As the project increasingly leaves my hands and heads to Pelgrane HQ and post-production, it’s time to show off a smidgen of the reality-shattering art you’ll see in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Brittany’s legendary city of Ys rises from the waves, by Shel Kahn, from Paris

A postcard of malign implication, collage by Dean Engelhardt, from Paris

Weeping mines descend on a battlefield, by Melissa Gay, from The Wars

Battle for the Imperial Palace, by Jessica TC Lee, from Aftermath

The Surveiller Surveilled, by Aaron Aurelio Acevedo, from This is Normal Now

Absinthe in Carcosa cover by Jérôme Huguenin (text placement in progress)

Character sheet from The Wars, by Christian Knutsson


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.

The Internet has certainly jacked up standards for what a GM is supposed to improvise these days.

My home group’s Yellow King Roleplaying Game series has now progressed to the final sequence, the contemporary reality horror of This is Normal Now.

Accordingly, a recent session found several characters wearing Urchins, Fitbit-like devices that can’t be removed, appear to exhibit some kind of sentience, and may be linked to the powers of Carcosa. Or maybe they’re just part of a weird marketing campaign, as at least one PC persists in believing.

Once hooked up to the accompanying phone app, the voice of the Urchin supplies information and exhortations in an unpleasantly chipper manner. Often it concludes its answers with the rote signoff, “Urchin — it’s a lifestyle brand!”

Being stuck in an urchin has already driven one PC to suicide. On the plus side, it has wildly increased another’s Instagram following.

Given verbal access to this possible Yellow King surrogate led one player, Justin Mohareb, to put me to the improvisational test.

He asked Urchin to compose a poem for him.

That had me scrambling to the Quick Poem Generator, which asks for three words of input. I chose Urchin (something belonging to a person) and the two adjectives Carcosan and yellow. This is what it returned, for me to perform aloud in Urchin’s friendly singsong:

Whose urchin is that? I think I know.
Its owner is quite happy though.
Full of joy like a vivid rainbow,
I watch him laugh. I cry hello.
He gives his urchin a shake,
And laughs until her belly aches.
The only other sound’s the break,
Of distant waves and birds awake.
The urchin is yellow, Carcosan and deep,
But he has promises to keep,
After cake and lots of sleep.
Sweet dreams come to him cheap.
He rises from his gentle bed,
With thoughts of kittens in his head,
He eats his jam with lots of bread.
Ready for the day ahead.

All trembled at this chillingly cheerful verse.

In another victory for pattern-seeking within randomness, the reference to “kittens in his head” created an accidental callback to events featuring alternate versions of the PCs in Aftermath. There a swarm of cats came to follow one of the investigators after they got involved with The Process, a franchised service promising to relieve people of their traumatic memories.

In these oh-so normal times, reality horror remains just a Google search away.

——

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Pelgrane’s upcoming RPG of reality horror inspired by the classic tales of Robert W. Chambers, Kickstarted last summer and remains on track for a December 2018 release.

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

Miscellaneous

by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Love is eternal… if you’re an alien monstrosity from beyond all sane conceptions of space and time, an undying horror that seethes and defies our pitiful understandings of entropy and existence. For the rest of us, love’s a brief candle, a momentary delusion to distract us from the horror of existence, our cells blindly pushing towards pointless self-replication, perpetuating the cosmic torture upon a million future generations until humanity is mercifully extinguished and there’s nothing left upon the Earth but dust and coleopterans.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Here are three love-themed mythos seeds.

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

(or so they are seeming)

In his house in Rlyeh/Great Cthulhu

(lies dreaming)

A dilettante investigator from a wealthy or influential meets an alluring young woman. She’s charming, eerily beautiful, erudite, and apparently of considerable independent means. Also, she proves to be remarkably well-informed about the Mythos, and is ready to aid the investigators in their struggle against cosmic horrors. All she asks is that the investigator come home with her to Innsmouth to meet her family…

The investigator is in no danger; he’s welcome in Innsmouth. After all, the elders want him to be part of the family. He doesn’t have to stay – in fact, they encourage him to take his bride-to-be home with him. The elders of Dagon intend to establish a second enclave of Cthulhu-worshipping Deep One hybrids, and have chosen the investigator to be the human progenitor of a new line.

How can he refuse? Can the other investigators interrupt the wedding in time?

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yithians in your time-stream want to date you.

One of the investigators suffers a mysterious period of amnesia, during which she acted in a bizarre fashion, travelling to various occult sites and trafficking with ghastly entities. Afterwards, the investigator discovers bizarre messages left for her across the aeons – an archaeological dig in Cyprus finds a statue that’s the image of her, her name crops up in the secret oaths of cults, there are prophecies about her recorded in cryptic passages of the Necronomicon. Eventually, she find a Yithian library buried under the sands of Australia, and there she discovers the truth. She was abducted by the Great Race, and while imprisoned in prehistory, she fell in love with a mighty sorcerer of Hyperborea. Her starcrossed lover swore that he would find his way back to her once they both returned to their home time periods – even though he lived thousands of years before the present day.

All the hints and clues in the various occult tradition suggest that the sorcerer still exists in some form. Maybe he’s travelling forward in time through arcane rituals, or prolonging his life through vampirism, or he’s reduced himself to his essential salts so he can be resurrected by the cult he founded in ancient days. In any case, he’s unlikely to be the cone she fell in love with fifty million years ago – what eldritch horror, sustained by mad obsession, now shambles towards the investigator out of the aeons?

 

Roses are red/Violets are blue

Yellow, though, is the unhealthiest of hues.

In a gallery in Paris, the investigators glimpse a painting of a young woman. In the image, she strolls by a strange, misty lake, glancing over her shoulder as if daring the viewer to follow her.

Over the course of the next few weeks, all the investigators are beset by memories or dreams of the woman. In each case, they remember having a torrid, passionate romance with her at some point in their pasts. Some details are common to all their recollections – in every case, her name was Camilla; in every case, she abruptly ended the affair and fled, saying only that she had to find “truth, not its phantom”. Other details vary – in some cases, she was a student the investigator met at university, or a shepherdess in the village where the investigator grew up, or an artist’s model, or a friend of a friend. She appears ageless – some investigators remember her from their distant youth, for others, they recall her so vividly that they can still smell her perfume in their rooms, but she is always the same, always young and beautiful.

The memories become more intense, more alluring – and more detailed as the investigators dwell on them. Spend time thinking about Camilla, and you’ll recall how you picnicked on the banks of the Seine, or how she led you up the steps of a crumbling Roman ruin in the woods, or how she taught you the secret speech of ghouls. Memories of Camilla are suffused with a warm yellowish glow, and it is far more pleasant to dwell in melancholic remembrances of lost love than it is to exist in the harsh light of the present day. Spend enough time with her in the past, and she reveals more hidden truths, even hinting that the investigator can find her again in the present if he or she ensures that their love is the only true one – by killing the other player characters…

Is Camilla a curse conjured by the mysterious artist who painted the portrait, hired by some rival to destroy the investigators? Is she some Carcosan phantom, a memetic horror that’s colonising their histories? Is she a creature of possibility, trying to fix her own ever-shifting history by attaching herself to the timeline of one of the investigators? Or is she an innocent who became trapped in Carcosa, and is now trying to escape as best she can?

After nearly a century of supernatural tyranny, the Castaigne regime has fallen. Your player characters fought in the underground Struggle, then emerged from the shadows with grenades and rocket launchers to bring about the Overthrow. The gates to Carcosa have been closed. But not all the horrors that kept the Empire in place have been banished. As your hardbitten band of ex-partisans adjusts to civilian life, they discover that their very special skills are still needed—both to rebuild the nation, and to protect nascent democracy from the monsters left behind.

Pelgrane Press and designer Robin D. Laws need you to jump aboard the playtest for the Aftermath sequence of the Yellow King Roleplaying Game. Drop a line to colleen@pelgranepress.com to participate!

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.

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