Spooky maskWhen running a most improvised scenario (either something as ambitious as the Dracula Dossier or just riffing off a paragraph or two of notes), One Useful Trick is to have a copy of the investigative ability list for your game to hand, and check off abilities as you call for them or the players use them. That lets you see at a glance which abilities you haven’t yet used in play.

Then, look for opportunities to bring in other abilities. Treat it as a prompt, a challenge – “what’s the easiest narrative route in the game from this moment to the action hinging on Art History or Pharmacy or Flirting?”

Often, in improv play, you fall back on the sort of scenes that you’re most comfortable with; I can riff mysterious murders, spooky locations and sieges off the top of my head, but need to remind myself to do interpersonal scenes, crowds, or car chases.

Prompting yourself to bring in abilities you don’t instinctively default to is a great way to vary the scenes in your game. The players in my current Night’s Black Agents game, for example, are much more comfortable hanging back and observing, either by blending into the crowd, perching on rooftops, or getting full value out of all those points invested in Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance and Digital Intrusion. Tracking the abilities used reminds me in the heat of play to put in more interpersonal scenes, forcing them to use messy touch-feely abilities like Reassurance or Intimidation.

A neglected ability doesn’t have to be central to the game, of course. If you’re trying to bring in, say, Astronomy, you could just mention that the characters knows offhand that tonight will be a moonless and especially dark night; often, reminding players that they have a particular ability will start them thinking about ways to use those assets.

Don’t neglect General Abilities, either. If no-one’s used Cover or Disguise in a while, try to drop in some obstacles that require those abilities.

“Colonel Buchan’s novel Greenmantle has more than a flavor of truth …”

— T.E. Lawrence, to Robert Graves

In Britain, the first rank of spy novelists has long included writers from the ranks of actual intelligence agencies: John Buchan (British Army Intelligence Corps), Somerset Maugham (MI6), Graham Greene (MI6), Dennis Wheatley (London Controlling Section of the War Cabinet), Anthony Burgess (British Army Intelligence Corps), Kenneth Benton (MI6), and of course David Cornwell, a.k.a. John Le Carré (both MI5 and MI6). (The finest, and almost the first, American example is Charles McCarry, who publishes his first novel The Miernik Dossier six years after leaving the CIA, in 1973.) But the best example of the overlap (if not the best novelist or the best spy) is Ian Fleming, the former British Naval Intelligence planner who created James Bond in Casino Royale (1958) to little or no acclaim. In 1961, President Kennedy lists From Russia With Love as one of his top ten books, putting Fleming on top of the US mystery and crime charts and leading MGM to greenlight the first Bond film Dr. No (1962). The movies send Fleming’s sales into the millions before he dies in 1964.

No relation to Randolph.

Meanwhile in America, spy fiction came out of the pulps and melded with the hard-boiled detective genre, most notably with Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm series (27 novels, 1960-1993) and more prolifically with Edward S. Aarons’ Assignment series (42 novels, 1955-1976) starring CIA agent Sam Durell. Bond’s success inspires paperback original publisher Award Books to revive the pulp detective Nick Carter as superspy Nick Carter: Killmaster in 1964. Various authors (in the 1960s primarily Michael Avallone, Valerie Moolman, and Manning Lee Stokes) using the “Nick Carter” house name (the novels are in the first person) churn out 261 Killmaster novels on an approximately bimonthly schedule.

The writers of these series are mostly professional authors, without any espionage background. The partial exception is James Atlee Phillips, who as “Philip Atlee” writes a series about CIA contractor Joe Gall (22 novels, 1963-1976), rebranded as the “Nullifier” series after 1966. After a career with the OSS, Phillips ran the CIA front Amphibian Airways in Burma from 1947 to 1954. But his brother, David Atlee Phillips, runs the CIA’s Western Hemisphere operations in 1973-1975, the culmination of a 25-year Agency career that includes planning the Bay of Pigs operation and helping to overthrow Allende. During the Fall of DELTA GREEN era, David Atlee Phillips takes part in the anti-Castro Operation MONGOOSE (1961-1964) as chief of covert operations in Mexico, and serves as station chief in the Dominican Republic (1965-1969) and Brazil (1969-1970). James and David have a tempestuous relationship illustrated by Joe Gall’s tendency to ridicule the Bay of Pigs planners and CIA station chiefs.

By the 1970s, the Killmaster spawns his own lines of imitators, notably Remo Williams, the Destroyer (150+ novels, 1971-present) by Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir, and Mack Bolan, the Executioner (600+ novels, 1969-present) by Don Pendleton. Pendleton writes four novels a year about non-spy super-killer Bolan until 1980, when the Executioner becomes a multi-author franchise like the Killmaster. (Bolan fights Cthulhu cultists in Executioner #264: Iron Fist (2000) and Cthulhu spawn in Executioner #276: Leviathan (2001), both by Gerald Montgomery.) Joseph Rosenberger’s Death Merchant series featuring hit man Richard Camellion (70 books, 1971-1988) takes on not just the Mafia, neo-Nazis, and Red China but secret societies, Soviet psychotronics, clone armies, and the hidden city of Shambhala.

Camellion isn’t alone on the fringe. British spy novelist W. Howard Baker uses the pseudonym “Peter Saxon,” the credited author of the Guardians series (6 novels, 1968-1970) about a team of occult investigators. Baker sharecrops the “Peter Saxon” name to other writers; who exactly wrote which Guardians novel remains (appropriately) a mystery. The Mind Masters series (5 books, 1974-1976) by John F. Rossman stars Britt St. Vincent, a psychic race car driver who investigates occult conspiracies for the clandestine Mero Institute. And then there’s CIA agent Peter Ward, the “American James Bond,” who stars in nine novels (1965-1971) by David St. John. In his last two adventures, The Sorcerers (1969) and Diabolus (1971), Ward battles an alliance of Satanists, voodooists, and Communists straight out of Dennis Wheatley, featuring MK-ULTRA-style mind-control drugs deployed by heroes and villains alike.

Which intrigues not least because “David St. John” is one of many pen names for active, on-duty CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. (According to fellow CIA agent and spy novelist William F. Buckley Jr., Hunt wrote too prolifically for the CIA to review his manuscripts.) Hunt began his clandestine career with the OSS in China, and with David Atlee Phillips planned the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala and the Bay of Pigs. He then serves as chief of covert action for the CIA’s (borderline illegal) Domestic Operations Division (1962-1964), in Madrid for two years on a shadowy mission that included “write spy novels”, and as covert action chief for Western Europe (based in Washington, however) from 1968-1969. He resigns from the Agency in 1970 and works for various security-state front groups and the White House until his 1972 indictment for the Watergate burglary he helped mastermind.

A Dirty Story of a Dirty Man: Operation TRAVEN

“All this was flagrant trashiness, and my friend Manton was not slow to insist on that fact. Then I told him what I had found …”

–H.P. Lovecraft, “The Unnamable”

The X-Files episode “Musings of a Cigarette-Smoking Man” by Glen Morgan plays with the career of Hunt and Phillips, portraying the titular “Cancer Man” as JFK’s assassin (both Hunt and Phillips may have met – or recruited – Lee Harvey Oswald in Mexico) and as frustrated spy novelist “Raul Bloodworth,” creator of the Jack Colquitt adventures based on his own career. Inspired by Morgan’s riff (and perhaps by these lovely covers by Loz Bearfield), can we posit a series of men’s adventure paperbacks that correlates a few too many of DELTA GREEN’s proprietary contents?

Superspy Dalton Verdant, codenamed the Outsider, works for a secret nameless “Division” vaguely attached to the Navy. Reporting only to Admiral Joseph Cooke, he beds beautiful women and battles international Communism and weirder foes in a series of lurid paperback novels from Pagan Books:

  • The Stalin Sanction (May 1966): Verdant crosses Siberia in disguise – to prevent SMERSH mad scientists from re-animating Joseph Stalin! Verdant fights “charnel dog-men” in KGB uniforms. (Cf. Operation SIC SEMPER TYRANNIS; FoDG, p. 163)
  • The Shanghai Sanction (Oct 1966): Verdant is ordered to assassinate Stephen Alban, “Red China’s top Satanist in Asia,” and does so by blowing up Alban’s airplane. (Cf. Operation PARIAH; FoDG, p. 180)
  • The South Pole Sanction (Feb 1967): Verdant tracks Karthek, leader of a neo-Nazi cult, to “Hitler’s frozen bolt-hole” in Antarctica powered by “living brains from Atlantis.” The brains explode into blob-monsters and destroy the base. (Cf. Operation SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY; FoDG, p. 286)
  • The Simba Sanction (Jun 1967): Verdant fights “Cuban voodooists” in the Congo, and faces the “Mongolian Death Worm” they have awakened in a jungle city of white apes. (Cf. Operation KURTZ; FoDG, p. 180)
  • The Saucer Sanction (Nov 1967): Verdant rescues a beautiful, amnesiac NASA test pilot from a flying saucer crash site in Nicaragua, battling a hit squad seemingly sent by the U.S. government to kill her – and him! Mind control gave her amnesia; the hit squad uses a serum derived from alien fish-men. (Cf. Project GARNET; FoDG, p. 163)

The credited author of all five books is “Ward Phillips.” This pseudonym might refer to (Agency (CIA)) Hunt’s spy character and Atlee’s middle name, or (Occult) to the Rhode Island ghost-story writer (colleague and friend of author-mystic Randolph Carter) Ward Phillips (1880-1937?). The Saucer Sanction’s plot strongly resembles the script of the Matt Helm movie The Ambushers, released in December 1967 – could “Phillips” have Hollywood connections? “Phillips” might be a DELTA GREEN agent left in the cold after a breakdown, or the sibling (or spouse, or child) of such an agent. He (or she) might be a psychic in contact with a former agent, or a fragment of an agent’s personality detached by Yithian or Xin magic and now trying to write its way back into existence by possessing amphetamine addicts.

Hunting “Phillips” through a network of weird loner tough-guy writers, skeevy publishers, and predatory Hollywood small-timers takes all the HUMINT the Agents can muster. None of the operations “Phillips” uses as source material postdate 1964, giving a possible date for their retirement. Once MAJESTIC notices the connections in The Saucer Sanction, the Agents have a rival team hunting “Phillips,” and killing witnesses: the Seattle offices of Pagan Books go up in a mysterious fire on New Year’s Day 1968, detonating five cases of ammunition illegally stored in the building’s basement. Is there a connection to the Two Lanterns or another occult radical group?

Finally, if you want to play a session (or a whole campaign!) in the world of Dalton Verdant and the Division, use Night’s Black Agents; ideally the “airport thriller” drift rules (Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook, p. 320). Go ahead and add monsters and magic from Fall of DELTA GREEN or Trail of Cthulhu on an ad hoc basis. Dalton Verdant has vanished on the trail of a British ex-superspy traitor and sex magician named Hamish Rhodes, and Admiral Cooke recruits your team to follow him …


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

By Julian Kuleck

In the early days of our hobby, before players learned to yearn for lofty quests, adventurers’ motivation was simple: treasure was what we needed. Using wealth to draw enemies towards a trap is a standard real-world and literary trope, but early fantasy games went a step further, turning the wealth into a monster! And few such monsters are more iconic than the mimic, an ambulatory chest filled with more teeth than treasure.

The mimic’s problem is that it’s become too iconic. The only reason a mimic might surprise your players is that it hasn’t appeared in 13th Age—yet. Even so, describing a treasure chest in too much detail will give the game away and encourage a round of chest-thumping.

And so, this version of the mimic is about more than the trap. If your PCs have grown accustomed to modern sensibilities after opening dozens of normal treasure chests, and you can get the old chest-ambush trick to work, the surprise rules (13A pg. 164) and the mimic’s abilities will give you plenty to chortle about. But our focus is on playing on adventurers’ greed in a different way, providing an encounter that forces them to choose between their well-being and the call of that sweet, sweet loot . . . .

Backstories of a Box

The mimic seems like such a strange concept that it begs for an explanation. Some may feel an answer ruins its surreal appeal, so it’ll be up to you to decide whether you’re interested in one of these possibilities.

  • Blame a wizard: The Archmage, the Wizard King, one of their agents—somebody wanted an all-in-one guardian and container. Maybe it was more voracious or fecund than its creator expected, or maybe the mimics outlived the icon that created them. While the surface world eventually eliminates such pests, some mimics found ancient caches and deep caves where they hibernate, slowly digesting any enchanted valuables they can get their maws on.
  • Blame a dungeon: Mimics could easily be part of the strange ecology of living dungeons. And if a dungeon has a constant influx of adventurers, it could be a form of adaptation. Or maybe a living dungeon is canny enough to cook up these living traps. Worse, it’s easy to imagine delvers carrying one out, unaware of its tightly “locked” contents until it was too late, leaving the Dragon Empire to deal with the occasional hungry chest.
  • Blame a curse: Mimics could be part of a curse laid on a particularly greedy soul, perhaps by the Elf Queen or Diabolist, as an object lesson on the practice of hoarding. If you have the 13th Age Bestiary 2, perhaps those slain by a mimic become coin zombies (13B2 pg. 32). Alternately, it’d be fitting to involve the Gold King (13B2 pg. 112)—perhaps mimics are what’s left of his treasury’s guards, taking on an accursed role as eternal treasure-bearers.
  • Blame a demon: A mimic could be another fiend dragged out of hell. This version would titter and scream a lot more as it sinks its teeth into a delver’s arm.

Deathly Digestion

Whatever their origin, one thing we’re going with is that a mimic’s death destroys or digests any treasure they might be holding. GMs may want to inform a character with the appropriate background of that fact once the conflict starts, or keep it as a surprise.

While in hibernation, mimics digest treasure slowly, feeding on the magic, minerals, or both. Over time, some treasure can become runes within a mimic (13A pg. 284), something like pearls forming in oysters. But when they’re active, mimics burn though loot a lot faster, and their dying spasms push their metabolism to boil up whatever they’re holding. Or maybe they’re magical gates to dimensional caches that collapse upon their death. The exact mechanism isn’t too important.

Why get finicky about this timing? If adventurers can just kill mimics and take their loot, they become a novel monster concept, but not a novel encounter. Instead, adventurers will have to choose between seeking treasure and doing damage. Generous GMs might let PCs snatch a piece of loot from the maw of a dying mimic, but the rest of their hoard goes with them.

Beast or Barter?

Mimics may be intelligent, depending on the origin you’ve settled on (or not) and how you want to play them. If they’re just animals, they just want to gobble up anybody who thinks wearing a lot of magic morsels is a great idea.

But an alternative tradition, borrowed from their earliest origins, is for them to be both sapient and talkative. If so, they can offer information on the underworld or dungeons they’re found in exchange for treasure, or offer to trade items in their gullet. Since an item’s worth to a mimic may be based on its momentary value, its material, or just some aspect of its taste (”gotta get them sweet sapphires!”), it’s possible PCs may not even be trading down from a practical perspective. If you’re looking to get a bothersome item out of a PC’s hands, it can be a means to perform equitable exchange both in-character and out-of-character.

Intelligent mimics could offer alternative goals when delving. Perhaps a mimic is willing to ignore the tasty treats PCs are wearing if they’ll help it to a particular delicacy. Maybe it has an ancient grudge with a talking stalagmite. It could yearn for a lost drow song that once echoed through its cave. Either way, you’ll have to decide what a talking box wants.

Mimic

This voracious chest feeds on enchanted treasure, but humanoids make tasty side dishes.

Double-strength 3rd-level wrecker [ABERRATION]

Initiative: +8

 

Trap jaw +8 vs. AC—20 damage

Natural even hit: The mimic grabs the target. While the mimic is grabbing a target, it cannot use trap jaw, but does 10 acid damage to the target each turn they remain grabbed.

Miss: The mimic may make an inexplicable limbs attack as a free action.

 

C: Inexplicable limbs +8 vs. AC—12 damage, and the target becomes vulnerable until the end of their next turn.

 

Living trap: When a mimic starts a battle with a surprise attack, the escalation die does not increment to +1 until the start of the second full round. Anybody who suffers a surprise attack from a mimic is vulnerable until the end of their next turn.

 

Loot-filled innards: The mimic contains a few magical items of the GM’s choice, with the exact number based on the preponderance of magical items in the campaign and the size of your group. Some of these will be runes, but there should be one true magic item in there. Any character can attempt to snatch a piece of loot from inside a mimic’s maw during combat unless the mimic has someone grabbed; this requires a standard action while engaged with the mimic. (GMs should inform them of this option.) If the mimic is grabbing a target, only the grabbed character may attempt to snatch loot from inside the chest. When reaching for mimic loot, the character either rolls a normal save or attempts a DC 20 Dexterity check, their choice! On a success, they retrieve a random item from the creature’s innards. If they fail, the mimic makes a wicked maw attack against them as a free action. Once the mimic is reduced to 0 HP, all treasure it holds is lost.

 

Nastier Specials

Greedy glutton: The mimic adds +2 to trap jaw attacks against the foe with the most magic items (if any). If there is a tie, it gets a +1 bonus against all tied foes instead.

Sticky saliva: Any disengage check performed while engaged with a mimic has a -5 penalty.

 

AC   20

PD    18                 HP 82

MD  16

 


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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

In this issue, Robin D Laws discusses three ways you can resolve interpersonal conflicts in the GUMSHOE system. Interpersonal conflicts also feature in Mystic Moo’s Yuletide pantomime, and Simon Carryer reminds us of the fun of festive travel with his article on Rail Transport in the 1930s. Finally, Steve Dempsey suggests a way you can improvise adventures using GUMSHOE, perhaps while sitting in a turkey induced stupor around the log fire.

Contents

In the early 2000s, DyingEarth.com featured a Jack Vance Random Quote Generator. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to figure out how to incorporate a random generator into WordPress without adding new plugins – so, in lieu of that, here’s a random table of 68 Jack Vance quotes for you to play with at your leisure.

If you haven’t picked up a d68 yet (for some reason), you can use this program through AnyDice. Just click on “roller,” and then “roll,” in the middle of the page.

1 “The fellow is bereft and possibly violent.”
2 “Mischief moves somewhere near and I must blast it with my magic”
3 “A strange abstract law that Pandelume termed ‘Mathematics'”
4 “Embelyon was lost, renounced. And T’sais wept.”
5 “May Kraan preserve their living brains in acid!”
6 “Thus in the dark of the night the spell of Javanne the witch was circumvented and nullified.”
7 “My brain is whole! – I see the world!”
8 “And souls go thrilling up like bubbles in a beaker of mead!”
9 “I am Liane the Wayfarer. Peril goes with me.”
10 “At his elbow a voice said, ‘I am Chun the Unavoidable.'”
11 “Mincing murder, extravagant debauchery, while Earth passes its last hour.”
12 “The vapid mannerisms of pale people, using up their lives.”
13 “Thus and so.”
14 “The city dissolved into turbulence – the result of a freak religious hysteria.”
15 “Whom does a Raider raid?”
16 “You should practice optimism.”
17 “Why do squares have more sides than triangles?”
18 “How will we see when the sun goes out?”
19 “Do flowers grow under the ocean?”
20 “Do stars hiss and sizzle when rain comes by night?”
21 “The void in his mind athrob for the soothing pressure of knowledge.”
22 “I am Guyal of Sfere, by the River Scaum in Ascolais.”
23 “I am forced to believe you guilty of impertinence, impiety, disregard and impudicity.”
24 “I must order you secured, contained, pent, incarcerated and confined.”
25 “Go, I exhort; go I command; go, go, go!”
26 “My eye went to you like the nectar moth flits to jacynth.”
27 “It is but the diseased effort of an elder artist.”
28 “Go, else I loose the actinics.”
29 “My clever baton holds your unnatural sorcery in abeyance.”
30 “Baton, said Kerlin, perform thy utmost intent.”
31 “We go to the image expander; there we will explode the ghost to the macroid dimension.”
32 “Sixty bobbins: Blikdak was no more.”
33 “He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine disposition, a mastery of both bravado and stealth”
34 “My talismans are not obviously useless.”
35 “I am a man of resource, but not insensate recklessness.”
36 “Have no fear, declared Cugel, my word is my bond.”
37 “Cease the bickering! I am indulging the exotic whims of a beautiful princess and must not be distracted.”
38 “Am I known as Cugel the Clever for nothing?”
39 “My name is of no consequence. You may address me as ‘Exalted‘.”
40 “She contrived to twist her body into first one luxurious postion, then another.”
41 “I become drunk as circumstances dictate.”
42 “A doomed man needs no such elegant footwear.”
43 “Only the fact of my broken limbs prevents me from leaping at your throat.”
44 “Only yesterday Dadio Fessadil used a nineteen-guage freezing-bar to groove the bead of a small inverted quatrefoil.”
45 “Until work has reached its previous stage nympharium privileges are denied to all.”
46 “I envision the usual period as a rubble-gatherer, before he is entrusted with tool-sharpening and preliminary excavation.”
47 “First you are swathed head to foot in the intestines of fresh killed owls.”
48 “It is an unthinkable discrepancy that fifty-four men should consume the food intended for fifty-three.”
49 “The creature displayed the qualities reminiscent of both coelenterate and echinoderm. A terrene nudibranch? A mollusc deprived of its shell? More importantly, was the creature edible?”
50 “The wrong that has been committed demands a counter act to validate the Law of Equipoise.”
51 “Today occurred the concatenation; the \’creature\’ as you call it, pervolved upon itself; in your idiotic malice you devoured it.”
52 “It expresses the symbollic significance of NULLITY to which TOTALLITY must necessarily attach itself, by Kratunjae’s Second Law of Cryptorrhoid Affinities.”
53 “Perhaps you will accept this sum to spare me the effort of carrying it?”
54 “Gid: hybrid of man, gargoyle, whorl, leaping insect.”
55 “Grue: man, ocular, the unusual hoon.”
56 “For a single terce you may own a long-necked big-bellied creature of astounding voracity.”
57 “We prostrate ourselves before the fish-god Yob, who seems as efficacious as any.”
58 “We worship the inexorable god known as Dangott. Strangers are automatically heretics, and so are fed to the sacred apes.”
59 “I am Cugel: like yourself, a seeker after enlightenment,”
60

“ZARAIDES THE WIZARD

His Work-book: Beware!”

61 “The Law of Equivalences has been disturbed; and I must contrive a reciprocity.”
62 “Does Zaraides the Sage fear to identify himself with the casue of justice? Does he blink and draw aside from one so timid and vacillating as Iucounu? In a word – yes, said Zaraides.”
63 “All is mutablitity, and thus your three hundred terces has fluctuated to three.”
64 “How was one to reason with a magician not only droll and irascible, but also bereft?”
65 “By and large Cugel was disappointed by what seemed a lack of innate competence.”
66 “I suffer from a spiritual malaise which manifests itself in outbursts of vicious rage.”
67 “So now, be off! Or I inflict upon you the Spell of the Macroid Toe, whereupon the signalized member swells to the proportions of a house.”
68 “Twango’s hospitality, though largely symbolic, does him credit.”

The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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

by Julia Ellingboe

[Editor] Julia Ellingboe is the author of Steal Away Jordan, an RPG about slavery in the United States.

“Steal Away Jordan is about playing heroes” has become my mantra of late. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan can be as accessible as any story game which doesn’t make race a theme. I declare it to illustrate that Steal Away Jordan, despite the brutality incorporated in the mechanics, is fun and is not an exercise in futility. I declare it to illustrate that all Americans share African American history. We all own the stories of slaves who survived against all odds.

I’ve been saying this hero thing quite a bit lately and I believed that any misunderstanding of this idea was based in culture. My mother is an American History professor. I am a descendant of slaves and other African American “heroes”. This is the message my parents taught me. I come from a long line of survivors. I figured that most African Americans believed the hero myth of their ancestors. I recently had the chance to test my belief, and was pleasantly surprised that others shared part of my mantra.

The director of the Digital Moving Image Salon and the head of the computer games section of the Computer Science Department at Spelman college invited me to give a presentation on Steal Away Jordan . My audience would be one with whom I’ve never had an opportunity to play or discuss my game: mostly African American women who have never played a role playing game before. This was a whole new choir for me. I assumed they would get the desire to create a game where the characters looked like us, even if they didn’t get the whole role playing game thing. I started to squirm about the hero idea. While lurking on a forum devoted to people of color interested in comic books and comic book heroes, I discovered that quite a few black folks find the whole notion of playing a slave less than fun. I didn’t know what to expect.

I gave a short dress rehearsal presentation and demo in a Computer Science seminar class on operating systems. I opened by asking, “When you think of slave narratives, what comes to mind.” A young man, a Morehouse student, sheepishly raised his hand. “Suffering, punishment, pain.” He said. Another student offered similarly dismal words.

“No one thinks, ‘hero’?” I asked. The students replied with blank stares. I’ll show ’em! I thought. I started a quick demo. I gave the three women standard slave names from the game text: Abyssinia, Button, and Jane. I named the Morehouse student Caesar. They each created characters. When they went around the table and introduced their characters, All four players had created highly skilled, intelligent, attractive, slaves; powerful in their own right. In play, they certainly acted like them. The midwife protected a mother from an angry mistress, despite the risk to herself. Caesar, a blacksmith, waited for the right moment to exact revenge on an abusive owner even though it meant his hard work and expertise would go unrewarded and unrecognized. They all created characters who certainly rose to the occasion. I was encouraged. Maybe this slave as hero thing wasn’t just part of Bond family lore. Maybe there was something universal about it.

That evening I gave my presentation to a crowd of about twenty which included some relatives. Two were seasoned roleplaying gamers. All but two attendees were African American. I preached my hero gospel and used a short clip from a Boondocks episode (“The Story of Catcher Freeman”) to illustrate my point. And I ran a demo with three volunteers with two men and a woman. The men were the seasoned gamers. The woman was my cousin, an Atlanta native who came to see what this whole roleplaying stuff was all about. One of the players was one of the not black folks in the audience. Thankfully, Sam Chupp of the Bear’s Grove podcast, recorded the presentation

In Steal Away Jordan, the GM gives you a name and a worth, which is the number of dice you roll in a conflict. Players create tasks, motives, and goals for their character. The GM is not privy to these. After character creation, I left the room and the players, with audience assistance, created their tasks, motives, and goals. I had never heard this process until I listened to Sam’s recording. All that stuff about heroes, while I still maintain as the key to fun in Steal Away Jordan , paled in importance to another theme: community. Sure a roleplaying game of slave narratives is about heroes, but in order for any individual character to rise to heroism, she needs the support of her community. Heroes don’t act in a vacuum, and when there are no superhuman feats to achieve, pure survival against all odds requires networking, friendship, and someone with your back.

I gave the players five minutes to discuss their goals, decide if they wanted to share goals (such as rebellion or forming an underground railroad), and I asked the other audience members to help them out. It took them fifteen minutes to do this. I didn’t hear their conversation until I listened to the recording of the presentation. It was a game designer’s dream. The players started roleplaying while they discussed their goals. They, both characters and players, made friends with each other. The other people in the audience gave suggestions, and from what I heard, enjoyed the “performance”. When I came back into the room, unbeknown to me, the game had already begun. I ran through a few examples of the mechanics, and wished I’d had more time to actually play the story. Little did I know they already had.

So back to my “hero” mantra. When I want to convince potential players that Steal Away Jordan is just like any other role playing game, except, perhaps in setting I still bring up the hero thing and the survivor thing. To it I add that the game is also about building a community and surviving together. Heroism cannot happen in vacuum. The reason we play is to spend time with our friends, strengthen our own community, and in the process, have fun.

The following three interviews originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in September 2008.

Three interviews in one issue – how fantastically cool is that? (As an aside, Luke told me that he wouldn’t send me the next batch if I didn’t release these ones soon. So expect a few more shortly).

Luke Crane and Jared Sorensen

Luke Crane talks to Jared Sorensen, designer of games including InSpectres, octaNe, and Lacuna Part I. Jared is notable enough to have a wikipedia entry but not so famous that this entry isn’t up for deletion for lack of notability. Jared’s desire to tinker with his games extends to his prices and even his distribution model.

Luke Crane and Paul Czege

Luke Crane talks to the creator of roleplaying games including My Life With Master and Acts of Evil. He is responsible for introducing the word “deprotagonization” to our beautiful language.

Luke Crane and Paul Tevis

Luke and Paul discuss the demise of Paul’s full length podcasts Have Games Will Travel. Paul offers useful podcasting and reviewing advice.

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

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Pipe and Believability

A while back on the Yog-Sothoth forum dedicated to Trail Of Cthulhu a discussion arose from that game’s suggestion that players be permitted to select their exotic languages during play. As online debates are wont to do, the discussion crossed wires from a couple of separate issues. Fortunately for me, it did so in an illuminating way that serves as a springboard for this month’s column.

As with any discussion of “on the fly” character generation, there were some basics to get out of the way: the character is not learning to speak Chinese or to fly a hang-glider on the spot, but is only now revealing heretofore unseen elements of his backstory. In fiction—well-written fiction, anyway—most important character revelations occur on the fly. You don’t start out a novel with detailed biographies of the characters and then have them start doing things. Instead, character is revealed through action. We learn that the Nightflyer is a mechanical genius because we see him jury-rig an explosive device from spare parts found in the disused factory the bad guys use as their hideout. We see that Professor Argonaut is an expert in Etruscan archaeology in a scene where he addresses a rapt audience of fellow academics at the Royal Society.

Sometimes, in a technique modern screenwriters refer to as “laying pipe”, a character trait is set up with an offhand reference, then brought fully into play later in the story. The unexpected pugilism of weedy romantic poet Osbert Macaulay may be set up with an offhand reference many pages before he fights off the burly cultist at the altar of Ra. The more improbable-seeming the ability, the more likely it is that the author will want to lay pipe beforehand. Osbert’s fisticuffs play against type, and seem too convenient if pulled out of a hat exactly when needed. It must be introduced to us in stages to win our acceptance. On the other hand, given his established class and educational background, Osbert’s intimate knowledge of the streets of Rome requires little in the way of additional credibility support—and thus can be dropped on the reader during the scene at hand.

The forum discussion tackled the question of believability through a familiar roleplaying lens: is it realistic for a given character, say a beat cop, to read an ancient Chinese script? Really it’s no more credible for a beat cop to possess an obscure academic ability if the player says so before the story begins than if the ability pops up in play. But it can feel like a breach of the fictional reality.

For one thing, the player is picking the trait to gain a momentary advantage, no doubt because he’s come up against a situation requiring it. As audience members, the GM and other players can see behind the curtain, making the story contrivance stand out.

The traditional model, in which we pick all of our characters’ abilities before play begins, functions as an equivalent of laying pipe. As weird as it might be that a New York flatfoot can interpret the oracle script of the Shang dynasty, at least we knew about it beforehand.

The difference between preparatory exposition in fiction and the abilities listed on a character sheet is that a roleplaying character is often filled with information that never pays off. You may decide that your character is an expert scuba diver, but if the GM’s adventures never get you underwater, it never actualizes itself in play. An improvisational GM, seeing that entry on your character sheet, will try her best to get you mucking about the coral reefs in search of lost archaeological wonders. However, with six different character sheets, all filled with dangling hints of this nature, she may not be able to work all of them into the series narrative before it wraps. What the “on the fly” method seems to lack in believability, it gains in utility. If there’s no underwater action, your preselected ability sits on your character sheet like a dead pixel. If permitted to opportunistically pick X number of abilities as you go, you can guarantee that each of them will move the story forward at least once.

Whether limited to picking your languages in Trail Of Cthulhu, or as open-ended as the on-the-fly method in HeroQuest, this approach does challenge GMs accustomed to thinking of themselves as gatekeepers of realism. The oral tradition of roleplaying as handed down from the halcyon days of Lake Geneva encourages us to police the entreaties of our players, shutting down anything that seems grabby or unlikely. And sure, you don’t want to give out a +5 vorpal sword just for the asking. Especially in a Cthulhu game. That makes no sense.

But seriously folks, this mindset can backfire against us if we allow the decision tree to start with the realism question. Believability is important—you don’t want to shatter that illusion of reality that allows the group to engage with the story—but can be attended to later in the process. Far better to start the decision tree with a different question: “Is it interesting?”

Here interesting is defined moving the story onwards, to a plot branch where the player(s) get to make a meaningful choice. Let’s say the information written in oracle bone script moves the group toward a scene in which they confront the main bad guy and are forced to choose between self-preservation and saving the world. It’s a shame to keep that off the table (or spend another hour establishing a convoluted workaround to get to the same place) because you’re using realism as your starting point.

Instead, use it as your end point. If you decide that it would be more interesting to allow the beat cop to read Shang dynasty characters, then enter into a brief dialogue with the player to find a believable justification for it.

Be interesting, then make it real.

Sometimes you’ll fail to find an answer that preserves the reality level of your series, and then you’ll be stuck with the less interesting choice. More often, though, when you start out assuming you can find a way, you and the players will do so. We roleplayers are a clever bunch.

This is not to say that it is invariably interesting to say yes to your players. A player suggestion that shuts down interesting scenes or choices—like a super-weapon that allows them to cut through their opposition effortlessly—inverts the decision tree. Instead of finding any believable solution that allows you to say yes to the players, you’re looking for a realistic reason to keep them challenged. But in both cases, the question to allow or disallow starts with story values and only then moves on to issues of verisimilitude.

A realistic story is worth nothing if it consists of one boring choice after another. That’s true whether you’re writing a novel or running a roleplaying session.


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 in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in September 2008.

Robin D Laws discusses the nature of believability in RPGs, and we present not one, but three interviews from Luke Crane. This month also sees the launch of a flurry of new products, including a Keeper’s Screen, and James Semple’s first Pelgrane release – music for Trail of Cthulhu. The sleeve notes are here for your edification. Finally, Jason Durrall has provided a summary of character creation guidelines for Trail of Cthulhu. Perhaps this is gilding the lily, but who I am to begrudge our customers golden petals?

News from Pelgrane Press

In August we had our most succesful GenCon Indy ever, with lots of demos, record sales and two silver Ennie awards for Trail of Cthulhu. This month we have seven releases for GUMSHOE including a new Keeper’s Screen and music for Trail of Cthulhu. Mutant City Blues got its first public airing at GenCon, too, with a limited edition and demos.

Trail of Cthulhu

As I reported last month, we reprinted Trail. We’ve sold about a quarter of them already, which is pleasing. We’ve also got four new releases for Trail – the Screen, our first music release, the leatherbound and a new PDF. There was a shrinkwrap problem with the new Keeper’s Screen which affected only retail versions, but they should be out next week from your retailer.

New Trail of Cthulhu Releases

  • Regular readers of See Page XX will be familiar with the inspiring and atmospheric music of James A Semple, and this month we release Four Shadows, four music tracks for use with Trail of Cthulhu (and dare I say it) other period horror games. The musicianship is of the highest quality, and features Pulp and Purist themes. You can get it at rpgnow.com, and the Pelgrane Store.
  • We’ve released the Keeper’s Screen and Resource Book for mail order sale from the Pelgrane Store.  The Keeper’s Screen is a three panel portrait affair, with all the important charts on the back, and the Resource Book lists sample clues equipment, foibles and benefits for abilities and occupations; and a set of NPCs.
  • Stunning Eldritch Tales took a while to reprint, because of machinery problems at the printer, but it’s available now, and we’ve also released it in PDF format at IPR, rpgnow, and the Pelgrane Store. Existing Pelgrane mail order customers will be able to get the PDF from their order page.
  • We have a few copies of the Trail of Cthulhu leatherbound edition available from IPR on a first-come, first-served basis. They are signed by Kenneth Hite and Robin D. Laws. They aren’t the last available copies – we still have another twenty to be released later in the year.

More Trail News

  • The final installment of Shadows over Filmland, a collection of adventures for Trail is finished, and ready for layout. The last adventure is a collaboration between Robin and Ken, in which the PCs are investigating strange occurrences on the set of the first talking version of a Call of Cthulhu movie. Here is one Jerome’s illustrations:

The Island

  • Gareth Hanrahan is beavering away at new Trail adventures for Arkham Detective Tales, a Trail adventure supplement.

Mutant City Blues

We printed up 60 limited edition copies of Mutant City Blues for GenCon Indy, and we still have a few of these left, but only for customers in the States and Canada. I’ll be adding them to the Pelgrane store by the end of the momth. Anyone who buys one will be entitled to playtest MCB and get a playtest version of the Hard Helix, some new adventures for MCB.

Esoterrorists

The adventures Profane Miracles and Albion’s Ransom PDFs are out now from IPR, the Pelgrane Store, and rpgnow.com.

The Esoterror Factbook, a big setting book for Esoterrorists, is ready to be illustrated and laid out.

The following interview originally appeared in an earlier iteration of See Page XX in June 2008.

Luke Crane and Jason Morningstar

In this second in the series, Luke Crane (Burning Wheel) talks to Jason Morningstar about his games (Grey Ranks, Shab al’Hiri Roach). See Luke’s ambush question about art work to telling effect.

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