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

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

As addressed in an earlier piece, you may want to deploy a nastier set of Shock and Injury cards when playing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in one-shot format.

The cards mentioned there give you a steeper doom spiral. But some con games may tick along safely until the very last moment, where dramatic necessity demands less of a spiral than a precipitous drop from unharmed to smeared across the streets of Paris. (Or the battlefield, or post-revolutionary New York, or in your neighborhood.)

This will most often happen when you as GM do your subtle and not-so-subtle best to steer the investigators from final annihilation, but the players follow their hearts and charge in headlong, warnings be damned.

When this happened in a con run I GMed last spring, I improvised my way to a result that provided the 50% party kill story logic decreed.

(Long story short: half the group decided to attack the Carcosan doppelgangers who had engineered their participation in the publication of the play. The other half decided to abstain. I pointed out what a big disadvantage this would put the fighting characters in. They remained undeterred. Not because they were foolish, but because it was the fun and fitting thing to do.)

Imposing an enormous Challenge rating to compensate for their unspent Fighting points was the easy part.

When you find yourself in this situation, you can improvise the requisite sudden deaths. But you might want cards to prove that you’re doing it within the rules. Which is what you’ll be doing, when you deal out the cards below.

BRINK OF DOOM

Injury

-2 to all tests.

The next Shock or Injury card you receive becomes your Final Card.

CLIMACTIC DOOM

Injury

Counts as your Final Card.

You are dead. Surviving PCs might take advantage of shattered reality to restore your the ability to speak and move. Even so, you’re still dead and leave play at end of scenario.


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.

For an indefinite but limited time only, send a pic of yourself holding The Yellow King Roleplaying Game to Robin on Twitter (@RobinDLaws) and he’ll put it through this lovely and not at all harmful Carcosan filter for you.


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.

The Yellow Sign featured heavily in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game and its associated banners and art radiates an alien clarity. As created by graphic designer extraordinaire Christian Knutsson, its imperfections exist within the calm and implacable surety of the Pallid Mask.

Yet no everyone in the clashing realities of the game pulls the same template or stencil off the shelf when they need to inscribe their loyalty to the Court of Hali in sigil form. You might want a gnarlier, freehand version to incorporate into your handouts and fan art. At Pelgrane we’re all about satisfying obscure desires we invent and then project upon you, the esteemed hypothetical reader. Accordingly, here are three sizes of the same freehand Sign for your sinister use.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In a very special episode dedicated to The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Ken and Robin talk time as a game mechanic, the Skin Affair, strange machinery in the Belle Epoque, and the Martinist magician Papus.

Waxen-eared conspirators at constant war with their cats aren’t the only people with a vested interest in propagating the Yellow Sign. At Pelgrane Press we want everyone to gaze into the symbol of Carcosa, pledging fealty to the Pallid Mask and perhaps picking up a copy of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

To this end, Pelgrane releases its Yellow Sign symbol, designed with subtle menace by Christian Knutsson, into the public domain. Use it personally or commercially. Put it in illustrations, banners, or books. Slap it on t-shirts, hats, mugs, or temporary tattoos. Get started by downloading the Yellow Sign image pack.

Spread the word from here to the Hyades. The king is here!


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.

Banner for the Yellow King RPG with image of the four books in a slipcase

The insidious reach of the Yellow King has broken through into the world we know, and you may have seen his otherworldly influence percolate through Facebook and Twitter posts. Show your allegiance to the Yellow King – or be part of the Resistance against him – with these social media banners:

Have a quote that’s better than ours? We’d love to see it! Design your own Yellow King RPG banners and tag us on social media (we’re @pelgranepress on Twitter, and @PelgranePressLtd on Facebook). The one which most evokes the dread King in Yellow will win a print copy of Dean Engelhardt’s exclusive Yellow King RPG ephemera.

 

 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Belle Époque Paris boasted more occultists than you can shake a stick at. Or, in my case, more than I could fit into The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Here’s one who, due to his association with other, more renowned figures, warranted a mention but not a full write-up. Yet he might lead the group into interesting trouble, as he represents that most heedless and danger-seeking breed of creatures—the publisher!

Lucien Chamuel

Alchemical Supply Vendor and Occult Publisher

28, 1867-1936

Lucien Chamuel, or Mauchel, if you want to go by his mere birth certificate, runs the Librairie du Merveilleux in the 9th arrondissement. Despite its name, the Libraire is more an alchemical equipment shop, meeting space and publishing office than a bookstore. For a fuller selection of texts, the art student heroes of your game should seek Edmond Bailly’s Librairie de L’Art Indépendant, in the same occult-ridden neighborhood.

Already a seasoned publisher in his late twenties, Chamuel acts as a sidekick to the better known Papus. Like his mentor, Chamuel practices Martinist mysticism, which reconciles arch-Catholicism and the working of esoteric magic.

With Papus, he founds the journal L’Initiation. It contains not only mystical, quasi-scholarly articles on the occult, but for those who read between the lines, the latest gossip on city’s ever-feuding questers. In 1895 it has already been running for eight years; it will eventually rack up a total of twenty-five.

When the art students need Chamuel to plant a story immediately, he might include it in L’Initiation’s weekly sister publication, Le Voile d’Isis.

Effusive and friendly, Chamuel welcomes new visitors to his shop. Art students shaking his hand may notice the dampness of his palm. He answers the investigators’ questions without their having to resort to anything so gauche as the use of an interpersonal ability. He shows reluctance only when their inquiries portend trouble for him or his esoteric allies. In that case he may quote the title of a famous essay he published: “the supernatural does not exist!” Of course the real point of the article is that it does exist, but is science, not superstition. Arch-Catholic, ritual science, that is.

Two years ago, Papus declared his friend Chamuel the Gnostic Bishop of La Rochelle and Saintes. Like all church leaders the regular bishop of that diocese, once a fortress of the Huguenots, neither knows about nor would approve of this distinction. Papus hands out imaginary distinctions like this on a regular basis. Chamuel accepts them as flattery but would never himself announce them to customers or acquaintances.

Chamuel may take a particular shine to the belle-lettrist in the group. His offerings extend beyond the occult, and he’s always looking for an interesting publication to add to his catalogue. Among his offerings includes a book on the Paris catacombs. In your version of history, it might be the belle-lettrist character who writes it for him, perhaps under a pseudonym.

When they meet him, he might be poring over the texts of a book he is about to publish, by another occult stalwart, Joséphin Péladan. The uninitiated might assume that The Complete Theater of Wagner simply surveys the controversial German composer’s opera works. It does this only to advance a much more important revelation. Parsifal, the book contends, fosters mystical enlightenment in favored listeners, as it did to Péladan during an 1888 performance at Bayreuth. This thread might provide color to an unrelated scenario. Alternately, it brings the art students into contact with Carcosan forces plotting to cloak their activities in the guise of Norse mythology and/or thundering timpanis.

Chamuel’s best seller, one he asks prospective authors to emulate, is Péladan’s How to Become a Magus, part one in a projected seven-volume series, The Amphitheater of Dead Sciences.

In 1895, the shop has only just moved to a new spot, 79 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière. A mere year later it moves again, to 5 rue du Savoie in the 6th. Do the art students trigger a weird event requiring its relocation?

No occultist chooses an anagram for only one reason. Chamuel is not only a reordered version of Mauchel, but one of many spellings for an archangel, Camael. Naming himself for an angel of strength and courage constitutes a Martinist act of sympathetic magic, meant to bind those qualities into himself. His angelic predilections might get him in trouble if a winged, masked Carcosan comes calling, professing to be a projection of his esoteric desires.

Every fashionable man in 1895 Paris looks somewhat like a wizard, due to the current vogue for lavishly full beards. The occultists must therefore work harder to achieve grandiloquent facial hair. Chamuel’s prodigious beard differs from that of his colleagues by billowing out on each side, with his chin more closely trimmed. Unfortunately for our purposes, the one blurry surviving photograph of Chamuel depicts him in late middle age.

As a patron: Sinister forces might have presented Chamuel with the opportunity to publish The King in Yellow. Surely he rejected the text as insufficiently Christian, Wagnerian, or both. Perhaps he recommended the author to Bailly, whose interest in the Symbolist and Decadent movements exceeds his own. Luckily he gave up reading the play long before reaching its mind-shattering second act. Already the details of those who brought it to him have grown jumbled in his mind, like a dream. Realizing in retrospect that the flavor of occultism unleashed by the book contradicts every holy instinct of a good Martinist, he seizes on the art students’ interest in the mystery, urging them to track down the unknown rival publisher who committed it to print.

Amateur investigators of This Is Normal Now visiting contemporary Paris may have reason to discover that the 1895 location of the Library of Marvels has become a Franpix, an upscale groceteria. Occultism suggests that its logo, an apple, means something fraught in this context. Who placed the forbidden fruit at this location, and does it seal something in, or summon it? Likewise, a trip to the shop’s prior location finds the sleek offices of a renovation firm, with a similarly numinous logo of a pyramid folding in on itself.

 


 

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 at the Pelgrane Shop.

Previous Entries Next Entries