The following article for the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in December 2005.

At last – a new Dying Earth release – All’s Fair in Azenomei! It’s available as a downloadable PDF exclusively from Pelgrane. This professionally produced scenario gives your PCs the chance to explore Azenomei in depth, enjoy all the fun of the fair, and take part in a series of contests on behalf of a local sponsor of dubious repute. The PCs will have to use their full repertoire of chicaneries and wiles to triumph over the predicaments in which they find themselves.

While we wait for a full review of the Book of Unremitting Horror, I recommend you pop over to the Ogre’s Cave to see their Christmas recommendations .

This month, we’ve finally sorted out what is going in XPS 7/8 (ed: now collected as the Excellent Prismatic Spray) and what is going in the Compendium of Universal Knowledge – our next major release. A sample entry can be seen here.

The Compendium is a gazetteer, a bestiary and an encyclopedia of the Dying Earth. It includes entries by almost all our writers, and is being compiled and edited with additional material by David Thomas. At the moment, I am tending towards a thick hardback volume with color plates, probably a limited edition, with a paperback version later.

The Rhialto supplement is being edited by John Kahane, but Robin will be adding a new chapter on Sandestins and offering some simplified rules in Mid-February.


Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until July 18th!

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following press release for the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com around 2004.

Stories of the Earth’s demise are premature.

Press Release
Pelgrane Press

LONDON, ENGLAND – Dying Earth RPG released.

After two years of development, design and playtesting, Pelgrane Press has released its role playing game based on novelist Jack Vance´s seminal Dying Earth series. Written by Robin D. Laws (Feng Shui, Hero Wars) John Snead (Nephilim, Star Trek) and genre writer Peter Freeman, the game features robust, fast-playing rules that encourage creativity and interaction.

Simon Rogers, Managing Director of Pelgrane Press said “The Dying Earth RPG has exceeded all our expectations. Jack Vance and Robin D Laws are a killer combination – great rules and a superb and atmospheric background. The artwork and layout are of the highest quality, and the book itself is glossy and attractive. We intend to support this game with new releases throughout the year and beyond.”

In the game you enter a world where the sun is in its dotage, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words, and a fine sense of fashion. Choose from three levels of play, a lowly rogue such as Cugel the Clever, surviving by wits and cunning, an ambitious and deadly mage searching for lost lore, like Turjan of Miir or finally a supreme magician to rank with Rhialto the Marvellous, commanding the omnipotent but quarrelsome Sandestins. The Dying Earth is available through good RPG stores and on line at Pelgrane Press.

INFORMATION

Jack Vance is the world’s greatest living Fantasy author. Jack Vance wrote the DYING EARTH series of books over many years; the original volume “The Dying Earth” was released before Lord of the Rings. Other volumes include “Eyes of the Overworld”, “Cugel’s Saga” and “Rhialto the Marvellous.” He is said to be “tolerant” of the idea of a roleplaying game based on his work.

Principal designer Robin D.Laws has inveigled such game publishers as Wizards of the Coast, Last Unicorn, Pinnacle, FASA, and Steve Jackson Games into compensating him for his efforts. His works include the roleplaying games Feng Shui (Atlas), Glorantha: Hero Wars (Issaries, Inc.), and Pantheon (Hogshead), and the novels Pierced Heart and The Rough and the Smooth (Atlas).

Magic rules designer John Snead has, to his astonishment, designed no fewer than six magic systems for roleplaying games. He has also written for the Trinity, Aberrant, and Star Trek: The Next Generation RPGs.

An established genre author, contributed the illustrative “Daybook of Geomalacus,” “Journal of Xolon the Hide Merchant,” and “Disavowal of Jhail” sidebar texts. He holds a degree in Ecological Genetics, which offers an interesting perspective on the creatures of the Dying Earth.

Pelgrane Press Ltd
18-20 Bromell’s Road
London
SW4 7SA


Pelgrane Press acquire the rights to publish an RPG based on the Dying Earth Books By Jack Vance.

LONDON, ENGLAND: Pelgrane Press Ltd, a UK-based company is pleased to announce that it has acquired the rights to produce games based on Jack Vance’s seminal Dying Earth novels.

Pelgrane Press is jointly owned by ProFantasy Software Ltd, which produces the renowned Campaign Cartographer map-making software, Simon Rogers, co-founder of ProFantasy Software and Sasha Bilton, a long-time Vance fan, role-player and top Java programmer.

“We are very excited by this property,” says Simon Rogers. “We intend to do justice to the license. In a world of genre fiction, vanilla fantasy, Vance’s voice is unique. We are brimming with idea to bring Vance’s world to life. In the game, your choice of menu will say more about your character than whether you know the business end of a Bohemian ear-spoon.”

Sasha Bilton said, “The Dying Earth has been such an inspiration to fantasy roleplaying games designers and now, finally, we’ll get to play at the source. The chance to work with the highly professional team who run ProFantasy Software Limited is the icing on the cake. ProFantasy has the distribution channels, industry knowledge and business savvy that will set Pelgrane Press apart from most game company start-ups. I can’t wait to get playtesting.”

Vance’s style is humorous and vivid, yet melancholic. His characters, petty or powerful, are well drawn and credible. They have weaknesses and vices combined with a redeeming humanity. Vance’s creations range from Cugel the Clever (an incorrigible rogue whose fortunes fluctuate with his pride) to Rhialto the Marvellous (a dashing, vain mage who commands elemental spirits called sandestins). In between are less talented wizards, doomed brigands, vat-grown beauties and wandering innocents. All overestimate their abilities and the stories delight in describing their misadventures.

Pelgrane Press will begin work on its roleplaying game in January. Submission guidelines will be available soon.

INFORMATION

Jack Vance is the world’s greatest living Fantasy author. He wrote the DYING EARTH series of books over many years; the original volume “The Dying Earth” was released before Lord of the Rings. Other volumes include “Eyes of the Overworld”, “Cugel’s Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous.” He is said to be “tolerant” of the idea of a roleplaying game based on his work.

PROFANTASY SOFTWARE LTD was formed in 1993 and publishes critically acclaimed PC software for gamers including Campaign Cartographer, Dungeon Designer and the Forgotten Realms Interactive Atlas for Wizards of the Coast.

SASHA BILTON is the Managing Director of Ends of Invention and is one of the few expert Java programmers in the UK.


Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until July 18th!

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article for the Dying Earth RPG and Fear Itself originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in November 2004.

Push aside the detritus to see the shiny gew-gaws horded by the Pelgrane

 

Our last release was XPS 6 (ed: now bundled as The Excellent Prismatic Spray) – a good few months’ ago now. But we aren’t slacking, I promise you – certain persons have been eaten, others dropped from a great height. The manuscripts are stacked up, and at last an artist is licking his nib, and our schedule is a thing of beauty, if not truth. We’ve employed the artistic services of Dave Allsop, best known in the RPG community for SLA Industries; although he has also created Magic card images and D&D® creatures for Wizards of the Coast. We are lucky to have him, trapped in the nest, to be released when his work is done, or eaten as a light snack if it is unfinished. Dave is also the artist and co-creator of a non-Dying Earth project we’ve been working on – The Book of Unremitting Horror – more on that later.

We’ve commissioned Robin D Laws to create the Arch-Magicians book – a whole new style of Dying Earth play. The vigilant questing of

the magician gives way to power; but with ultimate power comes ennui, and only the other Arch-Magicians provide a suitable challenge. Squabbling, intrigue and pettifoggery might cause even the affable Preceptor of the Conclave to tear out his hair. Robin is devising a clever new mechanic, dare I say a metagame mechanic. I can’t say much yet, but what I can reveal is that in this version of the Dying Earth RPG you can win, and it won’t be by conjuring up a dark army of underlings and conquering the world. Robin is in little danger of being eaten, partly due to his past services, but mainly because of his personal chaffe and offensive shirts.

Jim Webster and Peter Freeman have created the Dying Earth Gazetteer (ed: now The Scaum Valley Gazetteer), a splendid overview of the entire known world, and elsewhere. Its accuracy is absolutely and unreservedly guaranteed – at least that is what they assured me as I dangled them, one in each claw, over the edge of the nest. Dave Allsop is currently illustrating the more significant entries. I find a friendly grin and a few kind words hurry him on.

The Book of Unremitting Horror is a bleak book of horrific monsters for use in an OGL setting. Each horror is detailed in depth, so much so that it each is more a complete adventure in itself. Each one has its own agenda, its own reason for existence and its own legend. The book includes GM and player information. A PDF sample will follow next month, but for the moment, here is a little teaser for one of the creatures.

Dave Allsop is the artist and creator, and the creatures have been detailed by Adrian Bott, who has written The Book of Hell for Mongoose Publishing amongst other RPG titles.

Tooth, Talon and Pinion, The Dying Earth Bestiary is now ready for the first round of editing. Compiled with extra material by Ian Thomson (Demons of the Dying Earth) it will cover all the beasts and humanoids. It includes authoritative discussions of each creature, with a little polite scholarly disagreement over the nature of each beast, allowing you to choose which version to use. Many of the creatures are tied together in a grand adventure, although each segment can be run separately. If only Ian can curb his natural exuberance, and present me with more shiny things, I will in turn curb my natural appetite.

The Shining Fields (ed: now The Fields of Silver,) written by Lynne Hardy, is a Turjan-level campaign in the style of the old Call of Cthulu™ campaign books is languishing awaiting art. It is with regret that I can find no excuse to consume Lynne, as she is without fault in this matter. That small nicety has not concerned me before, however.

XPS 7 (ed: now bundled as The Excellent Prismatic Spray)is underway, but you will have to ask Jim Webster, the editor, if you want to know more. I dare not.


Get an embarrassment of Dying Earth treasures in the Compleat Dying Earth Bundle of Holding until July 18th!

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

When choosing his favorite monster, Robin looked to three criteria: ickiness, impersonality, and versatility.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. 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.

We want your ideas as part of the GUMSHOE Community on DriveThruRPG! The GUMSHOE Community is a home for independent creators to upload products like adventures, rules supplements, monsters, and whatever else you can dream up. If you’ve got a wild idea, whether it’s a new planet you homebrewed for Ashen Stars, or a creature of unremitting horror for Fear Itself, or if you’ve written up scenario notes that really terrified your Esoterrorist investigators, consider writing up any of these for the GUMSHOE Community Contest.

How it works

The GUMSHOE Community program is a place where you can upload your homebrew content for various GUMSHOE systems and sell them straight through DriveThruRPG. For this contest, write up any of your wild and/or successful ideas for one of the supported GUMSHOE systems (see “What can I submit?” below), submit them through the form at the bottom of this post, and Robin D. Laws will select one winner, whose piece will get a professional cover illustration and be professionally laid out (see “What do I get?” below).

The best part about all this is that, even for those of us who don’t win, at the end we’ll have put in the work and have a finished written product that we can still upload to the GUMSHOE Community. If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at publishing an RPG product, this is a great way to dip your toes.

What can I submit?

Anything that fits with the GUMSHOE rulesets currently supported in the GUMSHOE Community program: that’s Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch.

As to the style of submission, nearly anything goes. Full-fledged scenario? Groovy. Collection of scenario hooks? Rad. A single new monster? Sure, why not? You don’t need to write a 10,000-word manifesto (though you could), and you don’t need a 5,000-word write-up for a new planet. Give us your short, pithy ideas, alongside your longer masterpieces. Give us your best.

Multiple submissions are fine.

We’ll ask that you only submit text files, unless you have illustrative examples you think are completely necessary, and these should be incorporated into a text file. The way that Google Forms works, you’ll need to submit either a Google Doc or a PDF saved to Google Drive.

It doesn’t need to be PG, but nothing rated NC-17, please. See the GUMSHOE Community Content Guidelines for more resources about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

What are the judges looking for?

First of all, we won’t be judging based on things like art or professional layout (though that doesn’t mean your writing shouldn’t be organized).

Here’s what Robin says he’ll be looking for in a winning entry:

  • engaging prose,
  • original and inspiring mysteries (or support material that inspires them),
  • apt use of GUMSHOE mechanics,
  • material presented for use in play,
  • evocation of your chosen game line’s themes and tone.

What do I get?

Anyone who submits will get an 8.5″ x 11″ art print of the cover art for the line they submit to (submitting for Ashen Stars? That’s the cover you’ll receive). Additionally, Robin D. Laws will be judging the entries, and one winner will have their product professionally laid out by Jen McCleary, of The Fall of DELTA GREEN and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, with cover art by Jérôme Huguenin, who’s done the covers for Trail of CthulhuCthulhu Confidential, and more.

The “prize,” in other words, is custom cover art and custom layout for your product before you upload it to the GUMSHOE Community program on DriveThruRPG.

Deadline – Updated

The deadline for your entries will be Monday, September 7th, 2020.

Submit your entries… HERE

In the latest installment of their play-by-clip game, Gar’s character rescues the Thing in the River and Robin, remembering that Gar considers gambling a useless ability, sends him to a notorious casino.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. 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.

If your Yellow King Roleplaying Game art students make it all the way to October 1895 unscathed, a dramatic news event awaits them. The Granville-Paris Express spectacularly crashes at 4 pm on the 22nd of October. According to history as it comes down to us, the driver enters the Montparnasse station too quickly and is unable to stop the engine. It rams through its buffer, continues on through the station, and plummets to the street below. It strikes and kills one pedestrian, the wife of a newspaper vendor. The wreck results in a famous photograph, here distorted by the cruel filters of Carcosa.

The investigators might be prompted to look into the crash after the fact, perhaps upon hearing rumors of strange masked figures cavorting in one of its six passenger coaches.

Or was a shipment containing multiple copies of a certain banned play concealed among the crates and parcels of its postal service car?

You may already be thinking that this choice squanders a perfectly good action climax. The player characters ought to be on the car, engaged in a desperate struggle against gargoyles, vampires or an ankou, when it blows into the station. Surely the driver and the guard who failed to operate the handbrake were under attack at the time. Perhaps with the diligent intervention of well-heeled young American artistes they might be spared the fines and, in the driver’s case, brief prison sentence, that faced them in non-made-up history. The court system can’t admit to the presence of monsters conjured up by Carcosan emanations, but an Officialdom Push could go a long way to get them off the hook on the quiet.

Another option: player characters are outside the station, down on the street, when the accident happens, and the derailment is an attack on them. In this version, they might pull the lone victim out of the way in time.Then all they have to do is figure out which of their Aldebaran-worshiping enemies would attempt to wipe them out in such an outlandish and theatrical manner.

Or is the supposed news vendor’s wife in fact an incarnation of Cassilda or Camilla? If so, it’s probably the other sister who tried to drop a locomotive on her.

In yet another version of this event, the player characters might be the ones taking over the train and using it to target one of the princesses. When dealing with the royalty of Hali you don’t want to take chances with a vehicle of lesser impact.

Whichever way you choose to go, it certainly would be a waste of a famous incident of 1895 Paris to do nothing at all with it.


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.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007. You can find part one here.

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Last month we plundered the gilded halls of improv theory, appropriating for our own roleplaying purposes the “Yes, but” technique. GMs using this technique avoid answering player requests with a categorical no. Instead they look for ways to say yes, but with complications that preserve the coherence of the setting, add additional challenge, or both.

This time we’re going to take the concept to its funky extreme by using it as the basis for an impromptu scenario. Try it next time you’re forced for whatever reason to slot in a fill-in event for your ongoing game, or as a convention brain-teaser.

“Yes, but: The Scenario” works best with a freeform resolution system that allows character creation on the fly, preferably with simple or self-defined abilities. I’ve also run it using just a deck of cards as a resolution system, with a high draw meaning a good result, a low card indicating failure, and an ace indicating that the player gets to dictate the ideal result of his action attempt. However, if you’re the kind of GM who can spreadsheet an exquisitely balanced Champions character in your head, you might prefer to rely on a crunchier rules set.

This scenario is more fun and unpredictable if the rules system you choose triggers comparatively few assumptions about world and expected game play. If you haul out the D&D rules books, your players will likely plug themselves into a well-worn pattern and set about performing that game’s default activity, relying less on their own improvisatory creativity than on an off-the-rack set of roleplaying assumptions.

You can start a “Yes, but” game mere moments after your players get settled in. Game play is character creation.

Inform your players that this game depends on their ability to interrogate you. All communications with you must be phrased in the form of a yes or no question. When given a yes or no question, you may elect to supply more information than the query calls for. If given a question which cannot be answered with a yes or no, or a statement which isn’t in the form of a question at all, you will ask the player to rephrase.

Play goes around the table in a round-robin fashion. Players ask questions in turn sequence, one question per turn.

When you’re satisfied that the group understands the method of play (well, sort of understands — expect a certain degree of hesitant bafflement at this point), start play by pointing to the first player.

Expect even more bafflement. Prompt the player to ask a question. If the player can’t think of one, try the next one in the turn order. If everyone seems utterly stumped, start off with:

“You all wake up at about the same time. You’re in a room together.”

Then, once again, prompt for questions.

Soon, if not instantly, the players will see the open-ended game you’re playing. They’ll ask you questions like:

1. “Is it dark?”
2. “Does the room have a door?”
3. “Am I injured?”
4. “Is there anyone else in the room other than us?”
5. “Am I male or female?”

What you’re doing is allowing the players to define their characters, the nature of the scenario, and even the genre, by the questions they ask. The answer to all of their questions is either a simple “yes” or a “yes, but…” followed by a line or two of explanation that mitigates, modifies, or limits the facts their question has put into play. “Yes but” is almost always the most fruitful answer.

So your replies to the above questions might be:

1. “Yes, but there’s light coming from under the door, enough so you can faintly make out a light switch off to one side of it.”
2. “Yes, but it’s behind a barricade of broken furniture. Someone went to a huge effort to keep something outside from coming in.”
3. “Yes, but not seriously. Just a few scratches.”
4. “Yes, there’s a man in a trench coat. But he seems to be dead.”
5. “Rephrase the question.”

As you continue, the Q&A format will define characters, flesh out a setting, and define a goal for the PCs to achieve.

As players ask questions about their characters, you assign abilities and game statistics to them. Whenever an answer defines a character’s abilities, make a note of them, giving them game statistics as necessary. The first-mentioned abilities get the best game stats. Though courtesy or lack of devious imagination may prevent them from trying it, there’s nothing to stop players from asking questions that define other players’ characters.

Clever players will catch onto what you’re doing and tailor questions to their benefit. The “yes, but” format makes this, challenging, though:

“Do I have a shotgun?”
Yes, but no ammo.

“Am I super strong?”
Yes, but only for a few moments a day.

“Do I have the key to that door?”
Yes, but you know there’s a bomb on the other side of the door, wired to go off when a key is inserted into the lock.

Certain questions tend to foster weird or freakish results if you apply “Yes, but” to them. Unless you want a cast of hermaphrodites and mutant halfbreeds (not that there’s anything wrong with that), questions like “Am I male?” or “Am I human?” should be answered with a simple “Yes.” You control the freakiness level of the scenario both with your modifying descriptions, and by which questions you choose to answer with a plain “Yes.”

The default outcome is a scenario about people who wake up trapped in an environment without their memories. The amnesia option can be fun, as it mirrors the player’s attempts to piece together their characters by asking you questions. You can forestall it, though, by simply answering “yes” to the question “Do we remember how we got here?”

Likewise, the PCs generally wind up trapped by asking “Is there a way out?” Starting out trapped is a good way to foster cooperation between the developing PCs, but again you can vary the standard pattern just by saying, “Yes.”

If the players think they’re playing in a given setting, their questions will be tailored to it. They may invoke existing media properties anyway: “Am I a Brujah?” “Can I perform the Vulcan nerve pinch?” The “yes, but” protocol limits your ability to fight this, but so what? It’s not like anybody’s going to sue you for infringing their intellectual property. Expect the resulting adventure to surrealistically blend various genres.

At some point during the game, the Q&A will prove difficult to sustain as your improvised narrative gathers steam. Depending on how quickly your players catch on and how adroitly they manipulate the format, this may happen as early as an hour into the session, or very near to its natural conclusion. Usually it’ll happen at about the halfway point.

When this occurs, tell the players that you’re switching to a regular RPG protocol. Then play out the game as you would any improvised scenario, placing challenges in front of the players as they head toward an exciting climax that resolves the central problem they’ve established for themselves during the Q&A phase. This sounds like a tall order, but, assuming you can improv a scenario at all, you’ll find that the momentum you’ve established in the Q&A carries you along naturally.

Will next month’s column expand this concept into a screenplay suitable for a major motion picture? Yes, but those not equipped with alien senses will instead perceive a column on another subject, germane to roleplaying.

This article originally appeared on DyingEarth.com, between 2004 and 2007.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Considering how focused roleplayers are on plundering and looting, it’s surprising how little stealing we’ve done from the world of improv. Like us, sketch comedy troupes use collective, on-the-spot creativity to make entertainment out of nothing. And they don’t even need d12s. Or whatever it is that we need when we say our hobby is like playing cowboys and indians, except with rules to guarantee that the dead stay down when they get shot.

Let’s hijack one of improv’s central principles right now. That fundamental principle is “never negate.” In an improv, you never merely cancel out another participant’s action. Imagine that you and I are performing an improv together. We’ve been given a location by the audience — a construction site — and that’s all we’ve got to work with. You start the skit by sitting down and miming as if you’re removing your lunch from your lunch bucket. Then you say, “Too bad we’re getting fired today, huh? And here I was, just a week away from retirement.”

Now, my mental wheels were already turning the moment I heard the words ‘construction site.’ I had a whole different direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to establish that we were merely amateur construction enthusiasts at construction worker fantasy camp. Maybe my idea was funnier than yours, but now that you’ve taken the lead, I can’t simply negate what you’ve done to clear the decks for my concept. The principles of improv forbid me from simply saying: “You are completely mistaken, Pete. We haven’t been fired at all. In fact, we are amateur construction enthusiasts attending construction worker fantasy camp.”

Instead, I have to set my thought aside and build on yours. Since I’m trying to be funny, I need to add a twist or reversal, or at least a set-up that my partner can turn into a joke. Such as: “Yeah, you kill one measly supervisor and they get all safety-oriented on your ass.” All of our mental prep work — all sixty seconds of it — is out the window, and we’re off in an unexpected direction, flying blind, creating in the moment. This process generates the energy and sense of surprise that makes improv seem funny — often much funnier than the exact same material would be if rehearsed it and polished into a finished sketch.

In the above example, I’m not negating you’re idea, but I’m not just accepting it and parroting it back to you, either. I’ve returned your serve while putting a new spin on the ball. I’ve said, “Yes, but.” Yes, we’re getting fired, but we deserve it — if anything, we’re getting off easy.

Few roleplaying game sessions present situations as open-ended as the very beginning of an improv sketch. There are game rules to take into account, PC backstories to keep consistent, and a certain amount of world detail and plot preparation you hope to preserve. Within these parameters, though, the ‘yes, but’ principle is a powerful technique to engage your players by rewarding their creativity while at the same time keeping them on their toes.

Let’s say you’re running a game in a landlocked fantasy nation with a vaguely ancient Bronze Age feel. A player building a new character, inspired by her recent purchase of the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD, really, really wants to play a pirate. Your initial response, based on the logic of your world and the prep work you’ve done, is simply to say no. It’s crucial to your geopolitical story arc that the kingdom be landlocked. That pretty much rules out naval piracy. However, you’ll have a much better chance of keeping that player happy, and having her contribute positively to the game, if you can give her part of what she wants. Say, “yes, but…”

“Yes, but in this setting the equivalent of the pirate is the bandit in the hills. The bandits in this world are the same unruly, rum-swilling outlaw types with stolen, ragtag finery and a perverse code of brotherhood you’re thinking of when you use the word pirate. But instead of attacking seafaring ships, they raid caravans from horseback.”

Maybe you hadn’t given any thought to bandits in your setting before now. Now you’ve allowed your player to help shape your world, by making your bandits into pirates with the serial numbers filed off. You’ve given her the feel she wants, while changing the details to preserve the campaign elements you need.

“Yes, but,” can be a useful tool during play, too. Is there a magic item shop in your fantasy city? You’ve decided that there isn’t. Not only do you find this gaming convention too ridiculous for belief, but you’ve also established that the city is ruled by a rapacious robber baron. If such a shop did exist, he’d surely have confiscated its wares long before now. However, when the players look for a magic item shop, tell them why, and then hit them with a “yes, but”:

“Here’s what you learn after a few minutes of asking around: there used to be a magic item proprietor in town, but the Black Baron absorbed its contents into his treasury. Now it’s run by one of his stooges, even though it hasn’t sold an item in years. If adventurers show up to sell something, the Baron’s goons confiscate their treasures and give them the bum’s rush out of town. If they show up to buy, the shopkeeper wheedles as much information from them as he can, then reports them to the Baron. The original owner fled the city and supposedly lives in the cave network by the river. He and a number of other exiles are looking for adventurers willing to aid in the baron’s overthrow. Rumor has it that he squirreled a few of his items out of town before the Baron’s tax collectors swooped in. Maybe he’d still be able to arrange a swap for you.”

Though you haven’t given the adventurers exactly what they want, you haven’t slapped them with a flat no, either. You’ve provided both a plot hook to follow up on, and a way of achieving their underlying goal (buying or selling a magic item) that doesn’t violate your own tastes or campaign logic.

“Yes, but” can, on the other hand, assist you in improvising additional conflicts challenges into what would otherwise be flat, uninspiring scenes of information gathering. Does the spice merchant know anything about the abduction of the high priest, the players wonder. You decide that the answer is “yes, but”: he saw one of the perpetrators, but will provide the information only in exchange for a favor: the adventurers must first forcibly persuade a decadent young noble to leave his daughter alone.

Though you don’t want to go overboard with side missions like this, the occasional instance can inject variety into your session — and also provide play opportunities for players who are more interested in butt-kicking, infiltration, intrigue or puzzle-solving than investigation.

The usefulness of this technique, however you choose to use it, stems from its origins in improv. It encourages you to add options instead of merely foreclosing them. Most importantly, it inspires you to think sideways before answering important questions, preserving surprise not only for the players, but for yourself as well.

As previously mentioned, I’ve been running Canadian Shield, my lighthearted Fall of DELTA GREEN riff, with QuickShock rules. This lets me find gaps in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game card set to rectify here on the Pelgrane blog.

Recently, an investigator’s careless words to a vengeful ghost resulted in an attack on an innocent person, who lost decades from his life to its premature aging power.

Paging through my folder of Shocks, I saw that the cards relating to shame and guilt in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game are all highly tuned to their circumstances. The most obvious candidates refer to the Morale ability, which appears only in The Wars and Aftermath.

Specificity of effect is a good thing, but it does leave room for more generic cards around this theme. After all, what typical group of player characters isn’t constantly pulling skeevy stuff that their fictional counterparts in other media would probably have to confront and possibly be altered by?

This card pair should cover most of the moral corners player characters tend to cut. As usual, the Minor card appears first and the Minor second.

RATHER THOUGHTLESS

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

Discard with a gesture of amends to the person you harmed.

CAN’T LOOK AT YOURSELF

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

If in hand at end of scenario, roll a die. Odd: becomes a Continuity card.

Discard with an act of self-sacrifice commensurate with your offense.


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.

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