A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game can be run at any scale, from one-shot to its ultimate form: four interconnected sequences set in 1895, an alternate mid-century war zone, a warped, post-authoritarian present day, and our own not at all disturbing contemporary reality.

As you contemplate getting going with the latter, you may be wondering how to structure your series. The real answer is that, like most creative endeavors, you’ll see how to do it when you start doing it. (Aided by the copious support given in the game book, of course.)

For the other answer, keep reading for a suggested framework of episode ideas. By the time we’re finished a month from now, you’ll have more episodes than you probably need. Take inspiration with the ones that spark with you or that contain elements you know your players will enjoy. Leave yourself room to adjust as you go rather than committing to an entire episode list ahead of time. This creates the space you’ll need to respond to player choices and input, placing them at the center of your series. Though some episodes self-evidently land during particular points in your arc, most can easily be shuffled around to build on the direction you find in play.

Episode 1: Beginnings

Start by improvising a scenario inspired by one or more of the characters’ Deuced Peculiar Things. Open with the art students recovering from absinthe hangovers at their favorite cheap cafe. They can’t entirely remember what happened last night, but have a terrible feeling that they’ll regret remembering.

Give players time to interact, establishing relationships between the main cast members. When this loses steam, introduce minor manifestations of a Deuced Peculiar Thing to lead them out of the cafe and into an investigation.

As a fallback premise, that the Sculptor’s latest statue has achieved animation and gone on a deadly rampage. Or the Poet has written a verse—or “written” a verse that really comes from a certain forbidden play—that alters the minds of those who hear it.

The game’s focus on reality horror allows you to improvise all manner of hallucinatory events, not all of which have to exert permanent effects: that murder was only temporary, or perhaps a premonition that can still be averted.

During this first mystery the art students learn about:

  • the play and its malign influence
  • the existence of the king and Camilla and Cassilda, at least as fictional characters
  • the intertwining of their destinies with this weird phenomenon

If you think they’ll want to receive specific missions from a patron, introduce that GMC as part of your wrap up.

This series opener gives them the chance to put a stop to one particular manifestation, and motivation to keep digging deeper.

Episode 2: Genre Literature Homage

Establish the game’s literary side with a Carcosan spin on a classic tale from 19th century literature, ideally French.

The Ghost of the Garnier scenario in the Paris book follows this template.

If one or more players are already familiar with it and you need something different, you might consider:

  • events at the Notre Dame Cathedral echoing Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
  • an adaptation of Maupassant’s story “The Horla,” about a psychic vampire epidemic. See p. 157 of the Paris book
  • a wave of sightings of Jules Verne-style airships above Paris
  • homages to the serials Les Vampires or Judex, displaced backwards in time by a few years, or Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which conveniently has a pallid mask already in it, also pushed back in time to the Belle Époque. Or look at Franju’s 60s remake of Judex.

Episode 3: Secondary Villain

Build a scenario around the introduction of a powerful villain outside the royal court of Carcosa. Although as always you have to be ready for the characters to dispatch your antagonist before you’ve realized her full potential, conceive it so they can solve the immediate crisis without having to do that. This recurring baddie could be:

  • a legendary vampire
  • a well-connected delver into weird science
  • a powerful sorcerer possessed of, or pursuing, immortality
  • a rebel Carcosan who aims to topple the king, without being a particular friend to humanity

Episode 4: Creature Feature

Slip in a straightforward and self-contained scenario of good old-fashioned monster problems, featuring any supernatural being from the Foes chapter. Each of these entries is written with an implicit plot hook for just this purpose. When in doubt, pick that most Parisian of entities, the gargoyle.

Episode 5: The Occult Scene

Review pages 126-133 of the Paris book, which profiles the leading personalities of the city’s metaphysical scene. Pick the figure who most interests you and wrap a mystery around him. Possible instigating incidents include:

  • a break-in at Edmond Bailly’s occult bookshop
  • a demon invented by conspiracy huckster Léo Taxil starts claiming victims
  • a sinister figure who might be the ghost of the notorious cult leader Abbé Boullan comes for Oswald Wirth and Stanislas de Guaita, the occultists who exposed him

Episode 6: Bring in the Royals

Bring in an Deuced Peculiar Thing that hasn’t had much spotlight time, connecting it to a threat to the lives and minds of innocent Parisians. To solve the mystery and end the threat, the art students must deal with a peculiar and magnetic personality who eventually turns out to be the King or one of his daughters. This might happen in the relative safety of a dream visitation, or in an absinthe delirium. The royal, seeing in the character(s) a resonance that will continue through history and realities, makes an attractive but dangerous offer.

Episode 7: Arts & Artists

An opportunity for the characters to do what they’re putatively in Paris for, training as artists, takes a turn for the Carcosan. Take inspiration from a Symbolist, Decadent or Academic painting, or springboard from the profiles of cultural worthies from pages 115-125.

  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec seeks protection from a knife-wielding doppelganger
  • dapper gossip columnist Marcel Proust needs help finding out which of the people he knows too much about is trying to kill him
  • a costume from Sarah Bernhardt’s latest production walks out of her wardrobe on its own steam, perhaps strangling a victim on the way to the stage door. Yes, it’s a tattered yellow robe. Why do you ask?

Join us next month as we continue to sketch out our arc with Episode 8 and beyond.

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.

In the latest episode of their well-oiled podcast, Ken and Robin talk fitting your PCs into historical events, the spy career Anton LaVey made up for Robert W. Chambers, ironic horror of the early 80s, and automaton maker John Joseph Merlin.

For International GMs Day, Ken’s favorite GMing tip is very timely indeed.

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 groovy podcast, Ken and Robin talk gaming Swinging London, the rise of the horror auteurs, Gamestop in Carcosa, and the Hart Island amusement park.

In the latest episode of their well-situated podcast, Ken and Robin talk location descriptions in city sourcebooks, Watergate era horror films, the eliptony of speed reading, and eldritch photographer William Mortensen.

The paintings of the Russian-born French artist Jean Béraud (1849-1935) offer a trove of inspiring images for the Paris sequence of your Yellow King game. Straddling the warring Impressionist and Academic camps, he specialized in scenes of everyday life and worked during and beyond the game’s 1895 setting. Like the action of a typical scenario, moods range from the glamorous to the seedy. Players might find their own characters in his signature scenes of late night drinking. As Game Moderator, you might spot any number of GMCs on his canvases. He portrays places as evocatively as he does people, allowing you to illustrate scenes set anywhere from the ballet to the streets.

1895 finds Béraud at the height of his fame, having won the Legion of Honor the year before. If he shows up, play him with the sardonic edge seen in many of his images. He sits on various exhibition committees. The artists in the group may meet him as he decides whether to admit their work into one of the city’s prestigious competitions. Do the investigators have to pressure him to withdraw from exhibition a mysterious painting depicting the hideous action of a notorious play?

Typical player characters if I’ve ever seen them.

This investigator is about to give up on Bonhomie to get the next clue from this hardcore absinthe enthusiast, and switch to a little Steel.

The group’s Muse wonders if she’s been stood up for her appointment with a mask-wearing gentleman.

As the Sculptor spins theories, the Architect takes notes.

Use the Society ability to pry loose the decadent secrets this louche character can spill.

If you can’t find a witness at a smoky cabaret, it’s time to try an outdoor ball, lit by those fancy electric lights the city is now known for.

Shop for food and information at the legendary market of Les Halles.

When in doubt, create an accident as a diversion.

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.

In the latest episode of their rigorously temperature-checked podcast, Ken and Robin talk introducing complex settings, late 60s horror films, bad cooking advice, and the Tsarichina Hole.


A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Most writers, whatever form they favor, fade into obscurity after their deaths. That goes triple for playwrights. The number of stage writers whose works are still produced in the English-speaking world is very spare. And only a handful of those wrote originally in other languages: chiefly Chekov and Ibsen, and also the Swedish realist turned Symbolist August Strindberg (1849-1912.)

Unsurprisingly, Strindberg looms even larger in his home country, where his novels, plays, essays, and paintings are also considered important. The Red Room is considered the start of the modern Swedish novel.

In translation, he is chiefly known for plays, most notably the hard-hitting family dramas Miss Julie (1888) and The Father (1887.) Known, but less often produced, are his later occult-influenced Symbolist works: A Dream Play (1907) and The Ghost Sonata (1908.) In the first, a daughter of the Vedic god Indra descends to Earth to engage in various allegorical encounters. The second includes, in addition to the titular ghosts, a woman who slowly transforms into a mummy.

What happens during the break between his early realism and his later proto-surrealism that might be of interest to GMs and players of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game? Funny you should ask. He moves to Paris, where he drinks a lot of absinthe and gets mixed up with the occult—right when your art student player characters are getting into trouble there.

In 1895, Strindberg is 46 years old and once again without a wife. His earlier stage works are known and respected in Paris, though they lack the bravura spectacle of the sorts of plays Sarah Bernhardt (YKRPG: Paris p. 115) chooses. Speaking of Bernhardt, Strindberg has become fast friends with the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (YKRPG: Paris p. 115), whose Art Nouveau poster designs for Bernhardt productions such as Gismonda have become the hit of the town and will forever define the graphic look of the period.

Strindberg and Mucha share an interest in the occult and mystical. The artist refers to his studio as a profane chapel, using it as a salon to chat about the esoteric with such fellow enthusiasts as the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (YKRPG: Paris p. 120) and novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (YKRPG: Paris p. 119.) Huysmans, you’ll recall, writes decadent novels later name-checked by Lovecraft, and remains under the thrall of a recently deceased Rasputin figure, the ex-priest and accused Satanist Joseph-Antoine Boullan.

As a result of his paranormal inquiries in mid-1890s Paris, Strindberg experiences a shattering psychic break, entering what is known as his “Inferno period.” In his 1897 novel Inferno, written in French, he fictionalizes his experiments with drugs, optics, alchemy and paranormal botany. While in the throes of his personal inferno he succumbs to pronounced paranoia. Entities he calls “The Powers” subject him to psychic attack, as punishment for the crimes of mankind. He owes this martyrdom, he says, to his past misdeeds.

Self-induced hallucinations described in Inferno include an incident where his fictional counterpart walks through Paris in the aimless flaneur style that will later be used by the surrealist Dreamhounds of the 20s and 30s to evoke magical connections. At Montparnasse station he randomly chooses a train to get on. He disembarks at the village of Meudon, where he encounters a “Roman knight in gray iron armor.” Yes, he realizes it’s a pile of melted blacksmith’s slag, but never mind that. An alchemical vision appears before his eyes, leaving behind leaden seals giving him a choice between his wife’s initials, or a king’s crown. In the novel, he selects neither.

But in reality? A psychic break among a traveler in occult literary circles around 1895? Surely Strindberg has either read that consciousness-shattering play, The King in Yellow, or heard enough about it to have its contents sink into his absorptive, sensitive artistic awareness.

That so-called Roman knight, who left him a choice between earthly ties and the crown of the king, sounds a lot like a Carcosan. So do “The Powers,” whose punitive aspect fits the pallid-faced nobles from the shores of Hali.

Another scene from Inferno features the narrator’s visit to a resort, where he hopes to rediscover his peace of mind. Instead he realizes that his rival in alchemy, Dr. Popoffsky, has followed him there. Having mastered the secrets of poison gas by murdering his own wife and child, Popoffsky now menaces the Strindberg figure. Terrified and weeping, the narrator retreats to his room, where a vaguely human shadow appears on the wall. Paralyzed, he stares at this being, which he dubs the Unknown, as it passes an electrical current through him over a three hour period. When he finally regains the power of movement he rushes into the corridor, only to find the floor attendant missing. He asks for another room, but the only one available is directly under the one he is sure contains his enemy’s electrical machine. Is it Popoffsky, or is that merely a guise of a Carcosan menace?

Your player characters can investigate the sinister truths Strindberg later transforms into the material of this hallucinatory, paranoid novel. You can find a plot hook like the above on nearly any page.

A PC victory against Carcosa might account for the subsequent transformation that lifts Strindberg out of this period and back into productivity. He embraces Swedenborgianism, the safest and most benevolently boring of the period’s mystical movements. At the end of 1896 he returns to Sweden and finds a circle of new literary friends in the university town of Lund.

In later sequences you might echo the characters’ brush with Strindberg by having their successors attend a production of one of his works. Frequently censored in his lifetime, Strindberg’s plays may only now be permitted in Aftermath’s post-authoritarian America. This Is Normal Now characters might catch a production that casts one of his earlier, more popular works in the weird expressionist style of his later plays. I once saw a brilliant version of The Father done this way. The one you describe might have a few more yellow signs in the corner.

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

Now that lots of you have had the chance to check it out, either in its original run on Twitch or now on YouTube, I thought you might enjoy a look behind the scenes at my process for preparing and running “Mr. Wilde’s Wild Halloween.”

These notes won’t make much sense until you check it out; it’s the Halloween game of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I ran for Misha Bushyager, Sharang Biswas, Ruth Tillman, Wade Rockett and Pelgrane magnifico Cat Tobin. It takes place in the game’s contemporary setting, This is Normal Now.

The premise for the scenario began with the desire to do something on Halloween. This led me to the thought of setting it at a Halloween party, with the players wearing their characters’ costumes.

Rather than use characters’ Freaking Weird Moments to draw them into the horror, I found reality horror inspiration in each costume.

Misha’s desire to be an Empress of Evil implied a group of would-be minions overly willing to perform horrible acts in her name—thus, the Larrys.

Cat’s flapper gear led me to invent the scenario’s central mystery. It provided an opportunity to invoke on a classic Gothic trope: the painting of an identical predecessor.

I knew that a weird scientist would hook directly into the scenario as it developed but didn’t immediately see an introductory moment. Eventually I hit on the idea of a desirable fellow party goer needing repairs to a robot costume. Sharang, it turned out, was way ahead of me, suggesting the very thing I’d hoped—a desire to meet up with someone his character was crushing on. This was a huge gift to me, as you can’t always count on tabletop roleplayers to want to bring a love interest into the mix.

My solo scene for Ruth was less about her costume than an opportunity to hang out with her favorite YKRPG character, the Dream Clown. (Her Black Star Magic scenario features this children’s TV host from the Aftermath reality.) She wound up springboarding that possibility sideways into another bit, the memories of the creepy imagined childhood staircase.

Finally, Wade’s idea that his character, James, would be half-assing his outfit led to the inevitable idea that his real costume, that of the King in Yellow, would be waiting for him at the party.

Splitting the characters up into solo scenes ensures a fair share of onstage time and narrative importance for each participant—a solution to a common problem of one-shots, where you don’t get a second session to give a neglected player more spotlight.

Having sketched these out, I worked out a backstory connected to the Robert W. Chambers story “The Mask.” You’ll find that at the end of this piece.

Then I backed up to the introduction. I wanted to start with matters already in motion, but not so abruptly that we couldn’t introduce the characters to each other and the audience. Here are my bullet points for the opening:

  • How are You Getting There?
  • Character Sheets and Rules Basics
  • Your Group Dynamic
  • What are You Hoping Happens at the Party?

Unlike a typical one-shot, this was a performance for an audience, where we wanted to fold in some system tutorial. In the end, it wasn’t that much different from what would happen at a convention table.

Just as in one-shots I run in Belle Époque Paris, I started with the opportunity for characters to encounter the evening’s horrors in an altered state. This shows off general ability tests and the Shock and Injury card system, and dovetails with the overarching theme of reality slippage.

The phantom Bugatti, visible to anyone receiving a Shock card, reenacts the accidental death of the woman in the portrait who looks like Cat’s flapper. This set up a direction not taken, in which the group finds out about her doppelganger’s death by researching the figure in the portrait, and then heads outside to get more information from the ghost.

(If no one had failed their tests, I would have given the vision of the Bugatti to the lowest successful scorers.)

From there you can see the scenario play out my sketched-out solo scenes, then reconverge the characters to commiserate, problem-solve, and investigate their way to the basement and the final confrontation.

Along the way you see my drop in a few of my fave moves:

  • the chance to make a deal with the devil
  • with the Larrys and their dance, an image that is funny yet increasingly horrible
  • an affable, matter-of-fact primary antagonist

Any scenario needs more possible paths than the players wind up taking. Otherwise you’re just ushering them through your plan, and not letting them help build the storyline. In a one-shot I’m happy to throw weird stuff at the players until they start looking for information. There is less clue-seeking here than you’d see if you eavesdropped on my home group—but our sessions tend to devote two or three sessions to each mystery. Here you see the players ignore all mention of a library in order to keep the story moving with the information they have on hand. Thankfully I had a bad guy willing to monologue the absolutely key parts to them during the climax.

The moment when everyone feels weird but no one takes a card was set up to have some of the PCs physically transforming into the costumes, as happens to GMCs at the party. This arguably happens to two of the characters anyhow, so it’s hardly a lost opportunity. Here are the cards that would have gone to characters who failed:

In an ongoing game I wouldn’t escalate the weirdness so quickly, instead doing more of a slow burn. I certainly wouldn’t kill off one of the players for having to leave early in the session! However Sharang’s brilliant characterization prior to his demise at a preset time fit the plot so thoroughly you might suspect us of colluding in advance.

But it wasn’t planned at all. I can prove that by showing you the rest of my notes. You’ll see lots of elements I had ready but weren’t needed.

Boris Yvain (1872 – 1895)

American born sculptor and chemist, parents French and Russian, died in Paris 1895

Gennady Yvain (1877 – 1941)

His brother, establishes Dragoncourt Chemicals, develops a line of preservatives (based on papers discovered in his late brother’s possessions)

Builds observatory as connection to the Hyades, crucial in developing new formulae, built in 1924

Jack Yvain (1900 – 1984)

his son, astronomer and, from the 1940s on, computer programmer

with the help of Carcosa uploaded his consciousness into mainframe at the observatory before his death

upgrades over the years have allowed him to live in increasingly comfortable servers, but he wants bodies, and with the alignment of the Hyades on October 31st he’s going to possess the bodies of multiple revelers

sure for that to work they have to mutate into monstrous versions of their costumes but hey you get embodied with the tech you have

Colette Nicolas (1902 – 1924)

Jack’s fiancee, flees the observatory after beholding the alignment of the Hyades, killed in one-car collision

distant relation of famous Lumiere brothers

at time of her death, her Lesley Gibson portrait is already in progress, it is completed and hung in the observatory in 1926

Jack has dalliances but never marries or has children, declaring the observatory his heir

Lesley Gibson (1874 – 1945)

American born painter, heir to the Gibson Shale quarry fortune

student in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts 1895-1894, friend of Boris Yvain

paints portrait of Colette Nicolas in 1923

Camille Lau – Chairman of the Yvain Observatory Foundation – she answers to Jack’s consciousness in exchange for prophetic stock tips; believes his cover story that the Halloween party is a much-needed fundraiser after the pandemic closures (which it is, but also mass possession) – dressed in stylish party dress with subtle cat ear headband

Ruben Suarez – party promoter; has a weird feeling but knows nothing; dressed as Mr. Wilde

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.

In the latest episode of their plangent podcast, Ken and Robin talk international animal trafficking, more early 60s horror flicks, Erik Satie’s Vexations, and court magician Michael Scot.

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