A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Previously on See Page XX, I talked about the difficulties we occasionally hear about when GMs who have trained themselves to say “no” come to the GUMSHOE system with those assumptions in mind.

This time I’d like to look at how early roleplaying culture took on that mindset, and how assumptions are shifting during the current RPG renaissance.

GUMSHOE, along with many other games, actively works to move the story forward. When we spot a barrier to narrative development, we add tools to help GMs and players push them out of the way.

For example, the Drives system found in many GUMSHOE iterations, from Fear Itself to The Yellow King, puts the onus on players to engage with the premise and take actions that lead to an engaging story.

It works to correct a previous prevailing unspoken assumption, in which it is the GM’s job to entice reluctant players to take risks with their characters. Drives remind them to make active choices a perfectly rational but uninteresting character might go to some trouble to avoid.

This assumption, like so much else, arises from the early history of the form, which thought more about reward and punishment than about building a fun story together. Early players learned at their peril not to make “stupid” mistakes that would kill off their characters. Drives work to change the question from an older model, “how can I avoid deadly mistakes?” to “what inspires me to make exciting choices?”

To repeat a Thing I Always Say, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson weren’t trying to create a new narrative art form when they developed the ideas that turned into Dungeons & Dragons, the original roleplaying-game-as-we-know-it. They were working in the wargaming tradition, inventing a new game that reduced the unit size from a squad, battalion or legion to a single individual with a sword or pointy hat.

Included in that brainwave was the brilliant, habit-forming concept of the experience point, a currency you continue to accrue to your character over time. That persistence and growth led by inevitable consequence to narrative.

But it also created an adversarial dynamic between DM and players. The DM has an infinite supply of experience points, creating an environment that withholds them from players until they fight the world and pry them loose.

Early DM advice advised against excessively punitive treatment of the players and the characters, not because the game wasn’t a contest between the characters and the world, but because the game stopped working when DMs abused their unlimited power. DMs had to remind themselves that they weren’t there to crush the players, but to give them the most exciting set of challenges.

Power-mad Dungeon Masters weren’t a mere matter of folklore. When I interviewed him for 40 Years of Gen Con, Dave Arneson recalled the time when he sat down to play with a young DM, who promptly narrated a massive anvil plummeting from the heavens to squash his character to a pulp. “I killed Dave Arneson! I killed Dave Arneson!” the kid cried, to the delight of surrounding tables. Such were the terrible lessons of the early dungeon wars…

Along with warnings against this sort of stuff in early books came contrary messages. DMs were advised to punish uncooperative players with bolts of electrical damage to their characters, or presented with the infamous instant-kill traps in Tomb of Horrors.

We often think of adversarial roleplaying as something that the DM inflicts on players. Anyone whose original Gaming Hut really had shag carpeting, wood paneling and a Peter Frampton album for a screen no doubt remembers players coming at them hard. They rolled at you either in search of those addictive XP and the new levels they brought, or just the opportunity to screw with The Man, who happened to be you. The greater the emphasis on the reward, the more the DM had to ride herd, controlling cheating, minimaxing, and rules lawyering. This was not an era of “yes and” but of “duh, no!”

The experience point still rules the land of D&D, but these days in a more enlightened tyranny. Over the years XPs have become a pacing element measuring the rate at which your characters inevitably get better. Years of design adjustments have cut out exploitable jackpot effects. Later customs of play encourage the whole group to progress at the same rate, and for replacement characters to rejoin at par with the rest of the party. No longer do we assume that they restart at level 1 and try to stay alive long enough to catch up on the XP curve.

Other games carried over the assumptions of rapacious players you had to say no to. Build point games such as Champions and GURPS rewarded system mastery and the search for bargain-priced powers and disadvantages. They relied on GMs to watch for and curtail abuses.

Assumptions of power and control extended to authority over the narrative. The idea that a player could invent a useful prop to describe during a fight scene seems like a dead obvious collaborative element today. When it appeared in the original Feng Shui, it blew minds. Even so, the first edition of that game is nonetheless rife with passages assuming that the players want to hose you, the GM, and that you can turn that thirst to your benefit.

With decades of story-emulating play devices behind us, players have not only become less rapacious overall, but also less movable by either bribery and punishment.

GUMSHOE’s first version of Drives included a mechanical penalty for players who refused to go along when the GM invoked them. This proved unnecessary; once reminded of a Drive, no halfway cooperative player refuses the adjustment.

In a world where thirteen year olds exist, the hunger for advancement and putting one over on the GM will never vanish entirely. But their version of fun is no longer the baseline for every table. Our latest generation of new players is as much influenced by actual play podcasts and the hunger for character and story as by an unruly desire to minimax and grub for XPs.

As player behavior has changed in the aggregate, what the designer needs to do to facilitate maximum fun for all has altered as well. Design change has both shaped, and been shaped by, cultural shifts within the roleplaying community writ large.

Gaming culture can change invisibly as our personal assumptions remain fixed and unexamined. That’s why, I think, when a GM who has played many games over the years misreads a rule, that the misreading will default to the forbidding, even in a system built to be permissive.

That presents a communications challenge, it’s also a tribute to the complexity of a form that continues to evolve in dialogue with its audience of collaborators.

When the cold war sputtered to a close, Esoterrorists let the stoking of nuclear anxiety recede into the background in favor of newer and fresher means of increasing ambient panic. These days Esoterror operatives, eagerly scanning the news for fresh inspiration, suffer from a glut of possibility. So many causes of psychic disequilibrium, so little time to fully exploit them!

The recent terrifying false alarm in Hawaii has them dusting off playbooks pioneered by their 80s predecessors. Even more tantalizing than the initial stories was a less-seen follow-up report laying blame for the false alarm on more than a badly designed user interface. The issuer of the alarm turns out to have been a confused employee, already considered a liability by co-workers, who thought that an attack really was underway. State authorities waited a while to let that detail get out, after the always-accelerating news cycle had already moved on.

Somewhere in America, an Esoterrorist group is already researching other states whose alert protocols match the laxity of Hawaii’s. They’ll find an employee vulnerable to Outer Dark influence. They could recruit this person as a knowing conspirator. More likely, they’ll summon an ODE capable of altering human perceptions. A microscopic Outer Dark parasite might do the trick. While the infected worker is on duty, the entity triggers a hallucination of an actual attack underway and voila.

When the alert goes out, public panic eats away at the Membrane, creating gaps through which another crop of more powerful demons from beyond can crawl.

That’s where your player characters come in. Alerted by Ordo Veritatis analysts to the likelihood of an Esoterror copycat event, Mr. Verity scrambles the team to the affected state to investigate, disperse any summoned entities, then track and neutralize the human Esoterrorists behind the plot.

When they conduct their Veil-Out, they may well decide to put out a story similar to the first version circulated by Hawaii officials. This time it really was a poorly designed interface that led to the false alarm. Gosh, this sure does underscore the need to update those old programs, doesn’t it?

Yep, that’s all it was. Simple human error.

Nothing to worry about.

Won’t happen again.

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 novel by Robin D. Laws

Imperial America has fallen.

Emperor Castaigne, who ruled the nation with secret police and even more secret sorcery, has fled. The portals that connected him to his rumored source of power, the alien realm of Carcosa, have been destroyed.

After a century of tyranny, democracy has returned to the USA—if those who fought for it have what it takes to keep it.

Along with his loyal crew, the man they called the Technician helped win the struggle. Now he seeks a return to civilian life.

Specifically, he wants to eliminate his job. He repairs the suicide machines known as the Government Lethal Chambers.

His determination to decommission these instruments of death brings him to the People’s Hall. There a generation of political pioneers works to jumpstart a disarrayed provisional administration into a fairly and freely elected government.

But when the body of a murder victim shows up in flagship Lethal Chamber in Washington Square, the Technician sees that the skill set of his crew hasn’t quite gone out of fashion.

The ensuing investigation takes him on a journey through the secrets of the old regime, with fugitive war criminals, haunted hide-outs, urban firefights and dread parageometrical rituals along the way.

Read The Missing and the Lost as a thrilling, thought-provoking mystery of a dread-drenched alternate reality.

Or use it as a model for your sessions of The Yellow King Roleplaying game when you play in its mind-bending Aftermath setting.

Cover reveal pending.

The Handout to End All Handouts

The City Guide That Shatters Reality

At the end of the 19th century, an American art student went to Paris, read a play, and lost his grip on reality.

The play was called The King in Yellow.

Having read it, head reeling from absinthe, bedeviled by unseen adversaries, he realized that the alien world it described, Carcosa, had sunk its traces throughout the City of Lights.

As he explored Paris in search of its decadent influence, he created a scrapbook. A guide for himself, and for those who would come after him.

Yoked together from existing travelogues, newspapers, and the disquieting ephemera of the occult tradition, it laid out a skewed portrait of a haunted city:

  • Art student life, from hazing rituals to fabulous bacchanals at the Moulin Rouge
  • Hangouts and nightspots, from everyday beaneries to ghoulish cabarets
  • Neighborhoods and attractions, with useful maps
  • Sources of knowledge, from museums to institutes of technology
  • Operations of the justice system, from the city’s police to its prisons
  • Rites of death, from funeral fees to the notorious, bone-stacked catacombs
  • Details of everyday life, including currency, communications, and essential phrases
  • A timeline of recent historical events

In the margins appear the increasingly fervid scrawls of the anonymous compiler. Through them determined investigators of the Yellow Sign mystery will learn:

  • Who to seek aid from
  • Where madness lurks
  • And to never waver in their distrust of clowns

Absinthe in Carcosa is an indispensable city guide for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game and a stunning, full-color visual artifact in its own right.

Give it to your players and let them find the mysteries of Paris.

Or let them buy their own deuced copies and keep their snack-festooned fingers off of your pristine edition.

Brought to you by document blandisher extraordinaire Dean Engelhardt and feverish scribbler supreme Robin D. Laws.

Articles and Interviews

  • All The Yellow King RPG articles
  • Shannon Appelcline speaks to Robin D. Laws on RPG.net
  • Brie Sheldon speaks to Robin D. Laws on their blog
  • Ben Riggs looks at The Yellow King RPG on Geek & Sundry


cthulhu-confidential-front-cover_350Face Madness and Corruption… Alone!

Langston Wright is an African-American war veteran and scholar in WW2-era Washington, DC. 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 HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos?

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

Buy now


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 DC. 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.

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.


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?


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 now

Stock #: PELGOC01 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






Already got your book, and have a question about page 8? Check out this post.

A Column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Many moons ago I encountered a phenomenon I later termed an unrule.

A rule, as goes without saying, is text the designer includes into a game to explain how it is played.

An unrule is text you have to include to prevent players from making a mistaken assumption about your game, based on their experience of other games.

This first cropped up during playtesting for the Shadowfist card game. Players were tripping themselves by expecting its characters to act just like Magic: the Gathering creatures.

If you came to Shadowfist cold without having played MtG, it would never occur to you to expect characters to act in this way.

But if you had already learned Magic, as of course many potential Shadowfist players had, you might have assumed this. Or you might see that we didn’t use same rule, but ask rules support just to be sure.

So we had to include an unrule–a piece of rules text telling you not to do the thing you would do if this was Magic you were playing.

Unrules needn’t arise from comparison to a specific equivalent rule in another game. They can come about simply by substituting general familiarity with a game form–roleplaying let’s say–to general familiarity for a close reading of the rules.

We all do this. Roleplaying games are full of rules, and we learn by analogy. The more previous RPG books we’ve read, the greater the chance that we let our eyes dart quickly over a section that seems to be saying the standard thing we’re used to seeing that section say. Missing out how a given part of the system works is absolutely par for the course.

For example, Simon recently spoke to a GM who was having trouble with GUMSHOE because you can run out of points in an investigative ability, and therefore can’t continue to use it, stopping you from solving the mystery.

Which would in fact be a terrible flaw in the game, given that the whole point of the system is to ensure that investigators always get the information they need.

The rules directly explain, in clear and explicit detail, that investigative points are never required to get the crucial clues you need to move through the mystery.

You are never required to spend to get pivotal information–especially what we call core clues, the ones that signal the appearance of brand new leads and avenues of investigation. If there’s a new person you need to talk to, place you need to poke around in, or area of research you must embark on, you always get that info, period. No point spend required.

Instead point expenditures give you special extra spiffy benefits above and beyond access to vital clues. In early GUMSHOE scenarios you sometimes got especially impressive information that didn’t directly impact the case, or gained the standard clue in a particularly impressive way. Over the years we’ve put that thought aside in favor of practical benefits to the character. You might learn how to kill a creature more easily, cement an alliance with a helpful GMC, convince an angry bystander not to slug you, and so forth.

Spending every single investigative point on your character sheet never stymies you. You can always continue to gather the clues the scenario provides, just as before. Assuming your character looks in the right place and has the needed ability, you get the info. If you look in the right place but don’t have the ability, another PC will have it. Is that player not present this week? We have workarounds for that, too.

Since you don’t need to spend investigative points to gather key clues, running out of investigative points is extremely rare in practice, when playing the rules as they appear on the page. Spending them all means that you’ve accrued a bunch of benefits, and can’t garner any more of them. It never stops you from proceeding.

Likewise if you have a general ability, used to overcome practical problems and dangesrs, and spend all of your points in it, you continue to use it. You have less of a chance of succeeding, as you can no longer spend points to add a positive modifier to your result. But you will still succeed at least half the time against the most common difficulty number.

Mistaken assumptions like this are hard to head off. Where players are reading a rule into the text that doesn’t exist, you can write a rule telling them not to do that. Though it may be odd to explain what a game doesn’t do, implicitly heading off a comparison to another game can be done.

Reaching players who assume Y when you explicitly write X is a tougher conundrum.

Misperceived rules prove particularly thorny during playtest. Playtest draft documents are a mess, littered with bits to be written later, sections not yet optimally placed, and no index or graphic elements to help one’s saintly playtesters find the references they’re looking for.

You may get an account of a failed game session but never realize that the results were based on misunderstood versions of the rules. Ideally you get enough context to see what has gone wrong and take action. Depending on the misperception, you might flag the existing rule with more insistent visual cues, add redundant text to hammer the point harder, or emphasize it through repetition in various sections of the book. The best way to have this problem is to find out you genuinely wrote an unclear rule, because then you can simply fix it by rewriting for clarity.

The real headscratcher comes long after playtest, when most everyone gets the rule as written and you discover a surprising misinterpretation standing between a pocket of players and enjoyment of your game. Simon has been investigating the possibilities of a squirrel-based system, where his favorite urban rodents fan out from Clapham and across the world, watching Pelgrane’s games play at the tabletop and then reporting back in their distinctive angry shriek when they see rules misunderstandings in action.

Until we get that up and running, GUMSHOE fans, we’re going to have to rely on you to keep watch for misperceptions preventing unfortunate others from enjoying a rules system that works perfectly well for you. Show them the light with the gentility our readers are known for. Remind them GUMSHOE always wants them to get the information. It always wants them to have what they need to solve the mystery. When it comes to clue-gathering, GUMSHOE says yes.

Some players find damage dealing  in baseline GUMSHOE emotionally unsatisfying. This becomes an issue especially when they’ve spent a lot of points, or gotten a high die roll, only to roll low on the damage die, plinking the opponent for a miserable 1 or 2 points of Health.

Rolling high to hit and then minimum damage is the longstanding plight of RPG characters. But spending lots of a resource to do next to nothing heightens the sting. And in GUMSHOE an opponent with an Armor value knocks that off your damage, worsening the plink effect. If your group feels that pain, give them the following option.

After rolling for damage, a player may choose to substitute the margin from the successful attack for the damage die result. The margin is the difference between the test result (spend plus roll) and its Hit Threshold.

Professor Wingate swings her katana at the ghoul. Her player, Maia, spends 4 points of Wingate’s Weapons ability and rolls a 5. The final result, 9, beats the ghoul’s Hit Threshold of 3. Maia then rolls for damage but gets 1. Combined with the katana’s damage of 1, this would result in a miserable 2 points of damage. The ghoul’s rubbery flesh Armor of 1 would decrease that even further, to 1. Maia calculates the margin: the result of 9 minus the Hit Threshold of 3 equals 6. She swaps the margin of 6 for the die roll of 1. The katana damage bonus and the ghoul’s Armor cancel out, and its Health drops by 6 points, from 8 to 2. It meeps in furious dismay.

Possible drawbacks of implementing this variant rule:

  • This introduces another decision point for the player on each successful hit, probably slowing combat slightly. It won’t happen every time though–just when great hit results are followed up by lousy damage rolls.
  • It gives the players power to mow through opposition quicker by upping their attack spends. If you find that this weakens creature stats too severely, increase enemy Health ratings by 20% across the board.

For obvious reasons, this rule applies only to iterations of GUMSHOE that include damage rolls. It does not affect GUMSHOE One-2-One or the new quickshock combat system found in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

GUMSHOE core games present the GM with a default scenario structure you can use when creating your own mysteries to challenge your players. By following it you can ensure that the investigators have at least one, and preferably many, routes to solve the adventure’s key question, whether that be a killer’s identity, a vampire’s conspiracy, or a demonic entities’ location. It supplies a number of scenes in which the PCs can interview witnesses, examine physical clues, and hit the books in search of pertinent facts. Each key scene includes at least one core clue: a piece of information leading the team to another scene. As part of the standard header for the scene, we indicate its Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs–the scenes that feed into it, and that it propels investigators toward, respectively. This especially helps when writing published adventures, forcing the writer to make sure that each scene goes somewhere. Ideally the Lead-Outs line encourages the scenario creator to build in core clues that point in more than one direction. This gives the players the opportunity to make choices, deciding which leads to follow and in what order. These decisions ward off the dreaded linear or railroaded scenario. You can build in Alternate scenes that the characters can choose to explore, but don’t need in order to solve the mystery.  Both a Core and an Alternate scene can share the same Lead-Out. Designate the most obvious or likely scene as the Core scene and the one that feels like the sidelight as the Alternate. For a home brew scenario the distinction between the two doesn’t matter: bother with it only if you’re writing, say, a con game for someone else to run.

(Unlike a Core scene, an Alternate needn’t have a Lead-Out. Keep these to a minimum, and make sure they’re entertaining as heck in their own right. A session full of scenes that don’t pay off makes for a not only meandering but also confusing installment of your mystery.)

This isn’t the only way to put together a scenario but it’s one you can depend on to reliably deliver. Recently we have given this default structure a name, the Maze of Clues, to distinguish it from others.

Ken, in such scenarios as “The Carmilla Sanction” from The Edom Files, uses an alternate set-up called the Ocean of Clues. It establishes a mystery and a rich assortment of hooks you use to create your own scenes during play.

Both The Armitage Files and Dracula Dossier could be regarded as Ocean of Clues scenarios writ large over the course of an entire campaign.

When you prepare your own scenarios in advance, whether you write them in full or (more likely) as point form notes you will flesh out into scenes as you go, the Maze of Clues will help you elaborate your premise into a narrative that the players will fully realize when you play.

When you straight-up improvise without that kind of prep, don’t worry about the Maze of Clues and its different scene types. You’re not trying to reverse engineer your way into a scenario you can then assign Scene Types and Lead-Ins and Lead-Outs to. Nor will you have any reason to create the Scene Flow diagram that accompanies our published Maze of Clues scenarios. Focus on showing the players a good time. Almost any GM will find it more useful to focus their notes on details of the mystery’s backstory.

When I improv a scenario, I jot down names of people and establishments in a Google doc shared with the players. An example from a recent Yellow King session, from our “Aftermath” sequence:

  • Mercantilists previously under Castaignes want to go slow

  • Commercials want money
  • Jessie Daniels – chief of staff to Hank and perhaps his successor as war crime trial advocates
    • Melvin Mason – Guardian leader and a possible patron 


    • Theresa Tucker – patrol officer in psych ward at Bellevue 


    • Eula Mckenzie – nurse on duty at Bellevue 


    • Wilbur Salazar – original complainant 


    • Yolanda Howell – her kids were hacking around 


    • Ed & Andy Howell – her kids 


    • Lt Rita Woods – Theresa’s shift commander, hostile to the PCs 


    • Aaron Moran – got turned into a clown head 



Glorious Sun – dive bar near the cemetery, doesn’t take kindly to slinks and has a clown jar if you want to turn the red velvet sad clown painting around


Charles Cunningham – super of building where the mermaid is in the basement, wears sea captain outfit

I worry about distinct scenes and their placement in the Maze of Clues only if, and when, I later take that seat-of-the-pants session and write it for publication. (Sometimes I have to ask my players if they remember how they got from point A to point B!)

Some GUMSHOE games, including Ashen Stars and Yellow King, use a timing increment called an interval, which begins when one clue is discovered and ends when the next is found. For these games you do have to be able to decide what pieces of information count as core clues. But this is simple: a core clue is any bit of information, almost certainly derived from an investigative ability, that points to another scene. A shift in scene generally entails a change of location. In some instances that might be a virtual shift: for example, from the corpse you’re poking at in the morgue to the digital archive your forensics expert starts searching for obscure and suppressed biomedical research papers. Any info introducing another GMC, place or avenue of inquiry that leads the group closer to the mystery’s solution is a core clue. Should you ever ask yourself the question, “Is this a core clue?”, the answer is almost surely yes. Err on the side of declaring a new interval. Another test: if it’s not important enough to put in your notes, it’s not a core clue.

If the heroes get stuck and can’t see a way forward, you’ll solve that problem as you go, by inventing a new Core clue to pull them deeper into the mystery. Where the Maze of Clues exists to solve problems before they occur, you’re there to keep matters rolling in real time.

In short, scenario structures are here to serve you, not to have you serve them. Your improvised scenario can, in retrospect, be expressed as a Maze of Clues with Core and Alternate scenes and Antagonist Reactions and the rest. But there’s no reason for you to do that, or give yourself the nagging feeling that you ought to be able to.

Instead, use that time to figure out just how Aaron Moran got turned into a clown head–and what the team can do to stop it from happening to others.

The 1920 murder of Joseph Bowne Elwell asks the question: who would want to kill a womanizing bridge expert and gambler with interests in the worlds of horse racing and Wall Street speculation?

When hacked from the history books as a Trail of Cthulhu scenario premise, we can answer the question with a Lovecraftian spin.

Missing from the apartment of our fictionalized Elwell—let’s call him Halliwell—is an item his loyal housekeeper scarcely thinks about: his lucky card deck.

The investigators get involved to clear the name of a friend accused of shooting Halliwell over the bridge master’s supposed attentions to his wife. As early 20th century murder cases among the well-heeled are wont to do, the initial scenes turn up too many people with a motive to shoot Halliwell.

But then one of them, a gambling associate of Halliwell’s, is found dead in circumstances even more humiliating than a bullet wound to the head. He died while bathing, when the ceiling of his apartment collapsed, sending the tub above thundering down on him. In his apartment the team finds notes about Halliwell’s magic card deck. It makes you the winner you’ve always wanted to be. Until, that is, the arbitrary day when cosmic joke gets played on you. The 53rd card materializes, bearing the vengeful image of Tsathoggua, Nyarlathotep or another Mythos entity sufficiently interested in humanity’s vices to enjoy toying with them.

Not that the second victim’s notes go this far: he just knew that the deck was magical. He didn’t know the incantation he needed to speak to give himself years of good fortune, instead of a few lousy days.

The deck has already been purloined again. This leaves two avenues of investigation:

  • tracking down its latest owner and finding a way to dispose of it without incurring the curse

  • looking into Halliwell’s past to uncover the 1904 ritual that created the deck, and dispersing the cult responsible for it—along with their continued production of similar cursed items

Either way, the cultists who made the deck want it back, and are conducting a parallel investigation, no doubt aided by blasphemous prayers to their obscene god.

Whatever the team’s plans for the deck that brings luck and then death, this is one case that won’t go according to Hoyle.

Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

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