivered as viral treatments encoded with anti-addictive measures. Physical wear and tear on the body caused by their side effects could be easily reversed with advanced medical techniques. Yet in the sober, emotionally centered Combine culture, with its emphasis on personal improvement, exploration, and the advancement of knowledge, social mores kept a lid on their use. Young people finding themselves might go through a period of sustained recreational viroware (recroviro) use, but settled adults found little use for them.

The profound psychic malaise left behind by the aftermath of the Mohilar War has left some in the Bleed, the region of frontier space patrolled by freelance lawkeepers like your Ashen Stars characters, embracing the self-destructive side of drug use. A new breed of users regards the possibility of addiction, overdose and sudden health catastrophe as an integral component of the experience. Deliberately unsafe viral cocktails called SRVs or “swerves” cater to the desire to put the risk back into risk-taking behavior. The S stands for stripped, as in stripped of all health safeguards. Particularly shady dealers may sell SRVs as the safe versions, hoping to increase market share by addicting unwilling customers.

The breakdown of interstellar authority allows local officials to adopt controlled substance policies that differ wildly from world to world. Some keep everything legal, even the swerves. They argue that prohibition merely adds a criminal profit motive to an activity a certain segment of the population will engage in regardless of penalties. Others maintain a veneer of illegality but in practice accept that the drug trade is too expensive to reliably regulate. Planets where elites or citizens demand tighter regulation of behavior invest heavily in anti-swerve efforts, sometimes banning the harm-free recroviros as a gateway experience to the hard stuff. On Caligula (formerly Cygnus IV) it is illegal not to have at least least one mind-altering recroviro in your system on an imperial feast day—which covers 45% of the local calendar.

Recroviros your laser crew may encounter include:

  • Draftline: causes the body to produce alcohol on mental command. With experience you can calibrate your experience, maintaining anything from a gentle buzz to utter incapacity.
  • Floaty: instills a feeling of oneness from the universe and spiritual insight while in zero gravity.
  • Solitude: allows the user to filter out the physical and emotional presence of others. Favored by introverts, and by crewmen in small, cramped ships desiring respite from the voices, smells, and demands of colleagues. Using while on duty can lead to disaster and is considered cause for dismissal or worse.
  • Phantom: makes you think that one of your limbs is missing. Few prefer the leg variant. For maximum effect, select the formula that affects your sense of your favored hand.
  • Pseudopod: conversely, creates the powerful sensation of having a twelve-inch prehensile tentacle emanating from the center of one’s forehead. Attempting to manipulate objects with this nonexistent appendage may cause accidents or injury. Do not operate heavy equipment.
  • Ecosphere: allows you to perceive an environment through the sensations of its plants and microorganisms. Non-balla take this to understand what it is to be balla, which the ball themselves regard as ridiculous. Ecosphere provides only an illusion of this sense. Some users claim the addictive stripped version delivers the real thing.
  • Pulse: as above, but you (seemingly) sense the world as a collection of electrical impulses. (Pictured.)
  • Deathball: randomly simulates the sensation of one of 12 hideously violent deaths, as selected by a random algorithm. Variants include a pain-free version, or doses that allow you to select the death experience you want to undergo. (Connoisseurs turn up their noses at this practice, arguing that it misses the point.) Originally designed for therapeutic use, a one-time dose can instill the euphoria and sense of purpose associated with a near-death experience, while skipping the part where you actually nearly die. This wears off over time. Habitual users may be chasing that feeling, with diminishing returns. Or some of them just like the intensity of being devoured alive by Rigelian ants. Tavak warriors use deathball to train themselves in stoic disregard for mortality. Durugh enjoy it on a perverse physical level. Administering deathball without consent is illegal nearly everywhere—you may be hired by victims to track down and bring to justice the person that did this to them.
  • Cocaine: a viral simulation of the original, bestowing manic energy and manic grandiosity. The non-stripped version allows you to turn off the effect at will. The SVR, not so much.
  • Heroin: another viral simulation, instilling physical bliss and the desire for complete inaction. Like the above, increasingly likely to be found in swerve form.

Humans use more recroviros than anyone else. Durugh outdo them in the consumption of swerves. Some durugh disdain viral recreational drugs for the old school addictive substances of yore. Spacefaring durugh drug labs once made and sold their historic equivalents of cocaine, heroin and quaaludes, before they discovered that the old Terran stuff hit them even harder. Encounters with durugh ships whose occupants are completely baked on bath salts may sorely test your negotiation abilities.

Kch-thk don’t generally bother with mind-altering substances. For them, no high exceeds that of eating. Balla disdain them for spiritual reasons.

Your character can use the Virology ability to identify the properties, side effects, and safety level of recroviros and swerves. Forensic Anthropology lets you find their traces in a body’s blood and tissues. Law tells you what legal restrictions, if any, apply to their manufacture, sale, possession and use in a given jurisdiction. With Cop Talk you can quickly determine how aggressively these laws are enforced in a given place. Streetwise leads you to users, dealers, and the viral engineers who make the stuff.


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop. Ship plans appear in Accretion Disk.

Some Hillfolk players report cognitive dissonance over an edge case in the game’s procedural resolution system.

Success in a standard procedural scene with the players on one side and the GM on the other depends on matching a target card. When the GM spends a green procedural token, at least one of the player’s cards left on the table at the end of the process must match its denomination. So if the target card is a 4 of Clubs, the players have to come up with a 4 of Spades, Diamonds, or Hearts. (The odds of beating the GM’s green token are meant to be extremely daunting.)

However, if the GM has only spent a yellow procedural token, the players only have to match the suit. When the target card is the 4 of Clubs, players need only draw any other Club card.

The odds improve even further if the GM spends the lowest token, the red. All players have to match is the color of the card. In our 4 of Clubs example, any Club or Spade brings success.

That does mean, though, that two cards that might lead to success if the GM spent a green token do not in the other two cases: the cards of equal denomination in the opposed color don’t help for green or red tokens. The GM does not reveal the token she spent until all cards have been drawn. So when, in our example, a player gets the 4 of Diamonds or Hearts, that could be decisive in your favor, or irrelevant.

As players narrate a contribution to the effort according to the impressiveness of the card drawn, this can introduce an uncertainty some find confusing.

I actually like the uncertainty of this, asking the player to describe an action that could be amazing or could be nothing.

But if members of your group find that too much of a headscratcher, you can always borrow a variant rule from Susan Davis, an intrepid member of my Thursday night group and mastermind behind the Worlds of Adventure DramaSystem actual play podcast.

In this variant, denomination matches also grant success regardless of suit or color, regardless of the drama token spent by the GM. When one is drawn, and the GM is unable to knock it out of play, the procedural automatically concludes, as a success for the players.

This tips the odds only slightly more in favor of the players.

The downside is that it allows for a premature certain success, removing the moment of suspense at the end where the GM reveals the token and you find out whether the cards you’ve drawn spell success or failure.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in the Pelgrane Shop.

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