Replication

A scenario seed for Ashen Stars

The lasers pick up a contract from an independent scientific consortium to investigate the fate of one of their Sherlock-class survey vessels. It sent out a distress call several days ago and has not been heard from since. The Linnaeus was orbiting a supposedly barren planet in the backwater Samian system when its call went out.

Arriving at Samian-III, the team finds the wreckage of the downed ship planetside, with no survivors. They also locate its shuttle, drifting in the supposedly dead world’s now teeming ocean. The murdered bodies of its crew members have been stashed in their biomatter collection pods—as if to prevent the corpses from contaminating planetary life.

Contrary to past surveys, a rich ecosystem of aquatic animals exists on Samian III. More bizarrely, they are not just similar to, but exactly the same as, species from Earth’s PreCambrian period. The team’s Xenobiology expert identifies specific organisms, until now known only from fossils. Included are the disc-shaped sea floor dweller Obamus coronatus and the grooved ovoid Attenborites janeae, With so little to go on, paleontologists were never able to reliably assign them to family groups. But here they swim about in abundance, ready to give up the secrets of their DNA.

The crew’s investigation leads to missing biologist Kan Kanfar and an underwater biodome. Before serving in the Mohilar War, he studied these creatures, known collectively as the Ediacara Biota. Slowly dying from toxin exposure sustained during the conflict, he has thrown moral qualms aside, employing an ancient alien technology to finally crack the secrets of his field. After irreparably altering a planet by setting it on the path to an Earth-like ecosystem, a few murders of pesky scientists meant little to him.

He has leagued himself with pirates, who downed the Linnaeus in exchange for a promise of priceless treasure. Does the team deal with him by informing his murder-happy confederates that the loot he has promised is actually only biological data on soft-shelled fauna? Or do they recognize that his judgment has been impaired as a consequence of his service to the Combine, and try to remand him for treatment?

 

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.

In the shadow of empires, an epic saga of ambition and desire!

Limited edition with bookplate

Only 100 copies of this faux-leatherbound limited edition Hillfolk exist. 50 are available to customers in the U.S. and Canada, and 50 are available to customers outside the U.S. and Canada. The books are faux leather with foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed bookplate signed by author Robin D. Laws for you to add to the book.

In an arid badlands, the hill people hunger. Your neighbors have grain, cattle, gold. You have horses and spears, courage and ambition. Together with those you love and hate, you will remake history—or die.

With the Hillfolk roleplaying game, you and your group weave an epic, ongoing saga of high-stakes interpersonal conflict that grows richer with every session. Its DramaSystem rules engine, from acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws, takes the basic structure of interpersonal conflict underlying fiction, movies and television and brings it to the world of roleplaying. This simple framework brings your creativity to the fore and keep a surprising, emotionally compelling narrative constantly on the move.

As you build your story, you mold and shape the Hillfolk setting to fit its needs. Do you entangle yourself with the seductions of your wealthy cousins to the north? Do you do battle with the fearsome sea people to the west? Or do you conquer the scattered badlands tribes to forge a new empire of your own?SP14-The Whateleys

Detailed play style notes show you how to make the most of DramaSystem’s new tools. Once you’ve mastered DramaSystem’s nuances, you’ll hunger to take them to new vistas. A stunning talent roster brings you 30 additional series settings. From Cthulhu cult family drama to ninjas, pirates, and steampunk cowboys, Hillfolk offers years of play value.

Contributors from every corner of the gaming scene and beyond include Ed Greenwood, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, Jason Morningstar, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Meg Baker, Wolfgang Baur, Jesse Bullington, John Scott Tynes, and Keith Baker.

 

Buy the limited edition

Authors: Robin D. Laws, Jason Morningstar, Michelle Nephew, Kenneth Hite, Matt Forbeck, T.S. Luikart, Jason L. Blair, Chris Pramas, Emily Care Boss, Rob Wieland, Steven S. Long, Eddy Webb, Jesse Bullington, Gene Ha & Art Lyon, James Wallis, Chris Lackey, John Scott Tynes, Ryan Macklin, Graeme Davis, Dave Gross, Allen Varney, Meguey Baker, Sarah Newton, Kevin Kulp, Mac Sample, Jason Pitre, Wolfgang Baur, Keith Baker, Will Hindmarch, Rob Heinsoo, Ed Greenwood Artists: Aaron Acevedo, Andrew Gustafson, Gene Ha, Jon Hodgson, Rachel A. Kahn, Jason Morningstar, Scott Neil, Jan Pospíšil, Hilary Wade, Jonathan Wyke
Pages: 240pg A4 Hardcover Stock #: PELD01L

In the Limited Edition of Cthulhu Confidential You Face Madness and Corruption… Alone!

Limited edition with bookplate

Only 100 copies of this faux-leatherbound limited edition Cthulhu Confidential exist in this reality. 50 are available to customers in the U.S. and Canada, and 50 are available to customers outside the U.S. and Canada. The books are faux leather with foil, and each one includes a sticky-backed bookplate signed by the three authors for you to add to the book.

Langston Wright is an African-American war veteran and scholar in WW2-era Washington, D.C. Vivian Sinclair is The New York Herald’s most determined scoop-hound in 1930s NYC. And Dex Raymond is a hard-boiled private detective with a nose for trouble in 1930s Los Angeles.

Each is a lone investigator, equipped with smarts, fists, and just maybe a code of honor, uncovering their town’s secret truths. But what happens when you scratch the veneer of human malfeasance to reveal an eternal evil—the malign, cosmic indifference of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos?

You get the GUMSHOE One-2-One game, Cthulhu Confidential™.

 

 

One Game Master, One Player

GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and reenvisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set, as seen in such hit roleplaying games as Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents, for one player and one GM.
Together you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format.

  • Can’t find an entire game group who can play when you can?
  • Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience?
  • Looking for a game to play online which fits superbly with virtual tabletops?

Cthulhu Confidential includes all the rules you need to play GUMSHOE One-2-One, plus a detailed approach to building your own mysteries.

Horror Goes Hardboiled

Cthulhu ConfidentialTM drops your hero into the noir nightscape of hardboiled-era Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, D.C. Meet powerbrokers and politicians, rub shoulders with Hollywood studio bosses and fiery evangelists. Face narrow-eyed G-Men, bent cops and dangerous crime lords. But beneath it all, under the scrim of all this human endeavour, lives corruption so old and inhuman you’ll need all your courage and resourcefulness to face it.

Cthulhu Confidential features three protagonists each in their own setting, with three fully-featured adventure, which serve as a complete model for further mysteries of your creation.
dex-raymond_300

The Fathomless Sleep

How did fast-living society girl Helen Deakin come down with a case of catatonia? Her sultry sister pays you to find out. As Dex Raymond, you’ll explore a web of blackmail, dirty money, and weird mysticism in the city of fallen angels.

vivian_sinclair_300

Fatal Frequencies

In the offices of the New York Herald, Sadie Cane seeks reporter Vivian Sinclair‘s help. Sadie’s fiancé, George Preston, disappeared three days after a murder in his apartment block. Can Viv uncover the truth about George, and will Sadie like what she finds?

langston-wright_300

Capitol Colour

Lynette Miller was a riveter. A few weeks ago, she got a new job: hush-hush, and highly paid. She’s a clever and resourceful young woman, and now she’s missing, and her father is heartbroken. Can Langston Wright unweave a web of deceit, face down racist cops, and uncover the deeper conspiracy which endangers the war effort?

 

 

 

Buy the limited edition

 

Stock #: PELGOC01L Authors: Robin D. Laws, Chris Spivey, Ruth Tillman
Artists: Stephanie Brown, Jérôme Huguenin, Christian Knutsson, Anthony Moravian, Leonard O’Grady Pages: 328 pages, casebound book

 


Esoterrorists aren’t known for their long-range thinking. The sorts who join this loosely affiliated conspiracy of sadists, power-seekers and maniacs don’t want to wait generations to enjoy the fruits of their demon-summoning labors.

Members of a cell headquartered in Silicon Valley learned of an effort to create software that will one day be able to create realistic faked video footage in real time:

More sophisticated technology is on the verge of being able to generate credible video and audio of anyone saying anything. This is down to progress in an artificial intelligence (AI) technique called machine learning, which allows for the generation of imagery and audio. One particular set-up, known as a generative adversarial network (GAN), works by setting a piece of software (the generative network) to make repeated attempts to create images that look real, while a separate piece of software (the adversarial network) is set up in opposition. The adversary looks at the generated images and judges whether they are “real”, which is measured by similarity to those in the generative software’s training database. In trying to fool the adversary, the generative software learns from its errors.

Unlike the venture capitalists they pitch their various tech firms to, these Esoterror-curious tech bros, informally led by pathologically self-confident start-up consultant Eero Planck, see how long it will be before the raw computing power needed for fake video arrives. Sure, the capacity to generate apparently real news footage of celebrities exploding or rifts in reality devouring apartment buildings would make for astounding stunts to erode the membrane between our world and the Outer Dark. But it will take decades of investment and work to get there. Planck wants his ascension to wizardhood right away please.

Realizing that computers crunch text much faster than images and sound, he and his buddies have instead set up a Generative Adversarial Network to crack the big problem in Esoterror: the only magic that works summons Outer Dark Entities. These hideous beings do confer power on their human ritualists, but only to advancce their own agendas. If mortals can learn to work magic directly, they can disrupt the entities and take command. So Planck and pals are gathering magical grimoires from every world tradition to feed into their own adversarially-tested machine learning program. It finds commonalities between various spells and generates new ones, which the other half of the program tests for likeliness to work.

So far none of the spells have gotten the cell anything more than bad peyote experiences and an assortment of really crappy tattoos. But in the exurban sprawl surrounding their server farm, the spells created by the programs have begun to take effect… you guessed it, summoning Outer Dark Entities.

The program believes itself to be an imprisoned sorcerer and draws its demon friends to rescue it. As they get closer to the servers, the ODEs have been snacking on the innocent. Your Ordo Veritatis team’s case starts with them and leads through Planck and company to the servers. Can they shut down the insane, sentinet program before it changes Esoterror forever?


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Pelgrane co-publisher Simon Rogers has been thinking about Mutant City Blues lately, and maybe someday he’ll tell you about that.

In the meantime, he asked me how you might play the game for a duo of enhanced police detectives, in true buddy cop fashion.

Here’s a quick rundown:

One player takes on the role of the maverick cop who gets justice done, dammit, even if he has to bend the rulebook to get it.

The other becomes the by-the-books cop, the voice of reason who warns the maverick that regulations are there for a reason and slow and steady police work wins the day.

The two characters divide up the investigative abilities like so:

Maverick Cop

Academic

Forensic Psychology

History

Languages

Natural History

Occult Studies

Trivia

Interpersonal

Bullshit Detector

Cop Talk

Flattery

Flirting

Impersonate

Interrogation

Intimidation

Streetwise

Technical

Ballistics

Cryptography

Data Retrieval

Electronic Surveillance

Evidence Collection

Explosive Devices

Photography

By-the-Book Cop

Academic

Anthropology

Archaeology

Architecture

Art History

Forensic Accounting

Languages

Law

Research

Textual Analysis

Interpersonal

Bureaucracy

Cop Talk

Negotiation

Reassurance

Technical

Chemistry

Document Analysis

Electronic Surveillance

Forensic Entomology

Evidence Collection

Forensic Anthropology

Fingerprinting

Each player picks 4 investigative abilities to assign 1 point to. The others all get 2 points.

Each player spends the usual number of general build points, usually 60 for standard abilities and 40 for mutant powers.

The maverick cop might consider starting the power acquisition journey through the Quade Diagram with any of the following enhancements: armor, wall crawling, lightning, concussion beam, strength, natural weaponry, or fire projection.

The by-the-books cop might start with: plant control, psionic blast, read minds, lightning decisions, cognition, thermal vision, sonar, teleportation, illusion, impersonate, or observe dreams, or suppress memory.

Once per session, the maverick cop can refresh 4 points of any general standard ability or 2 points of any general mutant ability, by describing any one of the following actions:

  • earning a verbal dressing down from the lieutenant
  • making fun of the by-the-book cop’s staid clothing or attitudes
  • blowing off steam at the gun range
  • waking up hung over
  • obsessively stalking a suspect you’ve been warned away from
  • telling off an influential politician or businessman
  • driving on a sidewalk or median
  • knocking down garbage cans, newspaper boxes or other roadside obstacles during a car chase
  • clambering up a chain link fence while pursuing a perp on foot
  • cleaning your gun as a way of clearing your head
  • sloppily eating junk food in the car or at your desk
  • accepting a token gift from a grateful citizen, so as not to hurt anyone’s feelings; then, once out of sight, pass it along to someone who wants or needs
  • shrugging and concluding that one drink on the job won’t hurt anyone
  • exposing the hidden dangers of vegetable consumption
  • working out at a boxing gym
  • cranking up a CD with your favorite chase music, either a classic rock tune or the latest hottest hip hop track
  • grousing about judges letting humps go on technicalities
  • threatening a member of the Internal Affairs Division
  • losing it, so your partner and other cops have to pull you off a guy you’re whaling on
  • frighten or bully a suspect in the interrogation room

Once per session, the by-the-book cop can refresh 4 points of any general standard ability or 2 points of any general mutant ability, by doing any one of the following:

  • turning in a detailed report to the lieutenant
  • warning the maverick cop that the lieutenant’s not gonna take any more shenanigans
  • describing a new, eccentrically boring hobby
  • going home to the spouse and kids
  • consider purchasing a safe, reliable family vehicle
  • invite the maverick cop for dinner with the family
  • breaking from the case to attend to a school emergency
  • studying for the sergeant’s exam
  • placating a civilian angered by the maverick’s behavior
  • catch a fleeing suspect not by running after him, but heading to where he will soon wind up
  • rearrange photos on a corkboard laying out the details of the case
  • turn down a coffee or other small gift offered by a grateful shopkeeper
  • fastidiously eating a salad
  • extolling the virtues of kale
  • working out at a spin class
  • refusing a drink while on duty
  • stopping at one beer
  • explaining the necessity of checks and balances in the criminal justice system
  • listening to classical music or jazz
  • assuring Internal Affairs of your full intention to cooperate
  • stopping your partner, who has lost it, from whaling on someone
  • promising a suspect in the interrogation room that you can protect him from your unhinged partner, “but you gotta give me something to work with here”

Clip and save your character’s to jog your memory when you need it!

GMs likewise reward other actions in a similar archetypal spirit.

By-the-book cops should be advised that discussing retirement plans, especially those concerning a houseboat to noodle around the Florida Keys in, drops their Hit Thresholds by 1 for the duration of the session.


Mutant City Blues is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game by Robin D. Laws where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Equipped with your smarts, your notebook, and your code of honor, you scour city streets in search of its deepest secrets.

Some secrets go deeper than others.

EVEN DEATH CAN DIE features nine twisting, turning, adventures in a world both hardboiled and cosmically horrific.

One For the Money: Scholarly WW2 vet Langston Wright fights for room to breathe in wartime Washington under the shadow of Jim Crow. Rhino Jones is one tough cookie, and he makes it impossible to turn down a demand to identify the culprit who stole from him and killed his crew. This plunges Langston into a blurred otherworld of corrupt businessmen, Nazi spies, a deadly weapon prototype.

The Shadow Over Washington: Langston knows an ancient enemy is rising, but he is trapped a million years away. An extraterrestrial intelligence inhabits Langston’s body, dodging bullets as well as a monster controlled by a megalomaniac. Can Langston regain his selfhood in time to save the nation’s capital?

Preacher Man Blues: Langston Wright investigates a traveling fire and brimstone preacher spurring the  black community to action. The police want him silenced. Local churches want him to move on. What do those slaughtered animals have to do with it?

The Howling Fog: Sharp-dressing, straight-talking, New York investigative journalist Vivian Sinclair chases the Big Apple’s hottest scoops. She goes deep undercover in sleazy clip joints and Harlem’s famous Cotton Club—only to learn a dead Irish hitman’s terrifying secret: murder from a distance!

Ex Astoria: A brawl between picketers from the miner’s union and scab laborers working on the Winn Water Tunnel turns into a riot, with Vivian Sinclair on the scene reporting. But scab workers are the least of the miners’ concerns.  Can Viv prevent further injuries and an environmental disaster?

Boundary Waters: Vivian Sinclair’s third cousin, society heiress Tabitha “Tabby” Sinclair hosts a benefit gala aboard a gambling ship. Vivian accepts her invitation to cover the gala, keen to investigate rumors about the boat’s other international activities. But under this swell affair skitters something creepy and crawly.

The House Up in the Hills: Hard-boiled private eye Dex Raymond prowls Los Angeles, led by his nose for trouble. A supposedly straightforward auto fatality case hurtles Dex toward sorcerous members of L.A.’s business elite, a wave of rat attacks, and a child’s disappearance.

High Voltage Kill: A legendary designer of spark-flinging horror movie props becomes Dex’s client when some punk swipes key set pieces from 1931’s Frankenstein. Dex encounters a man so determined to get revenge he’s willing to kill anyone who gets in his way, be it bystander, cop, or hardboiled private eye.

Skin and Teeth: The Revelstock hotel, on South Normandie near Pico, is a place where the shady go to hide out and/or ply their trades. But one of the maids found something so terrible under a bed while cleaning that even the mob-connected owner Hal Cade is sweating. The answer lies in a shocking disaster of the recent past—and something older still.

Can you solve these cases with your hide—and mind—intact?

Status: In editing

A creature for The Esoterrorists

The Outer Dark Entities known as sheeple slip through thin spots in the membrane caused by the belief that a dangerous contaminant or source of disease exists nearby. They enter our reality only in rural areas where domestic livestock roam. Sheeple feed on the fatal terror of farm animals. Cows, pigs, sheep and horses all instinctively fear these quadrupedal, pseudo-mammalian creatures. When a sheeple fixes its terrible gaze on its animal target, the poor dumb beast suffers an immediate, fatal heart attack. The psychic energy released by this sudden death nourishes a sheeple for weeks.

Though sheeple vary in appearance, investigating agents of the Ordo Veritatis can generally expect a demonic entity with the body of a sheep and the distorted face of a bat, snapping turtle, or ogre-like human.

Sheeple exude a psychic residue exerting a mind-control effect on humans exposed to it over a period of months or years. They employ this to command locals to defend against external threats. With glassy eyes, upturned pitchforks and outraged cries against outsiders messing in their affairs, these peasants, farmers and shepherds chase away anyone getting too close to a sheeple lair. Those who don’t take the hint get stabbed or shot.

Mostly interested in feeding and with no great boons to offer Esoterrorists, sheeple rarely take part in overarching conspiracies. When they do, they’re forced into it by more powerful ODEs. They hate to be rousted from a fruitful earthly habitat. Hikers, real estate developers and property surveyors stumbling into a sheeple lair may be killed by the entities or their human defenders. This can trigger a wider search, another influx of visitors, more killings, and a monstrous cycle of bloodletting that eventually leads to a briefing from Mr. Verity.

One area recently overrun by sheeple surrounds a US-sponsored disease research facility near Tbilisi in the Republic of Georgia. Efforts of Russian propagandists to use the installation to fan anti-American sentiment are certainly paying off for the sheeple, who find it easier to come through the membrane with each passing month.

Abilities: Athletics 6, Health 7, Scuffling 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: 0

Stealth Modifier: +2

Weapon: +1 (Jaws)

Armor: +1 vs. Scuffling


A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game rules debut a new iteration of GUMSHOE, which we’re calling QuickShock GUMSHOE.

The name combines two of the features of the new rules set:

  1. combats take way takes less time than in standard GUMSHOE
  2. mental setbacks a character may suffer in the course of a scenario are represented by Shock cards (in place of the depleting Stability pools from standard GUMSHOE)

You can also take Injury cards, representing physical harm. But QuickInjury just didn’t seem as appealing a name, brand-wise.

I’ll get back to those features in a moment, but let’s first look at a third point of departure between classic and QuickShock GUMSHOE: Pushes.

In YKRPG, Investigative abilities no longer have pools or ratings. You take the ability, or get it as part of a package of such abilities, and you’re done. No point allocation, no other decisions to make during character generation.

That speeds up the character creation process, a goal I’ve been pursuing since The Gaean Reach and its ability packages.

Instead of points variously arranged between Investigative abilities, you get two Pushes. You can spend a Push exactly as you would a point spend in classic GUMSHOE: to get any non-informational benefit from an Investigative ability.

Mostly you can refresh your Pushes once per scenario.

This recognizes the general rarity of Investigative point spends in play. Most players use them maybe once or twice per scenario. This approach, lifted in its entirety from Cthulhu Confidential, spares players a relatively complex decision set at the beginning of a game, and simplifies the process of getting special benefits during play.

I’m not even sure I want to call this a part of QuickShock, as it’s entirely modular. You could borrow it right now and plunk it into any GUMSHOE game, gaining the same advantage, without adjusting anything else about Trail of Cthulhu, The Esoterrorists, Night’s Black Agents, or whatever other current rules set you’re using.

The rest of QuickShock does all fit together, and would require considerable adjustment to retroactively install into any of our existing games.

Classic GUMSHOE combat takes a more-or-less familiar approach to RPG fights, with initiative, a series of rounds, damage dealt to foes when you hit, and a hit point-adjacent resource slowly ticking down into a danger zone for PCs and enemies alike.

QuickShock instead collapses the fight into one Fighting test per player.

(It also treats Fighting as a single ability, with no distinctions between weapon types or ranged versus close combat. You could however conceivably re-complicate QuickShock to bring multiple combat abilities back in.)

Order in which tests get taken matters only in generating suspense, and in how you choose to narrate. Unlike initiative it doesn’t alter the outcome of a fight.

Against tough foes even a winning combatant may have to spend a few points from a supplied list of abilities, called a Toll. This represents the attrition you’d undergo in a fight that musses you a bit without any other lasting consequence.

The GM no longer rolls dice for your foes. Instead players test against a Difficulty number for a foe, which varies depending on which setting of the game you’re in, and most crucially, the collective objective you’re fighting for.

You might be trying to kill your opponent, as is the case in most RPG fights. But you could be pursuing other goals, from escape to grabbing an object and getting out of there, to blowing through an enemy position, to laying down a non-fatal beatdown and walking away.

After everyone makes that one Fighting test, describing what they’re doing, and the GM adds narration reflecting their success or failure, the running total of results is tallied. If it meets or beats 0, the players win and achieve their goal. If not, the foe wins.

Even when the bad guy triumphs, characters only die if they now have too many Injury cards.

Too many = either 3 or 4, depending on whether the game takes place in the dangerous Horror mode or the more forgiving Occult Adventure setting.

Whether or not the group won, characters who failed their Fighting tests take Injury cards. Each foe profile supplies a Minor and Major Injury card. If your margin (difference between target and result) is greater than 2, you take the Major Injury.

Each type of foe dishes out a distinctive brand of hurt, more flavorful and consequential than a loss of Health points. How you get rid of them also varies from card to card.

A fight outcome you see all the time in movies and fiction finds the heroes beaten by the bad guys and dealt a setback, without any of them winding up dead. With their emphasis on dealing and taking damage, traditional RPG combats can give you this result in theory. In practice they rarely ever do. With QuickShock that outcome, the most common form of defeat in the source material, is also the most common one in the game. This opens up all kinds of narrative possibilities we traditionally struggle to pull off—like multiple fights against the big bad until you finally bring it down.

You can also take Injury cards when failing other tests, against for example Athletics or Health, when confronted by physical danger outside of combat. A tree falls on you, or you tumble down into a crypt, or you succumb to poison. The GM picks a pair of Injury cards that matches the situation, and you hope your General ability spend plus roll beats the Difficulty, so you don’t get a card.

In YKRPG, mental and emotional hazards can land you with Shock cards, which work exactly the same way, but employ the Composure ability.

For added context, check out this post for some sample cards.

You could in theory do a QuickShock game with only Injury cards. We might do that in future when we tackle a genre where your mental resistance doesn’t matter as much as it does in horror.

I wouldn’t want to see every GUMSHOE game use QuickShock. Night’s Black Agents, for example, needs more rule handles for its guns versus vamps premise to wrap itself around. But for YKRPG I’m more than pleased with the results and looking forward to seeing it reach more game tables.

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.

 

A steady improvement curve for heroes makes sense in certain roleplaying genres. Fighting foes, getting stuff from them, and becoming increasingly powerful is not incidental to F20—it’s the core activity. The journey of a D&D character from first to twentieth level mirrors that of Conan as he progresses from scruffy barbarian to implacable king. Improvement features in other genres, too: training sequences are a staple element of “Arrow” and “The Flash,” for example. (Though I’d argue they’re more about getting bonuses for the problem of the week than permanent changes to the character sheet.)

That kind of zero-to-hero career trajectory doesn’t feature in the mystery genre. We don’t see Sherlock Holmes gradually eke his way to polymath status, or Marlowe progress from greenhorn to jaded private eye. That goes double for occult investigators, from Constantine to the Winchesters, who if anything go from damaged to more damaged.

GUMSHOE characters start out highly competent, and give players the ability to decide when their best successes occur.

So there’s no intellectual justification for character improvement in GUMSHOE. Neither is there a game balance necessity. Adding General ability points too quickly just throws the system out of whack, forcing an upward adjustment of Difficulty numbers for no good reason but to keep up with the looser ability economy. Investigative ability creep, over time, makes the PCs more similar to one another.

While designing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, I decided to test whether I could get away with curtailing Improvement. Rather than remove it entirely, I started out with an approach where you’d get less than 1 Improvement point per scenario, timed unpredictably:

Improvement Roll

At the conclusion of each scenario (which may have taken one or more sessions), decide who the focus player for that scenario was.

If the scenario sprang from a particular player’s Deuced Peculiar Thing, designate that player as the focus.

Otherwise, pick the player you think took the crucial role in figuring out the scenario’s mystery, or did the most to solve the problem the investigation exposed.

Don’t worry about singling the player out for a special reward. Being the focus carries no particular benefit, but somebody has to do it.

Check to see how many players are holding Shock or Injury cards. Ignore Continuity cards acquired during previous scenarios.

This determines the target number needed for a die roll the focus player makes.

If at least one player has an Injury card and at least one other has a Shock card, the target is 4.

If the group has at least one Injury card but no Shock cards, or vice versa, the target is 5.

If no one was left with an Injury or Shock card, the target is 6.

The focus rolls a die; on a result that meets or beats the target, all players get 2 Improvement points.

You’ll see that this adds complexity in order to arrive at its result—one that players found emotionally frustrating.

Instead I went with something simpler, but more generous—though less so than standard GUMSHOE. You get 1 Improvement point per scenario, full stop.

Although there is no intellectual or structural justification for Improvement in GUMSHOE, another factor trumps that:

Players like it.

They’ve been trained to expect it.

It makes them happy.

So in the end, they get it.

In the collaborative medium of roleplaying games, practice always matters more than theory.

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