A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

It’s the present day. After a hundred years, the totalitarian Castaigne regime has fallen, and ex-insurgents like the player characters intend to make America a better place. But the vestiges of Carcosa left behind have other ideas.

This is the third in a series of four columns showing you what a full arc of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game might look like, with events from my own game as an example.

Having previously played art students in Belle Epoque Paris and soldiers of the Continental War, the players start the third sequence, Aftermath, by creating a set of characters with links to the previous ones. The post-revolutionary characters in my game were:

 

Player

Character

Civilian Occupation

Drive

Worst

Memory

Parallels

Chris

Jerome “Jerry” Jean-Leon

Security Guard

Political Cachet

mall was used as emergency collection center ala Katrina and hundreds of people died because he didn’t guard the electrical system

justifies his actions with unclear but loud references to Republican ideals

Justin

Walter van Sickle

Reporter

Writing Fodder

accidentally shot and killed friendly politician in a mistaken identity situation

Dropped a warehouse on some enemies

Paul

Nathan Dubois

Doctor

Redemption

final stages of the revolution, felt guilt over necessities of triage – made him identity people who could be moved (but were very hurt); is sure they were sacrificed in a gate-closing ritual

like the medic who started killing for the “greater good”; ancestor was Georges Dubois

Shel

Judith

Photographer

Vendetta

return to NYC on eve of revolution with info from family and younger siblings; arrived too late to see that younger sibling Vanessa was Yellow Sign agent and annihilated the rest in some sort of supernatural

first camera she ever owned was full of images of Ida’s work

Scott

Ben Rodriguez

Mechanic

Nagging Visions

crashed into a rooftop while in a Castaigne helicopter; only he and Jerry survived, watched rest of crew slowly die

a decorative gargoyle thing always seems to be there watching and it wasn’t there last week

Sue

Sara Delaney

Coffee Shop Owner

Wants to End It Once For and All

abusive relationship by leader of the resistance cell

world’s biggest Sophie fan girl

Jurie

Jack

Vanderbos

Marketing Coordinator

Danger Junkie

weird fox-like creatures sat back and looked at him peacefully had been eating people and licked his hand in a friendly way, tempting him to join them

likes weird things and has aversion to paper

 

We started with the “Sleeping Dogs” scenario from the book. Weirdly attentive readers will note that Hank Knight, the murder victim from this mystery, is an echo of Henri Cheval, the missing lover from the beginning of Paris. Your game won’t have an Henri Cheval, so you will probably reconfigure the victim so that it echoes events from your own series.

As is their wont with canine-themed investigations, the group took an expansive four episodes to explore all the nooks and crannies of this case.

Weeks five and six had the group investigating weird manifestations near a cemetery filled with early leaders of the Castaigne regime. As they sought to identify the nearby residents who had activated the Carcosan reality-bending effect, they confronted its manifestations: killer clowns, a human-sized fiji mermaid, and of course screaming foxes. Ultimately they traced the outbreak to the Yellow Sign insignia that bored, vandalizing teens had pried from the headstones in the cemetery’s VIP section.

During this scenario the group settled on its political goal, as Aftermath characters do. A good chunk of the first of this two-parter was devoted to the group deciding on its agenda and then discussing how to advance it. They decided to lobby for the creation of an agency to fight the occult. Their investigation of the haunted graveyard came at the behest of a likely patron in this pursuit, concerned about the plummeting property values of nearby apartments he owned.

The subsequent scenario returned to the murder mystery format. The killer turned out to be a revered dissident leader—or rather, the bio-engineered duplicate the regime replaced him during the bad old days. The dissident angle brought in one of Walter’s story hooks, his friendly fire shooting of another key anti-regime intellectual. The players dealt with this neatly, cooking up a press conference at which the duplicate revealed its monstrous form and fatally attacked the regime interrogator who killed the real dissident.

In week eight the team identified the explosives used in a bombing as dating back to the 1947 Continental War. This echo of the previous sequence led them to a scheme to sell off the still-functional contents of the city’s war museum. The plotters asked for mercy, on the grounds that they hadn’t being fully paid since the collapse of the old government and hey, curators gotta eat too. The team found itself in no mood to grant leniency, especially after the culprits tried sprung a death trap on them.

Mysterious heart attacks, deemed supernatural in origin, occupied the team’s attention in weeks nine and ten. They found that someone was directing a vengeance spirit, which echoed a longstanding motif from past sequences by leaving fiery winged Salome outlines at its murder scenes. The plotter turned out to be an important ally of their political patron, who wasn’t ready to cut him loose. This confronted the ex-insurgents with a moral dilemma—did they compromise and take the political win, or turn in the perp and set back their agenda?

The next week broke from Aftermath for a reprise of Paris, featuring the first set of characters in middle age. Set in Chicago during the influenza epidemic, this change-of-pace scenario had the group chasing an impetuous young Isaac Philipson—seen previously as a baby and then as the adult commander of the French army—in pursuit of a mystical artifact.

Moving back to Aftermath, the next two weeks concerned The Process. Powered by the artifact introduced in the reprise episode, this growing franchise operation offered to remove peoples’ traumatic memories of the civil war. The group investigated, finding plenty of creepiness but not enough evidence to take it down.

By this time it was the holidays again in our real world, so the next two-parter featured a “Christmas Carol”-referencing Carcosan assassin. Bent on revenge after being stiffed on a payment, it hunted the greedy members of a silver cartel. The crew made another uneasy political compromise by protecting the surviving cartel members in exchange for their support on the anti-supernatural agency. They took out the assassin in a Central Park showdown; only one of them had to wear the Santa suit.

Weeks fourteen and fifteen led the team to a weird science conspiracy stealing the brains of unconnected, apparently obscure individuals. The players, but not the characters, recognized the victims as famous celebrities in our timeline. Ultimately they discovered the purpose of the scheme: to reopen the shuttered gates to Carcosa by rerouting them through an alternate reality.

At the conclusion of this case, the team earned the final Chit point (the marker of their political progress) required to achieve their agenda.

With this milestone reached and the alternate realities motif now on the table, it was time to switch to the same characters in a different world, that of This is Normal Now.

Which we’ll get to when this series of columns concludes next month.


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. Preorder The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Some of the most powerful roleplaying experiences I’ve ever had have come from running DramaSystem games. Starting with the Hillfolk roleplaying game, and continuing with Blood on the Snow and Series Pitch of the Month, DramaSystem offers a wealth of setting options for players to inhabit, and create compelling stories of interpersonal conflict and emotional drama. You might choose to play in 1930s Shanghai, a steam-powered flying city, a post-scarcity future of art and murder, a magical alternate-history Russia…even humanity’s universal unconscious.

However, DramaSystem is primarily designed for campaign play. What if you want to run a game at a convention? The challenges are significant. You have limited time to create an engaging story; you probably don’t know your players (and they probably don’t know each other); and it’s entirely possible they signed up for your session, not because they’re dying to play emotionally-charged dramatic scenes with strangers, but because they had time to kill and the setting sounded interesting.

Here are some tips that I, and other GMs and players, have learned during convention play.

Tell the players up front that this game is about character conflict, and player conflict

The most challenging DramaSystem game I’ve ever run was the one in which the players were too darn nice. Nobody wanted to be a jerk, so they never made strong demands, never used drama tokens to take away someone else’s narrative power, and never withheld anything that was asked of them.

Emphasize again and again that this is a game about interpersonal drama, conflict, and powerful emotions. Beyond that, make sure your players understand that DramaSystem is a game of player antagonism. Unlike other games they’re used to, they won’t be cooperating against some outside threat, or working together to achieve some external goal. They’ll be trying to get each others’ characters to grant emotional concessions—things like love, respect, forgiveness, friendship. Things those characters don’t want to concede.

Offer a manageable number of roles and dramatic poles

My series pitch The Secret of Warlock Mountain lists more than 20 possible roles the players could take in the game, from “ship’s captain” to “dream-haunted oracle”. You can certainly let the players choose from a long list, but I like to take six to eight roles and create very simple playbooks for them. (To see examples, download the playbooks for Hillfolk and Secret of Warlock Mountain on the DramaSystem Resources page.) This helps avoid players becoming paralyzed by too many choices, and also helps me run the game—I know that a given convention game of Warlock Mountain will involve some configuration of Captain, Doctor, Scientist, Elder, Comic Relief, Teenager, Criminal, and Soldier. This gives me a good idea of what kinds of relationships and stories I’ll be facilitating as the GM.

Likewise, there are a vast number of dramatic poles that a player character might have. I like to fill in each playbook with three dramatic poles per character—the players can either choose from those options, or come up with their own.

Max out the number of “I want from them/they want from me” relationships

DramaSystem character generation normally continues until every character is the object of at least two other characters’ wants. This is fine! However, I’ve found that it can enhance play at a convention to keep going around the table until every character wants something from every other character, and is the object of a want from every other character.

This approach gives players more flexibility, because now every character is a potential source of drama (and drama tokens) for every other character. Callers feel more freedom to include anyone they wish in a scene, because no character is “wasted” due to a lack of dramatic conflict with the other participants. It also gives every player something interesting to do in every scene: nobody is there in a purely supporting role.

Ignore or minimize the procedural rules

Whatever the setting, DramaSystem game sessions should stay laser-focused on the tensions and conflicts within a small, tightly-knit group of player characters. These characters might at some point fight orcs, sabotage a bridge, or plan a daring heist; but all of that is just background to their drama.

The goal of a convention game is to show your players a good time, and give them a sense of what makes the game fun and distinctive. With DramaSystem, that’s collaborative storytelling, player-vs-player conflict, and the drama token economy—not the rare instances where characters engage in procedural scenes.

You can keep the session drama-focused by ignoring or minimizing the game’s procedural rules. Instead, encourage the players to handle procedural scenes as dramatic scenes. Maybe their group of soldiers is trying to break out of a World War II prison camp, but what’s really going on in that scene is the boiling tension between the wealthy Bostonian Lt Thorndike and Sgt O’Malley, whose father was murdered by Thorndike’s uncle. You can give such scenes a procedural feel by asking questions and introducing threats. (“Up ahead you see something you didn’t expect, that will make the escape harder. What is is? How do you deal with it?”)

Other options include:

  1. Using the 13th Age RPG montage mechanic, where every player has the opportunity to narrate a challenge and a solution.
  2. Using one of the stripped-down procedural resolution methods.

Nurture the drama token economy

Drama tokens are the currency of DramaSystem. Make sure the players understand that an important part of the game is amassing enough tokens that their character has the power to influence what happens in the story. With enough tokens, their character can crash scenes where they aren’t wanted, duck out of scenes they don’t want to be in, force other player characters to do what they want, and resist being forced. This game is working when drama tokens are changing hands, passing from one player to another. If the players don’t push each other or resist being pushed, that won’t happen, and the game will remain drama-free and un-fun.

Every dramatic scene ends with an exchange of one or more drama tokens. If the petition is willingly granted, the granter earns a drama token—from the petitioner if he has one, or from the kitty if not. If the granter refuses, the petitioner gains the token— from the granter if she has one, or from the kitty if not.

In a convention game, I recommend letting players take drama tokens from the kitty for a longer period of time than you would in a campaign session. If, early in the game, Joan grants Jeff’s petition, and Jeff has a token, ask Joan to take her token from the kitty instead of from Jeff. This method increases the number of tokens in play more quickly, which heightens the suspense and raises the stakes. Pointing out to the group that a couple of players have two or three tokens in front of them causes everyone to realize that those characters now have more narrative power than the others. This creates an incentive for the other players to make difficult concessions or challenging demands, so they can take tokens away from those players and use them to push their own agendas.

Remember that the GM calls scenes too

It’s easy to get so caught up in the story the players are creating that you forget the GM takes a turn as well! You can use your scene to tighten the screws, or bring together characters who haven’t yet played out a dramatic scene. You can also mix things up by bringing characters together in a different combination than previously—if the rebellious daughter is never alone in a scene with her mother, throw them together in a stressful situation, and see what happens.

Further reading

Want more tips? Blood on the Snow includes a chapter of advice on running DramaSystem one-shots, including agreeing on a story outline beforehand, and stronger GM control over the narrative.

Good luck running your next DramaSystem con game, and have fun!

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.

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.

Cthulhu Confidential and other upcoming One-2-One games recommend using physical cards (or the digital equivalent) in play. Giving a player something to hold onto has several benefits.

  • It’s a reminder. In a multiplayer game, key plot elements get discussed endlessly at the game as players speculate about what’s going on, how they rid themselves of troubles, and how they can take advantage of items or favour acquired. In a solo game, especially a plot-heavily Confidential scenario, it’s good to give the player plenty of reminders of important discoveries and ongoing problems.
  • It’s a call to action. Having “Bleeding Internally” or “Mickey Don’t Like You” weighing down your hand motivates you to look for ways to counter those pesky problems. Similarly, if you’ve got “Charlie Chaplin Owes You” or a “Spare Bomb”, then you’ll itch for ways to play them to your advantage.
  • It’s satisfying. There’s something undeniable fun about handling physical cards, as opposed to scribbling notes on a character sheet. And as there’s only one player, it’s viable to have lots of highly specific cards.

Every published One-2-One scenario includes plenty of Problem and Edge cards, covering every likely eventually – but what about unlikely ones, when the player goes “off-piste”? How to improvise cards on the fly?

Have a bunch of blank cards (index cards are fine) to hand. When you need to write a card on the fly, quickly think about ways to connect it to future events in the scenario. A problem like “Fear of the Dark” is only interesting if there’s a scene later on where the player has to go into a dark place. An Edge like “Colt .45” is only relevant if there’s a good chance of a shootout.

The best Problems are the ones that push the player in interesting directions in the story, or anticipate future dangers. A “Bleeding Neck Wound” that gives the player a penalty is fun, but “Vampire Bite” that doesn’t give a penalty, but hints at a psychic threat can be much more interesting. At the same time, you want a few cards with clear mechanical benefits or penalties for variety, to avoid overloading the player with possibilities.

Edges without a defined benefit leave things open to player input. “Colt .45” obviously benefits Fighting, but “Got The Drop On Them” could be construed as a bonus to anything from Stealth to Shadowing to Fighting, or a Push to Streetwise or Intimidation, to a story benefit where the player gets to arrive at just the right moment to put the bad guys at a disadvantage. Working out what a card actually does when it’s played keeps options open – just stay away from Edges that give the player too much leverage over key figures in the adventure. “Charlie Chaplin owes you” is great; “The Cult Leader owes you” risks derailing your plot again. (And if you’re running a game where Chaplin’s the cult leader, I want to play).  

As a quick list of options:

 Edges

  • A bonus (say, +1 or +2) to a single Challenge
  • A bonus to multiple Challenges, either when a particular condition is met (+2 when sneaking around Budapest) or for a limited time (+2 to your next two Fighting challenges)
  • A bonus to an entire category of General Abilities (Physical, Mental, Manual)
  • A free die on a Challenge (and remember, if the player has any dice left over, he gets a free Push)
  • A free Push in a particular situation (“You know this city like the back of your hand. Discard this Edge for a free Push of Architecture, Cop Talk, or Streetwise while in Prague.”)
  • A free Push when dealing with a particular character or faction
  • A free Push for a particular type of Investigative Ability, usually Interpersonal
  • The ability to Counter a type of Problem
  • A general description of some advantage, giving the player scope for creativity (“The priest blessed you.)

Problems

Injuries: Injuries are a special category of Problem, so include the Injury keyword on any Injury cards. Some abilities (like Medic) give the ability to counter Injuries quickly.

Most injuries give a -1 or -2 penalty to Physical tests; injuries that specifically impede hand-eye Co-ordination might penalise Manual tasks instead.

In GUMSHOE One-2-one, the player doesn’t have ‘hit points’ or a Health score. The penalties from injury cards may stack, but a player may hold any number of injury cards and keep going. Injury only threatens death if the injury card specifically says this (see Dooms, below.).

Light injuries might only last for a scene, or for a few scenes (usually, three scenes, or three Challenges of a particular type), or be automatically Countered when the player Takes Time. More serious injuries might explicitly require the player to Take Time to Counter them, require medical treatment, or both.

Penalties: Penalties make it harder for the player to succeed in tests. Penalties are usually -1 or -2; go to -3 or -4 if you really want to emphasise the adversity and give the player little hope of success without Countering the problem. Penalties apply to one (or more!) of the categories of General Ability:

    • Physical: Most injuries penalise physical abilities; it’s hard to run, climb or fight when you’re been hurt. Drugs or restraints (manacles) also impair physical ability tests.
    • Manual: Injuries to the hands or eyes are the usual cause of manual ability penalties.
    • Mental: Shock, mental trauma, emotional distress or exhaustion can hit mental abilities

Levies: Levies require the player to spend an extra Push in a particular situation. Usually, this refers to Interpersonal pushes and applies to a particular individual or group – if Dr. Tollen doesn’t trust you, you might have to spend an extra Push when trying to persuade her with Reassurance to let you see her notes on blood diseases. Levies can apply to any investigative ability, though – for example, if Cryptography is needed to decode an ancient book, then if the book gets damaged, it could impose a Cryptography levy to get the information.

Blocks: Blocking Problems prevent the player from taking a particular action until the Problem’s resolved. They can be nuisances that prevent the player from tackling bigger issues, like an Injury card (“Blood in your eyes”) that gives no penalty to tests, but has to be Countered before any other injuries can be removed. They can be more serious complications that restrict the player’s actions – for example, if the player’s been disarmed, then she can’t make Shooting tests until she obtains a gun.

Dooms: Doom Problems shape the ending of the story, usually in a negative way. If the player’s still holding the card at the end of the operation, bad things happen. Dooms can result in death (“you’ve been poisoned – if you haven’t found a cure by the end of the adventure, you’re dead”) or other terrible consequences (“The cult has kidnapped Lenny, and will sacrifice him to Cthulhu unless you stop them”). Dooms should always describe how to Counter them.

 

 

 

a column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

On a recent episode of our podcast, Ken and I talked about adapting Dreamhounds of Paris as a GUMSHOE One-2-One setting. In a moment of rash exuberance I promised to provide character cards for some of its key figures. Use these as a model for your own conversion if I failed to include the surrealist your player most wants to portray. You’ll need a copy of Dreamhounds to make use of this.

Luis Buñuel

Two Fisted Filmmaker

Investigative Abilities: [Academic]

Anthropology [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Chemistry [Technical]

Dream Lore [Academic]

History [Academic]

Inspiration [Interpersonal]

Intimidation [Interpersonal]

Languages (Spanish, French) [Academic]

Photography 3 [Technical]

Streetwise [Interpersonal]

Theology [Academic]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Filmmaker) 2 dice

Athletics 2 dice

Cool 1 die

Devices 2 dice

Disguise 1 die

Dreamscaping 2 dice

Fighting 2 dice

First Aid 1 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Starting Problem

Pugnacious

Continuity

You let your hot temper and Iberian machismo, not your superior intellect, determine when your fists go flying.

-1 to Cool tests to keep your fists in check when your temper flares.

Jean Cocteau

Resplendent Anathema

Investigative Abilities

Architecture [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Chemistry [Technical]

Cthulhu Mythos [Academic]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

History [Academic]

Library Use [Academic]

Literature [Academic]

Medicine [Academic]

Occult [Academic]

Pharmacy [Technical]

Seduction [Interpersonal]

Streetwise [Interpersonal]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Visual Art, Film, Fiction, Playwright) 2 dice

Art-Making (Poetry) 1 die

Athletics 1 die

Conceal 1 die

Cool 1 die (-1 penalty in real world, +1 bonus in Dreamlands)

Disguise 2 dice

Dreamscaping 2 dice

First Aid 2 dice

Fleeing 2 dice

Hypnosis 1 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 1 die

Starting Problem

White Dragon

Continuity

You’ve kicked your opium habit a number of times. Which is the optimistic way of saying you never quite kick your opium habit.

-1 to Cool tests when tempted by the opportunity to smoke opium, or any of its Dreamlands equivalents.

Salvador Dalí

Calculating Visionary

Investigative Abilities:

Anthropology [Academic]

Archaeology [Academic]

Architecture [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Biology [Academic]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Chemistry [Technical]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

History [Academic]

Languages [Academic]

Library Use [Academic]

Theology [Academic]

General Abilities

Art-Making (Visual Art) 2 dice

Art-Making (Film) 1 die

Art-Making (Poetry) 1 die

Athletics 1 die

Dreamscaping 2 dice

Cool 1 die

Fleeing 2 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 1 die

Sense Trouble 1 die

Stealth 1 die

Starting Problem

Dependent on Gala

Continuity

Without your tigress wife by your side, even ordinary tasks, like crossing a busy street, paralyze you with fear.

-1 to Cool and Stability tests when away from Gala. After reuniting with Gala, gain +2 to Cool and +1 to Stability tests until next interval.

Gala

Protective Devourer

Investigative Abilities

Accounting [Academic]

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Biology [Academic]

Bureaucracy [Interpersonal]

Interrogation [Interpersonal]

Intimidation [Interpersonal]

Languages (Russian, French, English) [Academic]

Library Use [Academic]

Locksmith [Technical]

Medicine [Academic]

Occult [Academic]

Seduction* [Interpersonal]

Streetwise [Interpersonal]

*After making a Seduction Push, roll a die. On an even result, regain the Push.

General Abilities

Athletics 1 die

Card Reading 2 dice

Conceal 1 die

Cool 2 dice

Fighting 1 die

Filch 1 die

Fleeing 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Sense Trouble 2 dice

Shadowing 1 die

Stealth 2 dice

Starting Problem

Grasping

Continuity

Survival means everything. Your brother’s death during the Russian Revolution taught you that. And in this world survival means one thing: money.

-2 to Cool tests to avoid the temptations of avarice.

Kiki de Montparnasse

Free-living Muse

Investigative Abilities:

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Bureaucracy [Interpersonal]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

Locksmith [Technical]

Photography [Technical]

Reassurance [Interpersonal]

Seduction [Interpersonal]

Streetwise [Technical]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Visual Art) 1 die

Art-Making (Dance) 1 die

Art-Making (Singing 6) 2 dice

Cool 1 die

Athletics 2 dice

Conceal 2 dice

Filch 2 dice

Fleeing 2 dice

Instability 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Sense Trouble 2 dice

Starting Problem

Hard Liver

Continuity

You adore nothing more than another drink. Except of course for the drink after that.

-1 to Cool tests to avoid overindulgence in intoxicants.

Valentine Hugo

Little Swan

Investigative Abilities:

Archaeology [Academic]

Architecture [Academic]

Art History [Academic]

Assess Honesty [Interpersonal]

Bargain [Interpersonal]

Charm [Interpersonal]

Dream Lore [Academic]

Flattery [Interpersonal]

History [Academic]

Medium [Academic]

Occult [Academic]

Pharmacy [Technical]

Photography [Technical]

Reassurance [Interpersonal]

General Abilities:

Art-Making (Painting/Illustration) 2 dice

Athletics 1 die

Cool 1 die

Conceal 1 die

Disguise 1 die

Driving 1 die

Dreamscaping 1 die

First Aid 1 die

Fleeing 2 dice

Hypnosis 1 die

Instability 2 dice

Preparedness 1 die

Stability 2 dice

Stealth 1 die

Starting Problem

Lovesick

ContinuityWhen you fall in love, you fall hard, and never give up, no matter how much resistance you face. Others call you a fool. You call yourself a lover.

-2 to avoid throwing yourself humiliatingly at the current object of your obsession, Andre Breton. Void during the brief period after 1931 when he finally gives in to you.

See Page XX

a column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

In his influential book on the films of Howard Hawks, the late film critic Robin Wood identified one of the director’s key themes as “the Lure of Irresponsibility.”

This phrase has stuck in my head over the years, connecting itself to a subject far from its original intent.

One of the key appeals of roleplaying is the lure of irresponsibility.

Like the stoic bands of adventurous outsiders populating such Hawks films as Rio Bravo and Only Angels Have Wings, player character groups leave behind the strictures of ordinary society. Whether they’re killing monsters and taking their stuff, solving occult mysteries, or bringing rough justice back to the spacelanes, they no longer have to take the standard guff of bosses and paychecks and paying one’s parking tickets.

In the extremest form of this phenomenon, you get your murder hoboes. The band of outsider heroes becomes a gang of bandits, subjecting others to the rule of the sword and suffering no consequences for its depredations.

Even when the fantasy of irresponsibility stops short of a fantasy of violent psychosis, it can come into conflict with other elements that make a roleplaying session feel satisfying.

As much as a GM may want to establish a particular tone for her series, even after getting explicit buy-in from the players at its outset, the lure of irresponsibility can rear its head and send those plans spinning into the gutter.

Everyone might agree, say, to play Night’s Black Agents in gritty Dust mode, evoking the real-world despond of a Cold War Le Carre novel.

Tone requires ongoing player cooperation. To maintain itself, all the players have to make decisions the way Le Carre characters would, and not as James Bond or Xander Cage.

All it takes is a player or two to show up to the game table punchy and looking to blow off steam, and suddenly the GM faces two choices, both unfortunate:

1) Stick with the tone and slap the characters with the realistic consequences of acting like superheroes in a gray and workaday universe, like Vin Diesels in an Alec Guiness world.

2) Give them their steam-venting, shifting the series to roleplaying’s default mode of crazy, violent nonsense.

As the creator of Feng Shui, I can hardly shake a fist a crazy, violent nonsense. But while some games are conceived with that in mind, all will devolve in that direction without tone enforcement from the GM.

Players don’t necessarily thank you for either choice. Derail the story with realistic consequences, and you’ve followed the setting’s internal logic straight to a disappointing narrative dead end. Shift the tone to Kookytown and even the player who made everything blow up may later wish the series had stuck with the original tone, which was one of the factors making it special and different.

In complex rules systems with lots of moving parts, you can blame the system for outcomes that break one’s sense of what ought to be possible in a story like this. Yep, you stacked that spell with that magic item and rolled a 20, so of course you topple the tower down onto the village and kill all the orcs. Never mind the desire to play in a low-fantasy world; the rules and that die roll had other ideas.

GUMSHOE One-2-One, as seen the system’s flagship title, Cthulhu Confidential, helps with tone maintenance in several ways.

One, there are only two of you, and the experience of playing the game is unusually intense. If one or both of you feel punchy or tired, you’re probably going to either lock in and achieve focus, or you’re going to choose to do something less demanding with your block of time.

Two, much murder-hoboism happens because players are either showing off for each other or egging each other on. Outside of a group setting, that goes away. Likewise the syndrome where one player decides, consciously or otherwise, to steal focus from everyone else by doing something crazy and stupid. You know the drill: the player who has his character punch the king in the face at the royal audience, starts a bar fight where the secret rendezvous has been set up, or decides to murder the prisoners while the rest of the group has its collective back turned. In multiplayer this then forces the rest of the group to deal with the consequences of the focus hog’s actions instead of having the expected story about the entire group unfold. In One-2-One, the focus hog gets all the attention he can handle. He doesn’t have to make it all about him—it already is. (But then maybe This Guy doesn’t choose to play One-2-One in the first place, because his fun comes from wrecking it for everyone else.)

Three, you can frame Challenges to only yield tonally appropriate results. If the player still insists on doing something the audience would reject as stupid in the movie or novel version of the same story, you can ensure that it happens within the bounds of your prevailing tone. Let’s go with the gratuitous bar fight. Where in standard GUMSHOE with its Health thresholds and weapon stats you could conceivably kill an innocent bar patron and throw the rest of the storyline into a cocked hat, here the Challenge could look like this:

Meaningless Bar Fight

Fighting

Advance 9+: You manage to deck a guy and somehow make it seem like he had it coming. His pals drag him off before you can do any damage that would lead to an arrest warrant.

Hold 4-8: A typical inconclusive tavern struggle breaks out. The chump you wanted to deck has friends, and they hold you at bay until the bouncers can drag you out and throw you out of the bar. “And don’t come back!”

Setback 3 or less: As per above, but the bouncers take you outside and beat you black and blue. Gain Problem Card “Beatdown.”

You wouldn’t write this out ahead of time, but rather improvise something along those lines.

Unless you have a player you know will pull this stuff, who you inexplicably want to run One-2-One with. Then you might want to have a few on hand as responses to his most obvious usual tone-busting moves.

ROB_tileJonathan and I usually agree on the mechanics of 13th Age, but our memories don’t always agree when it comes to how key mechanics were created.* The escalation die is a prime example.

I remember using the escalation die in a bizarro 4e game, fighting minions of Torog, back before we started work on 13th Age. Jonathan remembers coming up with the mechanic on his own, as part of a system he ran for a couple of months that I…er…never showed up for. Both those memories may be accurate; but recently I discovered that the true origins of the escalation die lay elsewhere.

During a period when Jonathan and I weren’t GMing, Mike Fehlauer manned the captain’s/GM’s chair and took us on a 4e cruise through the Savage Tide. Mike’s excellent campaign benefited from a lot of mechanical experiments, and here’s one that he recently unearthed from an ancient email thread:

Another idea I had for speedy play was to put a card for “end of round” into the initiative deck. Each time that card comes up, all combatants (including monsters) add +1 to all their attacks. Second time it comes up, everyone starts adding +2 to all their attacks. And so on.

The pacing isn’t right, but the general idea is that as time goes on, the combat’s pace toward resolution increases. Sort of like how the blind keeps increasing in poker.

Maybe a better pace is “when a monster or character is bloodied, the ‘combat blind’ goes up by 1. All monsters and characters add the ‘combat blind’ to all their attacks.”

Hmm. Instead of “combat blind”, let’s call it “Savage Tide”. That way, as the Tide rises, things get more deadly. I like the sound of that. :)

Jonathan said that the idEscalation_Die_LKEea was interesting, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to track it. Paul Hughes commented that you could just use a die to keep track.

Jonathan and I both went off and used our own versions of the escalation mechanic in our games, giving the escalating bonus to the player characters but not the monsters. As a result, by the time we decided to design 13th Age together, we were both locked in with using something like the escalation die at the table.

Turns out that it’s really important to have a good gaming group!

*To be honest, Jonathan and I don’t particularly care which of us created specific mechanics, or how—the topic only comes up when other people ask.


 

13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

13th Age GM Resource Book cover

Pre-Order the 13th Age Gamemaster Screen and Resource Book, and download the PDF now!

“We have targeted the game toward experienced gamemasters and players at all levels of roleplaying experience.” – 13th Age core book

13th Age assumes you already know how to run an F20 roleplaying game—in fact, you’ve probably already done it more than a few times. You’re comfortable customizing a game to fit your style of play, improvising adventures based on player input, being the final decision-maker on rules questions, building out a campaign setting based on a few cool ideas, and creating your own monsters.

As a result of this design approach, 13th Age sometimes asks more from GMs than other games. That’s why we’ve always tried to support 13th Age GMs by answering questions and supplying resources and guidance. A few months ago, we reached a point where we felt we knew enough about where our GMs needed a little extra help that we could write a solid GM’s guide for the game.

Using the Trail of Cthulhu Keeper’s Screen and Resource Book as our model, Cal Moore and I huddled with Rob Heinsoo and talked about what would be good to include in this slim volume (around 64 pages). Based on what GMs had been asking us over the years, what would be most useful?

We’d definitely need to talk more about icon relationship rolls, which were brand-new tech in the core book and have been relentlessly discussed, debated, tested, and tinkered with by 13th Age GMs and designers since then. We often see  questions about using terrain in combat, and Cal had lots of ideas he wanted to develop around that. His recent experience with the Battle Scenes books (still in development) gave him great insight that we could share about building better battles in the game.

13th Age GM Book NPC sampleThe Keeper’s Resource Book included NPCs, so I eagerly volunteered to create (statless) characters associated with the 13 icons that GMs could easily pop into their games as one-off encounters, recurring characters, or even major villains. I also wanted to revisit the subject of backgrounds, which I wrote about in a previous Page XX article.

ASH LAW had begun work on an ambitious toolkit for improvising adventures, but other priorities left it orphaned. I took it apart and rebuilt it into a lean, mean, GMing machine for running zero-preparation sessions of 13th Age. And hey, speaking of ASH, we decided that it was finally time to make his Montage mechanic from Organized Play an official part of the rules. So from now on, when someone asks, “Where are Montages described?” the answer is, “In the GM’s Resource Book”.

We also recruited Rob to write a section called “Six Things Rob Does Now”, and compiled general-purpose GM advice scattered across various books.

We hope you like it, and we hope you get a kick out of the accompanying GM screen, which features freakin’ gorgeous new player-facing art from Lee Moyer and Aaron McConnell, and GM-facing quick-reference rules chosen with input from our community. (There’s also a map of the Dragon Empire, this time with the roads included. Huzzah.)


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

last doorEarlier this month, Phoenix Online Studios invited us to co-sponsor a short-short-short fiction competition to promote The Last Door Collector’s Edition. We’re all for creepy 8-bit Lovecraftian horror, and gladly joined in. Five prize winners got a Pelgrane PDF of their choice (and all of them chose either Trail of Cthulhu or Bookhounds of London); and 5 winners got a free copy of The Last Door.

Here are the winning entries for your enjoyment:

The 5 Pelgrane Press PDF winners:

She didn’t give me her name. I gave her mine. When she left the bar, she took it with her. – Paul Kirsch

Napping in a crowded metro, a whisper in my ear: don’t wake up. – Victor Ribeiro

“The ‘virus’ is an idea,” she said, “spread via sentence. It commands me to obey.” Chuckling, the doctor replied, “The ‘virus’ is an idea…” – Steven Marsh

As her hand slipped from my grasp, I marveled at its rate of descent compared to the other parts of her body. – Philip Gonzales

A step, drip, cold, door, dark. A step, twist, claw, fur, flare. It’s ok, you can’t see anything wrong. Or anything at all. A step. – Linda Evans

The 5 winners of copies of The Last Door:

I woke before dawn & warmed my shivering wife before returning to slumber. I woke again with a scream when I realized she died a year ago. – Brian Webb

He told me to get a bottle of wine from the cellar. I suppose that’s what he told the rest of these women to do, too. – Kyle Williams

Frightening was hungry eyes, watching me from the gloom. Terrifying was knowing I’d seen them before, every time I’d gazed into a mirror. – Noah Baxter

A bump, a creak, a faint rustle; all from me. I wait till you feel safe with these sounds. Then, as you sleep, I emerge from the shadows. – Gerry Bibaud

Slowly the words formed. We are legion it said. He stared at the readout from the quantum correlation encryption experiment. – Christian Mintert

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