In our third Pelgrane Video Dispatch, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan reveals his favorite GUMSHOE ability. Robin’s was obvious. Many guessed Ken’s. But can you predict Gar’s answer? Only a click on the video will tell the tale!


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

Our new Pelgrane Video Dispatches series continues with Ken’s favorite GUMSHOE ability. Robin’s was easy to predict. Will Ken’s choice come as a surprise?


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

With most of us stuck at home, either all day or after returning from a day’s work of essential service, we at Pelgrane figured it would be a good time to get plans for video content off the backburner. The contents of my own YouTube subscription list are looking pretty sparse these days, with mainstream producers off-line and scrambling to create their own work-from-home alternatives.

We hope to get some longer-form pieces out to you eventually. As con season rolls around we’ll all be hungering for the panels and events we’d otherwise be enjoying at in-person events.

First though we’re getting our feet wet with a series of Pelgrane Video Dispatches, starting with various members of the team revealing their favorite GUMSHOE abilities.

Once we’re done with that question we’ll tackle others. Feel free to pitch us suggestions to add to our list!

Collect every installment by subscribing to the Pelgrane Channel on YouTube.


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the present COVID-19 crisis, many of us, myself included, have canceled our in-person roleplaying sessions to comply with social distancing or shelter-in-place public health regimes across the world.

This Thursday, after a hiatus, I’ll be switching my in-person game to remote. (I’ve just started “Canadian Shield”, an extremely variant Fall of Delta Green series.)

As more tips and tricks for remote play come up I’ll share them with you here on the Pelgrane site. Let’s get started, though, with what I’ve learned during previous forays into online tabletop.

1. Use the platform you already know.

Everyone who has already racked up extensive remote play experience expresses a preference for a particular combo of tools for video conferencing and the virtual play space.

For video, Discord, Zoom, Google Hangouts and to a lesser extent Skype all have their adherents. Each brings its own set of pluses and minuses. In the end your choice of video app may depend on the quirks of each player’s device setup. You may wind up shuffling through a bunch of them before you find the one that happens to function for your entire group.

As far as play spaces go, Roll20 already has resources for 13th Age and GUMSHOE. We’ve just added DramaSystem.

If you’re already familiar with a video conferencing app and/or virtual tabletop, skip the learning curve and use that. It works; don’t fix it.

2. If you haven’t done this before, I prefer Google Hangouts and Slack.

Google Hangouts hasn’t let me down yet. It’s free, and pretty seamlessly handles switching to the person currently speaking. That’s the most important feature of a video app for game play and it does it well. Google has announced that they’re ending this service soon, but if I understand their PR correctly, what they’re actually doing is rebranding their video chat to sound more business-friendly. Google can hook you on a service and then whip it out from under you like a rug, but I’m guessing that we’re safe when this one changes to its new incarnation. I wouldn’t bet on that happening according to its original timetable, either.

For GUMSHOE and DramaSystem, I use as my virtual tabletop a tool not remotely designed for that, the group project messaging platform, Slack. It is a platform I use for other purposes every day and know how to use. I already use it for face-to-face when running The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, having found it the best solution for serving electronic Shock and Injury Cards. When teaching that system I upload a card image to the game’s main channel so everyone can feel its horror. I also drop the cards to each player, in our private message inbox. When they discard cards, I delete them from the private message inbox, so that it contains only the cards currently held.

Maps, images, and other handouts I upload to the main channel as well.

Slack’s advantage over its competitors in its category lies in its ease of use. A newbie can immediately figure out its simple and intuitive interface.

I’d use Slack for any game that relies primarily on dialogue and description, which describes both GUMSHOE and DramaSystem.

In fact I’d probably use it to run 13th Age. I don’t use a battlemap when running that in person, so wouldn’t bother with one in remote play either.

A game that does require a tactical map will naturally push you toward one of the purpose built virtual tabletops. These all have to handle D&D and Pathfinder. If you’re playing a game of that crunchiness online you’ve bought into the extra handling cost.

3. Leave in the Socializing.

Especially now, much of the point of an online game is to feel the connectedness we might ordinarily seek out around a table, at a con, or in a game cafe. The formality of the online experience might tempt you to cut right away to the case. You may know each other less well, or not at all, if playing online. Even so, give everybody time to chat a bit before getting started.

4. Expect a shorter session.

Though this varies for every group, in general the online meeting format promotes an efficiency you may find yourself envying when you return to face-to-face. Video conferencing requires participants to be conscious of who has the floor at any given moment. It reduces crosstalk and kibitzing. People used to conducting real meetings on video tend to step up to help guide the discussion and move toward problem-solving. The software does a good bit of your traffic management as GM for you.

For this reason you’ll find that remote play eats up story faster than a leisurely in-person session. The pace of any given episode more closely resembles the tighter concentration typical of a con game group that has found its rhythm. Your group will likely decide what to do faster, and then go and do it with fewer side tangents, than they would at your regular home table.

When this happens, you may find yourself wondering if you shouldn’t add more plot to keep your ending further away from your beginning. Instead, embrace this as the dynamic operating as it should. If it takes you three hours to hit five or six solid scenes, where in person it would take four, that’s a good thing.

5. Expect a more taxing session.

In addition to respecting the pace your session wants to have, you should aim for shorter sessions because the experience of gaming remotely takes more out of you, and each of your players, than face-to-face will.

Many of you will be sitting in less comfortable chairs than you’re used to being in. Those with home offices may already have been in those chairs for an entire work day already.

The concentration required to pay attention to people on video conferencing taxes the brain more than face-to-face. You’re trying to assimilate the same amount of communication from one another with fewer cues to work with. This tires any group, physically and mentally. Expect that and pace your game accordingly.

When you see a time-consuming setpiece sequence coming up, check the clock to see if you’ll be able to do it full justice given these constraints. Never be reluctant to knock off early and leave folks wanting more next time you all join up.

6: For Slack, use the Dicebot app.

To return to a platform-specific point, the Dicebot Slack app allows any participant to roll dice right in the channel. It easily does the d6 plus spend modifier for GUMSHOE. It inherently reminds players to announce their pool point spends before rolling, another neat advantage over physical dice.

Speaking of games that scorn the battlemap, Dicebot also handles the more complicated positive d6 + negative d6 + modifier roll seen in Feng Shui.

7. Whatever the platform, use a dice app if you players can possibly be coaxed into it.

Some players need that tactile dice-touching fix. I wouldn’t force online rolling on them, but having rolls take place visually in front of everyone does enhance their emotional impact by allowing everyone to see and react to the results.

Dice provide suspense . A die roller, in whatever platform, shares that edge of the seat moment when you see who succeeds and who’s about to take a Shock card.

8. Use a shared Google Doc for note-taking.

Since they’re all on a device anyhow, encourage your players to contribute to the group chronicle by setting up a shared Google Doc. Gussy it up with a graphic touch or two to build tone and theme.

9. Keep online versions of character sheets.

You’d think players won’t lose paper character sheets if they’re not leaving the house, but of course we misplace stuff in our own places all the time.

For GUMSHOE, the highly recommended Black Book app does all of the work of keeping online character sheets for you. It has just extended its trial period for player accounts.

Absent a specific tool, keep updated character sheets in a Dropbox folder or, for games where characters are simple as they are in DramaSystem, in a Google Sheet. I’ve done this for my “Canadian Shield” game.

Stay tuned for more tips. I look forward to the day when I can update this post to remove references to the pandemic as a current event. Until then, stay safe and, as much as you possibly can, the hell inside.

In the latest episode of their unswervingly loyal podcast, Ken and Robin talk Night’s Black Agents vampire concealment, Gideon & Longknife, Robin’s Yellow King novel, and Time Inc vs the Iowa caucuses.

One stretch goal we didn’t get to in the DRACULA DOSSIER Kickstarter was the Plague capstone, where Dracula weaponises a new virus and takes over the world. I rather wish we’d hit that one – all that research and preparation would have been handy right about now.

Anyway.

Like the rest of the world, the Pelgranes are hunkering down and hiding in our respective nests while we weather this strange time. We’re switching our games online, we’re obsessively washing our claws, and we’re hugging our loved ones (or waving at them from a suitably safe distance). We’re mostly old-school gamers – virtually all of my gaming is face-to-face – so it’s something of a learning curve. But there’s no alternative, as we stare into this year of social distancing and probably-no-cons. No doubt many of you are in similar situations.

So – what can we do for you? What sort of resources, articles or products would be most useful to you in the days to come? Do you want more One-2-One scenarios to play at home? More content for virtual tabletops? Essays on running games for kids? Online panels? Let us know in the comments.

And stay safe out there. A world-wide threat that we can fight by staying home and gaming? This is the time we’ve been training for all our lives!

St. Patrick St. Patrick. Your only man, really. Taken as a slave to Ireland, escaped, then went back to bring Christianity to the heathens of Ireland. A grasp of both theology and vegetation, by all accounts. Got rid of the snakes, so he did, so he did. Best known now for being a really effective marketing campaign for Irish tourism, but put that aside for now – and grapple with seven shamrock-flavoured GUMSHOE scenario seeds. Most of these are best taken with a pinch of salt… or a generous portion of Writer’s Tears whiskey…

Trail of Cthulhu

St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland, and we all know what snakes are a metaphor for, right? Tentacles. The pagans of Ireland had associations with underwater prehuman civilisations and monstrous gods – clearly, an outpost of the Deep Ones. The only question is, who was Saint Patrick working for? He’s said to have been inspired by a dream – which might be the mocking meddling of Nyarlathotep. Another tale speaks of his staff sprouting into a tree, which smacks of the Black Goat’s work. Or maybe his abduction wasn’t to Ireland, but to Yuggoth – was St. Patrick a tool dispatched by the Mi-Go to rid Ireland of the Deep Ones (or Serpent People)?

In 1937, your investigators are about to find out, when the draining of a bog reveals an ancient ruin…

Night’s Black Agents

A parade’s always a good place for a fight scene. It’s usually Chinese New Year or Carnivale, but there’s no reason you can’t have a cinematic chase sequence with the participants dodging through brass bands, Irish dancers and leprechauns. (Of possible use – plenty of police offices and priests, just what you need when hunting vampires). Bonus points if you set it in Ireland, maybe while pursuing clues from the Dracula Dossier – Irish Patrick’s day parades tend to be rather shabby and dull compared to American extravaganzas, so you’ll have heroic life-and-death battles on the back of a float advertising some local insurance company…

Mutant City Blues

The victim’s a mutant, so the case landed on your desk. How do they know she’s a mutant? Her skin’s bright green, shifted as part of the celebration using the Alter Form ability. It’s fading, though, which gives you time of death – about three hours after the parade. Alter Form’s correlated with Impersonate – and there was an incident during the parade where a firework went off right in front of the mayor’s stand, clouding the whole area in smoke. Could that have been cover for a switch-out? Was this mystery mutant mimicking the mayor? And if so, why? And who killed her?  

The Esoterrorists

The Irish are, in general, relatively easy-going. Cultural stereotypes of drunken brawlers with a dozen kids and a pig under one arm? Sure, ‘tis all in good fun. 800 years of oppression? Well, aren’t we all Europeans now?

Calling it “St. Patty’s Day?” War to the knife.

Why? Why does that error trigger blind rage? Why do other countries insist on doing it, when “Paddy” is right there? I mean, that’s not great either. And “St. Pat’s” is fine – what strange, esoteric sorcery is there to implant such horror in two little letters?

And once the Esoterrorists have refined this sigil, what else might they attach it to? The Illuminati had their fnords – what if the Esoterrorists successfully create a magical rune that can cause outbreaks of fury in anyone who unwittingly sees it?

Ashen Stars

The synth-culture planet of the Old Country was created to appeal to Human nostalgia for some vanished past that never was – it’s a planet of scenic little cottages, dreary bogs, dancing at the crossroads, and lively village pubs. During the Mohilar War, however, a Durugh warfleet occupied the peaceful Old Country. These Durugh refused to believe the war was over, have rejected the Durugh king’s command to switch sides, and have dug in, constructing underground shelters accessible only by phasing. Down there, they’re experimenting with last-ditch doomsday weapons including time-manipulation technology obtained from the Mohilar…

So, you’ve got an idealised fiction of mid-19th-century Ireland, occupied by heavily armed fairies. The Lasers get called in to find a way to convince the Durugh to lay down their weapons and accept that the war is over.

TimeWatch

No St. Patrick, no Christianity in Ireland. No Christianity, no monasteries. No monasteries, no preservation of knowledge during the Dark Ages. No preservation of knowledge during the Dark Ages, VICTORY OF THE SOPHOSAURS! The TimeWatch team need to guard young Patricus and ensure he meets his destiny…

EXCITING BONUS CONTENT!

Here in Ireland, and across much of the rest of the world, St. Patrick’s Day parades have been cancelled due to the, er, world-wide pandemic. There are plans afoot for virtual or roleplayed parades – kids will be sticking appropriately green-themed artwork in the windows across cities – and moving real-world events into imaginary or virtual spaces is a skill we’ll all have to master very quickly in the weeks to come. So, join us in our festive St. Patrick’s lockdown, and stick a shamrock in the window.

When I run The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in one-shot format, I improvise based on the Deuced Peculiar Things players specify. I provide them with this set of Paris pregens, which leaves the Deuced Peculiar Thing open for all but the Belle-Lettrist. I use that essayist character to cheat my way to the fun, and the core motif of the game. That character gets a Deuced Peculiar Thing indicating that somehow maybe the publication of the play is their fault, in a fuzzy way they no longer comprehend.

I open the action in the art students’ favorite cafe, Le Veau Gras (Paris p. 99), setting the tone of the game by inviting the characters to commiserate over their overindulgence of the night before.

As I prepped for my recent online game for top tier Kickstarter backers, imagine my surprise when I realized that I never designed Injury cards to portray hangovers! How could I have possibly done this so many times without that vital piece of design work? It’s like creating D&D and forgetting fireball.

Why it’s almost as if I was involved in the production of a cursed roleplaying game, in a fuzzy way I no longer comprehend.

Well, best not to think of that, as we Bohemian artists say.

Anyhow, I whipped up this pair to introduce the concept of Shock and Injury cards to the players.

HUNG OVER

Injury

After 1 or more scenes, discard by complaining that others don’t care enough about your hangover.

WHAT YOU DID LAST NIGHT

Injury

-1 to Focus tests.

After 1 or more scenes, discard by remembering a problem you caused during last night’s festivities.

These require Difficulty 4 Health tests to avoid. If they were Shock cards, tempting players to burn Composure, I might be more merciful and assign a Difficulty of 3. Health isn’t typically as precious in these one-shots so I can afford, for rule-teaching purposes, to start with the typical Difficulty.

As Injury cards go, these are not especially onerous. The minor card of the pair doesn’t even impose a mechanical penalty, except for the standard incrementally increased threat of having your investigator removed from play for having too many cards of one type in hand.

I also took care to give the cards discard conditions that are both fun and easy to meet. The discard conditions demonstrate how cards work in general as they nudge players to contribute to the establishment of tone.

Every time I’ve run this, the story has moved on from this simple scene to a radically different direction, from animated statues, to climactic bloodshed on the Pont Neuf bridge, to a time loop that trapped the investigators in the room where they were designing a float for the annual Art Student’s Ball.

Whatever introduction you use to draw your players into the Carcosan terrors of the Belle Epoque, I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll find some way to make use of these new cards.

For no reason that I can think of offhand, you may be wondering how to stay fit now that you’ve been sent home from work.

(In this scenario you are lucky enough to have a job that can send you home, and also fortunate enough to be able to contemplate an exercise routine.)

I swore I wouldn’t become the guy who talks about his workout but as someone who already works where he lives, I do have this one weird trick some of you may find useful.

If you don’t have the room or dough for a full-sized exercise bike, head to your online retailer of choice and type in “mini exercise bike” or “portable exercise bike” in order to own a cheap piece of plastic junk like the one pictured here.

As you can see, durability is not its strong point. The onboard timer on this one crapped out about a year in. The straps that keep your feet in the pedals have long since been replaced by generations of duct tape.

But if you pull up a chair, slide your feet in, and are ready for a bit of annoying wiggling around to keep it in position, bingo, you’ve got all the benefits of a fancy schmancy exercise bike.

I use the interval training system, the stop-start method of one minute fast and strenuous, alternated with one minute slow and leisurely. Over the last few years I’ve had bizarrely great results with it. As I am not a doctor or a fitness coach, I’ll leave you to research the details of interval training from people who are.

My whole routine, timed to songs, goes like this. For warm-up and warm-down, I pick songs between 3:30 – 4:30 long, except for the fast songs to cycle to, which can be any length as long as they add up to eight minutes.

One arm warm-up

One leg warm-up

One song of vigorous arm exercise

Eight minutes of interval on the bike, alternating fast and slow in one minute intervals

One medium tempo warm-down

One slow tempo warm-down

I use a phone app to time the shifts between intervals. There are a bunch of them out there. The one I use is the aptly named Interval Timer.

If you can stand my taste in music, I have a whole bunch of Interval training playlists on my Spotify account. Because I am a game designer, I have numbered them so I can pick one at random each morning. Here’s an example:

I find it much easier to talk myself into doing this routine than general aerobics. Yes, that’s what I’m saying, it is easier and gets better results than anything I’ve tried before. The biking even somehow gives markedly better results on the arm stuff. And while this paragraph makes it sound like I have purchased an interest in a mini-bike manufacturer. I assure you that I have not.

In particular I find this routine easier than calisthenics because, once the arm exercises are done, I can look at my phone the rest of the time, countering the WELL-DOCUMENTED MIND-NUMBING BOREDOM OF EXERCISE.

With interval training you are supposed to rotate days of not doing it. I am a non-stickler on this bit, usually knocking off on the weekends.

If you are anything like me you may also be happy, as we hunker down in our enclosed spaces for the coming rough patch, to have a way of offloading useless stress adrenaline. There are only so many beers. Or so many beers you should drink in a given period, at least.

And that’s the end of me breaking character. After this is over, remember, I never told you any of this.

In the latest episode of their crispy-in-a-good-way podcast, Ken and Robin talk agency in the sandbox, air frying, Alphonse Bertillon, and numbers stations.

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