Summer weather has made a surprise appearance up here in the land of the silverbirch. And that means it’s time once again for the feature that really draws you to a site for a publisher of tabletop roleplaying games—cocktail recipes.

Let’s return to the favorite color of our favorite grim-visaged, reality-bending monarch with…

The Yellow Thing

2 shots dark rum

½ shot hazelnut liqueur

Juice of 2 Key limes

½ shot simple syrup

5 dashes angostura bitters

½ can club soda

Stir and serve on the rocks.

As always, erode the bounds between normality and decadence responsibly.

In response to our scenario design workshop, we were asked to delve a bit further into the distinction between core and alternate scenes in a GUMSHOE adventure.

TL;DR: Make sure there’s one path through a GUMSHOE scenario. Those are your core scenes. Add more paths. Those are your alternate scenes.

A Core Scene provides one or more core clues—information the characters need to find other scenes, where they will gain further information and ultimately gather all the facts they need to solve the central mystery.

To confirm that your story has such a path, plot your core scenes on a diagram. If you can draw a line connects them all, you have a story the characters can be successfully navigate.

For players to exercise agency, though, they must also be able to choose how they move through the story. That’s where the Alternate Scenes come in—they provide other ways for gain some or all of a scenario’s core clues.

You can build in player choice by using only Core Scenes, with scenes that include more than one core clue. If the scene “Library Fire” contains two core clues, which lead to “Coal Chute” and “Wary Widow,” the group that chooses “Coal Chute” first creates a different sequence of events than the one that picks “Wary Widow” first.

Alternate scenes allow a simpler, surefire way of guaranteeing choice within the story. If the core clue leading to “Coal Chute” is found both in “Library Fire” and “Map in the Glovebox,” the players can get to it from at least two directions.

You don’t need more than two or three alternate scenes. By definition, an alternate scene might not happen. By adding more of them you both increase choice, and increase the amount of material you prepare that won’t appear in play.

Not all alternate scenes include core clues. They might feature interesting or fun sidetracks that players can go down or not, as they prefer.

Other scenes might put the characters in danger without providing information. Most notable of these types is the Antagonist Reaction, triggered by player actions, in which bad guys initiate events that push back against the protagonists.

Non-informational scenes, triggered by player decisions, appear in some GUMSHOE games, an example being the Hazards seen in The Yellow King.

Every scenario diagram will and should look different. (The one shown here has its scene titles stripped out, to avoid spoilers.) As you can see, it is a pretty simple example, with a couple of Alternate Scenes and as many Hazards.

When designing a scenario, the first sequence of scenes you invent as you plot from beginning to end are your Core Scenes. That’s almost certainly the easiest and clearest course of investigation for the characters to follow.

When you build in additional choice by creating additional scenes that provide core clues, those are your alternate scenes.

The core / alternate distinction is a tool that helps the designer ensure that the scenario includes a) one viable path through the story and b) and other paths, too.

If you’re writing for another GM to run, the distinction shows your work, indicating which scenes will most likely happen and which ones might or might not.

Players never need to know any of this. For them, the scenes they choose to activate are the story. They don’t see what might have happened if they’d made other choices—unless they read the scenario, or get the GM to tell them.

Though the difference between the two scene types may seem complex when explained, it’s dead simple in practice:

  1. Find one sequence of scenes the characters can navigate to solve the mystery. Those are your Core Scenes.
  2. Add scenes that provide alternate paths through the scenario. Those are your Alternate Scenes.

As long as you follow those two simple steps, you can’t go wrong.


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 purple velvet podcast, Ken and Robin talk convincing your fellow players to follow your plan, Robert Anton Wilson, the not-Bronfman Curse, and NESARA.

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A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Last time we started laying out a loose episode structure for your Yellow King Roleplaying Game Paris sequence. Start there for episodes 1 through 7.

Episode 8: Visit from Home

Follow a time-honored serialized storytelling convention, bringing in a relative who drops into Paris to complicate an art student’s life, illuminating their backstory.

The relative’s personality contrasts with the characters’, sparking entertaining conflict. A stern investigator has a flighty, extroverted mother. The flibbertigibbet Poet has to squire around the forbidding father who wants him to set prose aside for the family insurance firm.

After a light comic opening, reveal that the relative arrives pre-enmeshed in Carcosan trouble. Mom has invested in a skin cream that owes its remarkable properties to black star magic. Father wishes to procure an antique at the behest of a masked blackmailer capable of ignoring the constraints of time and space.

A player may have already laid seeds for this by connecting their Drive to a relative. If someone’s looking for a missing sister or hoping to clear the name of a falsely accused brother, or came to Paris to escape a scandal involving a wastrel father, that story now surfaces, with a decadent, supernatural hook.

Episode 9: Police and Thieves

Dispatch the art students into the Parisian demimonde to solve a mystery with a criminal element. See pages 133-137 of the Paris book.

  • Oddly chosen targets of the latest anarchist bombing wave suggest a connection with Carcosa.
  • Prisoners released from Le Sante Prison commit murders they can’t remember. The art students must identify the inmate distributing smuggled excerpts from the play and untangle his vengeful scheme.
  • Sûreté head turned private eye Marie-François Goron enlists the art students in his inquiry into a hypnosis-related murder that echoes the old case that haunts him, the slaying of high profile courtesan Régine de Montille.

Episode 10: Psychogeography

Create a scenario that draws the art students to an iconic Paris location.

  • A ritual to feed souls to the king must naturally take place at the city’s axis mundi, also known as the Eiffel Tower.
  • How did strange yellow flowers come to overrun the botanical exhibits at Jardin des Plantes?
  • Are the lights seen at night at the Picpus Cemetery connected to victims of the revolutionary guillotine, or something older?
  • The Catacombs—portal to the shores of Hali?

Episode 11: Ripples from Brittany

Bring in haunted Brittany, site of Robert W. Chambers’ better supernatural stories outside his King in Yellow cycle. Either have the weird beings of its folklore show up in Paris, or send the art students on a road trip to the sea-swept coastal town of Brest. In this latter case, disturbances inland and out on the sea could presage the rising of Carcosan island, the model for the legendary city of Ys.

If you want to keep the students in the city, the mystery might revolve around:

  • the hulking, demonic church guardians called the Nain.
  • the troublingly self-willed and mobile skull of a Breton sorcerer.
  • a rash of improbable deaths, each heralded by the sound of an unearthly locomotive—a sign that the long-tressed Breton herald of death, the Ankou, has come to town.

Episode 12: Royal Return

A new mystery leads once more to the member of the Carcosan royal court you introduced in Episode 6. The plot the art students uncover is meant to further the royal’s previously established agenda. Build in opportunities for:

  • the player character most connected to the royal to pull away—or draw closer.
  • the other characters to interact with your big bad.
  • Foreshadowing an even bigger plot, which comes to fruition in episode 17.

Episode 13: Family Obligation

A message arrives from back home, urging one of the art students to attend to a matter concerning the family business empire. This leads to business or political intrigue instigated by a conspiracy bound together by the Yellow Sign. Depending on how the player describes the source of Papa’s wealth, this might involve:

  • sabotage of a ship or factory.
  • embezzlement to fund the conspiracy’s activities.
  • a smokescreen that falsely implicates the company in assassination or massive graft.

Episode 14: Weird Science

An experiment gone awry, no doubt after someone in the lab read the play, sends the art students on the trail of Patchworks, radium ghosts, or a device that sees past events—and then alters them.

Episode 15: Secondary Villain Returns

The recurring antagonist first seen in episode 3 returns, seeking revenge on the art students or running a new scheme for domination only they can unravel. This time, give them a solid opportunity to finish off this foe for good.

Episode 16: Political Entanglement

When scandal threatens a prominent politician, the art students can’t help but see a Carcosan modus operandi behind it. Investigation draws them into the halls of power, as they determine which of France’s factions have been suborned by the pallid mask. Is it the Legitimists, aka Monarchists, desperate to reverse their vanishing influence? The Bonapartists, believing themselves to be in communication with the spirit of Napoleon? Or those normal-seeming Moderates, who currently hold power and thus have the most of what Carcosa seeks?

Episode 17: A Glimpse of Hali

A climactic mystery brings back your chosen Carcosan royal and gives your players the chance to wrap up various sub-plots of this first sequence. The scenario allows the art students the chance to behold Carcosa, perhaps to travel there briefly. Whether they achieve a victory that feels suspiciously like a happy ending, or are drawn into a doom that will bedevil later counterparts depends on how well they do during the closing confrontation.

In the next installment of See P. XX, the series outlines continue, with the front half of a similar episode guide for The Wars.


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 Scenario Hook for Ashen Stars

The lasers pick up a contract for what appears to be a simple rescue mission. The massive freighter Never Given has lost faster-than-light capability and has become lodged in a translight corridor.

Characters with Astronomy or Forensic Engineering want to hear that last bit again. Lodged in a translight corridor? That isn’t possible!

Well, replies the client, it might not be possible, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening. Worse, the freighter’s presence prevents other ships from using the corridor. In an area with few FTL jump points, the accident threatens catastrophic shortages on a dozen worlds.

Hails to the Never Given garner nothing but static and garble. The contract calls for a crew to establish contact with them, rendering whatever aid is required to get that ship moving again.

The mostly automated ship runs with a skeleton crew. Once aboard, the lasers discover the survivors suffering from acute sensory disruption. They’re hallucinating, experiencing their memories of the Mohilar War. Like everyone, including the investigators, they lost all recollection of that conflict when it ended. Whatever they’re reliving, it’s traumatic, and jacking their medical readings into the danger zone.

Not long after boarding, the lasers start to flash back to their own repressed war histories.

Through investigation, the group discovers that radiation from cutting-edge computer components in the cargo hold has altered the temporal frequency of the entire ship, causing everyone on board to exist in two times at once. As they race for a fix before they too succumb entirely to the chrono-hallucinations, they must ask themselves—do they stay in their altered states long enough to learn more about the Bogey Conundrum? Or do they decide that the knowledge of the war ought to remain in the box some unknown force so dramatically put it in?


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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