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.

During the Kickstarter for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, I laid out one method of serving Shock and Injury cards to players electronically, as image files sent to a mobile-enabled platform. At that time, I recommended using Google Photos for this purpose. Belatedly I realize that there was a better way to do it, using the workspace application Slack.

Here’s how to do that:

If you haven’t done so already, create a Slack workspace for your game group.

(I now find this an essential tool for my group, no matter what we’re playing. The Polly poll app, for example, gives you a handy way to conduct an advance roll call and make sure you have quorum before anyone grabs their dice and heads your way.)

Within the workspace, create a separate channel for each player character. Depending on how well you remember PC names, you may want to name it after the character, or place the player’s name before or after the investigator name. Slack doesn’t allow spaces or upper case letters in channel names so you’ll have to resort to underscores:

#ella_wharton

#noelle_ella_wharton

#ella_wharton_noelle

Alternately, you could serve cards into the private message inbox of each player. However, some players like to use that for banter, out of game arrangements and other side business. Creating a channel for each player keeps that clear for cards and in-game notes, and reminds other players of the cast of investigators.

Also, if a member of your group is without a mobile device, they can sit next to a player with a laptop or tablet. With a little looking over-the-shoulder, the obliging device owner can switch between channels as needed to allow the other person to check their cards in hand.

When a character receives a Shock or Injury card, you upload it to the appropriate channel. You can do this directly from a folder if using a laptop. On a tablet, you can put the card images in Dropbox and share them from that service’s mobile app into the Slack app.

Slack permits only the creator of a message line to delete that line, so when a player discards a card, you’ll have to delete it in order for it to disappear. Be sure your players let you know when they fulfill a discard condition.

We’re currently assembling materials for our YKRPG resources page, including image files for each card. If you need them before we get that done, you can check the books for the cards you think you’ll need and turn them into images. Accomplish this either by screenshotting the PDF or by opening the PDF in an image editing program such as GIMP. Then crop the cards into separate images, save with the card titles as file names, and you’re good to go.

Some GMs will still prefer the tactile quality of paper cards printed, cut up, and handed to players. But for those, like me, who consider immediate access to all the cards in the game the ideal, a Slack full of pallid masks and black stars should do the trick.

People Have Opinions about service platforms. If you come up with an even better way, let us know!


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

In The Wars, the players leave behind the roles of Belle Epoque art students, becoming soldiers in the 1947 Continental War. As French soldiers, they fight on the Loyalist side, with the identity of the enemy, the Crowns, determined in part by the events they played out in Paris. In that game they worked with the German foreign office against the Yellow Sign conspiracy—so here, the French and Germans are democratic allies against the authoritarian English, Russians, and Nordic nations. Your Paris game will probably inspire in a different configuration of forces when you get to The Wars.

Characters were:

 

Player

Character

Civilian Occupation

Drive

Damn Peculiar Thing

Connection

to Previous PC

Chris

Sgt Cerf

Career Military

 

 

 

Duty

Recurring nightmares about the coming mission – fake tanks are filled with corpses whose faces he knows

Comes from family of longtime anti-Carcosan operatives, Gus was grizzled American friend

Justin

Pvt Jean Edouard

Writer

Curiosity

entered an empty plain and was surrounded by spectral horsemen

had Aaron’s old diaries

Paul

Pvt Marc Logres

Med Student

Heard grandpa’s stories about Carcosa

On three occasions, food in the mess tin look like topographical features – then you’ve gone on a mission to that place and found a mutilated corpse–face gone but the same person maybe?

Georges’ grandson

Shel

Pvt Ange Vanel

Photographer

Morbid Curiosity

ran into a woman who looked like one from the book of portraits

has a book of Ida’s portraits

Scott

Pvt Thomas Gerard

Merchant

Can-Do Attitude

Voices on the camo recordings are saying his name

supplied O’Brien’s architectural firm with building materials

Sue

Lt Rose Cheval

Career Military

Vindication

sky turned white and the rest of the platoon was killed

Jurie

Pvt Georges Renard

Accountant

Truth

saw that people were made of paper and tore apart a little girl

 

(This is the list of characters as of the end of the series, with replacement characters coming in after the deaths of original PCs. Hence, Lt. Cheval’s lack of a connection to a Paris character. Jurie joined us in progress, and so had no Paris PC to link up to.)

For this series I assigned my players the premise I figured they’d find the most fun and flexible: they became a Shadow Squadron, engaged in advanced camouflage activities, with the occasional foray into intelligence operations.

Sometimes my players like to squeeze every last drop of soup from the bones. When I ran the scenario from the book, “A Feast for Wolves,” they spent four sessions on it. I imagine that will remain something of a record. Again, I don’t want to spoil the contents of the published adventures, so let’s just say they took the option that required the most reactive improvisation from the GM. So it became much more of an epic than you see on the page.

Week five was a haunted house / constrained location scenario, with the wartime twist being that the squad couldn’t leave the scary place because they’d been ordered to hold it as a strategic location. This was the session in which the terrible cries of foxes became an ongoing horror motif that continued to echo through the rest of the arc. I’ve already described it in detail here.

Week six, “The Installation”, had the group investigating weird activity around a French research facility. They discovered a mad science experiment to imbue walkers—the many-legged equivalent of tanks in this reality—with the consciousnesses of unwilling experimental subjects. Addhema, their vampire Big Bad from Paris, made her return as the brigadier general in charge of the program. When your villain is immortal, her reappearance two generations later requires no additional explanation.

The next two sessions featured another reimagining of an opponent from Paris, as the group discovered that a town they’d been sent to spread disinformation in was under attack from animated statues, including a winged Salome. Deep in the woods, they found the studio of a now elderly Gus Morley, Chris’ character from the previous sequence. Now played as as GMC, I ensured that he was as truculent as a typical Chris character. So of course Chris’ current character grew impatient with him and shot him dead. I would never second-guess my players in public, and so won’t mention that the group hadn’t gotten the clues from him when the fatal point of annoyance was reached. GUMSHOE promises that you can get all the information if you look in the right place with the right ability, not that you won’t pull your sidearm and shoot the information dead when it mouths off to you.

Weeks nine and ten found the group on assassination prevention detail, as a supernatural killer sent by the Crowns attempted to take out the French high commander—Isaac Philipson, the baby from Carcosa introduced at the end of the Paris sequence, now an adult. Addhema made another appearance as a trusted ally of Philipson’s—again in a position where the group was unable to move against her.

Next came a classic murder mystery in a military setting, as the group tried to figure out which member of an infantry squadron killed their medic. They found their culprits, who had been driven to homicidal unreason by exposure to the terrible play, The King in Yellow.

The twelfth week foreshadowed the coming big battle sequence. The squadron was reassigned from camouflage duty to muster for an assault against enemy-occupied Marseilles. As Loyalist forces massed, the group learned that soldiers were falling prey to mysterious fratricidal urges. They traced this malign influence to a ghostly figure of vengeance luring the unwary to a woodside brothel.

A final two-parter culminated in a set-piece action sequence that sent the squad plunging through Marseilles as climactic battle raged all around them. When the characters took refuge in the sewers, I introduced the cross-reality motif by having them bump into weird scientists from our modern day.

In the end they captured Camilla and took her to Cassilda (or was it the other way around?), and one revealed the suicide vest that destroyed them both—along with several of the PCs.

Or did it destroy anyone but the mortals?

With a big finish to this sequence, but also more unanswered questions, we were ready to move on to Aftermath, which I’ll encapsulate 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. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

…didn’t stay in Paris

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

One of the key distinguishing features of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is its quadruple arc structure. When played in its fullest campaign mode, your YKRPG series spans four timelines/realities, with connections between the four sets of PCs reverberating from the past of Paris, to the weird battleground of The Wars, to the alternate post-revolutionary Aftermath and finally to what looks a lot like our present day in This is Normal Now.

As our publication date draws closer, I thought GMs would find it useful to see an example of how this works in play. Over the this and the next three editions of this column I’ll be sharing a precis of my own series, starting with the events of Paris as revealed by the choices of my players.

Characters were:

 

Player

Character

Field

Drive

Deuced Peculiar Business

Chris Huth

Augustus “Gus” Morley

Sculptor

Ennui

That organ didn’t look like it was designed to play by itself—and I didn’t see anyone entering or leaving the organist’s booth

Justin Mohareb

Aaron Ravenwood

Poet

Family Propensity

strange shoreline, staring up at a bone white sky with ebony stars

Paul Jackson

Georges Dubois

Landscape Painter

Thirst for Inspiration

instead of the cathedral he’d drawn a stone circle atop a hill with a human sacrifice being performed by something that is not quite human

Shel Kahn

Ida Phillipson

Portrait Painter

Taste for Danger

Followed a tall dark haired woman, to a place without time

Scott Wachter

Arthur O’Brien

Architect

Youthful Naivete

Followed by winking lion-faced gargoyles

Susan Davis

Sophie Dupleix

Muse

Taste for Decadence

her man is gone and so is his house and no one remembers him

 

As you’ll see, some of the Deuced Peculiar Businesses selected by the players bubbled up into the plotline more than others.

The first two episodes I improvised in response to Sophie’s Deuced Peculiar Business, the disappeared lover. This represented a very strong choice on Susan’s part, as it created an immediate crisis that had to be dealt with. I decided to weave this into an opportunity for the group to pick up a patron to help nudge them along the path to occult investigator status. My players respond well to a bit of external help and ongoing motivation. You might go in another direction with a group that prefers to sandbox their way toward a storyline.

The hunt for Sophie’s man, Henri Cheval, led to agents of the German foreign office intent on quelling the growing influence of the Yellow Sign. For a supernatural menace, I took advantage of the fact that we had a sculptor in the crew, making the antagonist one of his statues. Because of course it had gained sinister animation.

I had already used the same plot device in an earlier preview run for the Pelgrane crew and recommend it as a choice that reliably delivers.

Our art students heroes discovered that Gus’ statue of Salome had eaten the son of their future German patron and arranged for it to be melted in a foundry. They also gained the first inklings of the Carcosa conspiracy, including the possibility that they had somehow aided the publication of The King in Yellow during some kind of memory fugue.

These events took two sessions. The next two we devoted to the sample scenario found in the Paris book, “The Ghost of the Garnier.” I won’t spoil it by describing how they solved its mystery.

Sessions five and six featured the appearance of Ida’s overbearingly bubbly mother, Elsie. Mrs. Philipson had discovered a doctor with a miraculous rejuvenating process she intended to bring back to America. As she became as outwardly young as her daughter, the students smelled danger, especially when the doctor’s office was found ransacked and bloodstained. The investigation led to a circle of sorcerers who had granted themselves superhuman powers by pledging themselves to the King in Yellow. The scenario also involved the hideous secret of how medical leeches are farmed, and the first historical figure to appear in the series—the occultist Gerard Encausse, aka Papus.

Session seven was our Christmas episode, in which the group left the city in pursuit of a copy of the play. In a rural village they discovered that it was being used in a ritual to turn an imminent birth into a dread anti-nativity, giving the King a flesh and blood form in our reality. The team dispensed with this threat in time to return to their favorite Parisian student hangout for mulled wine. A great deal of mulled wine.

Sessions eight and nine introduced the broader political implications of the Carcosan menace, as the group investigated an Italian diplomat intent on drawing on the Pallid One’s power to fight his country’s war in Ethiopia. Using the liqueur he employed to contact the king, Ida entered a hallucinatory, dream-like state and was able to converse with the masked overlord, and to again meet his daughter Cassilda. This scenario also recapitulated the events of Robert W. Chambers’ story “The Yellow Sign”, pitting the group against a corpse animated by the king.

Week ten was another one-shot, in which a vagrant was found murdered near Notre Dame wearing a coat he had stolen from Arthur. This led to his Deuced Peculiar Business, as the cathedral’s gargoyles turned out to be the culprit, and him their real quarry. The art students pioneered explosive munitions by deploying a device called a land torpedo against the gargoyles.

The final three weeks of the Paris sequence introduced a new Big Bad—the Comtesse de Potocki, eventually revealed to be the legendary vampire Addhema, as seen in Paul Feval’s wildly pulpy 1865 novel The Vampire Countess. After plenty of obstacles, mind control, and barbed mockery from an opponent too powerful to defeat directly, they pestered their foe enough to prompt her to abandon her Paris HQ.

In parallel with this struggle, in another liqueur-fueled journey to Carcosa, Ida met with Cassilda and was given a baby to “take care of.” Choosing to interpret this instruction in a kinder light than the Carcosan princess clearly meant, she brought the baby, named Isaac, back to earth.

I could have spun out another episode or two to bring the Paris sequence to a conclusive end, but instead chose a sudden shift to The Wars, where Isaac Philipson’s story would continue. For more on that, tune in 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. Pre-order The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.


We can say relatively little for certain about the life of Robert W. Chambers, but it is clear from his work that knew France and its history. For this reason it is tempting to believe that the name Hildred Castaigne, unreliable narrator and protagonist of the classic Yellow King story “The Repairer of Reputations,” took its inspiration from the early 19th century murderer Edme Castaing.

Castaing, a young and impecunious doctor, befriended a pair of wealthy patients, the brothers Auguste and Hippolyte Ballet. In 1822, the consumptive Hippolyte died while in Castaing’s care. His fortune went to Auguste, who made Castaing his heir. Half a year later, after drinking wine and then milk given to him by Castaing, Auguste also died after a prolonged fit of vomiting.

Both victims had been in their early twenties. This fact, added to Castaing’s financial activities, triggered official suspicion. Investigation focused on his purchase of a then-new medicine, morphine, before the deaths. Castaing was arrested and tried for murder. The jury found him innocent of Hippolyte’s death but guilty of destroying his will, and of murdering Auguste. He went to the guillotine on December 6, 1823.

In the entangled realities of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, the mere difference of a few letters in a surname doesn’t stop us from identifying Castaing as an unlucky link in the dynastic chain running from the Pallid King to Hildred Castaigne. He had all the sinister predilections of his family without a Mr. Wilde to fully usher him to his destiny.

Ghosts feature heavily in Chambers’ other, lesser horror tales. In keeping with those, the characters from your Paris sequence could meet up with this earlier, slightly misspelled member of the bloodline in phantom form. Perhaps they encounter Castaing’s shade at the Place de Greve, the site of his guillotining. Or in Saint-Cloud, the bucolic Parisian suburb where he poisoned Auguste, during their stay at the Tête Noire Hotel.

Like other Chambers ghosts, Edme might not look or sound dead at all. He could seal his friendship with the occult-busting art students with much-needed medical treatment. His unearthly healing powers might allow the discarding of Injury cards that aren’t normally gotten rid of with a First Aid success. Over time Edme might abuse his friendly GMC status to mislead the group into spreading the influence of the Yellow King, increasing his own powers. Only by researching the seventy-year-old story of Edme Castaing can the group discover that their apparent benefactor is neither alive nor on their side.

Naturally, if he suspects they’re onto him, he’ll reach for the syringe full of phantasmal morphine he keeps in that little black bag of his.


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes a couple of design innovations that first appeared in Cthulhu Confidential and imports them back into multi-player GUMSHOE. Most notably, its QuickShock sub-system uses cards to represent the specific ongoing consequences of mental and physical harm. Importing them into previous GUMSHOE games isn’t a simple matter, and at any rate QuickShock’s speedy one-and-done fight resolution doesn’t fit the vibe of every setting.

Another change, on the other hand, could easily apply to any GUMSHOE game. In fact, we’re already building it into the recently announced new edition of Mutant City Blues.

This change drops the ratings and pools associated with investigative abilities. Instead of having a varying number of points to spend on non-informational benefits, each character starts play with 2 Pushes. You can spend a Push to gain a benefit from any of your investigative abilities. (Or in some edge cases, a benefit untethered from any of them.)

Here’s the relevant section from YKRPG:

Pushes

Characters can spend Pushes to gain benefits tied to their Investigative abilities. They never have to spend Pushes to get information, especially not information vital to moving forward through the story to solve its main mystery.

For example, you could spend an Art History Push to:

  • acquire a painting you covet at a bargain price
  • establish a friendly prior relationship with a famous artist appearing in the current scenario
  • deflate a bullying sculptor by exposing the technical flaws in his work
  • impress a snob with your fine taste, winning her confidence

You never use Pushes on General abilities.

Some Shock and Injury cards can be discarded by spending a Push.

On occasion the GM may allow players to gain benefits not connected to any ability in the game, in exchange for a Push. For example, a player might ask if a flammable haystack happens to be situated conveniently close to a farmhouse she wants to burn down. That isn’t under the character’s control in any way, but for the cost of a Push can be put within the player’s.

Your character starts each scenario with 2 Pushes.

Unspent Pushes do not roll over from one scenario to the next.


A few specific effects may in rare cases give you an additional Push. Mostly though you don’t refresh them until the current case ends and a new one begins.

Pushes simplify and speed up the introduction of extra benefits into a session. They encourage you to go for a benefit only in key story moments. Also they skip a lot of head-scratching over what might or might not be a useful and appropriate expenditure of points for each separate ability.

We’ve also heard about a few GMs who assume, never mind what the rules say, that PCs can no longer gather information with an investigative ability after spending its pool to 0. Removing the numbers next to the investigative abilities on the character sheet should eliminate stop folks from reaching this mistaken conclusion.

Adding Pushes to an existing GUMSHOE game, or your own adaptation of the core rules to another setting, involves a few simple steps:

  • Drop the current text regarding investigative points. This includes references to the costs of specific spends in ability descriptions, scenarios, and so forth. You may decide that less than spectacular 1-point benefits can be had for the asking, and do not cost a Push.
  • Add the above text, changing examples as needed.
  • Adjust the number of investigative build points. It now becomes the number of investigative abilities in the game, divided by the number of players in your group. You may want to tack on an extra 2-4 points for a large group with unpredictable attendance, or for groups who prefer to have the workhouse abilities like Bullshit Detector and Reassurance duplicated within the group.

Alternatively, you could drop investigative build points altogether, either:

  1. dividing the abilities into 6-8 kits inspired by the setting’s basic character archetypes
  2. distribute abilities between members of the group by going around the room at the first session, allowing each player to pick one ability at a time until all of them have been allocated to at least one PC

Choice 1 reinforces the genre of your game, and works even if all of your players fail to make it for the first session.

Choice 2 allows more freedom of character concept and may thus appeal more strongly to experienced GUMSHOE hands. But you’ve got to get everyone in the same room (or online channel) to make it happen.

In the first case, abilities from unchosen kits are distributed during play, so that the first player who needs a given ability gets it. The player supplies a snippet of background detail explaining how they picked this up. Characters aren’t suddenly flash-learning the discipline, but rather mentioning for the first thing something they’ve been able to do all along. Make sure that these abilities wind up being distributed roughly equally between players.

Sample kits for The Esoterrorists might look like this:

Professor

Archaeology

Architecture

Art History

Astronomy

History

Linguistics

Federal Law Enforcement Agent

Bureaucracy

Forensic Accounting

Forensic Psychology

Interrogation

Law

Research

Homicide Cop

Bullshit Detector

Cop Talk

Evidence Collection

Interrogation

Intimidation

Local Knowledge

Medical Examiner

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic Entomology

Natural History

Pathology

Photography

Reassurance

Debunker / Stage Magician

Anthropology

Chemistry

Cryptography

Explosive Devices

Flattery

Occult Studies

Techie

Ballistics

Data Retrieval

Document Analysis

Electronic Surveillance

Fingerprinting

Textual Analysis

Con Artist

Flirting

Impersonate

Languages

Negotiation

Streetwise

Trivia

(Were I designing The Esoterrorists from the ground up to support kits, I might collapse some abilities into one another, and throw in some additional Interpersonal abilities so every kit can have at least one. But that covers the existing abilities.)

The upcoming new iteration of the GUMSHOE SRD, promised as part of the Yellow King Kickstarter, will include Pushes, along with all other elements designers will need to release their own QuickShock games.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the latest episode of their self-referential podcast, Ken and Robin talk adapting creatures between systems, Rich Ranallo, behind the podcast scenes, and the Mad Gasser of Mattoon.

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.

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