A sourcebook for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game

The Carcosans Are Coming

Have your Yellow King Roleplaying Game players grown complacent battling gargoyles, vampires, and riot dogs? Do you have a reality horror mystery crying out for a fresh and bizarre villain to drive it?

The Yellow King Bestiary solves your problems by helping you create some for your Belle Époque art students, Continental War soldiers, alternate reality ex-insurgents, and ordinary people trapped in unraveling normalcy.

From alien parasites to warped human conspirators, from hungry buildings to incarnations of drought, from gods torn from the pages of myth to war machines that hunt in wolf-like packs, The Yellow King Bestiary presents 86 new Foes to mystify, haunt and menace your investigators.

Throw icewater into your player’s veins with 100 brand new Shock and Injury cards. The book also includes all the preexisting cards you need to run these adversaries and beasties without reaching for any other volume.

Foe descriptions key themselves to one of the game’s four twisty sequences. Each entry also includes hooks inspiring you to repurpose the Foe in the other three settings.

With this book in your feverish hands, the investigators can:

  • Tremble in aesthetic unease when confronted by the Living Portrait!
  • Flee the blazing weapons fire of the Angel of Mons!
  • Shudder at the razor teeth of the hinge-jawed Flip-tops!
  • Open their apps to fall into the validating, concerned clutches of the Chirpers!
  • And much much more…

Whatever hole opens up in your reality today, an antagonist from The Yellow King Bestiary is ready to slither out of it, through your mind and into your heart.

Authors: John Harness, Kira Magrann, Sarah Saltiel, and Monica Valentinelli, with Daniel Kwan

Project Status: in copy-editing

Release Date: TBA

Status: in copy-editing

Release Date: TBA

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in December 2007. 

by Steve Dempsey

This article discusses an improvised variant of the GUMSHOE rules. It can be just as easily used for Esoterrorists, Fear Itself or any of the forthcoming books.

Most games of GUMSHOE are played using a scenario that the GM has written. Not only does he introduce each scene and play the non player characters but he also decides in advance what the clues are. Although the GM does not dictate the path the players will take through the adventure, he has a strong hand on the tiller as the clues he chooses will determine to a rather large extent what the players do.

There are some good reasons not to always play this way. Stephen King says in On Writing, “I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” When you tie this in with the GM’s creed, “No scenario ever survives contact with the players”, you will see that the improvised game has some advantages over one written by the GM.

What you might lose on intricate plotting you are likely to gain on player involvement in the creative process and character play. Players will be much freer to take the scenario in directions that seem more natural to them and their input will have a greater impact on the story.

Improvisation is nothing terribly difficult to do, the main impact of playing this variant is that the game is not planned up front by a GM but is developed in play by players and GM alike. This means no prep for GMs, other than learning the rules. I’ll be discussing the details of how to do this in three easy stages. Finally I’ll give an example that shows how this works in play.

1. The set-up

As with any improvisation, you have to have a theme. It’s an improvisation on something. If you don’t have a theme, then the players won’t know what kind of characters to make.

So start with a theme. It doesn’t really matter how you come by this as long as there is some consensus within the group. You could let the GM choose (“You’re all students at a Japanese high school, getting ready for a school trip”) or you could have a group discussion about what sounds cool (“I want things lurking in doorways”, “I want magical rituals that take years to cast”, “I want a scene in an 80s disco”). You could also choose something that relates to a moral question (“How far are you prepared to go to stop the monsters?”) or a dilemma (“Family or Job?”).

But remember that this is GUMSHOE: Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues, Death in the Dark Ages. It’s all about investigation. Some terrible crime has been committed, the bastions of reality are under threat, and the characters are the ones to deal with it.

For your theme you should also discuss the nature of this threat or crime, even if you don’t want to know the details at this stage. For example, the Japanese schoolgirls are a shoe-in for some kind of mad slasher and the 80’s disco idea smacks of Son of Sam or Zodiac.

You could discuss who the villain of the piece is going to be. This could be oblique (some Mythos deity) or explicit (one of the schoolgirls). It helps the game if you have some idea of what you are aiming for. It should also help with pacing. You don’t want the bad guy to be revealed to the characters in the first five minutes.

It’s a good idea, although not necessary, to write down the outcome of your discussions regarding the theme. It’s a handy resource for players and GM alike who can refer to it when making decisions about characters or plot.

Once you know what the theme is, make up some characters. In many games, this is down in utmost secrecy lest anyone steal your cool idea. In improv, we have a different way of doing things. You all do your characters together. Talk about your characters to each other and say when you like something. Give positive feedback.

Improv thrives on feedback. You are the audience as well as the actors so big yourselves up. It’s not just about getting a good vibe, this is also about riffing off each other’s characters. If you’ve gone the schoolgirl route, you’ll need to know who is the class swot, who is the cheerleader and who has psychic powers. You’re characters don’t necessarily need to know, but your players do. You need to know where conflicts will arise because that’s what makes the game interesting.

You can do this by each introducing your character once generation has been done, but that’s a short cut that misses out the links that you can forge between your characters if you do the job collaboratively.

In improv GUMSHOE, investigative skills work differently. They still allow characters to automatically find core clues or to be spent on supplementary clues. That much does not change. However, because there is no prewritten scenario, the choice of skills determines what the characters are going to encounter. If no one has Art History as a skill, the characters aren’t going to be looking at many paintings. If they all have high trivia scores, then what happened in last week’s episode of Full Metal Alchemist is going to be much more important.

Decide how long you want the game to last. This can be done by deciding on the number of core clues. One is generally not enough but you can play a decent one session game with only three or four core clues. Don’t forget that some scenes will not be about clues but for transition or colour. Whilst you might like to go for a mammoth ten core clue game, this is probably a bit much and I imagine is best broken down into smaller three or four clue episodes, each with their own internal logic but all building blocks in the greater plot arc.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the latest episode of their unstoppable podcast, Ken and Robin talk about stuff Live from Gen Con Online.

When asked to explain GUMSHOE, a key section part of my standard spiel goes like this:

“GUMSHOE says that it is never interesting to fail to get information. When you use an Investigative ability, you never have to roll a die. If you have the right ability and use it in the right way, you simply get the clue. However, in the case of other abilities, it is interesting, if sometimes horrible to fail—you slip and fall when the vampire is chasing you, or get caught sneaking into the installation, or are thrown from your horse while trying to impress the empress and her sneering courtiers. These are the general abilities, which you do have to roll for.”

By definition I only present this pitch to people unfamiliar with the game.

Old hands, like the people reading this blog, might have a question, though.

How interesting is it, really, to fail at certain classic GUMSHOE general abilities?

Most general abilities lead to clear positive outcomes on failure and negative consequences on failure.

With the various fighting skills, you win a fight or land a blow. Sneaking / Infiltration gets you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Riding, Driving and Piloting avert disaster during chases and other dangerous transportation situations. Stability / Composure maintains mental self-control in weird or pressuring situations. In all cases, success gives the players a triumphant moment, while failure ratchets up the tension.

But what about the resource-related general abilities, you might ask. This list starts with Preparedness, the general ability every other member of the Pelgrane team were mad at me for picking first when we did the “My Favorite Ability” video series. Other examples include Network from Night’s Black Agents and Scrounging from Yellow King Roleplaying Game: The Wars.

On the surface, failing a test with these abilities leads a character nowhere.

  • A Preparedness failure means you don’t have the ingredients for an improvised explosive.
  • A Network failure indicates that your favorite Sevastopol gun dealer can’t sell you a Dragunov SVD because she just got bagged by the GRU.
  • A Scrounging failure establishes that you’ll don’t find a cache of stored rations to feed those starving villagers.

A less astute reader than yourself might consider these uninteresting failures. It is true that they don’t move the plot forward. Still, they carry an emotional resonance, because they allow the players to specifically envision what success looks like.

When you ask if you have explosives ingredients, know a gun dealer in Sevastopol or can locate a nearby food cache, you’re imaginatively envisioning a possible event. This gives you a moment of hope. Readers of Hamlet’s Hit Points will recognize this as an Anticipation beat. Should you succeed, you get a second emotional up moment. (HHP beat analysis calls this a Procedural up beat.) Should you fail, you instead feel disappointment, as the prospect of the explosion, gun buy, or relief operation you were picturing melts away on you. Either way, the failed test carries emotional content — or, you might say, interest.

If you always succeeded with resource-style general abilities, you wouldn’t get that. The possibility of failure, even when it requires you to scrap one idea and find another, is what makes these abilities exciting in play.


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 The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 


You can also read Simon’s articles on 1930s Rail Transport and 1930s Air Transport.

an article for Trail of Cthulhu by Simon Carryer

While by the 1930s, diesel engines were revolutionising rail transport, and giving birth to a burgeoning flight industry, on the sea and on rivers, steam was still king. Unlike with trains and aircraft, large ships remained in service for decades, meaning that many of the ships that transported passengers of the 1930s were built as early as the 1850s, and some ships built in the 1930s remain in service today.

The steam turbine, first turned to use in seagoing vessels in 1897, was able to produce far more power than a traditional reciprocating steam engine. By the 1930s, all large ships were being built with such engines, allowing unprecedented speeds. For ships built in the thirties, the most popular fuel for running the boilers was no longer coal, but fuel oil. This meant that modern ships could run with a much smaller crew than earlier vessels. A typical small passenger steamer would have no more than a dozen crewmen, including a few stewards and cooks for the care of passengers. Larger vessels of course could have hundreds of crewmen (The Queen Mary, launched in 1936, had over a thousand), and were almost like floating towns, the crew forming their own community below decks.

Steam ships were used to ferry passengers between all major sea ports, and most navigable rivers were also serviced by ship. Such ships came in all shapes and sizes, from tiny paddle steamers, which could carry no more than a dozen passengers, to more modern screw driven steamers, which could carry hundreds of passengers in total luxury. The variety, diversity, and ubiquity of steam ships through the decade makes a detailed description by area almost impossible. It can be assumed that for most regions throughout the 1930s, if the region was accessible by water, and had any kind of population, then a steam ship would go there.

Passengers on ships in the 1930s could come from any walk of life. Immigrants to the USA (less common in the 1930s than in previous decades) would pack into giant transatlantic steamers, while more wealthy passengers could enjoy hotel-like conditions in first-class cabins. Outside America, river networks were frequently the backbone of trade in developing nations, and such rivers were packed with ships carrying all kinds of passenger, from native labourers to wealthy foreign investors.

Transatlantic

For the duration of the 1930s, passenger travel across the Atlantic was conducted almost exclusively by sea. Whether travelling in the greatest luxury, or sweltering in steerage class, anyone wanting to travel between America and Europe would almost certainly do so by sea.

Following WWI, several of the largest German “superliners” (large ships designed and used for transatlantic passenger shipping) were transferred to America and Britain as war reparations. Of these, the Mauretania – the holder of the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing for a twenty-year stretch ending in 1929 – is surely the most well known. Under new management, these huge ships continued to serve the transatlantic route. Travel aboard such vessels was glamorous and popular for many passengers the journey, and the style in which that journey was conducted, was as important as the destination. For first class passengers, the experience can best be compared to a modern cruise ship: meals, entertainment, sightseeing and socialising were all taken care of by the ships’ staff.

By contrast, the conditions experienced by passengers in steerage (the hold of the ship) could be miserable. Before the United States closed its borders in the 1920s, immigrants to America would sleep packed together like cattle, eating a common meal that was described as frequently almost inedible.

New ships built in the thirties achieved even greater speeds. Two German ships, the Bremen (named after its home port) and the Europa were the first to challenge the Mauretania‘s dominance, but throughout the decade the Blue Riband continued to change hands. The ships competed not only for speed, but also for glamour. With the transatlantic route no longer dominated by immigration to the United States, ships built in the thirties were designed as much for elegance as for speed. Competition was fierce, as several of the largest companies (including White Star, of Titanic fame) were operating at a loss for the first half of the decade.

The Arctic

From the 1860s onwards, steam powered icebreaker ships were developed, which allowed unprecedented exploration of the Arctic. Icebreaker ships rely on speed and strength to run their bow up onto a sheet of ice, and then break down through it. Steam power proved ideal for such a task. It was not until the start of the 20th century, however, that such ships saw regular service. The Klondike gold rush caused a surge in Arctic exploration. Union Steam Ships, with their characteristic black and red funnels, regularly serviced the Canadian and Alaskan coasts, even running tourist cruises from warmer southern ports into the frozen north.

Tramp Steamers:

With few regulations, large profits to be made, and steam ships becoming ever more ubiquitous and affordable, the thirties saw a proliferation of small-scale operations. None were more small-scale than the tramp steamer. Operating as a one-ship company, tramp steamers worked to no fixed schedule, going wherever there was money to be made. In the colonies, a great deal of shipping was conducted by tramp steamer, rather than by regular lines. While most tramp steamers were freight ships, they would not have turned down paying passengers, and indeed anyone with sufficient finances could charter a steamer to almost anywhere in the world.

Operating on a shoe-string budget, and often dodging regulations and taxation, tramp steamers often existed in a grey area on the edge of civilisation, and the law. The crews of such vessels could hail from any country, and tramp steamers often hired crew who could not find work elsewhere. Tramp steamers were romanticised even in their own time as an adventurous lifestyle, and they were the setting of many a pulp novel. While the reality was frequently much more mundane, tramp steamers were still an exciting part of the decade.

Adventure Seeds

A Cult Afloat: The crews of tramp steamers were often drawn from the most remote and exotic ports, and lived their lives isolated from normal conventions or authorities. In such circumstances, the worship of strange ancient gods could take hold among a crew, who due to their itinerant lifestyle could commit all kinds of awful crimes without discovery. There are still many unexplored or forgotten places left in the world, accessible only by sea, and such places could be a haven for such cults. Worse, in the holds of giant passenger liners, crews might spend weeks or months at sea. Miles from land, the passengers would be at the mercy of whatever unspeakable ritual the cultists wished to perform.

The Ghost Ship: Stories of ships found drifting, seemingly abandoned, and yet perfectly seaworthy, have chilled sailors since the discovery of the Mary Celeste in 1872. Such a mystery could attract significant interest from investigators, and if the ship’s route could be determined, an expedition might be launched to discover the fate of the crew. If such a voyage lead into dangerous, uncharted, or infrequently travelled waters, a party of hearty souls would be required for the job.

Strange Visitors: The US and Great Britain were paying increasing attention to border customs and immigration during the thirties, but smuggling remained rife. Criminal organizations that had cut their teeth in the prohibition era remained in operation, smuggling more illicit goods. Eldritch substances in the wrong hands could find their way onto the streets, as a new kind of drug. Worse, with the US imposing ever stricter regulations on immigration, the thirties saw the birth of people-smuggling into the United States. An old-world cult, or some degenerate tribe from the colonies, could find entrance to the States through one of the many ports along its coastline.

Related Links


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

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 


Find James Semple’s stings for Trail of Cthulhu here, and you can also find the soundtracks James composed for Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Sting, Sting, Sting

A GUMSHOE issue we’ve talked about before is the challenge of smoothly ending investigative scenes, especially interactions with witnesses and experts. In the fictional source materials on which the game is based, authors and scriptwriters deftly and invisibly handle scene endings. A mystery novelist need merely end a scene on a pivotal line and then cut to the next one. Shows like Law & Order make a science out of finding interestingly varied reasons for witnesses to scoot offstage as soon as they deliver their core clues. Whether they have classes to attend, clients to see, or children to look after, minor characters on procedural shows are always halfway out the door. Scenes in the interrogation room are usually cut conveniently short by the appearance of the defendant?s lawyer, or the squad lieutenant, appearing to bring yet another piece of crucial intelligence.

Although you can sometimes give your NPCs reason to cut off interview scenes after the clues have been dispensed, continually coming up with these organic scene-enders can be taxing. So in the core GUMSHOE rules, as per The Esoterrorists, p. 55 (of the first edition), we offer this suggestion for an out-of-character signal that a scene has ended.

Before play, take an index card and write on it, in big block letters, the word SCENE. As soon as the players have gleaned the core clue and most or all of the secondary clues in a scene, and the action begins to drag, hold up the card. When the players see this, they know to move on.

Since then I’ve found a better technique which seems more organic still. (It requires the use of a laptop, which some groups find disruptive.) In place of the SCENE card, use brief music snippets. In soundtrack parlance, quick clusters of notes signaling a jolt or transition are known as stings. That’s the music you hear in a horror movie when something jumps out of the closet, but turns out to only be the house cat. Although they’re grouped together for jarring effect, the most famous movie stings of all are the piercing violin glissandos accompanying the shower murder sequence in Psycho.

Music works differently on the brain than a visual cue like a card with text on it. We’re used to having music appear under our entertainment to subliminally direct our emotional responses. Text jars us from one mental state to another, forcing us to more consciously decode the contents into meaning. The card is disruptive, breaking us from the imaginative state required for roleplaying, where music enhances that state. Oddly enough, the appearance of the music cue begins to seem like a reward for a job well done than a strange intrusion from another mode of cognition. It feels more like permission to move on than a jarring shove forward.

I started using the stings at a player’s suggestion, borrowing the most ubiquitous sting in television, Mike Post’s cha-chungggg scene transition sound from the various Law & Order shows, as a scene closer for internal playtests of Mutant City Blues.

When it came time to playtest Trail Of Cthulhu scenarios I opted for the three-note threnody that is the monster’s motif in Franz Waxman’s seminal score for The Bride Of Frankenstein . The use of a score from the 1930s period greatly enhanced the period atmosphere.

Now, courtesy of longtime gamer and media scorer James Semple, we have four custom stings for your GUMSHOE pleasure. They evoke the classic horror scores of Waxman and Max Steiner but, because the scary music grammar they laid down seventy years ago persists to this day, work just as well for Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists as for Trail Of Cthulhu.

Another musical enhancement worth considering is the introduction of a theme song. You’ll be expecting your players to sit through this every week, without the visual accompaniment that comes with a TV title sequence, so trim your chosen theme music to twenty to thirty seconds. The main purpose of a theme song is to produce a cognitive marker separating the preliminary chat phase of your session from the meat of the game. Again, this is a much more pleasant and subtle mood shifter than the old, ‘OK guys! Are we ready to start? OK, good!’

A theme song also provides thematic indicators to any campaign, GUMSHOE or otherwise. Want to emphasize sleek futuristic action? Pick a chunk of your favorite techno track. Is your emphasis more on psychological destabilization? A spiky work of classical modernism may prove suitably unnerving.

To help players think of their characters as part of a fictional reality, I also often kick off a first session by having them describe the pose they strike during an imaginary credit sequence.

Of course, this just scratches the surface of the uses to which cued-up audio can be put during a game session. When the heroes walk into a smoky bar, you can signal the kind of establishment they’ve entered by playing the music pounding from its PA system. Sound effects are all over the Internet, from amateur freebies to expensive cues created for professional productions. Once you get used to using your laptop’s audio program as a game aid, you’ll never have to describe a wolf howl again. Instead you can cue up real wolves to do the howling for you.

As technology becomes cheaper, multimedia game aids will become increasingly prevalent. When digital projectors hit impulse-purchase pricing levels, look out.

Related Links


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

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008.


Media composer James Semple has created some musical stings for use with Trail of Cthulhu. James has worked with Cthulhu before (in a manner of speaking), creating the intro to the excellent Yog Radio, and he composed a Trail of Cthulhu soundtrack and effect album. Several years after this post originally appeared, he also composed our Night’s Black Agents soundtrack. For Robin D. Laws’ article on using musical stings in GUMSHOE, check out “Sting, Sting, Sting.”

by James Semple

Strange Meetings

This is a tension/anticipation piece inspired by the music of classic horror films. I would use it when introducing a new element in a game: an important NPC, a new location, perhaps even arriving at a railway station or port and seeing your mode of transport for the first time.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Although slightly anxious, I feel that this music neither raises nor lowers the tension. It’s definitely transition music introducing a change of scene, especially with time passing (e.g. …and the next day).

The Big Reveal

This is more than a cliche, it’s practically mandatory! This is definitely the music to use when the bad thing happens: it could be the villain unmasked or it could simply be that the group hear terrible news.

…And So On

A very short sting. Definitely a default transition. It doesn’t really imply much other than a vaguely sinister mood.


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

In the latest episode of their authentically regal podcast, Ken and Robin talk Vampire: the Masquerade PCs as Night’s Black Agents villains, unlikely movie stars, food books, and Andorra’s 13 day king.

While searching for French vampire inspiration for a new Night’s Black Agents campaign I’m running, I came across Paul Féval’s La Ville Vampire. The Wikipedia synopsis doesn’t do it justice.

in which the protagonist is Gothic Novel writer Ann Radcliffe herself. In it, to save her friends from the dreaded vampire lord Otto Goetzi, Radcliffe and her fearless vampire hunting companions, Merry Bones the Irishman, Grey Jack the faithful old servant, the revenge-driven Doctor Magnus Szegeli, and Polly Bird, one of the vampire’s earlier victims, mount an expedition to find the legendary vampire city of Selene.

As a tale of gothic horror, it’s somewhat lacking – one big action scene is a drunken Irishman with a magic spoon vs a whole city full of vampires, and my countryman comes out victorious – but the vampires are so off-the-wall weird that they deserve a Night’s Black Agents writeup.

A Society of Horrors

“Each vampire is a collective, represented by one principal form, but possessing other accessory forms of indeterminate number. The famous vampire of Gran, which terrorized both banks of the Danube around the town of Ofen in the 14th century, was man, woman, child, crow, horse and pike.”

If a vampire drains a victim to death, the vampire can incorporate that victim’s essence into itself. It can then create a shade of that victim, a physical copy that’s bound to obey the vampire. The shade can merge back into the vampire when no longer needed. Shades left alone for too long may stray or become capable of independent thought.

The shade is not always a perfect copy; if the vampire’s unlucky or the victim’s resilient, then the vampire succeeds only in incorporating a diminished and changed form of the victim. Monsieur Goetzi, for example, devoured an Austrian soldier whose shade manifested as a young boy (but retained the captain’s military knowledge and taste for drink), while a Jewish moneylender was reduced to the shade-form of a parrot. (In game terms, the victim gets to make a contest of Stability against the Vampire’s Aberrance; if the victim wins, the vampire gets only the diminished version, or even no shade at all.)

Shades retain their original game statistics (reduced if the shade’s a diminished version), but can draw on the vampire’s Aberrance pool.

Creating a shade costs the vampire one Aberrance; this is refunded when the shade remerges with its master.

If a shade is slain when outside the vampire, it melts away, and the vampire’s Aberrance is permanently reduced by 1.

A vampire cannot have more shades than its Aberrance rating.

Entering Shades

A vampire can submerge itself inside one of its shades if it prefers, giving it a sort of shapeshifting. For example, Monsieur Goetzi could hide himself inside the parrot-shade.

The Synovie

In the period when Doctor Otto Goetzi came to the county of Stafford to be the tutor of Edward S. Barton, he was still only an apprentice vampire. He had neither a double nor any accessories at all. Do you remember poor Polly Bird, the daughter of the High Farm, whose premature death set the whole parish mourning three years ago? Well, my friends, it is the unfortunate Polly Bird herself who is speaking to you. Monsieur Goetzi, when he received from Peterwardein the diploma of a master vampire, immediately chose me to be his double and the foundation of his interior mechanism.”

The vampire’s first victim is of special importance – the first victim’s shade manifests as a copy of the vampire. Féval refers to this shade as the synovie, and it seems to be a sort of major-domo or organising principle, responsible for keeping the other shades in line. The synovia has the same ability scores as the vampire, and has the memories and personality of the vampire overlaid onto its original mind.

Deprived of access to its synovie, a vampire cannot manifest its other shades. In the novel, Goetzi’s synovie ends up reasserting her original personality when separated from her master, while retaining her physical form as a perfect copy of the original vampire. (She still thirsts for blood.)

Duplication

When his accessories had departed, Monsieur Goetzi duplicated himself so that he would have someone to talk to. He lit a fire, and anyone who lifted his eyes that evening from the valley floor to the summit of that inaccessible peak, untrodden by any human foot, would have seen two grey shapes squatting in the snow, warmed by a livid brazier.

All the vampire’s shades, with the exception of the synovie, can create a single duplicate of themselves at the cost of one Aberrance each. When a duplicate remerges with the original shade, this Aberrance is refunded. Duplicates have exactly the same ability pools as the original when conjured. Therefore, it’s tactically sound for a vampire to conjure all its shades and then have them all duplicate themselves before going into battle, so everyone’s got maximum Health and Combat pools.

A slain duplicate vanishes.

Clockwork Heart

Merry Bones plied the scalpel conscientiously and proved his talent for butchery. But beneath the slicing edge of the blade, not a single drop of blood sprang forth. Evidently, nothing but the heart itself was alive; its envelope was dead and dry. “Pay attention, please!” said Polly. “My life is attached to that of my master by a small thread of nervous tissue, which you must cut before touching the heart. You will find eleven such threads in the pericardium: one for each of my co-accessories. My own thread is the first on the right. Can you see it?”

Vampires have clockwork hearts that secrete a ruby-red liquid. A severely injured (reduced below -12 Health) vampire is not slain, but requires rewinding via a keyhole in the left side of the breast. Such keys are held by an evil priest (it’s not clear from the text if there’s a singular evil priest who has a single key, or if there’s one evil priest who has a bunch of keys, one per vampire, or if a wounded vampire is expected to wander until he happens to meet an evil priest who happens to have a suitable key), but rewinding the vampire restores it to full Health. A suitable evil priest dwells in the city of Selene.

If the vampire’s heart is extracted and burnt, the ashes of the mechanical heart can be used as a potent bane against other vampires.

Even when the vampire’s at full health, a little fluid leaks from the keyhole over the course of the day; bloodstains on a shirt can give away the presence of a vampire.

Death Stench

I ask your permission now to use a rather offensive word; circumstances demand it. Nothing stinks like a vampire who is at rest in the freedom of his own house.

A Wounded or mostly dead vampire exudes a potent stench, suffocating anyone in the same room (lose 1 Athletics or Health each round). Preparedness for smelling salts (or, in the modern day, a gas mask) guards against this effect.

Eldritch Glow

Towards evening, when the shadows of twilight descended upon the Rhine and its banks, a pale green glow appeared…

Light sources near a vampire burn with an unnatural greenish tinge; this green shade intensifies if the vampire spends Aberrance. At night, when a vampire is near, even the moon can appear to glow with a green light. In the modern day, this effect extends to electronic screen display and electric lights.

These stats are for a relatively weak vampire like Monsieur Goetzi; older and more powerful vampires can have vastly higher abilities, with Aberrance scores of 50 or more (and a matching number of shades).

General Abilities: Aberrance 10, Hand-to-Hand 6, Health 10, Shooting 6, Weapons 4

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +1 (drops to -1 if the vampire spent Aberrance recently, due to the eldritch glow)

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist or kick), -1 (barbed tongue) or -1 (golden needle)

Armour: Vampire flesh is “rather tenuous; it is soft and a trifle sticky”, and glows faintly at night. It counts as 1 point of Armour.

Shades are composed of a sort of ectoplasm that’s not any more resilient than normal flesh; a shade that’s reincorporated within a vampire regenerates all damage within 24 hours.

Free Powers: Drain, Death Stench, Clockwork Heart

Other Powers:

1-Aberrance: Society of Horrors, Duplication

2-Aberrance: Strength, Vampiric Speed, Sorcery

Banes: Vampire Ash (consuming vampire ash causes a vampire to explode)

Blocks: Running Water (a vampire can cross running water, but only feet-first; shades must be carried across)

Dreads: Fire, Courage (a host of vampires hesitated to attack Merry Bones, and fled when Lord Wellington showed up.)

Compulsions: A captured vampire is compelled to serve and obey its captors, just as a shade is compelled to obey a vampire.

Requirements: Rewinding, feeding.

 

Go Team Vampire!

The major villain of Le Ville Vampire, Monsieur Goetzi, isn’t an especially effective threat – his internal menagerie consists of a bald heiress, a militant urchin, a dog, a murderous parrot, and a serving girl-turned-synovie who ends up betraying him). A more competent vampire could seek out and incorporate a whole team of specialists into itself, and rely on their mastery of mundane skills instead of burning Aberrance on Vampiric Speed and Strength. An elder vampire could be a whole wealthy family or a corporate board of management, discarding and replacing shades to hide its immortal core. Féval’s vampires can feed on animals as well as humans, so a vampire might show up with a built-in horse – or, for that matter, a pair of tigers.

As a vampire’s shades are compelled to obey their master and are inherently trustworthy (as long as regularly ‘debriefed’ by reincorporating them), a vampire could play all sorts of mind games against a team of hunters – is that your Network contact, or the shade of him? The novel brings up the ‘alibi-ity’ of duplication, letting a vampire be in two places at once to confuse players even more – or send disposable minions or even suicide bombers against the players. Finding a way to identify a shade with Diagnosis or Vampirology should be the first priority for the player characters!

Next up – things get even weirder, as we enter the Vampire City!

“When you ask who built this mound, the only answer is the echo of your own question within the vault that has been hidden in darkness within this mound for no one knows how many centuries. The dead past has surely buried its dead within the mound.”

— artifact collector J.G. Braecklein, quoted in the Kansas City Star (Dec. 15, 1935)

In August of 1935, John Hobbs of the Pocola Mining Company broke into the sealed chamber beneath Craig Mound, near Spiro in eastern Oklahoma. He and his comrades discovered dozens, possibly hundreds of burials, accompanied by thousands of inscribed conch shells, effigies, arrowheads, ceremonial weapons, copper plates, and cloaks, along with bushel baskets of beads, pearls, and copper needles. Hobbs and his crew were on Craig Mound legally — they had leased it from the owner — but not in it legally, Oklahoma having just passed its first antiquities act in July to prevent exactly this kind of thing from happening. Hobbs and the Pocola Miners became simultaneously the discoverers of the greatest archaeological trove in North American history and the linchpins of the “pot-hunting” community. American archaeologists, then and now, call anyone who digs up Native artifacts without a doctorate “pot-hunters,” a term just a notch above “grave-robbers.” (Native Americans, then and now, often don’t see what difference a doctorate makes to the grave robbery.) But in the pit of the Depression, pot hunting put food in, well, your pot.

Hobbs and team at Spiro (Leviathan, not pictured)

Their iffy legal status, and the huge supply of artifacts, drove the Pocola diggers to unload priceless items for a few dollars, supercharging the market for the next decade. Dealers from Arkansas just across the border such as Joe Balloun, Goodrich Pilquist, and H.T. Daniel arrived on the site just after Hobbs did, in late 1933, buying pots and arrowheads turned up in smaller mounds nearby for fast cash with no records kept. Other dealers arrived after the news broke in August 1935, carting away literal carloads of artifacts to Chicago, Ohio, New York, and anywhere else they could sell them.

Artifacts moved from the diggers to the dealers to the collectors. In the 1930s, collecting Native American artifacts was a huge hobby; almost every boy had a few arrowheads in a cigar box. The monthly magazine Hobbies: A Magazine For Collectors ran a column called “Around the Mounds” about American archaeology, and filled its classifieds with ads for “Indian relics.” On another level, the architect J.G. Braecklein and his friendly rival Harry Trowbridge assembled museum-sized collections in their Kansas City houses; Colonel Fain White King did likewise in his Kentucky mansion. All three became major bidders for Spiro relics. Glen Groves of Chicago headed the North American Indian Relic Collectors’ Association, and became a major middleman between the local dealers and the Smithsonian. Even actual archaeologists like Robert Bell and Sam Dellinger of the University of Arkansas lowered themselves to buy from the pot-hunters. The University of Oklahoma partnered up with oilmen, who siphoned off prize specimens for their own private museums in Tulsa and Bartlesville.

“They were very curious, these open-air ghost tales; and though they sounded flat and prosaic in the mouths of the white people, they had earmarks of linkage with some of the richest and obscurest phases of native mythology. All of them were woven around the vast, lonely, artificial-looking mounds in the western part of the state, and all of them involved apparitions of exceedingly strange aspect and equipment.”

— H.P. Lovecraft with Zealia Bishop, “The Mound”

Although Spiro is all the way across the state from Lovecraft’s Ghost Mound in Binger, the mighty underground empire of K’n-yan surely flung its tendrils at least as far as the Arkansas River. The Caddos and Wichitas of “The Mound” are, per current anthropological consensus (and Oklahoma state law), the heirs to the fourteenth-century Caddoan-speaking builders of the Spiro mound complex. Said consensus also identifies the Spiro builders as priest-kings of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), what an earlier generation of archaeologists dubbed the Southern Death Cult. That religion focused on a war between Overworld and Underworld, the latter personified by a Great Chaos Serpent that also eerily resembled a black panther. This conflation of Yig and Tsathoggua (or Tirawa, as the also-Caddoan Pawnee knew him) may explain the “black drink” ceremony of the SECC. Following the pearls, conch shells, and other aquatic artifacts of this inland empire logically points us toward the Tulu Indians, also called the Coligua, now known as the Tunica. Their language is not Caddoan but an isolate, and the Coligua-Tulu spent much of their history the irrational targets of their neighbors’ rage as they moved from the Spiro area down the Arkansas River valley and south to Louisiana.

When whoever the Spiro builders were finished Craig Mound around 1420, it had been almost exclusively used as a necropolis for a century or more. Abandoned shortly thereafter, it remained completely deserted. The Caddoans left it very much alone, and the transplanted Choctaws refused to go near it, settling their slaves in the mound country after Emancipation forced them to provide them land. As in Lovecraft’s tale, ghost sightings proliferated near the mounds. There was even a “curse of Spiro Mound” of a sort, as the Poteau lawyer who provided the Pocola Mining Company its paperwork, the young co-owner of the mound James Craig, and the Reverend R.W. Wall (one of the Pocola investors, and a respected Black minister) all died within three years of the chamber opening. Craig died of tuberculosis, and Wall drowned in a suspiciously shallow stream.

Was someone — or Something — closing off loose ends? Was there a dealer in Arkansas — or a dealer-collector team — who recognized the significance of the “black residue” in the conch shell cups, the eye-in-hand motifs on certain gorgets, the Signs of the Spider and Swastika incised into stone pipes? Are your Trail of Cthulhu Investigators scrabbling to uncover the missing “copper box holding surgical tools” that vanished from the dig tent, or to destroy utterly the “eight-foot giant in armor” that local rumor claimed to have seen in the hills? Are they perpetrating, or penetrating, the forgeries that abounded around the site? And was it they who, just as the Pocola Mining Company lease expired on November 27, 1935, set off an immense black powder charge within the burial chamber, collapsing a third of the mound and destroying everything remaining inside it? Or maybe destroying just one, very old Thing …


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

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