“My shadowy visage, grey with grief,
In sunken waters walled with sand,
I see — where all mine ancient land
Lies yellow like an autumn leaf.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Kingdom of Shadows”

Robin has staked out Paris with his customary élan, and Robert Chambers has toured us through Brittany, but there’s at least one more stretch of French countryside redolent with time-slips, dangerous romances, and werewolves. I speak of course of Auvergne, nestled atop the Massif Central, a volcanic upthrust covered even in 1895 with forests as deep as they were two thousand years ago when the Arverni arrived from the east.

Chromolithograph of Tournoël Castle, c. 1895

Even in 1895, the railways connect only the bigger towns: Vichy (pop. 12,300) in the north, St.-Etienne (pop. 133,400) in the southeast, Aurillac (pop. 16,500) in the southwest, Clermont-Ferrand (pop. 51,000) in the Allier valley in the middle. Although Michelin’s tire plant in Clermont-Ferrand and Thiers’ knife factories bring outside investment, art students in The Yellow King RPG know the region primarily as a source of mineral water, charcuterie, cheese, and a very affordable vin gris. (Americans might appreciate Chavaniac-Lafayette, named for its most famous son, in the forested southeast.) It hasn’t been really fashionable for painters since Theodore Rousseau and the Romantics two generations ago — although a few Barbizon school devotees still chase the region’s ineffable dapple of trees and mountains. The rich and the elderly take the cure in springs at Vichy and Mont-Dome; nothing could be less au courant.

People

Edgar Degas, 61 (1834-1917; Paris p. 117)

In August 1895, Degas takes the water cure at Mont-Dore. While here, he continues to practice photography, including experimenting with moonlit exposures using “panchromatic plates.” He may bring the characters along as assistants, or they may hear of strange yellow streaks appearing in his images — Degas writes home to Paris complaining of his many spoiled prints and negatives.

Armand Guillaumin, 54 (1841-1927)

An o.g. Impressionist and friend of Pissarro and Cézanne, Guillaumin wins the lottery in 1891. He quits his job at the railway and retires to Creuse, just west of Auvergne, to become the center of the Crozant School in that town. He paints in Auvergne in 1895, as might other Crozantistes such as Maurice Leloir, 41 (1853-1940) who avidly researches and photographs ancient and medieval costumes; and the occult-minded Swedish lithographer and painter Allan Österlind, 39 (1855-1938) who embraces Spiritism while on an island off Brittany in 1886.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, 34 and 32 (1862-1954 and 1864-1948)

In 1895, the Lumière brothers of Lyon experiment with their new motion picture camera, and with color photography, before triumphantly debuting their movies in Paris that December. History does not record whether they venture into Auvergne for some nature shoots that summer, or why they abruptly abandoned motion pictures and refused to sell their camera to other film-makers.

Auguste Michel-Lévy, 51 (1844-1911)

Geologist, Inspector of Mines, and director of the Geological Survey of France, Michel-Lévy develops the interference color chart, using birefringence of cross-polarized light to identify minerals. In 1895 he studies extinct volcanoes in Auvergne; minerals from the region such as amesite and pargasite both display as yellow in cross-polarized light. (A newly discovered mineral, lawsonite, also displays as yellow; it first appears in 1895 in Marin County, California and soon after in Brittany.)

Émile Munier, 55 (1840-1895)

A great friend of Bougereau with many American clients, Munier has painted in the Auvergne since 1886. His Academic paintings increasingly depict angels and cupids, possibly an attempt to domesticate Carcosan figures he perceives — he dies of cerebral congestion in Paris on June 29. His death might be what points the group to the Auvergne influx — or perhaps he makes an abrupt “recovery” and returns to Auvergne a changed man.

Felix Thiollier, 53 (1842-1914)

After making his fortune in ribbon manufacturing in St.-Etienne, Thiollier retires at 35 to take photographs in the Auvergne. He lives in a former Hospitaller commandery in Verrieres; his many interests include Celtic archaeology and medieval art. Perhaps he notices towers or hillsides changing in his photographs, or sees carnivorous toads labeled SADOGUI in an illuminated manuscript.

Other artists painting in the Auvergne in 1895 include the painters Adolphe Appian, 75 (1819-1898) and Victor Charreton, 31 (1864-1936), both based in Lyon. If you’re looking for some meddling kids, you have your choice of the odious, spoiled Pierre Laval, 12 (1883-1945) in Chateldone near Vichy, and the mystical Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 14 (1881-1955) home for the summer at Orcines near Clermont-Ferrand from studying mathematics at a Jesuit college. At a remove, two native Auvergnois might send home a useful or terrifying discovery: the diplomat Henri Pognon, 42 (1853-1921) unearths Aramaic manuscripts and Assyrian tablets while consul in Baghdad and Aleppo; and the engineer Nicole Auguste Pomel, 74 (1821-1898) excavates giant rhinoceri in Algeria that remind him of the woolly rhinoceros that roamed Auvergne in the Ice Age.

The Occult

Characters looking for the Rosicrucians and other occult societies should look to Lyon (pop. 450,000), 165 km east of Clermont-Ferrand and several hours journey by train around the black-forested Monts du Madeleine between them. Rich and sociable, Lyon boasts several flourishing, bickering secret societies, tracing themselves back to Cagliostro, Saint-Martin, or even Agrippa. The AGLA society, if it exists as anything more than an old printers’ guild, claims all three as members.

Though Aurillac produced a sorcerer Pope (Sylvester II) who read mysterious Arabic books, Auvergne doesn’t hold with such citified occult fripperies. The Auvergnois hold to the Old Ways. Here, the Druids outlasted the Romans, and country folk still follow old customs at standing stones and deep wells — lighting fires to Grannus, singing to Pan, leaving offerings to Sadoqua.

A Rendezvous in Auvergne

Sadoqua, or Sadogui as the inquisitors referred to him while hunting the stubborn witch- and werewolf-cults of Auvergne, may have been a local version of Sucellus, a god of wine, or the name under which the Arverni and Averones worshiped “Gallic Mercury,” a shape-shifting god of prophecy. Under those names or another, he sees Carcosan energies fracturing reality, and presses his bat-like ears and toad-like tongue to the cracks. Clearly the multiplicity of images — of rocks under cross-polarized light, of anomalous photographs, of paintings iterating the same dark valleys for decades — speak both to Carcosan unreality and to Sadoqua’s plasticity.

Is the sudden phylloxera outbreak in Auvergne’s vineyards a Carcosan strike at Sadoqua’s vintage? (The blight had avoided Auvergne until 1895.) Can the AGLA cult tempt the players with a quest for the lost monastery library of Abbot Hilaire, broken up after the Revolution but rumored to contain a book of Hyperborean rituals that can re-make an un-made world? Does Carcosa manifest here through the seductive world of Sylaire, visible in lenses that have read the birefringence of Druidic menhirs or the gargoyles atop Notre-Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand? Do the lamias and succubae that lurk in Auvergne’s ruins serve Cassilda or Sadoqua? Or is Carcosa actually Cykranosh, sacred planet of Tsathoggua? When the players emerge, will the maps have changed: Le Puy become Ximes, Clermont-Ferrand become Vyônes, the Allier flows as the Isoile, the sparkling water labeled Ylourgne instead of Vichy, St.-Etienne now St.-Azédarac, and Auvergne rejoicing once more in its true name of Averoigne?

 


 

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.

Among the reasons for running my light-hearted Fall of DELTA GREEN home variant with QuickShock rules: I can share custom cards I create for it here with you.

In the first scenario, intrepid agents of the Dominion Bureau of Research, an unacknowledged Canadian spy outfit, tracked a mole in the Avro Arrow plant in Malton, ON. Before they could figure out whether he had reestablished contact with a new Soviet handler, they found him melted to goo on the floor of his Kensington Market rooming house.

The possibility existed that they too would find themselves on the receiving end of a MAJESTIC melting ray. Due to their admirable caution in confronting this newly discovered adversary, they skirted this fate and, with it, the following QuickShock Injury cards.

The Minor card suggests an indirect hit from a heatless melting ray that works by breaking down cellular walls. The Major card comes with a direct hit, one that potentially touches off a cellular cascade that turns the victim to goo at scenario’s end.

MELT SCAR

Injury

-1 to Focus tests.

MELTED FLESH

Injury

Gain 2 Health when you receive this card. Lose 2 Health on any failed Physical test. If Health ever drops to 0, and this card is still in hand at end of scenario, you die.

Discard by finding the cure.

In The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, this is exactly the sort of sinister technology that might have gone missing from Castaigne regime armories during the revolution depicted in Aftermath. In This is Normal Now, the melt ray could be wielded by scientists developing technologies they believe to come from a crashed UFO access, but are really of Carcosan origin.


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

As more Yellow King Roleplaying Game scenarios appear, you’ll see single-use Injury and Shock cards keyed to their specific details.

These might refer to the entities that out the cards. Or they could require characters to interact with the particulars of the mystery in order to discard them.

Prepare in advance for scenarios you create by building scenario-specific cards.

For example, in my playtest of the This Is Normal Now sequence, a foe from the book, the fleeners (p. 46), had different Injury cards than canonical ones given in the book. Fleeners are irritatingly terrifying minion figures made of animated papier-mâché. With their keening cry of “fleener fleener fleener” they harass the enemies of their masters, inducing unease and reporting back to headquarters with supernatural senses.

In our series, they served a politician benefiting from Carcosan reality alteration. By the time the investigators discovered this, multiple investigators were wearing another aspect of his conspiracy, a sinister Fitbit-like device called an Urchin, on their wrists. In the game book, the Injury cards they dish out in combat need to fit any number of situations GMs might use them for. At my table, they could key into this other plot element, like so:

CLOGGED SINUSES

Injury

Non-lethal. -1 to all tests.

Discard when you fail a test by a margin of 1.

FLEENER EFFECT

Injury

-1 to Focus and Presence tests if any character in the current scene has expressed a view the fleeners’ master would agree with.

Discard by freeing yourself of an Urchin.

Clogged Sinuses reflects what happens when you fight a papier-mâché enemy: it falls into dust even if it beats you, creating a cloud of not entirely ordinary dust that gets literally up your nose.

Fleener Effect is an oddball example of an Injury that exacts a psychic toll. Events in the game had already established the extraordinary lengths characters had to go to to get Urchins off their wrists. Worse, if you receive the Fleener Effect and don’t have an Urchin already on you, you have to acquire one, put it on, exposing yourself to its various ill-effects, and then get it off again, in order to discard the card.

Or you can wait until the end of the scenario and discard it then, as it is not a Continuity card.

Tying cards into ongoing sources of fear in your game gives them an extra frisson. The awful cries of foxes became a motif in my game. Now that I look back on it I wonder why I didn’t incorporate them into a card effect. So many ways to unnerve the group, so little time…

When tying a discard condition into specific story events, ensure that the condition can be achieved. You want the player holding the card to feel pressured, but not entirely forced, to make the attempt. Focus on actions that are risky or hard to achieve, but that they might want to perform even without the card. In this example, getting rid of an Urchin is a good thing in its own right.

Players simply resign themselves to the risk of holding onto a card, and its ill consequence, if you attach too unpleasant or challenging a discard condition to it. A card that gives them the option of, say, killing a particular innocent GMC, feels too much like a force.

Here’s an unfairly manipulative version of a custom card:

MURDEROUS THOUGHTS

Shock

-2 to Focus tests.

Discard by killing sweet Sally Murdoch.

The fear of turning evil is a horror staple and within bounds, but your custom card should invoke it without nakedly jerking the player around. Instead you might consider a choice the character which, though queasy, the character can recover from:

MURDEROUS THOUGHTS

Shock

-2 to Focus tests.

Discard by confessing your unwelcome homicidal impulses to a therapist, authority figure, or Sally Murdoch herself.

When using discard effects to nudge players further into the story, couch the condition vaguely. This allows players to think they’ve cleverly solved a problem. Overly clear descriptions risk the feeling that players must pixel-bitch their way to one predetermined cut scene. Perhaps include a couple of possible scenes that fulfill the conditions.

Like so:

CAGED

Shock

Lose 1 Health and 1 Composure at 6 AM each day (world time.)

Discard when you escape, taking a wrongly convicted prisoner with you.

This version might seem too restrictive:

CAGED

Shock

Lose 1 Health and 1 Composure at 6 AM each day (world time.)

Discard when you escape, taking Albert Chen with you.

Or it might work fine, especially if the players are already thinking of rescuing Albert by the time the card appears. That way the discard registers as a bonus incentive toward an existing goal, not a hoop to reluctantly jump through.

Create your own custom cards with these templates, formatted for Adobe Photoshop and the open source GIMP image editor:

For licensing reasons we can’t supply fonts. The card header is a Garamond font, which you probably already have in some form. You’ll want to play around with the size, based on your specific version of the font, and the length of each card title. My version has it a default of point size 32. The body text is P22 Mayflower Smooth, by default at point 22 in this template.


 

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.

If your players like to learn stuff from videos, they can now learn how to create characters for the Yellow King Roleplaying Game. Send them to our first video tutorial!


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.

This music inspired by, and composed for, The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is included free as a digital download with The Yellow King RPG, and separately from the link below. The Yellow King Suite covers each of the four different settings. In addition, it presents a theme for The Yellow King RPG, and music for the doomed, lost city of Carcosa. Each setting required different instrumentation and arrangements; however, the influence of the Yellow King is evident in all of them, uniting them all as a cohesive suite.

Perfect to accompany your Yellow King RPG – or any other reality horror RPG – sessions, or to enjoy over a glass of absinthe.
 
Listen to a sample here:

 

The King In Yellow

The strange descending chromatic melody reminds me of something from a carnival or street music. While the violin grabs your attention initially soon you hear the rest of the strings, clarinet, glockenspiel and even boys choir for that otherworldy sound.

Belle Epoque

A lazy chord progression on the piano starts this gentle dreamlike sequence. Roxane’s beautiful cello breezes effortlessly across the harmonies telling a tale of opulence and ease but also perhaps ennui and decadence.

The Aftermath

An almost hypnotic pattern on the harp echoes the rhythms of the Yellow King as this unsettling piece of music suggests danger, desolation and loneliness.

The War

The music here is very obviously martial with strident rhythms, snares, piccolos and heavy brass. Even here the sinister presence of the Yellow King is heard.

This Is Normal Now

Reality shifts around you but you keep just telling yourself this is normal now. Dance on and enjoy yourself and try to ignore those strange voices and screams you hear. Just keep on dancing!

Carcosa

Poor doomed, lost Carcosa! I felt that the city needed a dramatic and tragic piece with an almost operatic quality. The music shifts constantly, never sitting comfortably in one key but often returning to the same 3 different musical ideas.

The Yellow King Suite is included free as a digital download with The Yellow King RPG, and separately from the link below.

Buy the YKRPG Suite MP3s now

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

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

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

1. Use the platform you already know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Leave in the Socializing.

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

4. Expect a shorter session.

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

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

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

5. Expect a more taxing session.

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

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

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

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

6: For Slack, use the Dicebot app.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Keep online versions of character sheets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUNG OVER

Injury

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

WHAT YOU DID LAST NIGHT

Injury

-1 to Focus tests.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

While developing collaborators’ scenarios for Black Star Magic, I found myself puzzling out a design style question arising from a particular feature of QuickShock.

In previous iterations of GUMSHOE, and most other games with hit points or a hit point-like function, characters can theoretically leave play at any time. In all GUMSHOE games characters can die physically, ending their stories and requiring players to create replacements. In our various horror games, characters can also exit after cracking under intolerable mental strain.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game follows that pattern: your character can shuffle off in both ways. Unlike games with traditional hit points (Health points in GUMSHOE) or Sanity / Stability points, YKRPG characters take their final curtains after receiving a predetermined number of Injury or Shock cards. After 3 or 4 cards, depending on how forgiving the GM has chosen to make her game, they’re outta there.

My scenarios provide ample opportunities to take Injury and Shock cards. In fact, one of the key requests made by playtesters was STOP MURDERING US SO HARD.

One or two of my more forgiving colleagues, on the other hand, just might have submitted scenarios including a less-than-fatal number of Injuries and/or Shocks.

This raised the question: is that poor form?

A scenario for standard GUMSHOE might make the prospect of death unlikely, by going light on scenes featuring fights or physical hazards. Likewise it might feature only a handful of Stability or Composure tests. But depending on how many points players have invested in key pools, you can’t say for certain that the scenario won’t dispatch a PC or two.

In QuickShock you can count the number of times the characters might take cards, and see that it doesn’t equal the Final Card threshold.

That’s before taking edge cases into account, though.

In an ongoing game, one or more characters may already have Continuity Shock or Injury cards carried over from previous play. This drops their effective thresholds for receiving new cards. If you have the Injury card Circulatory Damage, you start every scenario being able to receive one less Injury additional card than you did when you began play. A scenario that deals out a maximum of two Injuries could, if you get both of them, end you.

Also, the GM, responding to surprise player choices, may wind up improvising additional fights, hazards, and disturbing events. When these go wrong they hand out cards over and above those listed in the scenario. “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario” must always be read as “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario, if you only do what the scenario predicts you might do.” Those of us who have ever run a game know how big an if that is.

In yet another also, the GM never tells the players that a scenario includes few Shock or Injury cards. It’s not the actual likelihood of investigator demise that creates suspense in play, but the threat of it as perceived by the players, that delivers the emotional freight. When you get the last card listed in the scenario, you have no way of knowing that there aren’t a boatload more of them still potentially to come. Unless you read the scenario afterwards, you’ll never see that you were actually safe.

For those reasons, I decided that it should not be a requirement that every published scenario hand out enough cards to potentially kill off a character.

Also, with rare exceptions, Shock and Injury cards impose other penalties on the characters who receive them. That’s why they exist. Unlike a quantity of lost hit points, they create lingering effects that impact the story. They sit in front of the players, reminding them that something has gone wrong. Something that must be addressed. The anxious desire to get rid of these awful, nagging cards mimics the fear and unease of the characters. Even if you can only get one card of a given type in a scenario, when you get it, you generally really want to get rid of it. One card you remember getting, or struggling to discard, exerts a greater impact than some Health points you lost and then refreshed.

Even if that weren’t the case, a philosophical design question remains: is it somehow cheating, or poor form, to introduce the possibility of character demise when it can’t actually happen? A D&D or 13th Age game assumes you’ll be fighting up a storm over most evenings of play. But if a particular adventure has you intriguing your way through a trade dispute with little chance of taking an ax to the face, you likely consider that a refreshing change of pace. After a while you’re going to want to get back to the core activity of battling and looting, jotting down hit point losses as you go. But the adventure where the stakes aren’t the characters’ survival doesn’t register as a cheat.

For a scenario to engage the players, they have to care about something. They must want for X to happen and fear that it will not. The prospect of character death exists in games as a default set of stakes: do you live or die?

In the mystery scenario that GUMSHOE offers, you always have another measure of success, other than “am I still breathing at the end?” When you figure out what’s going on in time to prevent disaster, see justice done, or simply slake your curiosity, you’ve won.

As long as your choices lead to either good or bad consequences, those consequences don’t have to be Shock or Injury cards in order for players to walk away from the table remembering a gripping narrative.


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.

by James Semple

The Yellow King Suite is included free as a digital download with The Yellow King RPG, and separately from the link below.
 
Buy the YKRPG Suite MP3s now
 
Listen to a sample here:

 
The Yellow King Suite covers 4 different settings. In addition it presents a theme for The Yellow King RPG and music for the doomed, lost city of Carcosa. This project needed to reflect the various settings while uniting them all as a cohesive suite. The settings required different instrumentation and arrangements however the influence of the Yellow King is evident in all of them.

The King in Yellow

 

Inspired by the mysterious entity in tattered yellow robes, the haunting theme of the Yellow King waltzes through the chromatic chord changes of Cm D Fm Cm. The mysterious violin theme accompanied by harp and tuba evokes music of fairgrounds and travellers’ campsites. Eventually a full string section takes over as a clarinet plays counterpoint sounding almost like a carnival calliope. Finally a glockenspiel and boys’ choir fills out the arrangement with a mystic, spiritual aura. This music is reminiscent of the music of Danny Elfman but ultimately is influenced by the Romanza from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade. This chromatic twisting King in Yellow theme sets the tone of the whole suite. The melody is referenced throughout the suite, sometimes overtly, sometimes disguised and hidden. Occasionally only a few notes are quoted and often the melody is reharmonized. 

 

The Belle Époque

 

A gentle echoing piano ushers in lush ambiguous harmonies setting a tone of absinthe-soaked, dreamlike ennui. Solo cello gently drifts over the soft haze. Low register harp adds a rhythmic element as the intensity of the music increases. While the music does not directly quote the King in Yellow theme, the waltz rhythm and mercurial string passages definitely reference it. This piece was heavily influenced by the piano music of Erik Satie who was an influential Parisian composer during the Belle Époque. 

The Wars

Unrepentantly martial, this music unites a constant snare rhythm with relentless strings, piccolo and brass. The great and terrible European conflict of 1947 brought to life within the orchestra. The King in Yellow theme enters in a somewhat declamatory form played by the brass and woodwind. The music loses momentum, falling into a murky brass harmony, then builds again as the rhythm restarts and the King in Yellow theme returns triumphantly in the upper register of the strings and woodwind accompanied by choir. Holst’s Planets was a strong influence on this piece. Obviously with the rhythmic elements of Mars but also Holst’s use of polychords. 

The Aftermath

This piece takes on a somber hypnotic quality as the listener is lulled by the rhythmic notes of the harp. Harmonies in the strings and woodwind move entirely in parallel giving an unsettling quality typical of Impressionist music. Just as this mood takes hold, the King in Yellow theme returns in the strings and woodwind, spreading paranoia and fear. Years after the conflict described in The Wars, humanity tries to pick up the pieces to discover the monsters are still there. The music describes the isolation and haunted fears of the survivors. Bernard Herrmann’s music was a big influence on this piece, particularly his work in Vertigo. 

This Is Normal Now

As we reach the modern day, the shadows of the past continue to influence the present. Evil and disturbing elements surround you but just out of sight. You have to convince yourself that this is normal now. Just ignore the encroaching terror and keep on dancing. The music is EDM with no acoustic instruments, just human whispers. Even within the dance, the influence of the Yellow King is not far away and again his theme can be heard through the music. 

Carcosa

This final somewhat enigmatic piece is an attempt to capture the indefinable quality of the doomed city of Carcosa. Dramatic, emotional yet weary and fatalistic, the music moves through a series of moods depicting both the city and the play, The King in Yellow. Full symphonic strings take the spotlight here supported by occasional low brass. The entire piece trades through a rhapsodic series of musical moments where fragments of melodies spring to life and fade, slowly evolving into a new musical idea. The insidious melody of the King in Yellow grows out of this development, this time presented within a contrapuntal arrangement moving between the various string choirs. 

from James

Writing this music has been a personal pleasure for me. I’ve always found The King in Yellow to be exceptionally evocative and it was a wonderful challenge to create the suite. I hope it brings unsettling pleasure to the listeners!

I would also like to stress that none of this would have happened without the amazing talents of two other people. Mirela Nita composed the wonderful music for both The Aftermath and This is Normal Now. She also played the violin part on my King in Yellow piece. Roxane Genot played the sublime cello part that breathes life into The Belle Époque. Thank you to both of you for the incredible inspiration you brought to this project!

Buy the YKRPG Suite MP3s now

Basic Shock Deck

Apprehension, panic, terror, and collapsing causation!

This optional accessory helps The Yellow King Roleplaying Game GMs select and hand out Shocks during in-person play. Its card selection focuses on the varieties of fear and emotional disequilibrium most likely to afflict investigators into any reality-altering Carcosan mystery. Perfect for on-the-fly scenarios or abrupt sidetracks into hallucination and shattered consciousness. This deck assists GMs who prefer the solid slap of a physical card against the game table you can plunk before players when their characters stare into the uncanny and wish they hadn’t.

Basic Injury Deck

Bullets, blades, tumbles and absinthe overindulgence!

This optional accessory allows The Yellow King Roleplaying Game GMs to quickly grab and dish out Injury cards during face-to-face play. Its card selection focuses on the sorts of harm most likely to occur in any investigation into reality-bending occult horror. Ideal for improvised scenarios or sudden swerves into unexpectedly dangerous territory. This deck assists GMs who prefer the tactile charms of a physical card you can plunk before players when their characters lose fights or run afoul of hazards.
Contains 76 cards, with 2 copies of each Minor Injury and 1 of each Major Injury, corresponding to a wide variety of heroically harmful situations. Includes those essential workhorses of the game, post-healing Secondary cards like “On the Mend” and “Precarious Recovery.” From the mild drowning of “Cough, Choke, Splutter” to the memorable agony of “Fearsome Gut Punch,” this deck contains more than enough smackdowns to keep your investigators reeling with adventurous consequence.

Each purchase of The Yellow King RPG from our website, or a bricks-and-mortar retailer, includes the following downloads:

  • PNG files of all Shock and Injury cards from the four core settings
  • PNG files of all Goal, Chit & Hit cards from the Aftermath setting
  • A PSD format blank template of the Shock, Injury, Goal, Chit & Hit cards
  • A GIMP format blank template of the Shock, Injury, Goal, Chit & Hit cards
  • PDF of the 76-card Basic Shock deck
  • PDF of the 76-card Basic Injury deck

Please note – both decks only include a selection of the most used cards, selected by Robin D. Laws, not a complete set of every card in the game.

If you’d like print versions of The Yellow King RPG Basic Shock & Basic Injury decks, you can get them from the links below:

US & Canada – buy the Basic Shock Deck from DriveThruRPG

US & Canada – buy the Basic Injury Deck from DriveThruRPG

Customers outside the US & Canada – buy the Basic Shock Deck from Pelgrane

Customers outside the US & Canada – buy the Basic Injury Deck from Pelgrane

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