In the latest episode of their merry, forest-dwelling podcast, Ken and Robin talk envisioning game writing in play, John Hays Hammond Jr, Robin Hood and alternate ecstasy history.

GMs sometimes fear that certain RPG abilities give away too much to the players. In GUMSHOE the abilities that most trigger these fears are the ones that actually act as the GM’s best friend.

Intuition in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is one of these. We can get to that one later.

The classic example is Bullshit Detector—or as it is known in games set in a more genteel era, Assess Honesty.

GMs read the description and worry that the capacity to spot the telltale signs of deception will ruin their mysteries. When you think about it, though, very few mysteries hinge on the simple question of whether a suspect is lying.

Remember, the ability doesn’t necessarily tell the character what witnesses are lying about, just that they’re fudging or withholding something.

Drive this home in play by including witnesses who have an unrelated secret they’re anxious to to conceal, from investigators and everyone else. They’re denying professional screw-ups, cheating on their partners, cooking the books, indulging in a reputation-destroying vice, or hiding their involvement in crimes the investigators don’t care about.

With many investigative abilities, I’ll prompt players who don’t ask to use them. Not so with Bullshit Detector. Players who have it get used to actively invoking it.

When I want to make it dead obvious that a character isn’t telling the truth, I don’t mention Bullshit Detector. Instead I play the GMC as obviously shifty, with darting eyes, a worried look, or blurted phrases.

Even when the investigator questions the main bad guy, knowing that he’s lying rarely does more than confirm an existing suspicion. It rarely moves the team further toward the solution of the mystery. It certainly doesn’t let the group short-cut its way to the ending.

Sure, you’ve got a hunch that he’s hinky, but that doesn’t get you a warrant, or prove to the Ordo Veritatis head office that it’s okay to call in the commandos. It narrows down your range of leads but rarely even serves as a core clue moving you to the next scene.

Yeah, Bullshit Detector tells you that Old Man Grisby is pulling your leg about something. But that doesn’t tell you to go to the ghoul crypt, or reveal his immortal past, or lead you to the confederate who can be bribed into turning over his document collection.

As a GM I find Bullshit Detector most useful in ruling out deception. Players often fixate on innocent secondary characters, deciding that they must be the dread masterminds. Or they might not like what a witness has to tell them, because it contradicts their current speculation on the nature of the case. “Mrs. Chan doesn’t strike you as dishonest,” nudges the players back on track.

In actual play you’ll find yourself worrying less about preserving red herrings than in separating players from incorrect notions they’ve firmly stuck themselves to. Bullshit Detector helps you do that.

In the latest episode of their globe-trotting podcast, Ken and Robin talk Carcosa Con, Daria Pilarczyk, stuff they saw in Poland, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

In an episode recorded live at Carcosa Con in Poland’s Czocha Castle, Ken and Robin talk Marco Polo and the Celts, the mythic power of mead, holy blood for vampires and more.

In the latest episode of our deliciously salty podcast, Ken and Robin talk Mythos creature selection, Dutch pistachio heists, the Library of Babel and  Douglas MacArthur conspirology

When seeking structural inspiration for DramaSystem play, you’ll find the purest sources in literary fiction and realistic drama. With no genre conventions to process, the bones of relationship-based storytelling clearly show through.

The satirical literary novel Startup, by Doree Shafrir, features an interconnected group struggling to stay afloat in NYC’s tech world. You could easily use it as the inspiration for a DramaSystem Series Pitch skewering the same scene. (To which about 20% of you are currently thinking “Oh no, that’s what I roleplay to get away from!”)

I bring it up here, though, for its foregrounding of a key dramatic storytelling technique, the explosive secret. Dramas often hinge on a terrible revelation that instigates the climax, changing everything for the cast of characters. Here Shafrir plants a bomb in pretty much all of the key relationships. Vaguely, to avoid spoilers:

  • a reporter has gained information in a way that will hurt her boyfriend’s career
  • a character has accrued giant credit card debt without telling her husband
  • another character makes his marital unhappiness clear to a colleague, who then gets to know his wife
  • a casual office affair has crossed the line into sexual harassment

These metaphorical bombs build suspense the way a literal bomb would in a thriller. As readers, we know they’re there, and we know they’ll alter or destroy relationships when revealed. In Beat Analysis terms, we fear that they’ll come out, and hope that the people we care about can either keep their secrets or will emerge all right on the other side of their revelation. (Having read more than one novel, we instinctively understand that they will come out, but want our viewpoint characters to avoid that all the same.)

When creating DramaSystem characters, you might add a step where each player describes a bomb that will change their relationship to another PC or PCs when revealed:

  • your husband, Big Axe, doesn’t know that Flowerleaf isn’t his son, but is instead Horse Talker’s
  • you didn’t really have the vision you claimed, so Horse Talker, not you, should be chieftain
  • you didn’t just fail to poison the snake priestess, as Big Axe demanded, but actually struck a deal with her
  • you know exactly where the lost scepter is, but keep it hidden to stop Sharpbrow from launching her peace plan

As a player, you can always set a bomb for your character regardless of whether the GM adds this step. You can do it during character creation, perhaps as an explanation for why you can’t meet another character’s need. Or you can introduce the bomb during the action, calling a scene in which you strike a deal with the snake priestess, check on the spot where you’ve hidden the scepter, or drop a line of dialogue suggesting Flowerleaf’s true parentage.

Players know more than their characters, allowing everyone to enjoy the delightful agony of knowledge, waiting for the bomb you’ve planted to go off.

Finally, as with many DramaSystem techniques, you can use this move in any other RPG game where relationships between the player characters matter.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In the latest episode of their high mimetic podcast, Ken and Robin talk options vs core experience, Northrop Frye, bugbears, and J. F. C. Fuller.

We’re happy to announce we’re once again taking part in Free RPG Day 2019 on Saturday, June 15th, and this year’s free Pelgrane giveaway features adventures for the forthcoming The Yellow King RPG and 13th Age.

The Yellow King RPG – The Doors to Heaven

Behind Iron Doors, a Gateway to Doom!

Paris, 1895. A sensation-seeking band of art students confronts supernatural invasion from an alien realm. A play called The King in Yellow circulates in the city’s secret, decadent circles, twisting the ordinary and corrupting the sacred. In the students’ latest case, a fellow student’s disappearance draws them to the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Legend claims that its iron doors were sculpted through a pact with the devil. Behind this tale the investigators uncover a stranger truth, replete with hooded figures, an unearthly plague, and the terrifying creatures that inspired the gargoyles.

 

13th Age RPG – Assault on the Dungeon of the Pogonomancer

The renegade dwarf wizard has returned from exile, and now his army of thralls lays siege to the fortress of his ancestors. Doom and kinstrife threaten the lands of the dwarves! There’s but one chance – if a small band of heroic adventurers can brave the passage of the Underworld, they could strike at the wizard’s secret sanctum where he plots with his mysterious allies from the depths!

Battle through the tunnels of the world below! Navigate weird perils! Face fiendish horrors! It’s a race against time – if you tarry, the dwarves on the surface will most certainly perish!

Above all, don’t get entangled – for the dungeon of the Pogonomancer is certainly one hairy situation…

In the latest episode of their restlessly exploratory podcast, Ken and Robin talk installation horror GMCs, Richard Francis Burton, rewatching movies, and Aaron Burr’s Upper Canada coup.

In the latest episode of their wide-open podcast, Ken and Robin talk spell side effects, private spy agencies, weird Kansas, and the thing in the Cincinnati subway tunnels.

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