In the latest episode of their well-fortified podcast, Ken and Robin talk playing Mutant City Blues now, Fort Cumberland, the Maryhill Museum, and the Unicorn Killer.

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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.

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In the latest episode of their well-structured podcast, Ken and Robin talk narrative payoffs, the US election, QAnon, and game designer / paranormalist James "Herbie" Brennan.

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For the “Mr. Wilde’s Wild Halloween” one-shot of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I ran recently on Twitch, I knew the action would open with the investigators heading to a party. To fit both the occasion and the reality-bending theme, and to demonstrate to the audience how Shock and Injury cards work, I decided to kick off by giving the characters the chance to partake of recreational drugs. The existing cards that fill this role are themed specifically to drunkenness, and appear in the Paris sequence. The contemporary This Is Normal Now setting called for cards with titles that could refer to a broader range of substances.

The cards from the existing pair are also a touch on the complicated side, calling for more rules explanation than I wanted to get into. So I created a pair of cards with simpler mechanics and titles fitting a wide range of mood-altering substances. You too may find these useful in your game.

Characters avoided these cards by scoring Difficulty 4 Health successes.

If you watched the game you may recall that only Cat’s character failed, taking the minor card, “High.” I gave it a relatively easy and common discard condition in the hope that the audience would get to see it removed. Which is what happened, so I owe the Actual Play spirits a solid.

Unlike “Tipsy”, the minor card in the drunkenness pairing, “High” lacks the “Non-lethal” tag. You could add it back in if you prefer. However, with harder drugs you can easily rationalize why a dose gone awry could finish off a character who has already sustained multiple injuries. Even a safer drug might turn out to be laced with something fatal, or exacerbate existing wounds, should “High” occur as a Final Card.

Like “Tipsy,” you’ll note that these are Injury cards, not Shock cards, reflecting the characters’ decision to ingest a recreational poison. Their minds might be altered, messing with their Focus tests, but by a chemical rather than emotional source.


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.

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In the latest episode of their rigorously tabulated podcast, Ken and Robin talk machine politics in F20, the Chicago Film Festival, abandoned president heads, and a different Shah.

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by Kevin Kulp

As mentioned when we looked at Conan, it’s fun to see how a hero you know translates into Swords of the Serpentine. Let’s take a look at two ways to play Michael Moorcock’s classic antihero Elric of Melniboné using the SotS rules.

You’ve probably heard of Elric or seen pictures of him even if you’ve never read Moorcock’s work: skinny with long white hair and red eyes, cloaked in black armor, wielding the soul-devouring blade Stormbringer. The naturally frail Elric uses Stormbringer’s power for health and strength, as the blade’s fell magic replaces the expensive alchemical potions Elric used to take to survive. Sure, Stormbringer tends to kill and drain the soul from anyone Elric likes or loves, but isn’t that a small price to pay?

(As a hero, Elric might be a tiny bit flawed. *cough*)

There are a few aspects of Elric that we want to capture when we recreate him as a Swords of the Serpentine hero.

  • Stormbringer eats souls and is hard or impossible to get rid of
  • Emperor Elric is a noble sorcerer who summons demons and gods to do his bidding, but is also manipulated by them (especially by his patron god of chaos, Arioch)
  • He’s weak and frail unless he consumes rare and expensive alchemical supplements, or unless his sword Stormbringer consumes souls to heal him

Option One: Elric, Sorcerer of Demons and Blades

In this option we create Elric as a sorcerer who has the spheres Blades, Chaos, and Demonology, all affecting health. We don’t give him a single rank of Warfare. “But Kevin,” you ask, “Elric spends all his time stabbing people with Stormbringer! What gives?”

Good question. If you want to play Elric your first inclination is probably to ask the GM for a magic sword like Stormbringer. Problems are that you haven’t done anything to earn it, SotS a game about your own personal capabilities and not those of your items, and you don’t want to risk so iconic an item being lost, destroyed, stolen, or taken away by the GM.

Stormbringer

There’s an easy solution. SotS is predicated on “your abilities define your capabilities, and you describe those capabilities however you want.” Use Sorcery instead of Warfare, select the Blades sphere, and describe your attacks as swinging Stormbringer. You decide the fate of anyone you defeat, so when you defeat someone announce “their souls are devoured by my sword.” Flavorful, tragic, and effective.

Narratively, Stormbringer is a pitch-black demon-sword with red runes; mechanically it’s just the form your Sorcery damage takes. You attack using Sorcery, your base attack does 1d6+1 damage to Health, and you can boost damage with Investigative spends as normal. This is very different from (say) D&D’s approach to magic items, but fits right into how Swords of the Serpentine handles player narrative control.

Elric’s Demon-Summoning

For this version of Elric, demon-summoning ancient gods is handled with the normal Sorcery rules alongside the Demonology sphere. You may choose to save your Corruption spends for particularly powerful demon-summoning to emulate Arioch or other gods laying waste to your enemies for you. You probably gain your sorcerous power from Elric’s patron Arioch, God of Chaos.

Frail Health

So how do we handle Elric’s frail Health? Here we may need to ask the GM for a house rule.

“How do you feel about me losing one point of Health every new scene (until I reach -5 Health), and to balance this I’m healed one point of Health for every Refresh token I create when killing enemies?”

Is it fair, balanced, and fun? The GM considers this and says yes (the effect is similar to the mace Lifedrinker on page 189 of Swords of the Serpentine’s Adventurer’s Edition) – and adds that you could also spend 2 Repute each adventure to procure rare alchemical drugs that would pause your Health loss for the adventure.

Option One’s Elric

Name: Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné

Mournful, Frail, Albino, Regal, Introspective

Drives: Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!; All the books, ALL OF THEM; Balancing between Law and Chaos

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 3, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Morale 8

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 10 vs. Health; Damage Modifier +1 (Stormbringer/Blades, Chaos, Demonology)

Offense – Sway: Sway 3; Damage Modifier +1 (haughty)

Investigative Abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 3; Corruption 3, Forgotten Lore 1, Leechcraft 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 1; Ally: Sorcerous Cabals 1; Enemy: Outlanders 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 6, Preparedness 3, Stealth 3, Sorcery 10 (Blast), Sway 3

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Health) Blades; Chaos; Demonology

Gear: Distaste for your degenerate culture; patron gods who manipulate you; a head full of powerful summonings; a black-bladed, rune-covered sword named Stormbringer; a frail body kept alive only by alchemy or magic; black plate armor; weighty responsibilities; far too many dead friends and lovers; a cousin who’s trying to overthrow you; red eyes, pale skin, and white hair

Special: You lose 1 Health at the start of every new scene, down to -5 Health; prevent this by spending 2 Repute per adventure on rare alchemical concoctions. When defeating adversaries with Stormbringer, you can drain their souls to heal 1 Health per Refresh token you earn.

Option Two: A Two-Hero Approach

Want to team up with a friend? One of you plays Elric… and one of you plays Stormbringer.

There’s no real reason why your Hero in Swords of the Serpentine can’t be a sentient sword. The main challenge to consider is “how does a sword exert its will on the world?”, and there are lots of way to show that. You might be able to fly, or have a human act for you, or possess others, or have limited nearby telekinesis. As long as you can still do the same sorts of things a human could, you aren’t bending any rules or creating a power imbalance. In this case, you settle on Stormbringer manipulating humans around it, or subconsciously communicating through its wielder.

If you and your friend want to play partners like Stormbringer and Elric, and your GM says okay, go for it. Maybe you even switch off every few games. Just make sure the player with Stormbringer feels like they are making a difference in the narrative.

Both Elric and Stormbringer are considered Heroes and each gets an attack during a round, making it look to enemies like Elric is an incredibly accomplished warrior. Delightfully, give Stormbringer ranks of Bind Wounds so that it can heal its wielder.

Option Two’s Elric

This Elric is almost the same as above, but with no Bind Wounds ability and 8 ranks of Warfare.

Name: Elric VIII, 428th Emperor of Melniboné

Mournful, Frail, Albino, Regal, Introspective

Drives: Blood and souls for my Lord Arioch!; All the books, ALL OF THEM; Balancing between Law and Chaos

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 3, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (duty), Morale 8

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 8 vs. Health; Damage Modifier +1 (Blades, Chaos, Demonology)

Offense – Sway: Sway 3; Damage Modifier +1 (haughty)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8; Damage Modifier +2 (Stormbringer)

Investigative Abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 3; Corruption 3, Forgotten Lore 1, Leechcraft 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 1; Ally: Sorcerous Cabals 1; Enemy: Outlanders 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Preparedness 3, Stealth 3, Sorcery 8 (Blast), Sway 3, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Health) Blades; Chaos; Demonology

Gear: Distaste for your degenerate culture; patron gods who manipulate you; a head full of powerful summonings; a black-bladed, rune-covered sword named Stormbringer; a frail body, kept alive only by alchemy or magic; black plate armor; weighty responsibilities; far too many dead friends and lovers; a cousin who’s trying to overthrow you; red eyes, pale skin, and white hair

Special: You lose 1 Health at the start of every new scene, down to -5 Health; prevent this by spending 2 Repute per adventure on rare alchemical concoctions. When defeating adversaries with Stormbringer, you can drain their souls to heal 1 Health per Refresh token you earn.

Option Two’s Stormbringer

Name: Stormbringer, a greatsword of power

Demon-haunted, soul-devouring, deceitful, deadly, hungry

Drives: Blood and souls for Lord Arioch!; keep Elric safe and victorious; destroy everyone Elric loves or cares for

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 3 (demon-forged steel), Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (deviousness), Morale 8

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 8 vs. Morale; Damage Modifier +1 (Fear)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8; Damage Modifier +2 (razor-sharp blade)

Investigative Abilities: Intimidation 3; Corruption 1, Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 4

Allegiances: Ally: Mercenaries 1; Ally: Outlanders 1; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General Abilities: Bind Wounds 6, Stealth 8 (Where’d It Go?), Sorcery 8 (Blast), Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Morale) Fear

Gear: Growing impatience, mollified by blood; envy of anyone Elric seems to care for; a burning joy of chaos; faded memories of being a free demon; a body shaped like a night-black blade with glowing red runes; knowledge of Elric’s terrible need; a shameful desire for partnership

Special: You can’t walk or fly, but if left behind you can use Stealth to reappear wherever you would like, including within your scabbard. You must swallow the soul of any creature defeated by your blade. You can only apply your Bind Wounds to yourself or your wielder. You have a subtle mental link with your wielder that allows you to communicate.

 


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2021. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

 

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A valued customer asked: how to use GUMSHOE One-2-One, in its Cthulhu Confidential incarnation, to play Fall of DELTA GREEN? Mechanically, the One-2-One system works perfectly for DELTA GREEN play, ably handling the psychological disintegration and physical maiming expected of Agents with Problem cards. The investigative abilities also cross over neatly – I’d suggest the following abilities for the player character:

Agency, Architecture, Cop Talk, Flattery, HUMINT, Inspiration, Interrogation, Intimidation, Military Science, Notice, Streetwise, Survival, Tradecraft and Traffic Analysis, with the other investigative abilities allocated to Sources.

Add Bureaucracy to the list of General Abilities, so our hypothetical Agent has the abilities

Athletics 2, Bureaucracy 1, Conceal 1, Cool 2, Demolitions 1, Disguise 1, Drive 1, Filch 1, Firearms 2, First Aid 1, Heavy Weapons 1, Mechanics 1, Melee Weapons 1, Network 2, Pilot 1, Preparedness 2, Ride 1, Sense Trouble 1, Stealth 2, Unarmed Combat 2. (You could arguably keep Psychotherapy, but as its primary use is helping others, and you’re all alone… it’s probably not worth it.)

Sources & Bonds

Cthulhu Confidential has a supporting cast of recurring Sources who provide both emotional support and investigative abilities; Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, with its globetrotting adventures, has a Network ability and Contacts instead. The Fall of DELTA GREEN requires both. You can call up Contacts who’ll help out for one adventure, but you also have two or three emotional Bonds – people you care about. These people can be useful to your investigations – maybe your best buddy knows Chemistry, or your girlfriend has Art – but a Bond doesn’t have to have any Investigative Abilities.

In addition, you have a Bond with your DELTA GREEN Case Office – the recurring character who gives you your assignments.

If you pick up a Mythos Shock problem that would force your character to leave play at the end of the scenario, you can Burn a Bond, destroying your emotional relationship with that character. You can’t burn your Case Officer.

Sudden Death

Cthulhu Confidential recommends that the Gamemaster refrain from killing the protagonist; Langston may get shot, possessed or driven insane, but he’ll generally struggle on to the final scene before expiring, so the player gets to experience a satisfying story. The Fall of DELTA GREEN, though, is all about disappointment, misfortune and the unknowable nature of the Mythos – so more sudden deaths are perfectly in-genre. (After all, the player can always switch to playing another Agent investigating the disappearance of the previous character…)

All Alone Against The Mythos

So, why are you a lone DELTA GREEN Agent, instead of the usual cell of investigators? Some options:

  • Lone Globetrotter: It’s a lot easier for DELTA GREEN to get a single Agent out to a flashpoint than a whole team. You’re the first Agent in to investigate suspected Mythos activity. Your cover role is one that involves lots of travel (AFOSI investigator, CIA Operative, CDC disease hunter, FBN investigator, US Marshal, FBI Special Agent, journalist).
  • The Cleaner: You work directly for one of DELTA GREEN’s steering committee – you’re the trusted right hand of, say, Brigadier General Fairfield or Dr. Warren, and get dispatched to clean up messes or further your patron’s interests against rival factions on the Executive Committee or against the guys over in MAJESTIC.
  • Our Man in Havana: You’re DELTA GREEN’s go-to guy in a particular city or region; maybe you’re a CIA spy attached to the US embassy in Rome, or a Five Eyes SIGINT analyst in New Zealand who takes a lot of trips to isolated mysterious islands in the South Pacific…

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.

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This weekend, Metatopia, the game design festival, has moved online! Register here until Sunday, November 8th at 6:30PM EST if you’re interested in catching up with some of the content. Here’s where you can find the Pelgranes in the mix (all times are in EST):

Friday, November 6th

9:00PM – 10:00PM
D044: Translating Non-Game Intellectual Properties To Games
Presented by James Lowder, Darren Watts, Daryl Andrews, Scott Woodard, Robin Laws. Licensing an intellectual property for your game is potentially both artistically and financially satisfying. However, the process of actually melding your design with the specifics of the property is a creative challenge, to say nothing of the perils of disappointing the fans! Our band of experts have worked with a wide range of IPs and will share what they’ve learned.
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

Saturday, November 7th

9:00AM – 10:00AM
D054: Games, Gamefeel, Vocabulary and Umami
Presented by James Wallis, Cat Tobin, Kieron Gillen, Jacob Jaskov. We all know how certain games feel in play and how they make us feel, but as designers and critics we don’t have a set of words to describe it. Do we need an experiential vocabulary of play, and what would one look like?
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

6:00PM – 7:00PM
D073: The 100 GP Pearl: Economics and Trade as Design Elements

Presented by Jason Pitre, Rob Donoghue, Emily Dresner, Kenneth Hite. Economics and trade have long been foundational elements of game design, from the hyperinflation of dungeon pillaging to the free traders of Traveller. In this panel, we discuss how these aspects can be used as the foundation for game mechanics and procedures. Don’t make me quote the rules of acquisition at you.

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

9:00PM – 11:00PM
D079: RPG Points of View

Presented by Darren Watts, Nicole Lindroos, Kenneth Hite, James Crocker. Explain This Lingo: Trad. OSR. Story Game. Lyric Games. And Indie, which shouldn’t be about design at all. OK, folks from the Forge. We know this gave you the vapors. It’s okay to go make yourself a cup of tea and skip this one. There are a lot of folks coming in who have missed a whole lot of RPG chatter, and we get questions about what the lingo means fairly regularly. We’re going to dip into what these mean and what each category brings to the table that can be stolen and repurposed elsewhere.

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

Sunday, November 8th

9:00AM – 10:00AM
D085: Building Better Character Connections
Presented by Cat Tobin, Becky Annison, Sharang Biswas. How to Design !More! !Drama! into your RPG! Some of the most satisfying role playing experiences come from the dramatic outcomes of emotional connections between player characters. We look at ways for tabletop and LARP writers to design for deeper character relationships and dynamics, to provide a structure for GMs to bring more of the good kind of drama to their RPGs.
Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord

 

12:00PM – 1:00PM
D091: Grow Your RPG Brand

Presented by Cat Tobin, Will Sobel, JR Blackwell, Christopher McGlothlin, Maz Hamilton. You’re an RPG designer now! That’s great, but now how do you get your awesome game in front of players who will appreciate it? How do you position yourself for future projects? Basically, how do you get your name on a game to mean something? Our panelists grapple with this sticky problem!

Serious, All Ages
Location: Concord
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In the latest episode of their sterling podcast, Ken and Robin talk magical cooking, the Potosi Mint fraud, irony, and Fernando Pessoa’s Crowley period.

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Four Hallowe’en Horrors for the Yellow King RPG

(Photo by Rick Monteiro on Unsplash)

 

The Ugly Americans (Paris)

Hallowe’en is an American tradition – well, mostly derived from immigrants from the United Kingdom, but America added a lot of sugar and exported it back. Certainly, it’s not a French tradition – the French celebrate La Toussaint, All Saint’s Day, on November 1st.

But you’re American students in Paris – if you can’t be obnoxiously loud and tacky tonight, then something’s terribly wrong with reality.

So, the characters go on an absinthe-and-candy-fuelled bender across Parisian pubs and cafes, dressed in unlikely costumes. Obviously, they have to call in on the Montmartre Cabaret (du Néant, and de l’Enfir – Paris, p. 100), They pick up a couple of other revellers along the way. As the party wears on, with drunken Halloween games and superstitions, they end up in a bar around three in the morning, and someone in the party suggests they have to tell ghost stories. Everyone in the group must tell a ghost story.

Someone else in the party – some masked stranger they picked up en route – also tells a story. A haunting, surreal tale about a city of masked revellers, troubled by a masked stranger, and the coming of the King in Yellow.

The next morning – All Saint’s Day –  while fighting through handovers, the characters realise the following:

  • Something’s horribly wrong with the world. They can feel it in their bones, in their skulls. There’s a yellowish cast to everything.
  • None of them can recall how that stranger joined their company last night. One of their French introduced him to them… but they can’t recall exactly who or when. Finding out how they met that masked stranger is an ongoing mystery to be solved.
  • The stories each of them told have become their Deuced Peculiar Things.

 

Trick or Treat (The Wars)

October 31st, 1949. Your squad’s fighting in the Continental War. An enemy prisoner – any rumours that he’s a sorcerer are nonsense, of course – escaped from the facility where he was being interrogated, and has taken refuge in a nearby village. All routes leading out of the village have been secured, so he must be hiding in one of the houses – he’s probably holding some of the locals hostage, and forcing them to hide him. Your squad’s orders are to go house to house, searching each homestead in turn, until you find the escaped sorcerer. Correction – escaped prisoner. Not a sorcerer. He certainly has not conjured Carcosan entities, and the village is not a series of set-piece traps and nightmarish tableaus.

To navigate the village and find their quarry, the squad must deal with each house in turn, solve whatever Carcosan peril or weird encounter awaits them there, and follow a series of clues to discover where the escaped sorcerer is hiding.

Knock on each door in turn, and pray that a trick is the worst fate that awaits you…

 

Dress Up In You (Aftermath)

You’re all tired and traumatised by the events of the revolution; you need time to heal. One of the characters has a relative who lives out in a small town; they’ve got a big house, with space for all of you to stay. You can hang out in the countryside for a few weeks, take a break from the twin stresses of monster-hunting and politics.

Outside, the town’s getting ready for Halloween. Some small places like this came through the Castaigne years better than the big cities. It was easier to hide, out here. Fewer eyes. As twilight draws in, you see the town’s kids putting on their costumes. A lot of Dream Clowns, like always, but… yuck, some of them are dressed as Regime entities. Explosionists, Argus, Sphyxes, Carcosan visitors. Little siblings tagging along with their big brothers and sisters, dressed as cute Cancer Bags with legs.

Then… from downstairs, the sound of breaking glass. The house is under attack. Those aren’t costumes any more – the kids have been transformed into a cavalcade of horrors.

Some lingering supernatural threat (a Castaigne sorcerer, hiding out? A Carcosan tripwire? A spasm of fading magic) has made the make-believe horrors of the past real again. How to the characters escape the town and find the source of the transformation when they can’t kill the innocent children beneath the masks?

 

Your Face Will Stick Like That (This Is Normal Now)

The fun new gimmick this Halloween is a live face-swap app. You run it, and it swaps your face on video for that of your friend, or a cartoon character, or a celebrity. This Halloween, they’ve added a bunch of spooky faces – witches and vampires and goblins and… ew, that’s tasteless. There’s a Famous Serial Killers tab – Dahmer, Bundy, Jack the Ripper… and that freaky guy who killed those kids last year, the Halloween Stalker. They never caught him, did they? Anyway, don’t click on that.

Uh-oh. It was swapped your face anyway. And it’s swapped it in real life. Suddenly, you look like the infamous uncaught serial killer. Not on video. Physically.

How do you get your real face back? Does the killer have your face now? Or is this some sick joke where you’ve got to kill someone to earn your face back? And why is the logo of the app developer this weird yellow squiggle that you swear you’ve seen before?

Oh god – that was the doorbell. There are kids here, trick or treating! Quick, pull on a mask so they don’t recognise you – no, him! The Halloween Stalker! Get rid of the kids – NOT LIKE THAT – and then call your friends from the café, because you’re going to need help figuring out what’s going on!

 


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.

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An Esoterrorists mini-scenario

Scene 1: House Call

It’s October 30th. Mr. Verity passes on a hot tip from the Ordo – there’s an Esoterrorist cell operating out of a house in Brighton, England. Proceeding to the house, the team discover it’s recently abandoned, save for a nasty trap left behind by the Esoterrorists – a Torture Dog.

After dealing with that, a search of the house discovers:

  • Data Retrieval: There’s a computer, but the Esoterrorists have trashed it as they evacuated. However, through Ordo Veritas internet-monitoring software and some backdoors, they can confirm that the cell was monitoring twitter activity closely.
  • Photography: There are some surveillance photos, printed out and stuck on a wall, showing the entrance to some sort of compound with high walls and what look like cages. Trivia/Architecture identifies it as a nearby private zoo, Jungle Adventure.
  • Evidence Collection: In the recycling bin out back, there’s the box for a commercially available toy drone.
  • Chemistry: In a bathroom, the investigators find a horribly stained bathtub. In the plughole are scraps of meat – raw beef – coloured a lurid bluish-purple by whatever chemicals were mixed in the tub. Analysis with Chemistry or Pathology is worrisome and inconclusive – there are compounds in there that shouldn’t exist, suggesting the Esoterrorists either had the aid of an Outer Dark Entity or – more likely – were using some substance extracted from such an ODE for the purposes of dark magic.

Scene 2: Jungle Adventure

The zoo is closed and there’s a police car outside.

  • Cop Talk: Someone stole a tiger from the zoo. The police are baffled as to how or why the tiger was stolen, and are speculating it might have escaped. The owner – in an outburst of nominative determinism, he’s called Gerard Jungle – insists that the cage was secure and the animal didn’t escape.
  • Evidence Collection: On the floor of the tiger cage is a bluish stain, matching the stain from the bathtub.
  • Interrogation: Under questioning, Gerard remembers some odd visitors the day before; awkward, intense men wearing black. They spent a lot of time in front of the tiger cage. He recalls one of them kept checking his phone and cursing.
  • Electronic Surveillance: There’s a security camera watching the tiger enclosure; checking the footage reveals:
    • The gang of intense young men – presumably, the Esoterrorist cell.
    • A 1-point Electronic Surveillance spend lets the investigators zoom in on the phone screen, and discover that the Esoterrorist keeps checking a particular twitter account – cavalorn. See Scene 4, I Never Thought Tigers Would Eat My Phase.
    • Later that night, a drone flies in over the zoo and drops a package through the bars of the tiger cage. It lands wetly and bursts open – it’s full of meat.
    • The tiger eats the meat – and vanishes in a flare of blue light.

While the investigators are at the zoo (or if they’re monitoring police radio bands), they get an alert of a nearby sighting. The tiger’s loose on the streets of Brighton! Go to Scene 3, The Thinning Veil.

Scene 3. The Thinning Veil

About two miles away from Jungle Adventure, the investigators come upon the scene of a curious traffic accident. A car’s driven into a tree. The driver, Karen Glossop, is unhurt but shaken; a small crowd of locals surround her with supportive cups of tea. Reassurance gets her account of what happened: she was driving along when a “glowing blue ghost tiger” appeared right in front of her in the middle of the road. She swerved and crashed; the tiger smashed her side window open, stuck its head in, sniffed her face – and then vanished.

  • Some Outer Dark Entities can slip between our reality and theirs, phasing in and out of reality. At a guess, the Esoterrorists have managed to… infect the tiger with that ability. It’s almost certainly unstable; our form of life can’t survive for long in the Outer Dark.

The police officers on the scene are singularly unconvinced by the account, and are busy searching Glossop’s car for traces of hallucinogens.

  • Reassurance or Streetwise: None of the locals saw anything. One of them, however, is loudly talking about how this is Halloween, when the veil between worlds grows thin. It was probably an Anomalous Black Cat, he reckons, that phased in from a Celtic otherworld. That happens this time of year.
  • Occult Studies: The whole ‘Halloween is when the veils grow thin’ thing is nonsense; the first occurrence of the concept is in the 1970s. In fact, it’s nonsense that aligns perfectly with the goals of the Esoterrorists – manipulating human belief to weaken the real veil between our world and the Outer Dark sounds like a long-term Esoterror plan.
  • Data Retrieval/Trivia: There’s this one guy online who’s very, very insistent on telling everyone about the modern-day origin of the Halloween-is-when-the-veil-is-thin meme. In fact, he’s probably painted a target on himself through his internet activity… and he lives in Sussex. Go to Scene 4.

Scene 4: I Never Thought Tigers Would Eat My Phase

By this point in the scenario, the investigators know the target of the Esoterrorist plot – they’re going after Adrian Bott, aka Cavalorn, to silence his unwitting demolition of their ongoing psychological operation. Data Retrieval or Streetwise can locate Bott’s home; alternatively, the team can track sightings of the glowing blue tiger as it blips across Sussex, phasing in and out of the Outer Dark. The animal grows more misshapen and monstrous with each interval.

To thwart the Esoterrorists, the team need to take down the monstrous tiger before it phases in and devours its target.

Phase-Eating Tiger

Abilities: Athletics 10, Health 12, Scuffling 10

Hit Threshold: 5

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0

Weapon: +1 (claws)

Armour: +1 fur

Scene 5: Veil-Out

The first problem is to dispose of the glowing blue tiger corpse; after that, it’s mostly paperwork and lies. The Esoterrorist cell who created the tiger have fled; the investigators might be able to track them down by backtracing the drone from the zoo, but if that fails, they can set a trap for them at Easter – as Mr. Bott is equally outspoken on the topic of the Easter Bunny

With thanks to Adrian Bott of this parish, who was very sporting when I DMed him and said “I’ve got an idea for a really awful pun, but it requires murdering you in an adventure…”


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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A flapper, an astronaut, a ghoul, a weird scientist, and an empress of evil walk into a Halloween party… and mind-bending reality horror ensues!

Join us on the Pelgrane Press Twitch channel on October 31st at 8 PM EDT / 5PM PDT for a very This is Normal Now Pumpkin Spice session of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Starring Sharang Biswas, Misha Bushyager, Wade Rockett, Ruth Tillman, and Cat Tobin and GMed by YKRPG designer Robin D. Laws.

Produced by Noah Lloyd; flyer by Dean Engelhardt.

Bring your own spoo-oo-o-ooky shooters.

WRISTBAND REQUIRED FOR READMITTANCE.

Watch part 1 now on our YouTube channel!

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In the latest episode of our footnote-checking podcast, Ken and Robin talk Scriabin’s Mysterium, intelligence legwork, cinematic daddy issues, and Edward the Exile.

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Usage Dice are an F20 innovation for tracking consumables. The short version: a particular resource, like arrows in a quiver or burning torches, are rated by die size. When you use that resource, you roll the die – on a 1-2, the die drops one dice size. Roll a 1-2 on a d4, and you’re out of that resource. It’s a handy little mechanic that reduces book-keeping while adding excitement.

13th Age cares even less about tracking minor resources. Above 1st or 2nd level, I’ve certainly never bothered noting how many arrows my archer has, or how many days worth of iron rations the characters have in their packs. There are games where managing logistics and balancing the weight and cost vs the utility of a particular item is part of the fun; 13th Age is not normally one of those games.

In fact, 13th Age goes further, making gold and non-magical treasure virtually unimportant. So, let’s take the whole question of resources, and abstract it out!

Resource Saves

A Resource save is a regular saving throw, succeeding on an 11+. If you succeed, you have the item required. If you fail, you don’t have that item to hand.

There are two possible triggers for a resource save:

The GM can call for a resource save where the adventurers are at risk of running out of a particular type of resource (arrows after a long battle with lots of archery, food and water while lost in a dungeon). If the save fails, the adventurers are out of that particular consumable.

Players can also call for a resource save to determine if they have a particular unusual item. Do you have a healing potion to hand? Resource save! A weapon oil or rune? Resource save!

Each time you make a Resource save, make a note. You get a -2 penalty to Resource saves for each previous Resource save. To get rid of this penalty, see Refreshes, below.

Wealth saves

Wealth saves work the same way, covering the character’s cash on hand. Can you afford to stay in this pricy inn? Make a Wealth save. Can you bribe the guard? Wealth save! If you fail a Wealth save, you’re out of coin.

Failing a Wealth save doesn’t necessarily mean you simply don’t have enough coin. Maybe you got gouged by a greedy merchant, or your coin-purse got robbed, or you have a secret gambling problem, or you donated a portion of cash to the temple. Maybe, in the tradition of wandering adventurers, you squandered it all on ale and feasting, or weird arcane supplies. Look, if you were a prudent, fiscally sensible sort you probably wouldn’t be adventuring in the first places.

Again, each time you make a Wealth save, make a note. Take a -2 penalty to Wealth saves for each previous Wealth saves, successful or not.

Refreshes

You can refresh your Resources by visiting a market, a town or some other bastion of commerce and making a successful Wealth save to buy what you need. You can also refresh your Resources if you find a supply cache or armoury in a dungeon. When you refresh, erase all the penalties to your Resource save.

You refresh your Wealth by looting treasure. Simple as that. (Or finding some other source of wealth – going home to your rich family, collecting taxes from your domain, collecting a bounty on that ogre bandit, honest work, stealing from the guilds of Glitterhaegen…)

Character Tiers

Obviously, what counts as a common expense to a beginning adventurer is very different to a common expense to a mighty hero of the Empire or dimension-sundering master sorcerer. If you make a Hard save instead of a regular one, you get access to the benefits from the next tier up instead. Conversely, if you ask for an Easy save instead of a regular one, you get the benefit of the lower tier.

So, if you’re a Champion-tier character, you can make an 11+ Resource test for a Champion-tier potion, a 16+ save for an Epic potion, or a 6+ save for a bog-standard Adventurer potion.

New Feats: Wealthy & Well-Equipped

Wealthy: Once per level, reset your Wealth save penalty to 0.

Well-Equipped: Once per level, reset your Resource save penalty to 0.

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In the latest episode of their highly motivated podcast, Ken and Robin talk certain doom, the Amber Room, directionless protagonists, and the Vatican’s time viewer.

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See Page XX – September/October 2020

Page XX logo (2015_04_01 16_53_09 UTC)As we enter our ninety-sixth year of lockdown, we’ve lost all concept of space, time, and externality. If you’re looking for an introductory session to get your group into the Dracula Dossier, pick up this month’s PDF release The Dracula Vector.

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In the latest episode of their titanic podcast, Ken and Robin talk the Missouri Leviathan, Zakros Master, friendship across the aisle, and tarot illustrator Pamela Colman Smith.

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“Everybody likes a fireworks show.”

— Samuel Cummings, president of the International Armament Corporation

If, as the Beatles assured us, happiness is a warm gun, the happiest place on Earth between 1953 and 1968 is the Alexandria, Virginia warehouse complex of Interarms, the International Armament Corporation. In 1968 it holds between 650,000 and 800,000 military-surplus small-arms — more guns than the army of any NATO country except America — up to and very much including dozens of 20mm Lahti rifled anti-tank cannon from Finland. Samuel Cummings (b. 1927), the president of Interarms, worked for the CIA officially in 1950-1953 as a weapons analyst, and some say continues to work for the Company as a source for weapons the Company would rather nobody be able to trace to the CIA. Born in Philadelphia Main Line society, he affects a Virginia drawl but otherwise keeps things professional and never flashy. Interarms clears about $20 million per year, from gun sales in America as well as from international arms brokerage. When Cummings buys the entire Spanish national arsenal in 1965, he converts much of it into sporting guns and sells it by mail-order; but he also brokers gently used fighter jets, submarines, and tanks.

Interarms pre-unboxing in progress

Cummings’ deep pockets, myriad of subsidiaries and shell corporations, and vast network of stringers and clients in the world’s military and intelligence services keep him ahead of all his private-sector rivals; Interarms controls about 80% of the non-governmental traffic in arms. Smaller companies, often thinly-disguised agents for Bonn or Paris, nip at his heels or sink into the shadows, going after deals that Cummings can’t afford to touch without angering his patrons in the CIA and State Department. The Piccadilly firm of Cogswell & Harrison still brokers sales that the British Foreign Office couldn’t possibly countenance. “Munitions manipulators” proliferate on the next level down, selling arms to rebel movements without great-power backing or conniving to rig the bidding in Greece or Thailand for a bigger corporate client.

The big money is in Africa (Algeria 1954-62, Congo 1960-65, Biafra 1967-70; ongoing bush wars in Ethiopia and Rhodesia; plus running the blockades of South Africa and Angola) and to a lesser extent the Caribbean, even after Castro crushes the Bay of Pigs invasion. Iran and Saudi Arabia hire arms dealers to equip their police and to supply their proxies in their neighbors. Hill tribes from Sudan to Yemen to Burma always want rifles, and can perhaps pay in drugs or even archaeological treasures. Countries like Egypt, Vietnam, and others supplied by the Soviets often unload their weapons on the Western market to make hard currency, and the Czech national weapons company Omnipol seemingly connives at such capitalism. Rakeoffs and bribery also provide incentives for Third World generals and deputy ministers to make unnecessary arms deals just to collect their percentage. But the First World isn’t immune, although the currency is string-pulling as much as bribery: some port officer or air-traffic controller keeps authorizing freighter-loads of assault rifles to depart from Belgium (along with Holland, the major “free port” in arms dealing) or allows cargo planes to “divert” to Spain or Malta and refuel for Africa.

Big old-school weapons companies such as Krupp, Mauser, and Schneider have diversified into general industry; Oerlikon, Hotchkiss, FN, SAAB, and Hispano-Suiza still aggressively market weapons overseas. (The new-school weapons companies like GE, Lockheed, and Vickers just slurp up fat defense contracts, hiring lobbyists instead of salesmen.) The Argentine Ballester-Molina dynasty of gun-makers writes its own foreign policy in Latin America. Skoda is now the engine of the Czech communist arms trade, supplying fine weapons to foul terrorists. But all of these companies still use cut-outs and keep up with the old field: for example, the Quandts of Mauser have friendly (and oh so informal) ties to the West German shell company Merex, which sells weapons to Israel and the Arabs alike. For more Interarms, more anecdotes, and wild NPCs (such as former fruit-planter Mitchell Livingston WerBell III who sells guns in Latin America; exiled Hungarian master smuggler Dominick de Fekete von Altbach und Nagyratoth who sells guns from Latin America to rebels and the governments fighting them) I recommend George Thayer’s The War Business (1969).

“Morgan uncased the big-game rifle on which he relied despite his colleague’s warnings that no material weapon would be of help.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

So where and how can your Fall of DELTA GREEN Agents cross paths with the modern-day merchants of death? Obviously the Interarms private intelligence network makes a great source for story hooks or even for DELTA GREEN friendlies. The program might task agents to find the source of weapons flowing to Mauti- or Angka- worshipping rebels, or to supply weapons to local militias getting riled up to massacre the local Dagon cult. Or, of course, being DELTA GREEN Agents, they might just want to know a guy who can hook them up with not-quite-yet-sporterized Tommy guns or entirely-sporting heavy game rifles or half-a-dozen Spanish Super-Star 9mm pistols apiece, all without inconvenient serial numbers.

In a slightly James Bond-ed version of the setting, perhaps some Australian munitions manipulator has stumbled on a cache of Yithian weapons and gone through enough subordinates to figure out (mostly) how they work. He’s getting ready to offer weak-nuclear-force-disintegrators, Tenet-style reverse-entropy pistols, and full-auto lightning-throwers to any and all interested parties — and your team has to stop MAJESTIC from putting in a very generous bid.

Arms Dealer

You might be a drummer for Interarms sniffing out wars and deals, a private broker or “munitions manipulator,” or (with Pilot and Conceal) a slightly glorified gun-runner. Ever since you met these particular Company men, you’ve been doing a lot of business in very special ammunition loads and high-caliber hunting rifles — it’s only a matter of time before you see what’s at the other end of the barrels you sell. You don’t need Cop Talk, because between Negotiation and Network you’ve already bribed the commander who arrested you.

Points: 11 Investigative, 21 General

Foreign Language 2, Law 1, Military Science 1, Negotiation 2, Streetwise 1

Demolitions 2, Firearms 3, Heavy Weapons 2, Network 4, Sense Trouble 2

Pick two Investigative: Accounting 1, Chemistry 1, Foreign Language 1, History 1, Military Science 1, Traffic Analysis 1

Pick one Interpersonal: Flattery 2, HUMINT 2

Pick two General: Bureaucracy 4, Conceal 4, Demolitions 4*, Drive 4, Firearms 4*, Heavy Weapons 4*, Mechanics 4, Network 4*, Pilot 4, Preparedness 4, Sense Trouble 4*

Lahti L-39 20mm “Elephant Gun” Anti-Tank Rifled Cannon

You’ve all been very patient, so here’s what you came here for. The Lahti weighs 109 lbs. and fires its very expensive ($1 each) and hard-to-source Swiss ammunition [L2, also available in phosphorus] up to a mile downrange. Each magazine holds ten 5.4-inch-long shells and weighs 2.5 pounds. It takes a round of cranking the bolt back (Diff 6 Athletics test to do it in half a round) before you can fire the first shot; after that, each shot re-cocks the bolt. In a string of jobs in 1965, robbers in Canada and New York use them to blow open bank vaults from the rear. Interarms sells them for $99 apiece to licensed collectors.


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.

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Dice Hacking in Gumshoe

by Joshua Kronengold and Catherine Ramen

One of the most interesting features of GUMSHOE is that failure is frequently not an important part of the gameplay. Whether by finding a clue with an Investigative Ability, or spending enough points on a General Ability test to ensure success, GUMSHOE games focus more on the what (which Ability do you use, what do you do to invoke it, what you do with information after finding it) the why (Drives, at minimum), and how much (do you spend points now or hold them in reserve for a future effort? How many?)

The thing is, as much as automatic successes make PCs seem (and players feel) like badasses, in games where the characters have broad ranges of skills and large amounts of points to spend, the die rolls on General Ability tests become less interesting. Varying the difficulty can add some drama to rolls, but it has to be done carefully, especially if the Difficulty is not revealed to the players. Unknown Difficulties that run higher than the expected 4 can discourage point spends as players become conservative, or cause frustration as too many tests fail because of underspends or running out of points. Keeping Difficulties to a narrower and more predictable range lets players make more strategic choices about when to spend points–but also tends to make any rolls a foregone conclusion and the die roll a pro forma task. In this article, we look at several ways to give die rolls drama and keep the results interesting. At their best, dice do more than moderate between players; they provide interesting and surprising results that nobody in the session would have chosen, while still staying within the bounds of what people consider an acceptable result.

So, then, how do we open up die rolls?

The first method, which appears in a rough form in Night’s Black Agents and TimeWatch, is to add another possible result to the roll: you get a Critical success if you roll a 6 and beat the Difficulty by 5. (Note that this will encourage some overspending by players, but both TimeWatch and NBA make it relatively easy to refresh pools or find extra points when needed, and that mathematically it encourages what we consider optimal play–usually spending just enough to guarantee success) However, this tends to still produce only two possible results for a roll. If you didn’t spend enough to guarantee success, the possibilities are failure and success. If you did, it’s success and critical. But either way, it’s a pure binary result: yes or no; crit or normal. There are three possibilities, but only two of them are possible on any given roll.

Catherine has designed a system that opens the results even more, by creating a system of “Benefits” that can be accessed with a high enough roll. In her system, for every four points that you exceed a Test’s Difficulty by, you can choose a Benefit (you can choose the same benefit more than once). In her last campaign, the list looked like this:

  • Terrible Harm: + 4 damage
  • Armor Piercing: you negate the target’s armor
  • Speed: You succeed very quickly
  • Unnoticed: No one sees what you do
  • No Traces: No obvious signs of what you did
  • Safe: You don’t expose yourself to danger
  • Disable: You break or damage an object
  • Disarm: You knock a weapon (or other held object) free
  • Suppress: You stun, force under cover, or otherwise prevent someone from acting
  • Opportunity: The PC may immediately take a second, related task
  • Missing Materials: You can succeed even without the proper tools

The system also allows you to take a Benefit if you are willing to take a consequence; one of the implicit Benefits is “You Succeed,” and several skills (like Intrusion or Filch in NBA) include Unnoticed or some other benefit by default) so a player willing to let their character suffer a consequence or lose one of the benefits of success could succeed even on a failed roll. When deciding on a consequence, often the easiest thing to do is simply reverse one of the Benefits: so instead of being safe, a character might take damage; their effort might take a great deal of time, or be unable to conceal. Note that the Benefits list can also function as a quick way to reward an Investigative spend, for example a Library Use spend that finds the results in only a half a day’s search. A GM might even allow a player to purchase a Benefit using an appropriate Investigative spend if it fit the situation–using Intimidate during a fight to keep other characters from joining the fight, for example (using the Suppress Benefit).

This “Margin of Success” method makes the rolls more interesting, since any roll might result in a valuable Benefit, as well as rewarding players who overspend on a Test since they will probably receive a Benefit rather that effectively wasting any points beyond the amount needed to guarantee success. (This is the reason why the margin to receive a benefit was set at 4–it gives a 50% chance of receiving a Benefit on most tasks, provided the player spends at least 3 points. For a grittier feel you could raise the required margin to 5 points or even 6; lowering the margin will tend to produce very competent characters.)

The Benefits list has to be customized for the GUMSHOE game you’re using, the particular style of your group, and the skills that are available.

That said, there are limits to this approach. While the variable benefits allow for players to make many more choices about how to customize successes and failures, die results have gone from being binary to sometimes-ternary–depending on how much someone spent. At best, the possibilities are failure or success, or success with a benefit — or success, success with a benefit, or success with two benefits (etc). While player choices can customize this result after the roll, the results are still going to be strictly bounded.

To really make sure we don’t know what will happen, we have to make die rolls truly open ended. That way, you’ll never know exactly what result you’re going to get–and can let yourselves get a little excited every time the dice hit the table. There’s a simple and well tested way to do this — use the same system that quite a number of other games have used and have a 6 or 1 result in another die getting rolled (repeating this as necessary). The problem with that is that most of us (and the authors are certainly in this set) are attached to the way that GUMSHOE’s results are more predictable than those in most others, while the “exploding six and one” system is incredibly, unalterably random.

So Josh suggests that we tone it down a bit. Whenever you roll a 6, it explodes, but to keep it slightly flatter, use a d3 instead of a d6 (if, like us, you don’t have a d3, just halve the results on a d6 and round up). And if you roll a 3, keep going.

Similarly, we can have rolls of 1 implode (if you like surprise failures–If you don’t like it as GM, or the group doesn’t want it, don’t use it). If you’re using this rule, you should also allow players to “take one,” setting the die to 1 (and not risking it imploding) rather than rolling if they want; this means that, if they’ve successfully gauged the difficulty, they get an automatic success. As an optional rule, only allow taking 1 if they did, in fact, spend enough to guarantee success; if they declare this and it’s not enough, tell them to roll anyway, but only after they’re committed. This avoids players being unfairly punished for “taking 1” in a situation where the difficulty is unknown. Imploding is less fun for players than exploding, so add one to the d6 roll before subtracting, but otherwise it’s the same in reverse–roll a d3 and subtract the result, but keep going if a 3 is rolled.

We’d be fine with stopping there, but we know some people are going to want a fumble system (and some people are going to really, really, really NOT want a fumble system). One option is to invert the Benefits system so that for every 4 points you fail the test’s Difficulty by, the GM assigns a consequence which is the reverse of one of the Benefits. If you want fumbles to be more rare, you should make them only happen if a 1 was rolled — and that should probably be the default for defensive rolls, particularly when target numbers are unknown, so that players don’t roll flat against a difficulty of, say, 15 and suddenly — surprise! — they take multiple consequences just for playing. After all, it should generally be better to roll than not to roll, even if the odds are long. Even if you don’t want to lock yourself into a fumble system, this can be a good guide to estimating the consequences of failing a high stakes active roll. The PC doesn’t get the benefits of a success, and may (particularly if they miss the difficulty by 4 or more) end up exposed to danger or notice, drop or damage something important, or an opponent might gain an opportunity. Gumshoe is often about pretty competent protagonists, so you can do all of this without having to make the PCs look incompetent or foolish.

And that’s it — several modular, open-ended, still very GUMSHOE-Y systems that should add a bit of anticipation to every roll you make — and provide a few entertaining surprises. Try it out, and let us know what you think!

Postscript (by Joshua Kronengold):
Since we drafted this article, Robin published an article talking about how one can embrace failure in Gumshoe general tests (as well as another on automatic successes).  Our article, on embracing and shaping exceptional success and softening failures, could be seen to act as a complement to Robin’s thoughts on the subject.

On the one hand, we have automatic successes (or failures).  Those are the points where you don’t a particular result as interesting — so you don’t allow for it at all, instead simply ruling success to be automatic or impossible.

Then we have rolls where failure is acceptable.  There (as with the addition of my highly caveated fumble system), Catherine’s system allows for a  failure to be a negotiation, not a catastrophe, shaping the narrative rather than cutting it off.  Perhaps you fail at your overall goal, but salvage one particular element from it that was more important than the goal itself.  Or perhaps you succeed at that goal, but at the cost of excessive time, damage, or some other mischance–either way, the dice steer you into a result that falls short of your character’s goal–and instead steers you into a different avenue that might end up being more narratively satisfying rather than a wall that you feel compelled to
bang against until it falls.

 


Catherine Ramen has been playing role-playing games for almost four decades. She is the designer of the upcoming Red Carnations on a Black Grave, a story game about the Paris Commune, Rovers, a customizable space-opera rpg about loveable anti-heroes, and edited the English edition of Nerves of Steel, a film noir story game.

Joshua Kronengold lives in Queens, New York with Lisa Padol, surrounded by books, games, and musical instruments.  He is a decades-long contributor to Alarums & Excursions, and has contributed to Over the Edge (in Edgeworks #3), Reign, and Unknown Armies.

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13th Hwaet

Esteemed Patreon backer Simon… wait, no, strike that out. Correct that.

Esteemed Pelgrane co-owner Simon Rogers asks: “I have an idea for a Page XX column which by pure coincidence would help me for my game in a week’s time. I would like (Champion tier) stats for Grendel, and Grendel’s Mother, plus suggestions for reskins of existing creatures for Norse ones.” So, by pure co-incidence, here’s a take on Beowulf for 13th Age parties. (And by even purer co-incidence, it lets me do some research for my stretch goal adventure for another Beowulf game…)

Grendel on his own is a match for a party of 7th-level adventurers; Grendel’s Mother isn’t quite as fearsome, but she’s accompanied by a host of nicors.

Grendel

march-riever mighty, in moorland living,

in fen and fastness; fief of the giants

the hapless wight a while had kept

since the Creator his exile doomed.

9th level triple-strength wrecker [Giant]

Initiative: +13

Grim and Greedy Grasp +14 vs. AC (3 attacks)—80 damage

Natural 16+: Grendel grabs the target and throws him over his shoulder. The target is Stuck (but moves with Grendel) and Hampered while in Grendel’s clutches (save ends both).

Ruthless Murder +14 vs. AC – 120 damage, and 20 ongoing damage (save ends). Grendel can only make a Ruthless Murder attack if he has no grabbed victims.

The Hall-Thane’s Hate: Grendel automatically ambushes (getting a free round of attacks) if he’s attacking characters who have just taken a Quick Rest or Full Heal-up. He gets a bonus to his attacks in that ambush round equal to the number of Recoveries expended in that rest.

Safe from sword of battle: When Grendel’s hit by an attack, reduce the size of the damage dice by two steps before rolling. So, if Grendel’s hit by an attack that would normally deal 7d8+10 damage, the damage dice by two steps (d8->d6->d4), so the attack now deals 7d4+10 damage instead.

Hot Blood: If Grendel’s struck by a critical hit from a melee weapon, the attacker must make a save (11+) or the weapon’s destroyed at the end of combat.

Far and Fast The Fiend Outran: When the initiative dice is even, if Grendel is not engaged with any foes, he may withdraw from combat, escaping across the moors and fens. Any grasped characters may make one final Hard save to escape; any characters who fail this last save are devoured.

Leave Hand Behind In Pledge: If Grendel is unable to disengage, he may choose to pop free by sacrificing one of his limbs. Grendel may also choose to automatically succeed at a save by the same method. Grendel’s number of Grim and Greedy Grasp attacks is permanently reduced by 1.

After Wassail Was Wail Uplifted: Grendel hates music and song. When a bard song is in effect, the singer becomes Vulnerable to Grendel’s attacks.

AC   24

PD   23                 HP 555

MD  19

 

Grendel’s Mother

the livelong time

after that grim fight, Grendel’s mother,

monster of women, mourned her woe.

She was doomed to dwell in the dreary waters,

cold sea-courses

9th level Double-strength spoiler [Giant]

Initiative: +13

Grisly Claws +14 vs. AC (2 attacks)—60 damage

Natural 16+: Grendel’s Mother may make a loath to bite attack as a free action.

Broad and Brown-Edged Short Sword +14 vs. AC – 100 damage.

Avenge the Bairn: Any character who damaged Beowulf is Vulnerable to this attack

C: Loath to Bite +14 vs. MD – 40 psychic damage, and that character can only inflict miss damage on Grendel’s Mother on a hit (hard save ends).

Fangs of Flood: Grendel’s Mother is surrounded by an aura of drowning water. Any character who starts their turn nearby her must make a save (11+). Those who fail begin to drown (become Weakened and start making Last Gasp saves). Disengaging from Grendel’s Mother ends this effect.

Place of Fear: The lair of Grendel’s Mother is foul and strange. A character who rolls a 1-5 on any d20 roll becomes affected by fear (-4 to attacks and cannot use the escalation die) until the end of their next turn.

AC   23

PD   19                 HP 333

MD  25

 

Nicor

sea-beasts many

tried with fierce tusks to tear his mail

9th level mook [beast]

Initiative: +13

Fierce Tusk +14 vs. AC—30 damage

AC   25

PD   23                 HP 45 (mook)

MD  19

Mook: Kill one nicor for every 45 damage you deal to the swarm.

 

Norse Monsters

Obviously, lots of giants and trolls work really well. Drow always get trotted out as svartalfir. Death Knights (Bestiary 2, p. 249) could be reskinned as draugr-wights. Norse dragons are more commonly sea-monsters or serpents, so reskin dragon breath weapons as a venomous bite or sudden furious assault.

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In the latest episode of their luminous podcast, Ken and Robin talk Toronto Film Fest (at home edition), Nero Wolfe in GUMSHOE One-2-One, and the Clavllux.

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When asked for his top GMing tip, Rob would normally make a Faustian bargain. Instead he reaches for a technique he has adopted relatively late in his d20-rolling career.


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. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 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.

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3 Books Soon: a 13th Age Update

With Book of the Underworld surfacing on game store shelves and available from the Pelgrane store, it’s time for an update on the three other 13th Age books that will be published soon: Elven Towers, Crown of Axis, and Drakkenhall: City of Monsters.

Ready for the Printer: Elven Towers

[[cover by Lee Moyer and Rich Longmore]]

One of the constants in the half-designed world of the Dragon Empire is that the elves and their Queen implement long-running magical fiascoes better than anyone but the Archmage in a bad century. Elven Towers, a 120-page adventure for champion-tier adventurers, serves as Exhibit S (Stalactite In the Underworld), Exhibit T (Towering Tree in the Greenwood), and Exhibit Z (Ziggurat Atop Mountain) in the Elf Queen’s ongoing case of reckless ritual endangerment. Send your adventurers in to save the elves from age-old rituals gone awry . . . or get tricky and use the confusion to advance your own icon’s agenda.

Elven Towers is finished, the PDF is laid out. If you pre-order the book on the Pelgrane store you’ll receive the PDF right away and the print copy in a month or two. Bonus: When Aileen Miles has it ready in a week or two, you’ll also get the PDF of the map folio, presenting the great maps by Gill Pearce and Christina Trani in their full-color glory.

Next Up: Crown of Axis

[[cover by Aaron McConnell & Lee Moyer]]

Next in the queue, we’ve got Crown of Axis, Pelgrane’s first PDF-only 13th Age adventure. Wade Rockett’s design is complete, he’s done an admirable job of creating a first-or-second level adventure that plays well off the icons and the PC’s connections. J-M DeFoggi has paused decisive development while overseeing playtesting and handling the art order.

We ran a note earlier on the creation of the cover. We’ll probably run another post soon about the approach taken in Simone Bannach’s interior illustrations.

Expect this book within a couple months, probably before the print copies of Elven Towers arrive.

 

Third, as You’d Expect from the Three . . . Drakkenhall: City of Monsters

[[cover by Roena I. Rosenberger]]

Drakkenhall: City of Monsters is 90% written, partially developed, and 90% illustrated. J-M stepped aside from finishing development to get Crown of Axis finished first. The missing 10% of design is on the way from AnneMarie Boeve and Liz Argall, who are finishing up a Gnomarchy section that came to us as the brainchild of the recent 13th Age Monster Workshop from GenCon Online. The internet demanded dangerous gnome bakeries in Drakkenhall. A mosaic book is the perfect place to meet those demands.

We expect art and editing to be finished in 2020, but aren’t entirely sure about layout.

 


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.

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By Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine’s pre-layout PDF is available for everyone who has pre-ordered the game, so here’s another free adventure seed to use alongside of (or instead of) A Corpse Astray from the rulebook. This adventure seed should fill one or two game sessions, and the supporting characters here can be integrated into ongoing plots in your game. Due to space limitations you’ll want to fill this adventure in during your own play, adding clues, supporting characters, adversaries, and complexity.

Please don’t read farther if you’re a player, or you will find yourself spoiled.

Adventure Premise

A corrupt commander of the City Watch is being stalked by a penanggalan, a monstrosity in the shape of a (mostly) bodiless woman who sniffs out and devours sin. She is starting to systematically kill and consume his corrupt associates and partners, drawing ever close to the commander himself in the same way that a wild animal circles its prey. Unwilling to involve the Watch due to a fear that his own crimes will be exposed, the commander instead hires the Heroes to find and exterminate her. Whether they do, or whether they spare her and expose the corrupt Watch Officer instead, depends on their actions and decisions during the adventure.  Although combat can occur, this isn’t a combat-heavy adventure; the drama is the heroes making difficult decisions when they realize the human who hired them is more monstrous than the actual monster.

Background

Watch Commander Antonio Teldi handles the Night Watch (pp. 334-335) in Harbor Approach (p. 311), the district of Eversink filled primarily with piers, shipping warehouses, and Mercanti mansions. A great amount of smuggling and other illicit crimes comes through Harbor Approach, and Teldi is arranging or getting paid off for almost all of it. Major thieves’ guilds have him on their secret bribe lists, as Commander Teldi has the authority to steer his Watch officers away from night-time illegal operations.. or towards illegal operations that haven’t yet bribed him sufficiently. His men hate him for being high-handed, politically connected, and mostly incompetent, but they don’t know that Teldi is corrupt. Teldi sure wants to keep it that way; one hint of his many, many illegal activities and his house of cards will collapse in a bonfire of public shame and scandal. Luckily there isn’t much violent crime in Harbor Approach, something Teldi has nothing to do with but gets credit for anyways.

The Mercanti merchant Lara Marano co-owns Marano’s, a small Harbor Approach storefront that uses vinegar, salt, and herbs to make some of Eversink’s finest pickles. Lara and her wife Sialia employ about twenty commoners for cooking and delivery; Lara runs the operation during the day, and Sialia (reputedly a night owl) watches the property overnight so that they don’t need to pay for extra mercenary guards. They’re unlikely to be robbed; Marano’s pickles are much-loved, and anyone who tried to hurt the merchants would face the wrath of many elite chefs across the city.

Unknown to anyone except her wife Lara, Sialia is also a penanggalan (pp. 236-237), a cursed monstrosity who each night separates her head and her dangling viscera from her body cavity and rises into the darkness to feed on sin and depravity. In this regard her role is one of vigilante; even as she feeds on the cruel and corrupt, she works to keep Harbor Approach safer and a better place to live. After all, she lives there too! She’s a monster but not an unthinking one. She has recently run across Teldi’s many corrupt operations and is planning on destroying him. Before she does, she plans to kill and destroy as many of his associates as she can, to make him fear her – and that fear will make his sin and shame taste all the sweeter.

Commander Teldi doesn’t know what’s killing his various confederates and criminal associates, but he’s terrified of it. Worse, he can’t turn the problem over to the Watch because it would only be a matter of time before an officer connects him to the victims. Better, he thinks, to hire outsiders and pay them well for their success and silence.

Scene 1: The Offer

Lead-in: none

Lead-out: Scene 2 or Scene 4

In scene 1, Commander Antonio Teldi of the City Watch arrives in plain clothes to hire the Heroes for a monster hunt and extermination.

Why he comes to these Heroes depends on their Allegiances. If anyone has 1 or more ranks of Ally: City Watch, that’s reason enough. If not, 1 or more ranks of Ally: Thieves’ Guilds might imply that Teldi’s less reputable contacts recommended the Heroes as people who were trustworthy. Find a reason to explain his approach.

Teldi will explain that in the last week there have been two different but unusual break-ins and murders in Harbor Approach. He fears it is an inhuman monster, and he’s not sure that’s something a Watch officer should face; their job is arresting criminals and keeping order, not fighting creatures of the night. So as not to alarm them, he is coming to the Heroes for quiet assistance in this matter, and he can pay them (2-3 Wealth apiece) for their trouble out of personal funds and a Watch slush fund if they find and slay the murderer, whether it is a monster or not. He’ll lend them a Badge of Office (p. 170) with two pool points of Favor: City Watch, good for this adventure.

Note that these details are true (and won’t set off Liar’s Tell), but there’s also a huge amount that Teldi isn’t telling: that he knew the victims due to illegal connections, that he has covered up his involvement at the crime scenes, that he’s scared, and that he has secret wealth that he hopes to flee with if everything really goes sour. Regardless, Teldi genuinely intends to pay the Heroes their reward for killing the monster; he’s dealt with powerful people enough to know that you don’t cheat them, ever.

Design note: You can change, eliminate, or add to these murder scenes as you like. The goal is to send the Heroes to find clues to the murderer, and as they do so discover that all the people murdered were particularly bad folks, and that all had a link to Commander Teldi. If you also want a game with a more wicked monstrosity, you can change the penanggalan to make her much less sympathetic.

Teldi explains that the two murder scenes are as follows, all committed in the last two days:

  • A powerful and badly-scarred woman is killed in her cheap apartment, stabbed by more than half a dozen of her own weapons a night or two ago.
  • The second floor of a grain warehouse, where a young man working at night was set on fire early this morning.

He chooses not to give them much more information, telling them to draw their own conclusions. Teldi will give the Heroes the addresses of both locations in Harbor Approach; the stabbing is closer.

The crime scenes haven’t been examined by the Watch yet since Teldi is keeping it quiet, and he encourages the Heroes to tell him if they think they aren’t up to the job. He emphasizes that they don’t need to worry about how or if the crimes are linked, he and the Watch will take care of that. Just find and kill that monster!

Commander Antonio Teldi

Impressive, apparently competent, secretly corrupt

Use the stats for Watch Commander in the rules, with the following changes.

Special Abilities:  The “Allies” and “Summoning” special abilities only functions if Teldi has not been revealed to his fellow officers as corrupt.

Description: Teldi looks the very model of a smart, well-presenting Watch Commander – good posture, direct gaze, and a confident commanding tone. He uses these tricks to hide his cowardice and greed.

Scene 2 (optional): Enemy Interference

Lead-in: Scene 1

Lead-out: Scene 3 or Scene 5

If you have enough time in your game session for an optional encounter, one of the Heroes’ enemies hassles them as they travel across the city towards Harbor Approach. This could be a group of snide nobles, irritated City Watch, or any Enemy faction you wish. This encounter has nothing to do with the main plot and serves to remind players that Enemies exist for a reason. Make this encounter interesting and memorable, but short, as befits a flavorful side encounter.

Scene 3: Stabbing

Lead-in: Scene 2 or Scene 5

Lead-out: Scene 4 or Scene 6

This murder took place in a seedy apartment two nights ago; locked from the inside, the door was broken down when Commander Teldi found her last night and has since been jammed shut. The Heroes are let in by a landlord who will also answer simple questions. In the single room a strong and heavily scarred woman lies on the floor, pierced by a half-dozen different weapons. There is surprisingly little blood.

Clues

  • The landlord (or another neighbor) reports that her name was Zarra. She was an outlander mercenary who settled in Eversink a few years ago. She wasn’t a nice person; she had a job as muscle for someone powerful and important, she broke limbs and cracked heads, but never seemed to have any fear of getting arrested. She paid her rent on time and drank extensively. (any Social ability)
  • Zarra worked for someone in the government or City Watch who was also running some business on the side; Zarra’s job was picking up extorted protection money for them, and for extorting protection money from regular businesses as well. No one knows exactly who she worked for because she never discussed her employer. (Scurrilous Rumors)
  • Items in the apartment are smashed; Zarra put up a fight. There are no footprints other than her own. Her body is covered with punctures and strange abrasions, as if being strangled or restrained by some sort of cable. There’s a mark on the ceiling that looks like a bloody mop was thrown against it during the fight, when Zarra briefly managed to fling her attacker upwards. (Tactics of Death)
  • Zarra was drained of blood before she was impaled by any weapon, probably from the strange punctures on her body. (Leechcraft)
  • The weapons she has been impaled by are her own favorite weapons from sheaths around the apartment, weapons chosen by her to be terrifying as well as deadly. She also has her favorite blackjack shoved into her mouth. Someone was trying to send a warning. (core – Felonious Intent or Skullduggery)
  • Each of the weapons has a faint stickiness of dried blood on it; the blood smells vaguely like vinegar. Similarly, there is a patch coating the closed and locked window. (Vigilance)
  • There are several blood-matted long red hairs clinging to Zarra’s clenched hands. (Felonious Intent or Vigilance)
  • If befriended, a neighbor says she saw something weird in the sky two nights ago, something that looked like a cluster of fireflies. No one else nearby reports hearing anything other than a muffled thumping that they thought was Zarra falling down drunk. (Trustworthy)
  • The landlord didn’t see who found Zarra and broke open her door, but was alerted to the problem by a watch commander (Teldi) early this morning who told him to keep this quiet and keep the room secured until agents of the commander arrived. Maybe the Commander broke down the door himself, he doesn’t know, but SOMEONE owes him a new door! (any social ability)
  • Hidden under a desk drawer is a notebook where Zarra tracks her extortions and collections. It’s written in a code that can be read by anyone with ranks in Skullduggery. The name of the person she works for is not on there, but anyone checking it again after Scene 7 will notice that Zarra expanded her territory and asked Murano’s Pickles for protection money last month for the first time.
  • Zarra has no ghost; anyone with Spirit Sight seeking it out senses that somehow, someone has already created a funerary statue of her. It’s unclear who, but probably the same person who found her body. (Spirit Sight)
  • (Only if the Heroes ask) There are old folktales of a monster that looks like a human woman during the day but which separate their head and organs from their bodies at night, flying through the night with trailing viscera as they look for sin and blood to drink. They twinkle like fireflies while on the hunt. Called penanggalans, they can only shrink their swollen organs enough to fit back into their body by soaking them in vinegar. (Forgotten Lore or Know Monstrosities)
  • (Only if the Heroes ask) The only way to kill a penanggalan permanently is to destroy their empty torso while the head is away. (Know Monstrosities)

Scene 4: Montage

Lead-in: Scene 3 or Scene 5

Lead-out: Scene 3 or Scene 5

Between the two murder sites, run a single travel montage (p. 260) of moving across Harbor Approach: have one player say something that goes wrong, have a second player make it worse, then ask a third player to resolve it. Before or after this, casually mention a food cart selling deliciously fresh fried fish on a stick, along with the vinegary scent of the best pickles in town (Marano’s pickles). Make the food vendor as entertaining as you like if anyone stops to grab lunch. The mention of the pickles shouldn’t be obvious but becomes important as foreshadowing after investigating Scene 5.

Scene 5: Poisonous Fire

Lead-in: Scene 2 or Scene 4

Lead-out: Scene 4 or Scene 6

This murder took place last night on the upstairs offices of a grain warehouse, where at first glance it appears a young man working at night was somehow set on fire amidst a variety of discarded alchemical vials.

In truth, this office is rented by a middle-aged criminal named Belto (no known family name) who works for a thieves guild connected to poisoners and assassins. Belto contracts with corrupt alchemists across Eversink to make illegal and deadly alchemical poisons. He uses this space to repackage and label the poisons, and then sells them himself in Sag Harbor’s secret Night Markets. He does so with the knowledge and consent of Commander Teldi, who is paid handsomely for not interfering.

Belto was murdered in the wee hours of this morning when Sialia, in her form as a penanggalan, squeezed up through the floorboards. She dodged the vial Belto threw at her in panic, entangled him in her intestines, and drained his blood. Then she used her prehensile intestines to empty nine vials of alchemical poison into his throat; after she left, the chemicals reacted badly with each other, setting the corpse on fire and largely incinerating his upper torso.

Clues

  • There is the faint tang of vinegar in the air, oddly out of place. It’s not pure vinegar; there are aromatic salts and herbs mixed into the scent as well. (core – Vigilance)
  • The corpse is burned terribly from an acidic internal fire that started in the throat and stomach, but he was dead and completely drained of blood by the time the fire started. The blood was drained from numerous puncture wounds; no blood spatters the floor or walls. (Leechcraft)
  • The internal fire was started by mixing many alchemical poisons, at least nine, all poured down his throat after he was dead. Sticky dried fluid coats the outside of the discarded vials; it smells like blood mixed with vinegar. (Leechcraft)
  • These empty alchemical vials are labeled with the names of deadly potions, all in the victim’s handwriting, as if being readied to be put out for sale (Leechcraft, Skullduggery, or Ally: Thieves’ Guild)
  • Tracks on the floor (and on the ceiling of the floor below) seem to indicate that something squeezed through a crack in the floorboards somehow and then moved across the room, leaving a sticky trail behind. The trail looks almost like intestines and organs instead of feet. (Felonious Intent or Tactics of Death)
  • (If asked) The warehouse foreman can confirm that deliveries arrive and depart for Belto almost daily. While the foreman never sees Watch officers nearby, once a month a woman matching Zorra’s description arrives to pick up a satchel. (any social abilities)
  • Hidden in the room is an incomprehensively coded scroll written over many months, legible to someone with ranks of Skullduggery. Translated it tells of money coming in from sales of poisons, and money going out to alchemists, politicians, and Watch officers. No names are given other than Belto’s, although payments to Zarra (and thus Teldi) can be identified by the day she’d arrive to pick up payments. (Skullduggery)
  • Belto’s ghost is present, but his will was broken by the fight with the penanggalan and it is currently ranting and hard to understand as it tries to pull out its own intestines and internal organs in horror. It can confirm anything Belto knew, assuming someone with Spirit Sight is patient and soothing with it (which may require a Trustworthy spend or spending Sway to restore its lost Morale). If asked Belto’s ghost can describe the monstrosity that killed him, a hideous red-haired woman’s head with a nose ring and prehensile dangling intestines. (Spirit Sight)
  • There are old folktales of a monster that looks like a human woman during the day but which separate their head and organs from their bodies at night, flying through the night with trailing viscera as they look for sin and blood to drink. They twinkle like fireflies while on the hunt. Called penanggalans, they can only shrink their swollen organs enough to fit back into their body by soaking them in vinegar. (Forgotten Lore or Know Monstrosities)
  • (Only if the Heroes ask) The only way to kill a penanggalan permanently is to destroy their empty torso while the head is away. (Know Monstrosities)

Scene 6: The Cleaners

Lead-in: Scene 5

Lead-out: Scene 4 or Scene 7

Right when the investigation in Scene 5 starts to become boring, the Heroes hear feet on the stairs and the door to the office is kicked open. Six men and women are there, the leader of which is Leardo, a heavy man about as broad as he is tall. He’ll demand to know who the Heroes are and will demand for them to leave if they don’t want trouble.

Leardo is a commoner who works for the same thieves’ guild who employed Belto. He’s hostile and aggressive unless he recognizes any of the Heroes (2+ ranks of Ally: Commoners or Ally: Thieves’ Guilds), or unless one of the Heroes calms him down (perhaps by spending a point of Charm or Trustworthy, or by pretending to be from the City Watch). He and his brutes are there to clean out any sign of illegality from the murder site.

If the Heroes can get Leardo to talk instead of fight, he’ll ask “Who are you working for? Is it Teldi? We pay that worm a lot of money so that exactly this doesn’t happen. He BETTER make it right.” Once they have Leardo’s trust (or have defeated him and his group), he can confirm that Belto paid Scarra every month to get protection from the City Watch, as engineered by Watch Commander Teldi. He’s grieving Belto and doesn’t have any patience for a corrupt Watch officer who doesn’t live up to his end of a crooked bargain.

Use game statistics of “Brutish Lieutenant” for Leardo, and of “Brute” for his 5 assistants.

Clues

  • Belto was paying protection money to Watch Commander Teldi, who is completely corrupt. (core – any social ability)

Scene 7: Epiphany

Lead-in: Scene 3 or Scene 6

Lead-out: Scene 8 or Scene 9

By the time they have investigated the second murder site and dealt with Leardo, the Heroes should know the following:

  • The Heroes were hired by Watch Commander Teldi to destroy the monstrosity and nothing else.
  • Teldi is exceptionally corrupt, and is personally extorting money from criminal enterprises in Harbor Approach in exchange for Watch protection.
  • Teldi is scared and probably hired the Heroes because both victims were associated with him and were killed to send him a message. He didn’t want honest Watch officers to catch wind of his crimes.
  • The murderer is a red-haired penanggalan and must soak her viscera in vinegar to fit it back in her body.
  • The faint scent of vinegar wasn’t normal vinegar either; the scent was reminiscent of exceptional food. It actually smells like the delicious pickles available at many food carts around the city.
  • Penanggalan are said to sniff out and devour sin and wickedness.

The heroes are likely to take one of two paths at this point: track down the penanggalan or confront Teldi.

Finding the Penanggalan

The one clear clue to the monstrosity is the scent of highly unusual vinegar.

There are several sources of vinegar in Eversink, including a guild in Sag Harbor who make it in bulk. The only source with that unique scent, however, and the only real source in Harbor Approach, is a family business that runs Murano’s Pickles (core – City Secrets or Ally: Mercanti). The delicious scent of Murano’s Pickles matches the same unique quality found in the scent at the crime scene. While they are in food stalls all over the city, the best source of their vinegar brine would be the business itself. Proceed to Scene 8.

Confronting Teldi

Teldi works the Night Watch and sleeps during the day in a Harbor Approach apartment. He talks a good game but is easily intimidated by anyone who threatens him with revealing his secret. He’ll only fight if forced, preferring for others to fight his battles for him. The murder of Scarra, his hand-picked enforcer for more than three years, has shaken him and he is considering making a run for it.

If the Heroes confront him, he’ll deny it at first, check to see if he can have them arrested and then killed in custody, but ultimately he’ll try to buy them off with his illegally earned savings (kept at a bank). He suggests paying 5 Wealth per Hero for their silence. Once they agree to his offer and leave him alone, he’ll go get his money and make a run for it, buying passage on the first ship out of Eversink. If the Heroes kill him, they’ll likely have to deal with the problems that come with murdering an apparently good Watch Commander.

Scene 8: Murano’s

Lead-in: Scene 7

Lead-out: None

Murano’s Pickles is nestled near the docks in a secluded section of Harbor Approach. Lara Murano and her wife Sialia own the well-cared-for building; there’s a kitchen and manufacturing area where the pickles are made, and a shipping and warehouse area where supplies are unloaded from boats and where full barrels of pickles are shipped out to customers around the city. Lara handles paperwork in a small office, and above the office is the couples’ home. Sialia spends her day supervising the pickling process and handling quality control. Murano’s has been around for three generations, but the quality of their pickles became spectacular once Sialia married into the family. She reputedly has a nearly supernatural sense of smell and taste, enough that she’s fine-tuned the recipes exquisitely. And yes – those pickles are delicious.

At nighttime the factory closes and the workers go home. Several paid guards patrol the property, and Lara and Sialia head upstairs to their cozy home. If a Hero breaks in, the only odd thing about their home is the barrel of pickling brine that sits next to a straight-backed chair in their bathroom. That’s where Sialia’s body sits at night while her head and intestines are out hunting.

If met during the daytime, both Lara and Sialia are kind, busy, extremely competent businesswomen in their late 40s or early 50s. Lara knows her wife’s secret and would die to protect her despite having no combat skills whatsoever. Similarly, Sialia would die to protect Lara – and if the Heroes hurt Lara while trying to destroy Sialia’s body, the penanggalan will do her best to destroy the Heroes.

Clues

  • If approached during the day, pretending to be an important customer can get the Heroes a tour of the factory, and they can meet both Lara and Sialia (a friendly but private red-haired woman with a nose ring, in her early 40s.) (Command, Nobility, Trustworthy, or Ally: Mercanti)
  • Spying into their home will reveal the vat of pickle brine in their bedroom – possibly with Sialia’s body sitting next to it, depending on the time (Skullduggery)
  • Penanggalans don’t have to kill to feed; if they feed primarily on sin, their victim stays unconscious for a few days before slowly returning to their old self. (Forgotten Lore or Know Monstrosities)
  • Gaining Lara’s trust will let her take the Heroes into her confidence, if she feels it’s a matter of life and death. Lara explains that her wife is trying to eliminate a corrupt Watch Officer and his network, because no one else seems to want to. (core – Trustworthy)

Sialia Murano, Penanggalan

Vigilante, nightmarish, just trying to get along in the world, a spectacular cook

Defense — Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 2 (sorcerous resilience), Health 10 per Hero

Defense — Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 2 (unbreakable hunger), Morale 5 per Hero

Offense — Warfare: +2; Damage Modifier +2 (fanged maw and blood-slurping sharpened tongue)

Offense — Sway: +1; Damage Modifier +1 (convincing)

Abilities: Malus 18

Special Abilities: Fluid (cost 6), Monstrous Ability (cost 3), Flight, Regenerate (cost 0 – regenerates entirely at the end of a scene if her headless body has not been destroyed)

Misc: Alertness Modifier +2 (scents blood and sin only), Stealth Modifier +2

Refresh Tokens: 7

Description: Sialia is a penanggalan, a cursed woman who can monstrously detach her head from her torso, flying through the night with her stomach and entrails dangling beneath her, the organs twinkling like fireflies in the darkness. When she does so she leaves her headless body behind in her home.

Sialia hunts wickedness — and the more dire the sin, the tastier her meal. She squeezes herself up through the floorboards, moves around the room using her intestines as tentacles, and slurps her victims’ fresh blood through her long, sharpened, tube-like tongue. She gains memories and secrets from these victims, and she may bargain with those secrets if her life is put in danger.

Upon returning to her home, she must soak her organs in vinegar to let them shrink enough to fit back into her body. In human form, she carries a faint scent of vinegar. Luckily, she makes pickles for a living.

Destroying Sialia’s head in combat only inconveniences her briefly. The only method for truly destroying a penanggalan is to place broken glass into her body’s neck cavity while she is away, or by burning her headless body so that she has nowhere to return to.

Conclusion

In playtests the Heroes met the Muranos, learned that Sialia started hunting Teldi when Zarra demanded protection money from them, learned that Sialia doesn’t have to kill to feed – but that she feels she’s keeping everyone safer if she does. The Heroes then faked Sialia’s death and used the knowledge she accumulated to take down the corrupt Watch Commander.

What happens in your own game is up to you and the players. Want a big fight? Have Sialia be far more wicked, have the Cleaners be murderous, or have Teldi be less of a coward. Want social change in Eversink? Have their exposure of Teldi’s crimes significantly improve Harbor Approach. In a game about the consequences of heroic actions, this is the Heroes’ chance to make a difference.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

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In the latest episode of their dark and stormy podcast, Ken and Robin talk Gothic F20, Elon Musk’s pig brain implants, and a contactless edition of Ken’s Bookshelf.

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A group of people in silhouette at sunsetFour Six Heroes #3: Swords of the Serpentine pre-made adventuring party

By Kevin Kulp

This month we’re cheating and giving you six heroes instead of four; these are the pre-generated heroes used in The Dripping Throne adventure at Gen Con Online 2020, playtested with four or five different player groups. Most of the Heroes have excellent niche protection in their profession. They’re intimately tied to the city of Eversink using the “Freelance Slinks” origin (p. 29 of the SotS Adventurer’s Edition), and can be transplanted to a different setting with only a small amount of work.

The Heroes include an inquisitor with imposter syndrome, a sorcerer who’s been shunned by their family, an extremely likable (and lucky!) thief, a warrior who apparently doesn’t age, an elderly prophet forced out of the church, and their young acolyte with big secrets and big plans.  These Heroes are built assuming a 5+ player game. If you have fewer players and want to use any of these heroes, add in more Investigative abilities, as noted under “Investigative Abilities” in chapter 2 of the rules.

Sentinel

Name: Inquisitor Hastus

Inquisitive, Suspicious, Intimidating, Over-prepared, Insecure

Drives: Punishing the iniquitous; Catching others in a falsehood; The respect of your friends and peers

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 2, Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1, Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 4: Damage Modifier +1 (threats)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (sword)

Investigative Abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 2, Liar’s Tell 1, Felonious Intent 2, Laws & Traditions 1, Spirit Sight 2, Vigilance 2

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Church of Denari 1; Ally: The Triskadane 1; Enemy: Sorcerous Cabals 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 3, Sway 4, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: Shining chainmail and inquisitorial uniform; badge of authority; sword (dmg +1); Imposter’s syndrome about whether you have what it takes to be an inquisitor; holy coin of Denari; multiple fallback plans for any eventuality; impressive shield; the dried hand of your father, severed after he was convicted for spreading Corruption, and somehow you never noticed while there was still time to save him

Design Notes: Hastus is a good solid Sentinel, loaded down with the authority of the church and the government, and yet second-guessing his authority until he figures out this role in the world. He has enough Vigilance to notice most hidden details without having to roll, and enough Spirit Sight to rip open the space between worlds and walk in the land of ghosts and memories. Relying on his Flashback ability for backup plans, he uses his Intimidation to scare the truth out of people the group doesn’t feel the need to befriend.

Sorcerer

Name: Amadeo (“Deo”) Iaconi, disinherited nobility

Charming, Presumptuous, Genteel, Manipulative, Socially disgraced

Drives: Repaying any who have wronged you; Defeating your enemies with STYLE, not just raw force; Being worthy of your friends’ trust in you

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Health 7

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1, Morale 11

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 8 vs. Morale: Damage Modifier +1

Offense – Sway: Sway 1: Damage Modifier +1 (dismissive)

Investigative Abilities: Charm 1, Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 2, Corruption 3, Forgotten Lore 2

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Mercanti 1; Ally: Sorcerous Cabals 1; Enemy: Ancient Nobility 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 3, Sorcery 8 (Blast), Sway 1, Warfare 3

Sorcerous Spheres: (Affects Morale) Illusion; Memory; Secrets

Gear: Sketchpad and paintbrushes; this season’s most stylish sword (never used); stylish clothing you can barely afford; the (justified) hatred of your parents; Mercanti contracts for negotiation; the unfortunate attention of the inquisition; a demon squirming inside your soul who offers you true power; debts you can’t currently pay; party invitations you can’t afford to turn down

Design Notes: Deo is a thoroughly flawed hero with the chance to redeem himself. He was forced out of his family when they realized he could manipulate secrets and memories, and you really can’t blame them. So now he ekes out a living working for his family’s enemies, and he is what you might call conflicted. How he uses his abilities, and how he treats his family, determines his fate as a hero.

If you prefer sorcerous spheres that affect Health instead, these mental spheres are easily swapped out for spheres that affect Health instead. Go with something like Stone, Water, and Air (or Fire) for a terrifying elementalist; or Flesh, Ghosts, and Necromancy for a much-reviled necromancer.

Thief

Name: Talia Songward, everyone’s friend

Likable, Funny, Bold, Lucky, Rude

Drives: A cold drink with good friends; Tricking someone you don’t trust; Helping people who can’t help themselves

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1, Morale 8

Offense – Sway: Sway 8: Damage Modifier +1 (likeable)

Offense – Warfare Warfare 1: Damage Modifier +1 (stolen sword)

Investigative Abilities: Charm 3, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 1, Trustworthy 1, City’s Secrets 1, Ridiculous Luck 2, Scurrilous Rumors 1

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Commoners 3; Enemy: Ancient Nobility 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Burglary 5, Preparedness 3, Stealth 8 (Where’d She Go?), Sway 8 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 1

Gear: Instinctive knowledge of what makes people tick; an amazing smile; friends in low places; a huge bar tab; a stolen sword you haven’t used in months (dmg +1); curiosity about others’ secrets; a snazzy hat; scars you probably deserved; a good singing voice; a hearty dislike of bullies

Design Notes: The goals here were “make a clever thief who feels like a bard” and “local hero makes good”. Talia covers most of the Thief abilities (with a healthy focus on Ridiculous Luck, but no Skulduggery, an ability covered by Greca below) and is otherwise is focused on social abilities that say “I’m likeable, I’m immensely popular with Commoners, and people trust me.” She’s designed to be a hero of the people, with no social pretensions other than being naturally charismatic and particularly convincing. As she advances in experience, she might add ranks in Command or even more ranks of Ally: Commoners to emphasize this aspect of being a neighborhood hero.

Warrior

Name: Niccolo Acaldi

Ageless, Steady, Welcoming, Encouraging, Surprisingly deadly

Drives: Turning enemies into friends; Killing enemies who stay enemies; Turning a profit

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 1, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1, Morale 8

Offense – Sway: Sway 8: Damage Modifier +1 (authoritative)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 10: Damage Modifier +1 (antique sword)

Investigative Abilities: Charm 1, Command 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 1, Trustworthy 1, Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 3, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Mercenaries 1; Ally: The Triskadane 1; Enemy: Monstrosities 1

General Abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Preparedness 2, Stealth 2, Sway 8 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 10 (Cleave)

Gear: A comfortable sense of style; very well-worn leather armor; a favorite pipe; a sword as old as you are (dmg +1); a good smile; very few living enemies; an unexplained (and secret) inability to age (you’re 600? 700? You forget); surprisingly few memories for someone as old as you are; a well-established career of helping people who need help but can’t get it officially

Design Notes: Niccolo is a nice, unassuming guy who also happens to be one of the most deadly warriors you’ll meet. He stopped aging more than half a millennium ago, but he’s not wracked by angst; instead, he’s a happy, settled ex-mercenary with a successful investigative practice and few regrets. Why he stopped aging all those years ago is up to the GM and player, but in my own head I suspect he had an illicit affair with the Goddess Denari and she gave him this as a gift, even as she stole away the memories of their passion.

Mixed Profession: Sorcerer and Thief

Name: Master-seer Bennoc, Retired Church Prophet

Elderly, Adventurous, Risk-taking, Pious, Making up for lost time

Drives: Doing, instead of just telling others to do; Manipulating fate to serve you; Proving to yourself you’re not too old for this

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Health 6

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1, Morale 12

Offense – Sway: Sway 8: Damage Modifier +1 (mysterious)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 1: Damage Modifier +0 (any convenient object)

Investigative Abilities: Liar’s Tell 1, Trustworthy 1, Forgotten Lore 1, Leechcraft 2, Prophecy 3, City’s Secrets 1, Scurrilous Rumors 1

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Church of Denari 1; Ally: City Watch 1; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General Abilities: Athletics 4, Bind Wounds 8 (Plenty of Leeches), Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 1, Sway 8 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 1

Gear: Mandatory retirement letter forcing you from the church’s service; the pitying glances of your former friends who thought your sanity was breaking; the urge to prove yourself once again before it’s too late; the constant whispering knowledge of events in the world; a church-assigned acolyte and servant whose name you forget, but she makes good tea

Design Notes: Prophecy is a joy for the GM because it means they can feed the player visions and clues as needed. Just remember that Prophecy always points to a person or a place that has the information a Hero needs, instead of giving the Hero that information directly.

Bennoc is a crotchety old man with a huge chip on his shoulder and something to prove. Let the player pick the method of prophecy, whether it is mystical visions in a copper tub or his own garbled memories from the future. He’s a great choice for players who enjoy playing untraditional heroes and for those who like access to (or declaring for themselves) hidden information about the world.

Mixed Profession: Sentinel, Sorcerer, and Thief

Name: Greca Leoni, Under-Acolyte in Training

Willful, Creative, Innocent-looking, Rebellious, Eager to learn

Drives: Not getting caught; Blaming it on someone else; Learning how to do it even better

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 1, Health 9

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1, Morale 9

Offense – Sway: Sway 4: Damage Modifier +1 (sarcastic)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 6: Damage Modifier +0 (dagger)

Investigative Abilities: Charm 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 1, Taunt 1, Laws & Traditions 1, Leechcraft 1, City’s Secrets 1, Ridiculous Luck 1, Skulduggery 2

Allies and Enemies: Ally: Thieves’ Guilds 1; Ally: Church of Denari 1; Enemy: City Watch 1

General Abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 1, Burglary 8 (Fast Hands), Preparedness 2, Stealth 4, Sway 4, Warfare 6

Gear: A talent for seeming helpless; very fast hands; old enemies who want you dead; the protection of the church (at least for now); reinforced peasant’s dress (Armor 1); a burning desire to learn from anyone who will teach you; a sharp, slim dagger (dmg +0); a talent with improvised weapons; a dislike of rules; a church-contract of indentured servitude you look forward to buying off

Design Notes: Greca is a wonderfully willful kid of undetermined age (we assume she’s about 12) who robbed the wrong person, took shelter with the Church, and who now has been assigned to Master-Seer Bennoc as punishment. She has plans of her own and who isn’t afraid to manipulate the adults around her to get it. As a child, we want to emulate her relative inexperience in combat even though she’s built with as many points as everyone else. We do this in three ways:

  • With her Health and Morale balanced at 9 each, this makes both her Health and Morale Thresholds 3 instead of 4. In combat she’ll get hit more often than other Heroes.
  • Other than Skulduggery, she hasn’t specialized in any one Investigative ability. This gives her wide capabilities but relatively low burst damage in a fight.
  • Neither her Sway nor Warfare is 8+, so Greca doesn’t get combat Boosters. This makes her more effective at targeting a single foe instead of large numbers of Mooks at once. And hey, with Stealth and the Fast Hands talent, she can steal an enemy’s sword out of their sheath before they even realize she’s there.

Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

 

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Game Moderators seeing the Push rules in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game and now second edition Mutant City Blues sometimes ask how to import them into previous GUMSHOE games.

To recap how Pushes work, players get two of them per scenario. They can spend Pushes to gain non-informational benefits from their investigative abilities. For example:

  • A Painting Push lets you say that you had a work accepted to the group show at the haunted gallery.
  • A Reassurance Push allows you to calm a terrified witness, so that he follows your instructions and stays out of harm’s way.
  • With a Chemistry Push, you can synthesize an antidote to the venom of the snake that just bit your comrade.

Previous GUMSHOE games have you allocate a number of points to each ability. This gives you a pool of points, which you can spend to gain the same sorts of benefits. The GM decides whether a benefit costs 1, 2, or sometimes even 3 points.

To use Pushes in a GUMSHOE iteration with investigative points, convert scenarios as follows:

  • Some scenarios charge you for non-core clues—information that doesn’t lead you directly to another scene. Never require a Push for this. (In fact, I’d personally drop this entirely in any version of GUMSHOE, and always provide all information for free.)
  • When a benefit costs 1 point, provide it at no cost if the player suggests it unprompted.
  • Otherwise, when you see a 1-point spend listed in any scenario, and you think it would be useful or cool or otherwise gratifying enough to suggest to the player as a possibility, it costs 1 Push. If it seems marginally useful and not worth a Push, ignore it entirely.
  • Any benefits costing more than 1 point cost 1 Push.
  • If you think your players will find the benefit of a 2+ point spend overpriced, provide it for free (if asked) or let it go unmentioned.

A very small number of abilities in the crunchier GUMSHOE games, such as Ashen Stars, call for point spends to power particular effects. These probably require case-by-case design work to adapt to the Push rules. As a rule of thumb, a clearly useful special benefit either costs a Push or can be used at no cost, but only once per session.


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.

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Following on from this explosion of 19th century French vampire weirdness

There is a little-known place which is undoubtedly the strangest in the world. The people who inhabit the barbarous lands around Belgrade sometimes call it Selene, sometimes Vampire City, but the vampires refer to it among themselves by the names of the Sepulchre and the College. It is normally invisible to mortal eyes–and to the eyes of each of those who contrive to catch a glimpse of it, it presents a different image. For this reason, reports of its nature are various and contradictory.

Some tell of a great city of black jasper which has streets and buildings like any other city but is eternally in mourning, enveloped by perpetual gloom. Others have caught sight of immense amphitheaters capped with domes like mosques, and minarets reaching for the sky more numerous than the pines in the forest of Dinawar. Yet others have found a single circus of colossal proportions, surrounded by a triple rank of white marble cloisters lit by a lunar twilight that never gives way to day or night.

Arranged there, in mysterious order, are the sepulchral dwellings of that prodigious people which the wrath of God has placed in the margins of our world. The sons of that people, half demon and half phantom, are living and dead at the same time, incapable of reproducing themselves but also deprived of the blessing of death.

The city of Selene exists in a shadowy dimension parallel to earthly reality. It’s congruent with our reality near Belgrade in Serbia – specifically, near the district of Zemun. (The name Zemun, by the way, derives from zemlja, soil – native soil, anyone?). At the stroke of midnight, a vampire can open a portal to Selene.

On the far side of the portal is the bizarre city of Selene – a vast necropolis of huge tombs and temples, all built of the same stone (green-tinged porphyryr, mortared together with seams of black marble). The temples are decorated with statues and friezes depicting scenes of horror and torture; the tombs bear monuments to the vile deeds and atrocities of the vampires who slumber there. Every vampire has a tomb – Monsieur Goetzi, who was a relatively young and insignificant vampire, had a tomb to match his lowly status that was “only a little grander than St. Paul’s in London”.

The portal from the outside world brings visitors to the dead centre of the city, to a great circular plaza. From there, six streets lead to the six great divisions of the city, each named after a creature (the Bat Quarter and the Serpent Quarter are mentioned by name; presumably, the other quarters are named after other animals associated with vampires, like wolves or rats).

Although the city seems empty at first, it must be remembered that every vampire who dwells there contains a multitude. A single vampire incorporates within its pale form an entire household – or two, given their innate ability to duplicate their shades – and a whole army of shades and monsters arrived to avenge the burning of Goetzi’s heart.

It is as well to put on record that the number of young women devoured by vampires in the immediate environs of their convent was much less considerable that one might have imagined. In order not to rouse the entire country to revolt, the vampires had agreed between them that they would not inflict any damage within a perimeter of fifteen leagues. Monsieur Goetzi had, therefore, broken this pact in slaking his thirst to the detriment of an inhabitant of Semlin–a prohibited town, like Peterwardein and Belgrade. In consequence, for fear of being reprimanded by his own kind, he had not dared enroll the two Szegeli girls in his company of slaves and had made mere art-objects out of their carefully-prepared cadavers.

The laws of Selene forbid vampires from feeding near the invisible city. They must go further abroad to find victims – and to win renown. A vampire’s tomb in Selene appears proportional to the vampire’s infamy in the mortal world. Thus, the relatively unknown Goetzi had only a cathedral-sized tomb, whereas his neighbours (a Prussian prime minister and a Parisienne vampire) had far larger monuments to their sins. Presumably, it’s customary for a vampire to spend a few decades out among mortals, committing all sorts of vile deeds and atrocities, and then return to the city to bask in the glory of their expanded tomb and slumber for an age.

This brings up the question, of course – who builds these impossibly huge monuments? Do the vampires themselves employ their shade-slaves to labour while the vampire sleeps? Are the mysterious ‘evil priests’ involved? Are the buildings magical conjured – or is Selene itself a dream, and the structures are the spiritual reflection of the vampires?

The pallid blooms of all these flower-beds slept on their stems, unswayed by any breeze. The enchantment which had suspended their animation had power enough to freeze the water-jets of fountains in mid-air. You know how monotony enlarges everything by discouraging thought, even immensity itself; twilight as cold and clear as the face of the moon struck that symmetrical crowd of monuments–all built of the same stone, colorless and semi-transparent–from every side at once, casting not a single shadow.

Time appears to be stopped in Selene; nothing ages or rots here, and even the vampiric inhabitants appear listless and disinterested in intruders unless provoked. Characters cannot Refresh any ability pools within the confines of Selene.

Selene might be a sort of ur-vampire – just as vampires can split off and re-absorb the shades of their victims, maybe entering Selene means being absorbed by the vampire city. As above, so below – the whole city might be a gigantic clockwork-heart hyperspace.

 

Vampiric Origins

Féval never explains where his vampires come from, but offers three intriguing hints.

First, in his description of Selene, the narrator notes “most experts agree that the moon may be assigned to the vampire race as a fatherland” – which, clearly, means SPACE VAMPIRES. For that matter, Selene – time-less, cloaked, accessible through a portal, of uncertain dimensions and filled with impossible buildings – sounds a lot more like a starship or alien hyperdimensional otherspace than a city.

Second, there’s the intriguing case of Goetzi himself, who only recently became a vampire when he “when he received from Peterwardein the diploma of a master vampire”. (Peterwardein, now known as Petrovardin, is another town near Belgrade, so presumably this diploma came from Selene). Was Goetzi just an ordinary human before he graduatedinto vampirism? Selene’s also known as the Invisible College; maybe it’s a school for evil sorcerers, the fabled Scholomance where Dracula studied. And given Goetzi became a vampire in England, it’s a correspondence school.

Third, there’s the thoroughly weird clockwork heart of the vampires. It’s not a metaphor – vampires literally have mechanical hearts, and these hearts have a manifest connection to the vampire’s incorporated shades that can be severed, freeing the shades from the vampire’s tyranny. In the novel, the characters are able to free Polly from Goetzi’s control with a Medicine spend.

Putting it all together – these vampires are humans bonded with alien technology from Selene. A suitable candidate (according to whatever criteria the evil priests use) is given a mechanical heart-module that transforms them into a vampire. The ‘tenuous and sticky’ flesh of vampires is some form of protean shape-shifting slime or nanotechnology, able to bud off and reabsorb ‘shades’, given form and pattern from the stolen DNA samples of drained victims. The heart functions as some sort of regulator, keeping the vampire from collapsing into a cancerous blob of overlapping genetic expressions. This might also explain why the ashes of a vampire’s heart are so lethal – one heart interferes with another, causing the vampire to lose control of its many forms; instead of budding off, the vampire spawns overlapping copies of everyone it’s eaten within itself, and… boom.

Both the vampiric ability to duplicate themselves and Selene’s invisibility suggest the vampires are slightly out of phase with our reality, and they can take advantage of this discontinuity to copy themselves.

 

Those Pesky Evil Priests

So, who are the mysterious ‘evil priests’ who seemingly sit around waiting to rewind damaged vampires? Selene has temples as well as tombs – the priests presumably dwell there, but it’s unclear if they serve the vampires, or if the vampires are merely the tools or agents of the priests. If Selene’s a starship, the priests might be its maintenance drones – or its original alien crew, unable to leave their ship, so they’ve turned to the native fauna of this planet, turning them into cybernetic probes to gather information about Earth. The gigantic ‘tombs’ of the vampires might be gigantic memory-stacks, where the memories of the shades are processed into a form the aliens can understand.

There Are A Million Stories In Vampire City…

And here are three of them.

The Collector

The Agents learn of a mysterious financier. He’s got connections at the highest level of power – but no-one’s quite sure where his money came from. He invests in cutting-edge science – and invites the best scientists to his mansion for dinner. He’s secretly a vampire brain collector, absorbing the accumulated knowledge of human civilisation. Worse, within the vampire’s mechanical heart, the shades of these stolen geniuses are forced to labour on a single project of terrible intent… finding a way to open the portal to Selene fully, so the vampires can swarm out en masse and consume all humanity.

Selene Unveiled

Selene’s no longer invisible. It’s one of the great cities of Europe, a jewel of the continent. The culture of Paris, the financial might of London, the architecture of Prague, all rolled into one. When people say bankers and corporate lawyers are bloodsuckers, here they mean it literally. Run Selene as a modern-day spin on Cthulhu City, where everyone knows the vampires are in charge, but no-one dare say it aloud.

The Goetzi Identity

For a super-weird campaign – the player characters are all shades. They got killed and eaten by a vampire, but managed to break free of their master’s control. Now, they’re on the run from the other vampires. They’ve all got the power to spawn disposable duplicates of themselves, and can merge with each other (a great way to explain what happens to the character when a player can’t make game night) – but there’s a whole city of vampires hunting them, they’re slowly degenerating into ectoplasm, and their master’s synovie is out there too. Better to burn out (green) than fade away…

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A sourcebook for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game

The Carcosans Are Coming

Have your Yellow King Roleplaying Game players grown complacent battling gargoyles, vampires, and riot dogs? Do you have a reality horror mystery crying out for a fresh and bizarre villain to drive it?

The Yellow King Bestiary solves your problems by helping you create some for your Belle Époque art students, Continental War soldiers, alternate reality ex-insurgents, and ordinary people trapped in unraveling normalcy.

From alien parasites to warped human conspirators, from hungry buildings to incarnations of drought, from gods torn from the pages of myth to war machines that hunt in wolf-like packs, The Yellow King Bestiary presents 86 new Foes to mystify, haunt and menace your investigators.

Throw icewater into your player’s veins with 100 brand new Shock and Injury cards. The book also includes all the preexisting cards you need to run these adversaries and beasties without reaching for any other volume.

Foe descriptions key themselves to one of the game’s four twisty sequences. Each entry also includes hooks inspiring you to repurpose the Foe in the other three settings.

With this book in your feverish hands, the investigators can:

  • Tremble in aesthetic unease when confronted by the Living Portrait!
  • Flee the blazing weapons fire of the Angel of Mons!
  • Shudder at the razor teeth of the hinge-jawed Flip-tops!
  • Open their apps to fall into the validating, concerned clutches of the Chirpers!
  • And much much more…

Whatever hole opens up in your reality today, an antagonist from The Yellow King Bestiary is ready to slither out of it, through your mind and into your heart.

Authors: John Harness, Kira Magrann, Sarah Saltiel, and Monica Valentinelli, with Daniel Kwan

Project Status: in copy-editing

Release Date: TBA

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In the latest episode of their unstoppable podcast, Ken and Robin talk about stuff Live from Gen Con Online.

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When asked to explain GUMSHOE, a key part of my standard spiel goes like this:

“GUMSHOE says that it is never interesting to fail to get information. When you use an Investigative ability, you never have to roll a die. If you have the right ability and use it in the right way, you simply get the clue. However, in the case of other abilities, it is interesting, if sometimes horrible to fail—you slip and fall when the vampire is chasing you, or get caught sneaking into the installation, or are thrown from your horse while trying to impress the empress and her sneering courtiers. These are the general abilities, which you do have to roll for.”

By definition I only present this pitch to people unfamiliar with the game.

Old hands, like the people reading this blog, might have a question, though.

How interesting is it, really, to fail at certain classic GUMSHOE general abilities?

Most general abilities lead to clear positive outcomes on failure and negative consequences on failure.

With the various fighting skills, you win a fight or land a blow. Sneaking / Infiltration gets you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Riding, Driving and Piloting avert disaster during chases and other dangerous transportation situations. Stability / Composure maintains mental self-control in weird or pressuring situations. In all cases, success gives the players a triumphant moment, while failure ratchets up the tension.

But what about the resource-related general abilities, you might ask. This list starts with Preparedness, the general ability every other member of the Pelgrane team were mad at me for picking first when we did the “My Favorite Ability” video series. Other examples include Network from Night’s Black Agents and Scrounging from Yellow King Roleplaying Game: The Wars.

On the surface, failing a test with these abilities leads a character nowhere.

  • A Preparedness failure means you don’t have the ingredients for an improvised explosive.
  • A Network failure indicates that your favorite Sevastopol gun dealer can’t sell you a Dragunov SVD because she just got bagged by the GRU.
  • A Scrounging failure establishes that you’ll don’t find a cache of stored rations to feed those starving villagers.

A less astute reader than yourself might consider these uninteresting failures. It is true that they don’t move the plot forward. Still, they carry an emotional resonance, because they allow the players to specifically envision what success looks like.

When you ask if you have explosives ingredients, know a gun dealer in Sevastopol or can locate a nearby food cache, you’re imaginatively envisioning a possible event. This gives you a moment of hope. Readers of Hamlet’s Hit Points will recognize this as an Anticipation beat. Should you succeed, you get a second emotional up moment. (HHP beat analysis calls this a Procedural up beat.) Should you fail, you instead feel disappointment, as the prospect of the explosion, gun buy, or relief operation you were picturing melts away on you. Either way, the failed test carries emotional content — or, you might say, interest.

If you always succeeded with resource-style general abilities, you wouldn’t get that. The possibility of failure, even when it requires you to scrap one idea and find another, is what makes these abilities exciting in play.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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While searching for French vampire inspiration for a new Night’s Black Agents campaign I’m running, I came across Paul Féval’s La Ville Vampire. The Wikipedia synopsis doesn’t do it justice.

in which the protagonist is Gothic Novel writer Ann Radcliffe herself. In it, to save her friends from the dreaded vampire lord Otto Goetzi, Radcliffe and her fearless vampire hunting companions, Merry Bones the Irishman, Grey Jack the faithful old servant, the revenge-driven Doctor Magnus Szegeli, and Polly Bird, one of the vampire’s earlier victims, mount an expedition to find the legendary vampire city of Selene.

As a tale of gothic horror, it’s somewhat lacking – one big action scene is a drunken Irishman with a magic spoon vs a whole city full of vampires, and my countryman comes out victorious – but the vampires are so off-the-wall weird that they deserve a Night’s Black Agents writeup.

A Society of Horrors

“Each vampire is a collective, represented by one principal form, but possessing other accessory forms of indeterminate number. The famous vampire of Gran, which terrorized both banks of the Danube around the town of Ofen in the 14th century, was man, woman, child, crow, horse and pike.”

If a vampire drains a victim to death, the vampire can incorporate that victim’s essence into itself. It can then create a shade of that victim, a physical copy that’s bound to obey the vampire. The shade can merge back into the vampire when no longer needed. Shades left alone for too long may stray or become capable of independent thought.

The shade is not always a perfect copy; if the vampire’s unlucky or the victim’s resilient, then the vampire succeeds only in incorporating a diminished and changed form of the victim. Monsieur Goetzi, for example, devoured an Austrian soldier whose shade manifested as a young boy (but retained the captain’s military knowledge and taste for drink), while a Jewish moneylender was reduced to the shade-form of a parrot. (In game terms, the victim gets to make a contest of Stability against the Vampire’s Aberrance; if the victim wins, the vampire gets only the diminished version, or even no shade at all.)

Shades retain their original game statistics (reduced if the shade’s a diminished version), but can draw on the vampire’s Aberrance pool.

Creating a shade costs the vampire one Aberrance; this is refunded when the shade remerges with its master.

If a shade is slain when outside the vampire, it melts away, and the vampire’s Aberrance is permanently reduced by 1.

A vampire cannot have more shades than its Aberrance rating.

Entering Shades

A vampire can submerge itself inside one of its shades if it prefers, giving it a sort of shapeshifting. For example, Monsieur Goetzi could hide himself inside the parrot-shade.

The Synovie

In the period when Doctor Otto Goetzi came to the county of Stafford to be the tutor of Edward S. Barton, he was still only an apprentice vampire. He had neither a double nor any accessories at all. Do you remember poor Polly Bird, the daughter of the High Farm, whose premature death set the whole parish mourning three years ago? Well, my friends, it is the unfortunate Polly Bird herself who is speaking to you. Monsieur Goetzi, when he received from Peterwardein the diploma of a master vampire, immediately chose me to be his double and the foundation of his interior mechanism.”

The vampire’s first victim is of special importance – the first victim’s shade manifests as a copy of the vampire. Féval refers to this shade as the synovie, and it seems to be a sort of major-domo or organising principle, responsible for keeping the other shades in line. The synovia has the same ability scores as the vampire, and has the memories and personality of the vampire overlaid onto its original mind.

Deprived of access to its synovie, a vampire cannot manifest its other shades. In the novel, Goetzi’s synovie ends up reasserting her original personality when separated from her master, while retaining her physical form as a perfect copy of the original vampire. (She still thirsts for blood.)

Duplication

When his accessories had departed, Monsieur Goetzi duplicated himself so that he would have someone to talk to. He lit a fire, and anyone who lifted his eyes that evening from the valley floor to the summit of that inaccessible peak, untrodden by any human foot, would have seen two grey shapes squatting in the snow, warmed by a livid brazier.

All the vampire’s shades, with the exception of the synovie, can create a single duplicate of themselves at the cost of one Aberrance each. When a duplicate remerges with the original shade, this Aberrance is refunded. Duplicates have exactly the same ability pools as the original when conjured. Therefore, it’s tactically sound for a vampire to conjure all its shades and then have them all duplicate themselves before going into battle, so everyone’s got maximum Health and Combat pools.

A slain duplicate vanishes.

Clockwork Heart

Merry Bones plied the scalpel conscientiously and proved his talent for butchery. But beneath the slicing edge of the blade, not a single drop of blood sprang forth. Evidently, nothing but the heart itself was alive; its envelope was dead and dry. “Pay attention, please!” said Polly. “My life is attached to that of my master by a small thread of nervous tissue, which you must cut before touching the heart. You will find eleven such threads in the pericardium: one for each of my co-accessories. My own thread is the first on the right. Can you see it?”

Vampires have clockwork hearts that secrete a ruby-red liquid. A severely injured (reduced below -12 Health) vampire is not slain, but requires rewinding via a keyhole in the left side of the breast. Such keys are held by an evil priest (it’s not clear from the text if there’s a singular evil priest who has a single key, or if there’s one evil priest who has a bunch of keys, one per vampire, or if a wounded vampire is expected to wander until he happens to meet an evil priest who happens to have a suitable key), but rewinding the vampire restores it to full Health. A suitable evil priest dwells in the city of Selene.

If the vampire’s heart is extracted and burnt, the ashes of the mechanical heart can be used as a potent bane against other vampires.

Even when the vampire’s at full health, a little fluid leaks from the keyhole over the course of the day; bloodstains on a shirt can give away the presence of a vampire.

Death Stench

I ask your permission now to use a rather offensive word; circumstances demand it. Nothing stinks like a vampire who is at rest in the freedom of his own house.

A Wounded or mostly dead vampire exudes a potent stench, suffocating anyone in the same room (lose 1 Athletics or Health each round). Preparedness for smelling salts (or, in the modern day, a gas mask) guards against this effect.

Eldritch Glow

Towards evening, when the shadows of twilight descended upon the Rhine and its banks, a pale green glow appeared…

Light sources near a vampire burn with an unnatural greenish tinge; this green shade intensifies if the vampire spends Aberrance. At night, when a vampire is near, even the moon can appear to glow with a green light. In the modern day, this effect extends to electronic screen display and electric lights.

These stats are for a relatively weak vampire like Monsieur Goetzi; older and more powerful vampires can have vastly higher abilities, with Aberrance scores of 50 or more (and a matching number of shades).

General Abilities: Aberrance 10, Hand-to-Hand 6, Health 10, Shooting 6, Weapons 4

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +1 (drops to -1 if the vampire spent Aberrance recently, due to the eldritch glow)

Damage Modifier: -2 (fist or kick), -1 (barbed tongue) or -1 (golden needle)

Armour: Vampire flesh is “rather tenuous; it is soft and a trifle sticky”, and glows faintly at night. It counts as 1 point of Armour.

Shades are composed of a sort of ectoplasm that’s not any more resilient than normal flesh; a shade that’s reincorporated within a vampire regenerates all damage within 24 hours.

Free Powers: Drain, Death Stench, Clockwork Heart

Other Powers:

1-Aberrance: Society of Horrors, Duplication

2-Aberrance: Strength, Vampiric Speed, Sorcery

Banes: Vampire Ash (consuming vampire ash causes a vampire to explode)

Blocks: Running Water (a vampire can cross running water, but only feet-first; shades must be carried across)

Dreads: Fire, Courage (a host of vampires hesitated to attack Merry Bones, and fled when Lord Wellington showed up.)

Compulsions: A captured vampire is compelled to serve and obey its captors, just as a shade is compelled to obey a vampire.

Requirements: Rewinding, feeding.

 

Go Team Vampire!

The major villain of Le Ville Vampire, Monsieur Goetzi, isn’t an especially effective threat – his internal menagerie consists of a bald heiress, a militant urchin, a dog, a murderous parrot, and a serving girl-turned-synovie who ends up betraying him). A more competent vampire could seek out and incorporate a whole team of specialists into itself, and rely on their mastery of mundane skills instead of burning Aberrance on Vampiric Speed and Strength. An elder vampire could be a whole wealthy family or a corporate board of management, discarding and replacing shades to hide its immortal core. Féval’s vampires can feed on animals as well as humans, so a vampire might show up with a built-in horse – or, for that matter, a pair of tigers.

As a vampire’s shades are compelled to obey their master and are inherently trustworthy (as long as regularly ‘debriefed’ by reincorporating them), a vampire could play all sorts of mind games against a team of hunters – is that your Network contact, or the shade of him? The novel brings up the ‘alibi-ity’ of duplication, letting a vampire be in two places at once to confuse players even more – or send disposable minions or even suicide bombers against the players. Finding a way to identify a shade with Diagnosis or Vampirology should be the first priority for the player characters!

Next up – things get even weirder, as we enter the Vampire City!


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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“When you ask who built this mound, the only answer is the echo of your own question within the vault that has been hidden in darkness within this mound for no one knows how many centuries. The dead past has surely buried its dead within the mound.”

— artifact collector J.G. Braecklein, quoted in the Kansas City Star (Dec. 15, 1935)

In August of 1935, John Hobbs of the Pocola Mining Company broke into the sealed chamber beneath Craig Mound, near Spiro in eastern Oklahoma. He and his comrades discovered dozens, possibly hundreds of burials, accompanied by thousands of inscribed conch shells, effigies, arrowheads, ceremonial weapons, copper plates, and cloaks, along with bushel baskets of beads, pearls, and copper needles. Hobbs and his crew were on Craig Mound legally — they had leased it from the owner — but not in it legally, Oklahoma having just passed its first antiquities act in July to prevent exactly this kind of thing from happening. Hobbs and the Pocola Miners became simultaneously the discoverers of the greatest archaeological trove in North American history and the linchpins of the “pot-hunting” community. American archaeologists, then and now, call anyone who digs up Native artifacts without a doctorate “pot-hunters,” a term just a notch above “grave-robbers.” (Native Americans, then and now, often don’t see what difference a doctorate makes to the grave robbery.) But in the pit of the Depression, pot hunting put food in, well, your pot.

Hobbs and team at Spiro (Leviathan, not pictured)

Their iffy legal status, and the huge supply of artifacts, drove the Pocola diggers to unload priceless items for a few dollars, supercharging the market for the next decade. Dealers from Arkansas just across the border such as Joe Balloun, Goodrich Pilquist, and H.T. Daniel arrived on the site just after Hobbs did, in late 1933, buying pots and arrowheads turned up in smaller mounds nearby for fast cash with no records kept. Other dealers arrived after the news broke in August 1935, carting away literal carloads of artifacts to Chicago, Ohio, New York, and anywhere else they could sell them.

Artifacts moved from the diggers to the dealers to the collectors. In the 1930s, collecting Native American artifacts was a huge hobby; almost every boy had a few arrowheads in a cigar box. The monthly magazine Hobbies: A Magazine For Collectors ran a column called “Around the Mounds” about American archaeology, and filled its classifieds with ads for “Indian relics.” On another level, the architect J.G. Braecklein and his friendly rival Harry Trowbridge assembled museum-sized collections in their Kansas City houses; Colonel Fain White King did likewise in his Kentucky mansion. All three became major bidders for Spiro relics. Glen Groves of Chicago headed the North American Indian Relic Collectors’ Association, and became a major middleman between the local dealers and the Smithsonian. Even actual archaeologists like Robert Bell and Sam Dellinger of the University of Arkansas lowered themselves to buy from the pot-hunters. The University of Oklahoma partnered up with oilmen, who siphoned off prize specimens for their own private museums in Tulsa and Bartlesville.

“They were very curious, these open-air ghost tales; and though they sounded flat and prosaic in the mouths of the white people, they had earmarks of linkage with some of the richest and obscurest phases of native mythology. All of them were woven around the vast, lonely, artificial-looking mounds in the western part of the state, and all of them involved apparitions of exceedingly strange aspect and equipment.”

— H.P. Lovecraft with Zealia Bishop, “The Mound”

Although Spiro is all the way across the state from Lovecraft’s Ghost Mound in Binger, the mighty underground empire of K’n-yan surely flung its tendrils at least as far as the Arkansas River. The Caddos and Wichitas of “The Mound” are, per current anthropological consensus (and Oklahoma state law), the heirs to the fourteenth-century Caddoan-speaking builders of the Spiro mound complex. Said consensus also identifies the Spiro builders as priest-kings of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex (SECC), what an earlier generation of archaeologists dubbed the Southern Death Cult. That religion focused on a war between Overworld and Underworld, the latter personified by a Great Chaos Serpent that also eerily resembled a black panther. This conflation of Yig and Tsathoggua (or Tirawa, as the also-Caddoan Pawnee knew him) may explain the “black drink” ceremony of the SECC. Following the pearls, conch shells, and other aquatic artifacts of this inland empire logically points us toward the Tulu Indians, also called the Coligua, now known as the Tunica. Their language is not Caddoan but an isolate, and the Coligua-Tulu spent much of their history the irrational targets of their neighbors’ rage as they moved from the Spiro area down the Arkansas River valley and south to Louisiana.

When whoever the Spiro builders were finished Craig Mound around 1420, it had been almost exclusively used as a necropolis for a century or more. Abandoned shortly thereafter, it remained completely deserted. The Caddoans left it very much alone, and the transplanted Choctaws refused to go near it, settling their slaves in the mound country after Emancipation forced them to provide them land. As in Lovecraft’s tale, ghost sightings proliferated near the mounds. There was even a “curse of Spiro Mound” of a sort, as the Poteau lawyer who provided the Pocola Mining Company its paperwork, the young co-owner of the mound James Craig, and the Reverend R.W. Wall (one of the Pocola investors, and a respected Black minister) all died within three years of the chamber opening. Craig died of tuberculosis, and Wall drowned in a suspiciously shallow stream.

Was someone — or Something — closing off loose ends? Was there a dealer in Arkansas — or a dealer-collector team — who recognized the significance of the “black residue” in the conch shell cups, the eye-in-hand motifs on certain gorgets, the Signs of the Spider and Swastika incised into stone pipes? Are your Trail of Cthulhu Investigators scrabbling to uncover the missing “copper box holding surgical tools” that vanished from the dig tent, or to destroy utterly the “eight-foot giant in armor” that local rumor claimed to have seen in the hills? Are they perpetrating, or penetrating, the forgeries that abounded around the site? And was it they who, just as the Pocola Mining Company lease expired on November 27, 1935, set off an immense black powder charge within the burial chamber, collapsing a third of the mound and destroying everything remaining inside it? Or maybe destroying just one, very old Thing …


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.

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In the latest episode of their planchette-moving podcast, Ken and Robin talk historical isms, a man in a barrel, unsolicited seeds, and Ouija board inventor Elijah Bond.

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My Top Game Mastering Tip with Noah Lloyd

Always one to show his work, Noah Lloyd shares his number one technique for running table top roleplaying games in the latest Pelgrane Video Dispatch.

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The following news items and diary entries originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in 2000.

You can find the entries for 2001-2002 here.

You can find the entries for 2006-2009 here.

Editor’s note: A few of these news items were not categorized by month or year – I have done my best to approximate their chronology, and have marked them with a small sun symbol.

1998 to 1999

In early 1998 last year, we began discussions with Jack Vance’s agent in New York about the possibility of creating a game based on the Dying Earth Tales. In early June, we started a mail list for interested parties. What could such a game be like? Would it even be possible? We consulted RPG industry professionals, looked at the finest rules systems and adventures and established that such a game was possible given the treatment that Vance’s work deserves.

After long and drawn out negotiations, we established a price and gained extensive licensing rights. We were ready to commence work on the game. Next came the difficult task of deciding who should write the game. We decided at the outset that it should be more than one writer, as we soon discovered that everyone has their own interpretation of Vance’s tales and we didn’t want to impose a single vision.

See the press release for more details.

In December 1999 after perusing the CV´s of many admirable writers, we chose Robin D. Laws to be the senior designer. His name had been put forward very early on, and we were very pleased to get him. John Snead we chose to write the magic system, primarily because of some as-yet-unpublished material he sent us as a sample, but also because of his broad RPG experience and knowledge of effective rules for magic systems. Both these writers demonstrated their ability to add a light Vancian touch to their writing, without creating a pastische.

The novelist Peter Freeman sent samples of his work, and that was sufficient to persuade us that we should make room for him on the project writing flavour text and making other contributions.

10th October 1999

Allen Varney, a well known RPG writer, novelist and games writer volunteers his services; he little knows what we have in store for him.

20th December 1999

Allen sends through final Dying Earth logo and Pelgrane Press graphics – they are accepted.

2000

Integral Edition gathers pace. This ambitious project hopes to print all of Jack Vance’s work in sixty leather bound volumes.

The Dying Earth Gallery was added to the website.

10th January

Hilary Wade, an artist introduced to us by Peter Freeman produced some sample illustrations of creatures for us. They are deemed suitable and original.

24th January

Allen sends the first draft layout. This two-color affair captures the mood of the background very well. Can we afford two color though?

26th January

I spoke to Jack for an hour or so yesterday. He is a quietly spoken and thoughtful man. I found him very helpful and friendly and where he remembered details or concepts from the books, he enlarged upon them. He tries not to re-read work, as much of the earlier work he finds disappointing. He likes all his Dying Earth stories, although he refers to the ending of the Museum of Man as “slightly sophomoric”. His other least favourite DE story is the Grey and the Green. He emphasised that he like these stories. He has a great affection for Cugel (pronounced Coo-gul (Coo like a dove, gul as in prodigal.) and Rhialto. He would be happy for someone to fly to visit him, but unfortunately that’s not in the budget! A few snippets of our discussion follow. He let me know what was in his thoughts when he pictured the map (somewhere on the Earth, although I’m not saying where) He describeds Sandestins as “the executive performers of acts of magic.” People in the Dying Earth are not warlike en masse. There are dangerous areas, but war is a pastime for younger nations. He conjured a great image of archmagicians working on magical problems, likening it to a “a shed full of junk and old paperwork and a couple of old guys trying to build a lawnmower out of odds and ends. They experiment until they find something that works, then they perhaps write down the recipe. Mainly, they are using old knowledge, intuition and years of experience. It doesn’t really matter what the solution is.”

1st February

Robin produces his first draft of the basic engine. Amusing and well-written – the Robin D. Laws TM comes with a built in proof-reader and editor; no RPG company should be without one. This is distributed to the other developers and is greeted by virtual cries of admiration.

2nd February

Ralph Horsley supplied the illustration of the Deodand you see on our home page.

15th February

John Snead produces a very early draft of the magic rules.

Second conversation with Jack Vance. He answered some useful game-relevant questions. He suggested why bows and other projectile weapons are rare (magicians don’t like them), detailed the political structure (people are too difficult and egotistical to be ruled, magicians don’t like rulers) and described why the half-humans and humans hate each other (the usual human reasons.)

3rd March

Allen supplies us with another layout proposal, this time one color. Either layout would be suitable, although we’d like to be able to do two-color if we can.

17th March

Peter Freeman, our sidebar author has finished “The Daybook of Geomalacus” to illuminate the embryonic magic system. An example:

At Azenomei, on the junction of the rivers Scaum and Xzan, word had come that the Arch-Mage Phaeton was seeking an apprentice. On my arrival the town was already full of bursting lights and all manner of reports, odours and fluxions as every jack-leg magician of the district attempted to display his skill, along with many lacking all reasonable pretension to command of the art. Phaeton himself was not present, and so I took myself to an arbour pleasantly shaded beneath a single great pall-willow and sipped yellow wine. I watched in quiet amusement as the various tyros and dabblers argued among themselves, none showing more than a fleeting ability, yet each more vociferous than the last in his claims. All but the most cloddish and ill-refined citizens seemed intent on the contest, even those conversant with but a dozen phases of the Laganetic cycle or possessed of erotic amulets of dubious efficacy.

Eventually Phaeton arrived, a personage of stately height and demeanour, whose sagacity was evident in the length of his beard. As the crowd began to press on him with claims and counter claims he responded with increasing distaste, until finally he was forced to evoke the Omnipotent Sphere in order to protect himself.

He immediately began to dismiss those ill-bred, lacking in adequate style or innate competence, along with singers of popular songs, lallators, groatmen, those unable to deflect the Spell of Internal Effervescence. At length only a half-dozen remained, all minor mages of greater or lesser worth. At that point I drained the last of my wine, rose and walked to the group, addressing Phaeton with a sweeping bow and ignoring the others. Phaeton returned my greeting with a cool glance, at which I, with a carefully judged flourish, evoked the Liberation of Warp, thus simultaneously impressing him and causing great inconvenience to my competitors. With a second flourish I produced from the folds of my robe that libram I had secured from the tomb of Yasbane the Obviator. Phaeton’s eyebrows, previously immobile, rose perhaps the half-breadth of a finger.
´You overcame the demon Orsadran?´
I responded with a modest inclination of my head.
´Your name?´
´Geomalacus, ´ I replied.
He gave a nod of acceptance, turned and began to stride from the square. I followed, keeping close behind him to avoid the malice of my disappointed rivals. Having gained my goal it seemed superfluous to comment on my agreement with Orsadran.

19th March

Hilary Wade, one of our artist has produced some amusing and characterful illustrations for the game’s Persuasion and Rebuff abilites. Here is an example of a Pelgrane unsuccesfully using its charm techniques on a very wary opponent.

21st March

The Dying Earth RPG play test begins.
Over 50 playtest teams have begun the two-month long process of testing the fledgling core rules for the game. We´ve included two Cugel-level test adventures, one by Robin Laws, the other by David Thomas. We are working on some higher-level example adventures. The play testers range from complete novices who are avid Vance fans, to highly experienced GM´s with no knowledge of the Dying Earth books at all.

April

Millennium to publish Tales Of The Dying Earth in the United Kingdom. All four of the original books are to be printed in one volume under the Fantasy Masterworks series. Fantasy Masterworks is a library of some of the greatest, most original, and most influential fantasy ever written. These are books which, along with Tolkien, Peake and others, shaped modern fantasy. The book, number four in the series, has the ISBN number 1-85798-994-5, is due for release in April 2000 and will cost £6.99. Pelgrane Press intend to sell the book from this website.

2nd June

As might be expected, the play test has taken a lot longer than expected – we are now on the second round of playtesting. Robin fixed a few play tester’s niggles and all the developers are hammering away at John Snead´s Rhiato-level rules to try to break them.

6th June

JS has incorporated some changes to reflect certain loopholes in the Rhialto-level rules that were discovered. They are now more robust. This includes a fix by Robin to the main rules section that caps abilities, preventing powerful characters from hosing everyone in sight with magic.

21st June

The highly-experienced Aaron Allston (industry credits include GURPS, D&D Cycolpedia, and three novels) begins work on the Quick Start rules. He adds some amusing flourishes to the examples he gives.

14th July

Ralph Horsley begins work on illustrating the DE source book.

20th July

David Thomas, who has already supplied us with two example adventures, posts an article to the Guild Companion about the progress of the game. Apart from some slights to Tolkien, it generates some positive comments. (The url is now dead, unfortunately.)

2nd August

The artist Greg Staples (Dragon magazine, Green Lantern, 2000AD) has agreed to do the front cover of the DE RPG. His work really has the atmosphere and professionalism we are looking for. The initial idea:

“Cugel stands on Shanglestone Strand with the sun setting in the background. (Possibly, across the sky or in the clouds is an image of the face of the laughing Iocounu) Cugel is shaking his fist at the sky an cursing I´s name. The Agent of Far Despatch (a winged demon) can be seen as a silhouette in the sky. The friendly glow of Twango´s manse is visible further up the beach, but strange white shapes are can be made out dimly in the woods. Perhaps the distant glimmering of the light of Saskervoy can be seen.”

8th August

Jim Webster, a massive contributor to the Dying Earth mail list, and adventure writer, foolishly gives his consent to editing a quarterly magazine devoted to the Dying Earth. He starts soliciting articles.

9th September

We have had more rules revisions and typo corrections in the main rules and an initial layout for the DE Quick Start rules. David Thomas is combining Jim Webster´s, Steve Dempsey´s and his own work into the Scaum Valley Gazetteer, to be our first supplement. It will be aimed primarily at Cugel-level characters. We are using a CC2 map created by Peter Freeman as the basis of the river course.

15th September

More revisions to the magic rules covering area of effect spells and spell wallops (very powerful magicians against weak defense)

18th September

The Origin of Species, which began as a flip remark on the mail list, and became an amusing Vancian digression, draws to an end. Jim Webster, a major participant posts a listing of proper names, included here. It is full of sources of pedantry, personages and adventure seeds. It can be downloaded from here.

21st September

Aaron Rosenberg agrees to put some polish on the magic chapter. It´s over 41,000 words – we were expecting around 25,000, so some chopping is needed.

28th September

Allen posts an attractive first chapter layout in PDF format with rough illos. This is a two-color version. It’s looking less likely that we can do this. Ralph has excelled himself with headers and footers such as this:

Ombalique

3rd October

I attempt to get printer quotes. Following James Wallis´ advice, I contact a number of printers, and learn strange printer terms, such as offset, coated, lpi, 2/2, smyth sewn and bizzare American paper weights measured in pounds (instead of good old simple gsm)
Can we afford two colors? Hardback? Nice paper?

5th October

Phil Master (GURPS Diskworld, etc.) agrees to write a few thousand words for a project initiated by Robin – “Cugel´s Compendium of Indispensable Advantages” These contain tweaks – an example of which follows:

“Is That Your Spear, or Do You Hide Behind it from Small Children?”
Situation: You are confronted by one or more opponents, and physical violence is clearly unavoidable. You are confident enough of your chances, but would feel better if you could be sure that your opponents would remain innocent of much tactical subtlety.

Description: You a fix your leading opponent with a glance, and issue a remark of brutal contempt. Hopefully, this provokes him to anger, which the wise warrior avoids.

Benefit: For the expenditure of 1 Persuasion (Forthright) point, you may engage your intended victim in a contest of Persuade against Rebuff, with no rerolls permitted on either side. If you win the contest, your opponent is enraged, and will charge you at maximum speed. If he has Ferocity as a style of attack (preferred or secondary), he must use it; otherwise, he suffers a levy of 2 to all his defense rolls for the first three attacks you make. You would be well advised to win the ensuing combat, as you are unlikely ever to make a friend of this person.”

6th October

Allen Varney sends through the laid-out Quick Start rules. Greg Staples cover art arrives. It is a striking an attractive image, with only one fault, Greg has added two moons! In the Dying Earth, the moon has long since departed (some say in the Great Tumble). I send the art back to Greg.

10th October

Jim sends through some articles for the as-yet-unnamed magazine, some 14,600 words. Jim a gregarious and amenable character compensates for his total lack of layout ability by finding an experienced designer and zoologist, Sarah Wroot. She agrees to set the magazine.

11th October

Greg’s final artwork for the front cover is scanned and finished. Here’s a glimpse:

17th October

The Scaum Valley Gazetteer cover is underway. We asked all the contributors to make suggestions (artwork by committee, I suppose) This is what Greg Staples had to work with:

Ideas:

The Valley of Graven Tombs, with a barge and an exhumation. The Sun should probably be present in the picture.

The barger could be something like a big, over-ornate punt, with a little cabin aft (like the tent things that workmen hide under) and stuff (retrieved items, say) being loaded on board. Dying Earth fashions are wild and frequently bizarre; strange hats and costumes.

A deodand ready to pounce would be good, but might be a bit too busy, or even a deodand on a chain.

(The deodand is largely human in appearance. It stands seven feet tall and is extremely broad-shouldered. Its skin is pitch-black in color, offering a dramatic contrast with its large, dripping fangs, which may be yellowed or gleaming white. The surface of a deodand’s skin is well-oiled, reflecting light and highlighting the extraordinary definition of its musculature. It might be considered quite beautiful, were it not for its cruelly bestial facial features and aforementioned incisors.
Deodands eat flesh, craving that of mankind most of all. They speak our language and are often skillful, if wheedling, negotiators. They may pretend that they devour humans only reluctantly, as if driven by uncontrollable instinct. They dwell in forests and jungles. Sometimes they are sighted singly, sometimes in small packs.
If faced with some impediment to the immediate dispatch of human prey, the deodand will plead, bargain, cajole, imprecate, and sweet-talk, seeking to persuade his interlocutor into removing the barriers which stand between them.)

Comments from the writers:

Somehow the picture should look placid without anyone making any real effort, even the barge should drift.

The Valley is natural, with natural tombs on the north side, but artificial on the south.

My mental picture of the Valley. The Scaum runs basically East to West so the sun should be to the south side of the river. Travelling down stream you have the sun on your left hand side. The south side of the valley is the one with the artifical accretion of tombs , the North side is the natural hill side,.probably running up to a plateau which will inevitably be forested. On the north bank there is a village which provides the homes etc of those who work among the vines. Near the river where streamlets draining the plateau run down the north face they have eroded some graves and have washed the contents down onto the river margin forming the “bone fields” where the locals grow some grain for their own consumption.

The valley is long, so you needn’t pick out all these features. Many of the tombs are covered in ancient grape vines which yield a harvest of fine wines.

This is what Greg came back with first as a rough idea:

Scaum Valley cover

We mentioned a few coloration problems, and he came back with this:

Scaum Valley cover - final

The final cover is now at the A3 scanning bureau, so we can’t show it to you. But my, is it impressive!

18th October

A discussion over the name of the magazine continues. I shortlist three:

The Primer of Practical Magic AKA the Primer (mentioned in Rhialto)
The Excellent Prismatic Spray
The Compendium of Universal Knowledge (Duke Orbal’s exposition)

After debate, I choose the latter.

19th October

I change my mind; The Excellent Prismatic Spray it is.

20th October

Printer quotes come in. We take the rather brave step of using a Thai printer; the quality of their samples is excellent, and their pricing is such that we can do hardback (although not two colours) Their salesman seems to be knowledgeable and cooperative. (Please don’t quote this paragraph if it all goes wrong!)

21st October

Ralph has spent a week doing additional artwork for the magazine and some extras for the main rule book. His usual high quality is in evidence.

Ossip Wax

7th November

Tor Books to publish United States omnibus edition. The book is expected to be released in November 2000.

The Scaum Valley Gazetteer reaches 92,069 words. David Thomas chases his contributors with a danny-stick to ensure prompt completion of their contributions. Words derived from Dutch, French and other inappropriate foreign languages are banned. The Dying Earth master map is in CC2 form, and we have made some adjustments to it to reflect certain inconsistencies between different writers´ versions.

10th November

Sarah Wroot sends us the first version of her layout for The Excellent Prismatic Spray (XPS). It has a suitably classical style. Allen Varney, with Aaron Rosenberg has cut down extraneous material and re-worded the magic chapters to bring them down to 25000 words. I read through and can´t find anything missing. An amazing job. With a few minor changes, John Snead expresses his satisfaction at the new version.

15th November

Allen Varney´s front cover draft comes through. Eye-catching.

21st November

Quick Start rules are printed! The Excellent Prismatic Spray is at the printers! Hooray! Sorry about the exclamation marks.

25th November

Pelgrane Press launches the Quick Start Rules and The Excellent Prismatic Spray at Dragonmeet 2000. We sold lots of copies of the Dying Earth Tales, even more copies of The Quick Start Rules, and some magazines. We generated a good buzz. Steve Dempsey demonstrated the game to an entirely unfamiliar audience. Most of the playtesters enjoyed the game to the extent that they would purchase the rules.

Playtesters

December

☀ XPS 1 now available to download.


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.

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In the latest episode of their temptingly powerful podcast, Ken and Robin talk cursed items, DELTA GREEN’s Bay of Pigs, blind French organists, and iridology.

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He’s written several books and more than one chapter on the subject. In this Pelgrane Press video dispatch, GUMSHOE and DramaSystem designer Robin D. Laws distills it all down to his top game mastering tip.

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The Utility spell in 13th Age is a lovely way to cram all those spells that are great in the right situation, but useless most of the time into a single handy package. This article presents two variants on the regular Utility spell. Each one takes up a spell slot, as usual.

 

Illusion Utility Spell

1st – disguise self

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: This spell provides you with an effective magical disguise that lasts about ten minutes, making the skill check to avoid unmasking one step easier: easy if it would have been a normal task, normal if it would have been a hard task, and hard if it would have been a ridiculously hard task. The spell only affects your general appearance, not your size. It can be used to hide your features behind the generic features of another person or race. Using it to impersonate a specific creature makes it less effective as a disguise (-2 to -5 penalty).

3rd level spell: The spell lasts for 1 hour.

5th level spell: The spell also provides smell; +2 bonus to any checks.

7th level spell: The spell also handles correct-sounding vocal patterns and rough mannerisms; +4 bonus to any checks.

9th level spell: You can now target an ally with the spell; you can also now use it on up to two creatures at once.

 

1st – illusion

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: You create a minor illusionary sound or smell. Nearby creatures that fail a normal save notice the sound or smell; those who make the save may notice it but recognise it as not exactly real. You must concentrate to maintain the illusion.

3rd level spell: You can create an apparition – an illusory object or creature of up to about human size. Again, those who fail treat the illusion as real; those who succeed recognise the object as an illusion. Interacting with the illusion in any contradictory way (trying to cross an illusory bridge) breaks the spell. Illusory creatures cannot move or attack, but can appear threatening. You can’t cast an illusion over something – it can only appear in empty space. Illusions can’t do actual harm. so if you crush someone with an illusory boulder or stab them with a fake sword, they soon notice they’re not crushed or stabbed. Unless they’re really stupid.

5th level spell: You may animate your apparitions, causing them to move.

7th level spell: It’s now a hard save to see through your illusions.

9th level spell: Your illusions now last even when you’re not concentrating on them. The illusion lasts as long as someone believes in it.

 

1st – cloak

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: You make one small object or person… not invisible, per se, but easy to overlook. The spell won’t hide its target from even a cursory search, but it won’t be noticed by a quick glance. The spell lasts for one minute or so.

3rd level spell: You can now hide 1d4+1 targets.

5th level spell: Those cloaked are now hidden from scrying and divination spells. The caster of the divination spell can tell their spell has been blocked. This protection lasts until sunset or sunrise.

7th level spell: The protection from scrying and divination now lasts a full day.

9th level spell: You can hide a small army or a location (like a village or castle) from divination.

 

3rd – message

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Quick action to cast

Effect: You send a one to two sentence message to another person you know and have touched in the last week. Sending a message to a person you can see is always easy. Sending a message to a person you can’t see requires a skill check using Intelligence against the highest-tier environment that you or the sender are occupying.

The maximum distance you can send a message depends on the spell’s level.

3rd level spell: Across half a city, at most.

5th level spell: Across the entire city and a bit into the countryside.

7th level spell: Between cities near to each other.

9th level spell: From any city to any other city, or across a sea.

 

5th – enter dreams

Range: Unlimited, as long as you’ve got a connection of some sort to the target.

Daily

Effect: You enter the dreams of the target. You’re an astral projection, but any damage you suffer on this jaunt is real damage – and you can be killed in a dream. Obviously, you can only cast this spell when they’re sleeping (the spell isn’t expended if you use it on an invalid target). When inside the target’s dreams, you can observe their subconscious thoughts, and may be able to plant suggestions, change their opinions or convince them you’re a messenger or omen – save vs inception, basically. The dream-world may identify you as an intruder and turn on you.

7th level spell: You can now ‘hop’ from dreamer to dreamer, scanning for a particular target even if you don’t have a connection them. You need to target a general area – for example, if your target is in Axis, you can move through the dreams of random people in Axis until you find your quarry. Also, you can take up to five other travellers with you in the dream.

9th level spell: You can now teleport to the location of your target, if they permit it. You appear when they wake up. Other travellers can’t teleport with you – it’s a solo teleport.

 

7th – symbol

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Effect: You brand a magical symbol on an immobile object or surface – typically, castle walls, mountain cliffs, stones marking the border of your domain and the like. If the object’s moved, or the symbol is physically destroyed, the spell is broken.

You may inscribe your own personal symbol, or the symbol of an Icon.

Symbols last until your next full heal-up. You can only inscribe one symbol in a place – if multiple symbols can be seen from a spot, they cancel each other out.

Allies of that Icon are inspired by the sight of the symbol. They may immediately roll any positive relationship dice with that Icon. If you inscribed your own symbol, your allies are filled with awe at your power; any game benefit is up to the GM, but could include gaining a free save against an ongoing condition, spending a recovery, or just general good luck.

Enemies of the Icon – or your enemies – are struck by a Intelligence + Level vs MD attack; those who are hit are affected by Fear (save ends).

Either way, a character can only be affected by a given symbol once per day.

9th level spell: Your symbols are now permanent until destroyed.

 

 

Transmutation Utility SpellShadows Over Eldolan cover

1st – feather fall

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Free action to cast

Effect: When you cast this spell, it arrests your fall, letting you glide down the ground over a round or two.

3rd level spell: You can now target a nearby ally with the spell.

5th level spell: You can now target up to two nearby creatures with the spell.

7th level spell: You can now target up to five nearby creatures with the spell.

9th level spell: You gain some control over where a target falls, like a quickly gliding feather.

 

1st – hold portal

Ranged spell

Daily

Effect: You cast this spell on a door. For ten minutes, adventurer-tier creatures can’t get through the door. Champion-tier creatures can batter it down; each attempt requires a DC 20 Intelligence skill check (including an applicable background) by the caster to resist the battering and keep the spell going. Epic-tier creatures can walk right through.

3rd level spell: The spell now lasts for an hour. Adventurer-tier creatures are stymied. Champion-tier creatures can batter the door down or destroy it after three failed DC 20 skill checks by the spellcaster. Epic creatures notice that the now-busted door had magic on it.

5th level spell: Champion-tier creatures take a few minutes to force the door open. Epic creatures can force it open after one failed DC 25 skill check by the spellcaster.

7th level spell: Champion-tier creatures are stymied for up to an hour by the door. Epic tier creatures get through after three failed DC 25 skill checks by the spellcaster.

9th level spell: Champion-tier creatures can’t enter. Epic-tier creatures can’t get through for an hour.

 

1st – disappear

Daily

Effect: You cause an object to vanish into a pocket dimension. You can call this object back into reality with a gesture, and it appears in your hand or next to you. At the GM’s discretion, willing people or player characters whose players missed this game session count as ‘objects’ for this spell.

You can only disappear or conjure a single object with the spell – but a container full of objects counts as one target.

If you’re unconscious or slain, or when the spell duration ends, the object reappears instantly.

The size of the object depends on the level of the spell.

1st level spell: Anything that fits in the palm of your hand

3rd level spell: A backpack and its contents

5th level spell: A big sack

7th level spell: A large wardrobe, a horse and cart.

9th level spell: Pretty much anything.

 

3rd – levitate

Ranged spell

Daily

Effect: Until the end of the battle, you can use a move action to rise straight up into the air or descend straight down. The spell itself won’t move you horizontally. The up-or-down movement is about half as fast as your normal movement. While levitating, you take a –2 penalty to your attacks and are vulnerable to attacks against you.

5th level spell: You can now cast the spell on a nearby willing ally instead of yourself.

7th level spell: You can now cast the spell as a quick action, and the spell can now affect two targets.

9th level spell: The spell can now affect five targets.

 

3rd – animate

Daily

Effect: By touching an object, you imbue it with temporary animation and life. You could cause a chair to dance, a candlestick to walk over and set a pile of straw on fire, a door to unlock itself, or a chain to wrap itself around a target. Animated objects are slow and comically clumsy – they can obey commands, but aren’t any good in a fight. The objects gain the power to bend and move, but will damage themselves if they try anything too strenuous. Objects connected to other objects (like a door in a wall) can be ordered to rip themselves free, but may succeed only in damaging themselves – and any damage to the object ends the spell.

The object completes one task, then stops moving.

3rd level spell: Any object you can hold in your hand

5th level: A piece of furniture

7th level: Anything up to about the size of a house or small sailing ship.

9th level: Wake up, you lazy mountain!

 

3rd – transmute element

Daily

Effect: You charge your hands with the magical ability to transmute one element into another. Anything you touch while you concentrate on this spell is transformed. You can’t cast other spells while maintaining this one.

Possible transmutations, any of which can be reversed.

3rd level: Rock to mud

5th level: Lead to gold, fire to ice

7th level: Flesh to stone, steel to glass. Also, you can now make your transmutations permanent if you wish.

9th level: No new transformation, but you can now cast the spell as a transmutation wave instead, affecting an area around you instead of being limited by touch.

 

5th – water breathing

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Quick action to cast

Effect: You can breathe underwater for the rest of the battle (or about five minutes). You become aware a couple of rounds ahead of when the magic of the spell is about to end.

7th level spell: You and 1d4 + 2 nearby allies can breathe underwater this battle.

9th level spell: The spell affects you and 1d6 + 2 nearby allies for 4d6 hours.

 

7th – wall

Quick action to Cast

Daily

Ranged spell

Effect: You conjure a wall of stone. It’s a really big wall, nice and thick. It appears between you and the nearest person who intends to harm you, if you’re in combat. The wall can be climbed (DC25) or flown over, but it’s a really, really long wall, so people can’t trivially walk around it. If there are nearby anchor points – dungeon corridor walls, buildings, hills, etc – then the wall appears between them. Casting this spell immediately takes you and any nearby companions out of combat (assuming your foes can’t easily overcome the wall) without incurring a campaign loss.

9th level spell: It’s now a wall of fire.


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.

 

 

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In the latest episode of their cow-shaped podcast, Ken and Robin talk finding story in setting, Utopian architecture, a three-eyed Yellow King foe, and David Lynch’s Revenge of the Jedi.

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GUMSHOE divides abilities according to whether failure at that ability can drive narrative. Because it is never interesting to fail to get information, you never fail with your investigative abilities. General abilities, on the other hand, do offer the possibility of something interesting—if often horrible—happening when you fail a test. You can fail to run from the shoggoth while Fleeing, fail to repair your sputtering Cessna’s instrumentation with Mechanics, or fail to keep your wits about you with Composure.

However, just because failure is often interesting doesn’t mean that any given instance of it will always best further the story.

As a GM, you may see no particularly entertaining outcome from a failed test.

  • Failing to Sneak past the security guards, as you have imagined them, doesn’t get you a classic interrogation and escape sequence. Nope, just an exasperating hassle that delays the confrontation with the escaped sapient lab rats.
  • When a character is Riding to impress the hardbitten rodeo clowns, a failed test prevents you from running that scene where they try to recruit the group into their ranks.
  • A Counterinsurgency failure might rubbish the otherwise cool plan the group has spent half an hour cooking up, forcing them back into planning mode.

A common and often useful solution to the boring failure calls for the GM to replace failure with a costly success. You get past the guards but lose 2 Preparedness points when you drop your kit bag. You impress all but one of the rodeo clowns, who later tries to brain you with a wrench. You blow up the revanchist hideout but are identified by witnesses while doing so.

However, the existence of this technique shouldn’t prevent you from doing the simple thing instead: sometimes, you can just let them win!

Success establishes the character as competent and impressive, a feeling the players might not get enough of in a tense session. You get a reward as well, skipping an unneeded complicating factor. In a scenario already packed with action, that wrench-wielding rodeo clown might be one plot wrinkle too many to squeeze in before the session clock runs out.

Even an action that should feel difficult and could yield a rewarding story turn in other circumstances, could in certain instances create more fun as an automatic success.

A failure at the top of a scenario, especially the first one, starts the proceedings on a sour or unintentionally comic moment.

Failures that slow the action just as you’ve gotten it rolling likewise get old fast. If you’ve already got plenty of suspense bubbling, yet another problem to deal with registers as demoralizing overkill.

This doesn’t mean that characters should be able to succeed at unbelievably difficult tasks just to speed your the pacing.

But so long as success feels credible, or can be made to seem that way by your adjusting your description of the situation, you may find the prospect of certain failures overrated.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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In the latest episode of their quartz-festooned podcast, Ken and Robin talk TPKs, RCMP misconduct, crystals, and The Mandalorian.

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By Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine doesn’t use Robin D. Laws’s One-2-One rules (including Edge and Problem cards), but the game is designed to play superbly with only one player and one GM. This type of adventure echoes the model of classic fantasy literature such as Conan or Elric where a main hero tackles their adventures alone, or at most with a companion or sidekick.

For one-Hero play you’ll need to make a small number of changes during character creation, and there’s some specialized advice for both GM and player.

Character Creation

As noted on p. 36 of the Adventurer’s Edition of SotS, if you’re the only player you’ll gain 14 Investigative Build points to create your Hero. That’s 4 more than you’d get with a full 5-person group. You can get an additional bonus point if you keep to only one profession, but that’s not always a good choice for one-Hero play; diversifying gives you more options when looking for leads.

The GM chapter on p. 269 of the Adventurer’s Edition has additional information, including that in one-Hero play the Hero gets an additional Ally point.

Example

Let’s say you want to play a hero patterned after the accomplishments of the real-world Ching Shih the pirate, making your hero a deposed pirate queen who’s fled to Eversink to regain her strength.

Five Players?

Were there five players or more, the Hero might look like this:

Fayne Chaskin, aka Captain Chask, deposed pirate queen of Min

Canny, diplomatic, strong-willed, middle-aged, murderous, loyal

Drives (what is best in life?): Wielding deadly force; following your own course; making an example for others to see

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 1 (the leather hide of a great kraken), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (confidence), Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 5: Damage Modifier +1 (commanding)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (rapier)

Investigative abilities: Command 2, Intimidation 1, Nobility 1, Servility 1; Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skullduggery 3

Allegiances: Ally: Ancient Nobility 1, Ally: Outlanders 3; Enemy: Mercanti 1

General abilities: Athletics 4, Burglary 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 3, Sway 5, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: A now-lost fleet of 800 ships (and almost 50,000 sailors) stolen from you by the Witch-Queen of Min; international warrants for your arrest and execution; a surprising sense of optimism; a desperate need to lay low; a perverse desire to crash the parties and balls of the nobility; your flagship The Savage Crown, moored unnoticed in a hidden swamp cove a day away; a handful of very important blackmail documents; fond memories of your gambling house and salt trading days; a jeweled hair comb from your mother, looted by her from Eversink nobility while you were still an infant; kraken-hide armor (Armor 1); a rapier whose hilt is fashioned from some kingdom’s stolen royal scepter, you aren’t sure whose (Damage Modifier +1)

One Player?

With only one Hero, though, you might build her Investigative abilities and Allegiances like this with the extra points:

Investigative abilities: Command 3, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Nobility 1, Servility 1; Ridiculous Luck 1, Scurrilous Rumors 1, Skullduggery 4

Allegiances: Ally: Ancient Nobility 1, Outlanders 4; Enemy: Mercanti 1

 

With Flashback from a high Preparedness, and 3 ranks of Ally: Outlanders, Captain Chask in a 5-player game has great narrative flexibility and wields substantial political pressure – and she can spend those points to have her still-loyal pirates show up in almost any circumstance to act as decoys, extra muscle, inside men, and assistants.

When you’re the only player, you have a Hero who is even better at having her commands obeyed; you can tell when someone is lying to you; you have a small amount of ridiculous luck; you’re even better at illegal activities (amongst the best in the city!); and your ties to your still-loyal pirates are remarkably strong. What you can’t do yourself, you can usually get someone else to do for you.

Player Advice

When adventuring you’ll run into the need for useful abilities you don’t have. Think like a fantasy hero: use a different ability creatively or find someone else in the city who might know what you need. If the GM gives you an interesting sidekick with a few abilities, they can help fill in for your weak spots.

You’re probably mighty in a fight, but you’re only one person – and your biggest weakness is facing lots of people at once in combat. If you’re facing a lot of enemies at once, you have a few options. You could surrender (although it’s probably more fun to make them work for it) and fight your way out later; you could spend a point of Taunt to challenge their leader to single combat, completely side-stepping the mooks; or you could spend points of an ability like Intimidation to buy yourself time to talk with your foes instead of fighting them. You could even use Flashback and spend a point of Charm to establish yourself as an old friend of the enemy leader. Consider creative solutions and pick the one that makes for the best or most exciting story.

Still want to fight? That’s solid heroing! If you’re facing Mooks and you have Warfare, Sway or Sorcery at 8+ ranks, spend all your combat ability at the start of the fight in a single amazing attack to try and down as many Mooks as possible as quickly as possible. You’re likely to defeat as many as 4 or 5 in that sudden flurry, and that will get you Refresh tokens AND buy you some time. You can spend Investigative points to briefly boost your defenses (p. 75); in a tough fight, that may well mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Finally, spend your Ally points to draw on your Allies in any situation where you want backup. That’s especially useful if you don’t already have a sidekick; a convenient nearby ally can help heal you, can bolster your Morale, may have knowledge and expertise you lack, and can pitch in during a fight. Intimidating your foe by having a dozen mercenaries or thieves suddenly show themselves is an excellent use of that resource.

GM Advice

GMs will find advice for one-Hero play on pp. 269-270 of the Adventurer’s Edition. Try not to toss the hero into an adventure that they’re particularly ill-suited for; without access to Teamwork, setting a Warfare-based hero against a monstrosity that can only be defeated by reducing their Morale is just going to be frustrating. More fun is an adventure where the Hero’s strengths can shine, and where the foes are not prepared for a single dangerous assailant.

As mentioned above, we like the idea of a sidekick during one-Hero play. It’s particularly useful for offering Investigative abilities that a Hero may lack, for emergency healing that keeps the Hero on their feet, and for giving you someone particularly fun to roleplay.

If converting existing adventures, handwave or eliminate large numbers of Mooks. A single Hero will likely focus on the most dramatically interesting target in the fight, and while they might need to fight their way through some speedbumps to get there, that shouldn’t necessarily be the focus of the scene.

Since your player won’t have any other players to bounce clues off of, don’t be at all shy about summarizing and talking through what they’ve learned, who’ve they’ve talked to, and where they’ve been so far in the adventure. It’ll help make sure they don’t accidentally bump into dead ends.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

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A column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I did it again. As heard in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, I made up a new term. Since it is easier to cite articles than podcast episodes, and because new terms want to be propagated, I’ll revisit it here.

The term: table sense.

It’s what developers look for when you write scenarios or source material for roleplaying games.

It’s what game masters need from you when they read your material.

Table sense is what it sounds like: the ability to forecast what will happen at the gaming table when the scene, magic item, background detail, monster or whatever it is comes into use.

How do you get it? By playing roleplaying games of the sort you’re writing for. And more importantly: by picturing the play experience as you write, away from your table.

Table sense may be a particular challenge for writers steeped in the story game world, which assumes a high degree of cooperation to jointly create the designers’ very specific preferred structure. They create a shaped or tailored version of agency with strong parameters.

If the designers doesn’t expect you to punch the bartender in their game of Bowler-Hat Show Ponies (to name a currently popular example), storygame players do not allow such loucheness to cross their minds. Instead their characters proudly stick to wearing bowler hats to equestrian competitions, because that’s the premise the entire game tailors itself to.

In games with a more traditional wide-open agency, where the freedom to act as chaos agents lies well within the expansive remit of any core activity, you can be that eventually some player is gonna at least contemplate some bartender-punching.

Using your table sense, as you write a scene with an annoying bartender and characters with fists at the end of the arms, you know to explicitly answer the question: what happens when someone takes this implicit option?

Table sense reminds you, when writing a setting’s deep backstory, to answer the question: how do the player characters learn about this? What difference does it make to them when they do?

When reviewing a scenario you’ve rewritten, table sense allows you to zero in on those moments when you assume that players will conveniently take this or that action that makes your sequence of action work. Once you’ve spotted them, you can ask yourself if they will really do that thing. You can move from there to the panoply of crazy powers, spells, or tech they might be able to deploy to blow past all of the obstacles you have carefully placed in their path.

Table sense tells you, when creating a new spell or magic item, to ask “will a player be excited to get this? What story possibilities does it create?” It leads you to imagine yourself as a player character gaining the item. Do you keep it, or sell it as soon as you can? If you keep it, what cool things might happen? Depending on the game system and its core activity, butt-kicking might be a cool thing, or a very cool thing. Or not a thing at all, in which case, your table sense reminds you that you’ve designed an item for a game other than the one you’re currently working on, and need to highlight and hit the delete button.

When you apply table sense to a description of a Game Master Character, you can spot the elements you’ve written that will be hard or impossible for a GM to activate. Does your grimy trader on a decaying space station dream of a new life in the core Combine worlds? If so, and you’ve also described him as taciturn and unwilling to reveal his true self, your table sense alerts you to a problem. You must then show how the players can overcome his reticence to learn of his yearnings. While you’re at it, table sense allows you to envision at least one situation in which that actually matters to the players.

In other words, as you write, always think about how the GM will take your text and put it on the table.

Table sense differs depending on the system you’re writing for.

The basic unit of fun in 13th Age is the fantasy fight. If the element you’ve created can feature into a combat sequence, your job is done. On the other hand, your description of the taciturn bartender who yearns to move to a great metropolis of the Dragon Empire ought somehow to relate to a fight the characters are headed toward or have just completed.

GUMSHOE’s core activity is investigation. When you create a monster, you have to ask how it might appear in a mystery scenario. A good old-fashioned ravening beast that lives only for slaughter might fit into a mystery. For the most part though you’ll be looking for cleverer, tricky creatures: less Conan, more X-Files.

Table sense also inspires you to structure information in a way that works at the table. The information on Government Lethal Chambers in the Aftermath sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game appears in FAQ format. This cues the GM to introduce a few key facts, and then encourage the players to ask questions about the world their characters grew up in. Those answers, laid out for ease of reference, tell them about much more than these devices. They allow them to imaginatively engage with the alternate reality of the post-Castaigne regime world. The GM could extract that info from a conventionally structured chunk of setting exposition. And indeed, other bits of world background are presented in that format. But for this key setting linchpin, I made a point of going beyond the reading experience to envision how information goes verbal as it passes from GM to player.

You get table sense from GMing, and then GMing some more, and also by GMing.

It fades over time and must be renewed. If you haven’t run games for years, your developer can spot that. She might also be able to pinpoint the era you came up in, and when you stopped.

Table sense acts as the fuel for the imaginative exercise of seeing sessions in progress that use your material.

Passages written with table sense not only avoid pitfalls and maximize fun, but also help the reader to imagine play in progress, and how great it will be to get a group together to run your game or scenario, instead of one of the many others their time and affection.

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This die isn’t bad, it’s just a bit weird.

At our GenCon panel on horror, we got asked about the risk of breaking atmosphere in Trail of Cthulhu games by asking for Stability tests. You describe whatever horrific or disturbing sight the investigator encounters in ghastly detail – and then go “now, roll Stability”, dragging the player out of the story and soiling everything with bald mechanics. I don’t entirely agree with the premise – sometimes, switching to mechanics at a moment of high tension lends huge dramatic weight to the roll – but if it resonates with you, then what you need is a bad die.

A bad die is a die that’s dedicated to a particular purpose. Ideally, it’s visually distinctive – I’ve got a d6 with skulls for pips that gets designated a bad die in some games. The bad die is only used for one type of roll only. For example, in a Trail game, it might only be used for Stability tests. If the GM hands the bad die to a player, the player knows it’s time to make a Stability test, and that failure would be costly. There’s no need to say anything in the heat of play – the GM makes it clear before the game that if you’re given the bad die, you’ve got to make a Stability test and that failure will mean a big Stability loss.

You can use bad dice for other purposes. You could have a bad die for Sense Trouble rolls, or Heat checks in Night’s Black Agents. In 13th Age, you might designate a particular d20 as the bad die for Last Gasp saves. As long as the bad die can be easily distinguished from other dice, and the players are told beforehand what the bad die entails, it gives the GM another non-verbal channel to communicate with the players.

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In the latest episode of their tightly-wrapped podcast, Ken and Robin talk vampire firewalling, the espionage of Jan van Eyck, weird war mummies, and the Quasi War.

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“Professor Webb had been engaged, forty-eight years before, in a tour of Greenland and Iceland in search of some Runic inscriptions which he failed to unearth …”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Instead of “Runic inscriptions,” in 1860 Professor Webb finds Cthulhu in West Greenland, on a rocky ledge in the cold. But by the 1930s the trail of runes runs hot … as does the Trail of Cthulhu. The SS teaches its officers rune science, while its Ahnenerbe office (ToC, p. 160) gathers runic material from all over Europe and the North. Ahnenerbe directors Hermann Wirth and Wolfram Sievers investigate (and vandalize) runes and petroglyphs at Bohuslän in Sweden in August 1936 to kick off an expedition into the wilds of Scandinavia.

This runestone in Uppsala probably doesn’t depict a winding nest of tentacles

If the Investigators follow the trail of the runes to Sweden themselves, they quite likely encounter Sigurd Agrell (1881-1937). And if they don’t, they surely encounter a runologist who warns them that Sigurd Agrell is a dangerous crank with unsound theories. In the Thirties, he’s a rabbity-looking, bespectacled man with a domed forehead and a truly luxurious black beard. Agrell spent his twenties between Paris and Uppsala University, a member of the decadent Symbolist poetic group Les quatre diables. But he seemingly put such things behind him, getting his doctorate in Slavic philology at Lund University in 1909, translating Russian literature, and going on to become full professor of Slavic Languages at Lund in 1921.

Then something happened in 1925, possibly connected with an earthquake in the Pacific and a wave of dreams around the world. Agrell suddenly became obsessed with the runes, the script of various Germanic languages invented (according to orthodox history) around 200 B.C. Agrell uses the name “Sigurobald” (and possibly uses opium) while studying the runes, and teases out a new theory: that they descend from Greek letters, and (more importantly) that they encode Mithraic wisdom. In 1931, he publishes his third runological text: Mystery Religions of Late Antiquity and Nordic Rune Magic, in which he reveals his discovery: the order of the runes was deliberately hidden.

Agrell argues that the standard ‘Elder Futhark’ order of runes (named for the first six runes: F, U, Th, A, R, K) conceals the true first rune: Ur, the rune of the aurochs, signifying the First Cow Audhumbla who licked the giant Ymir out of ice and also the Primal Bull of the Mithraic Mysteries often represented by Taurus. Hence the true runic alphabet is the Uthark, and the F rune (Feh, representing wealth) is not the first but actually the twenty-fourth. This, for example, explains the mystifying Norse good-luck runic inscription ALU; under the new numbering, its values add to 24, the number of all the runes and (now) of wealth.

Runing With the Devil, or, Too Many Olauses

“I had read only the least fragment of that blasphemous rune before closing the book and bringing it away.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Book”

Is Agrell merely a classic academic crank, a specialist hubristically tempted to theorize outside his expertise? Or is he the secret (unconscious? dreaming?) heir to Sweden’s long tradition of esoteric rune lore? Study of the runes begins with the Swedish historian, cartographer, and cryptozoologist Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) exiled to Poland (and eventually to Rome) in 1530 for his religion (and probably not for his investigations of mermaids – or Deep Ones) along with his brother Johannes Magnus (1488-1544) the erstwhile archbishop of (Agrell’s city) Uppsala. Olaus posthumously publishes his brother’s the History of the Goths and Swedes, which uses runic inscriptions that Johannes dated to 2000 B.C.

Uppsala-born Johannes Bureus (1568-1652) began studying the runes in 1594, compiling a runography in 1599. He became a tutor to the future King Gustavus Adolphus in 1602, and perhaps his teaching explains the wide use of runes as battlefield codes (and spells?) by the Swedish Army in the Thirty Years’ War. He dedicated his masterwork, the “Gothic Cabbala” Adalruna rediviva, to one of that war’s generals, Count Jacob de la Gardie (1583-1652), reputed to be an alchemist himself. (Jacob’s son, Count Magnus de la Gardie, became the namesake of M.R. James’ revenant, although Jacob better fits the model of a hideous necromancer.) Bureus believed the runes encoded noble truths of a supersensible realm, and carried on a runic rivalry with his Danish counterpart the anatomist Olaus Wormius (1588-1654), the translator of the Necronomicon into Latin in 1628 (Lovecraft’s 1228 date is clearly an error). Wormius’ runic compilation Runir seu appeared the year before (and perhaps caused?) Bureus’ death.

Bureus’ successors as court antiquarian and royal archaeologist avoided mention of the runes’ esoteric side. In 1675, the Swedish antiquarian and archivist Olaus Verelius published Manductio ad runographiam, which warned of runic black magic and necromancy. Verelius attempted to locate the site of the immense pagan temple to Thor, Odin, and Freyr in Uppsala (burnt in the 11th century); he also identified Sweden as Hyperborea. Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1702), a Swedish anatomist and runologist like Wormius, identified Sweden as both Hyperborea and Hades in his Atlantica (4 vols, 1679-1702), which also attempted to prove by runes that Atlantis was in Sweden. Rudbeck’s library burned up in a 1702 fire that devastated Uppsala and destroyed his house; he died before finishing his fifth volume.

A thin thread of esoteric runology survived Rudbeck’s fire: Erik Julius Björner (1696-1750) believed in primeval nature of runes, and the esoteric cabbalist Johan Göransson (1712-1769) also catalogued all known Swedish runic inscriptions in Bautil (1750). The Romantic nationalist impulse revived esoteric runology; the artistic Gothic League (1811-1844) rhapsodized about runes and their quasi-Masonic counterparts the Manhem League (1815-1823) created runic initiatory degrees (prefiguring Agrell’s Mithraic rune mysteries) and studied Old Norse sagas and fairy tales. Around that time (1812), one of the seven known manuscripts of Bureus’ Adulruna rediviva disappeared from the National Library of Sweden. In 1932, the Stockholm construction magnate (and Olympic gymnast) Carl-Ehrenfried Carlberg revives the Manhem League as a fascist occult physical-culture movement with runic ritual elements.

Rune Messiah, or, Going Cabbalistic

“The writing was in red, and varied from Arabic to Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters. Malone could not read much of it, but what he did decipher was portentous and cabbalistic enough.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

So we have at least two creepy Nazi rune societies, an opium-soaked crank, a missing magic book, a burned library, and a possible line of occult descent from the Renaissance to the Thirties. What more could you want? Well, if you’re anything like William Hamblin, author of the excellent old-school Call of Cthulhu adventure “The City Without a Name,” you want arbitrary cabbalistic calculations aplenty! It should go without saying that you’re free to shift up the orthography and the math to suit your own campaign or your own list of ominous numbers.

With that said:

Agrell’s Uthark system not only re-numbers the runes but also interprets them as stages in a cosmic ritual cycle. Agrell’s Uthark nicely limns not just Mithra and Odin but another, older god.

The fifth rune, Kaun (K) means “ulcer” or “boil” although it’s usually interpreted as “torch” – meaning inspiration?

The second rune, Thurs (Th) means “giant,” and I note that combining ‘Thurs’ with the next rune As (meaning “god”) yields a partial anagram for [h]asthur.

We’ve covered the first rune, Ur (U), but Agrell also interprets it to mean “water” as in “primordial ice” or “primal chaos.”

The twentieth rune Logr (L) means “waterfall, lake” but Agrell also associates it with the sea gods Aegir and Ran.

The eighth rune Hagal (H) means “hail,” but also, to Agrell, “crystal” – as in a divinatory crystal? Or a Trapezohedron, perhaps?

K + Th + U + L + H + U = 5+2+1+20+8+1 = 37

I don’t have anything particularly special to say about 37, except that multiplied by 18 (aeons? runes of the Hyperborean Futhark?) it becomes 666.

In Johannes Bureus’ Adulrunic cabbala, Great Cthulhu signifies thusly:

Kyn (10) + Tors (5) + Vr (3) + Lagher (700) + Haghall (30) + Vr (3) = 751

Hebrew Gematria

Let’s back up a bit, to the godfather of all cabbalism, the Hebrew mystical practice known as gematria. Gematria goes back at least to the Assyrians, which implies the Hebrews learned it during their Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C. – about the same time the similar Greek number system and occult practice (isopsephia) takes off.

Spelling ‘Cthulhu’ in Hebrew is even more fraught than in Runic, given the absence of vowels and many choices for transliteration. Two common variants both start with Cheth (but you could use Kaph or Qoph) and include Waw twice:

Ch (8) + T (9) + W (6) + L (30) + W (6) = 59

Ch (8) + Th (400) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) + W (6) = 467

However you might want Scriptural backing for your spelling, in which case you can look to Isaiah 38:11: “I shall look upon man no more among the inhabitants of Chadel.” Chadel means “rest” or “cessation,” and is usually interpreted here to mean either “the land of the dead” or “this world” as a pun on Cheled (“the earth”). But if we look at the Ch-D-L root, or at Cthulhu as “resting,” we get:

Ch (8) + D (4) + L (30) = 42

Or put the vowels in (Aleph and Yod, since a diacritical in that text of Isaiah sometimes means there’s a ‘hidden’ Yod): + A (1) and Y (10) = 53

53 also turns out to be Hamblin’s value for ‘Cthulhu’ in “The City Without a Name,” as he transliterated the dread name ChDWLH:

Ch (8) + D (4) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) = 53

Hamblin also mentions other gematriac methods in the adventure. “Small number” gematria reduces values to single digits; the value of Lamedh (30) becomes 3, for example, and ChDWLH yields 26. “Squares” gematria involves taking the square of each letter’s value, then adding them; ChDWLH squares to 1,041. “Series” gematria adds up all the previous letter values for each letter; A is 1, B is 2+1, D is 4+3+2+1, etc. In series, ChDWLH becomes 187. “Filled value” gematria uses the gematriac value of each letter as its final value; Heh (H-H) becomes 5+5, and ChDWLH fills to 958. You can arbitrarily add the number of letters in a name to any of these methods; plus five letters yields 963.

Arabic Gematria

The Koranic testimony to Cthulhu appears in 25:29: “For mankind, Satan is Khadhulan [the forsaker].” The Arabic version of gematria is called Abjad (after its first four letters), although cabbalists use a different “serial” version in Morocco. Breaking down ‘Khadhulan’ to its root, with Abjad values first and Moroccan serial values after the slash, you get:

Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + L (30/500) = 1,330/516

Expanding ‘Khadhulhu’ with analogous but arbitrary vowels and aspirants borrowed from the Hebrew transliteration:

Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + W (6/900) + L (30/500) + H (5/800) + W (6/900) = 1,347/3,116

Greek Isopsephia

The Greek Nekronomikon surely fooled around with this stuff. Greek numbers formed before their alphabet finalized; the now nonexistent letter digamma (pronounced like W in Homeric Greek) marks the place of 6. I’ve used upsilon (‘U) for the final phoneme in the Dread Name, because it was aspirated in older Greek (as in the first letter of Hyperborea). I’ve used Ch for Chi not the actual X, to avoid confusion with Xi.

Ch (600) + Th (9) + W (digamma, 6) + L (30) + ‘U (400) = 1,045

Latin Aequicalculus

Latin scholars, beginning in the 10th century, began applying Greek values to Latin letters for their own gematriac calculations. At first, they skipped the value for 6, because there was no Latin version of digamma, which is why H is 9 not 8. For the rest of these, I’m adopting Professor Angell’s transcription of the Dread Name, on the grounds that he was an expert linguist.

C (3) + T (300) + H (9) + V (400) + L (30) + H (9) + V (400) = 1,151

In 1499, the cryptographer Trithemius (1462-1516) developed a ‘simplex’ version based on a 22-letter Latin alphabet (omitting K and W and blending I/J and U/V).

C (3) + T (18) + H (8) + V (19) + L (10) + H (8) + V (19) = 85

Agrippa’s early 16th-century ‘Cabala Ordinis’ added K, but a variant German version did not. Cthulhu appears with the German variant value after the slash:

C (3) + T (100/90) + H (8) + V (200/100) + L (20/10) + H (8) + V (200/100) = 539/319

The German mathematician Michael Stifel (1487-1567) applied Hebrew gematriac methods and simplex letter values to Latin. The results for CTHVLHV appear below.

Triangular (series gematria) = 6 + 190 + 36 + 210 + 66 + 36 + 210 = 754

Quadrangular (squares gematria) = 9 + 361 + 64 + 400 + 121 + 64 + 400 = 1,419

Pentagonal (Quadrangular times two, minus Triangular) = 12 + 532 + 92 + 590 + 176 + 92 + 590 = 2,084

Masonic Gematria

The Protestant pastor of Quedlingburg, Johann Henning (1645-1695) created a Masonic code that basically adapted Trithemius’ simplex to the German alphabet.

C (3) + T (19) + H (8) + U (20) + L (11) + H (8) + U (20) = 89

The Golden Dawn created their own version of “English Qabala” gematria, basing it on Hebrew values:

C (3) + T (300) + H (8) + U (400) + L (30) + H (8) + U (400) = 1,149

For far more than you want or need to know about this stuff, with far less sourcing than you want or need, I recommend the two-volume polyglot numerological text The Key of it All, by David Allen Hulse.


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.

 

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In the latest episode of their tantalizing podcast, Ken and Robin talk GMing war for ex-military players, Toronto tow truck gang wars, world-breaking words, and ‘Oumuamua.

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When choosing his favorite monster, Robin looked to three criteria: ickiness, impersonality, and versatility.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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We want your ideas as part of the GUMSHOE Community on DriveThruRPG! The GUMSHOE Community is a home for independent creators to upload products like adventures, rules supplements, monsters, and whatever else you can dream up. If you’ve got a wild idea, whether it’s a new planet you homebrewed for Ashen Stars, or a creature of unremitting horror for Fear Itself, or if you’ve written up scenario notes that really terrified your Esoterrorist investigators, consider writing up any of these for the GUMSHOE Community Contest.

How it works

The GUMSHOE Community program is a place where you can upload your homebrew content for various GUMSHOE systems and sell them straight through DriveThruRPG. For this contest, write up any of your wild and/or successful ideas for one of the supported GUMSHOE systems (see “What can I submit?” below), submit them through the form at the bottom of this post, and Robin D. Laws will select one winner, whose piece will get a professional cover illustration and be professionally laid out (see “What do I get?” below).

The best part about all this is that, even for those of us who don’t win, at the end we’ll have put in the work and have a finished written product that we can still upload to the GUMSHOE Community. If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at publishing an RPG product, this is a great way to dip your toes.

What can I submit?

Anything that fits with the GUMSHOE rulesets currently supported in the GUMSHOE Community program: that’s Ashen Stars, The Esoterrorists 2nd Edition, Fear Itself 2nd Edition, and TimeWatch.

As to the style of submission, nearly anything goes. Full-fledged scenario? Groovy. Collection of scenario hooks? Rad. A single new monster? Sure, why not? You don’t need to write a 10,000-word manifesto (though you could), and you don’t need a 5,000-word write-up for a new planet. Give us your short, pithy ideas, alongside your longer masterpieces. Give us your best.

Multiple submissions are fine.

We’ll ask that you only submit text files, unless you have illustrative examples you think are completely necessary, and these should be incorporated into a text file. The way that Google Forms works, you’ll need to submit either a Google Doc or a PDF saved to Google Drive.

It doesn’t need to be PG, but nothing rated NC-17, please. See the GUMSHOE Community Content Guidelines for more resources about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

What are the judges looking for?

First of all, we won’t be judging based on things like art or professional layout (though that doesn’t mean your writing shouldn’t be organized).

Here’s what Robin says he’ll be looking for in a winning entry:

  • engaging prose,
  • original and inspiring mysteries (or support material that inspires them),
  • apt use of GUMSHOE mechanics,
  • material presented for use in play,
  • evocation of your chosen game line’s themes and tone.

What do I get?

Anyone who submits will get an 8.5″ x 11″ art print of the cover art for the line they submit to (submitting for Ashen Stars? That’s the cover you’ll receive). Additionally, Robin D. Laws will be judging the entries, and one winner will have their product professionally laid out by Jen McCleary, of The Fall of DELTA GREEN and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, with cover art by Jérôme Huguenin, who’s done the covers for Trail of CthulhuCthulhu Confidential, and more.

The “prize,” in other words, is custom cover art and custom layout for your product before you upload it to the GUMSHOE Community program on DriveThruRPG.

Deadline – Updated

The deadline for your entries will be Monday, September 14th, 2020.

Submit your entries… HERE

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In the latest installment of their play-by-clip game, Gar’s character rescues the Thing in the River and Robin, remembering that Gar considers gambling a useless ability, sends him to a notorious casino.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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In the latest episode of their inescapable podcast, Ken and Robin talk forecasting player behavior, cats, the creative importance of napping, Loie Fuller, and saving Houdini.

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When Ken selects his favorite monster, he goes for creepy crawlies with a viewpoint. Plus special bonus F20 monster!


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 the Pelgrane Shop.

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One of the strange joys of a Yellow King campaign, with its quadripartite structure, is that you can be certain for months in advance what’s going to happen. That’s a rare gamemastering luxury; in other games, you can roughly guess where the campaign is going, but you can’t be sure. Maybe your Night’s Black Agents agents will be in the Carpathian mountains on the trail of Dracula in six month’s time, but knowing player characters, it’s just as likely they’ll be trying to organise a coup in a small South American country or something equally absurd. In The Yellow King, you know that your Parisian artists are going to become soldiers in a surreal European war, then traumatised freedom fighters trying to rebuild the country, then parallel-universe ordinary people about to come in contact with alien forces for the first time.

The bigger the gap between prophecy and payoff, the greater the chance that the chaotic nature of roleplaying games will ruin your planned set-piece. Key player characters might get killed, the campaign might go in another direction entirely, or the mood of the campaign might no longer fit the vision. In most games, the only solutions are to use heavy-handed railroading or make the visions so vague they apply in any situation. The Yellow King makes things much easier; you can tailor the starting situation of a new sequence so it leads naturally into the prophesy. That means you can drop hints – visions, prophecies, flash-forwards – into one sequence that pay off in another, and be sure of executing them successfully.

Visions Of That Rugose Thing Really Tied The Campaign Together, Man

Foreshadowing and prophecy work like call-backs and echoes; just as having a Wars character find a piece of artwork made by a Paris character links the two sequences, a flashforward from The Wars to This Is Normal Now connects those two parts of the campaign. The connections don’t have to be especially significant or meaningful in themselves – the point is to amp up the weirdness and claustrophobia, and make the players feel like the campaign sequences are all part of a single alien experience. Foreshadowing just for the sake of being strange and shadowy is a perfectly acceptable technique in this campaign.

Some Suggestions

  • In Paris, the artists come into possession of a painting called The Ambush that depicts a fantastical future battlefield, where giant walking war machines rain death upon footsoldiers. The painting shows a small squad about to be attacked by an unseen foe; the squad are all distracted by the stalker in front of them, so they don’t notice the foe behind them. When you create characters for The Wars, you specify that the player characters are close to the front lines; it’s easy then to find ways to get them onto the battlefield, in the same situation depicted in the painting.
  • Also in Paris, one of the characters comes into contact with Carcosa and is saved from madness by a mysterious explosion that destroys part of the alien city. Later, in Aftermath, the characters there plant a bomb atop a Carcosan gate; the explosion blasts through the portal to the far side.
  • During The Wars, the player characters run into a traveller who insists the war is over – it ended two years ago, in 1945. Europe’s at peace now, at least until the Soviets and the Americans start fighting. The traveller’s clearly from the timeline of This Is Normal Now. Later, when you move onto that sequence, the slacker player characters find the traveller’s diary, and read of a previous brush with strangeness.
  • Also during The Wars, the characters recover surveillance photographs from an enemy dragonfly. Mixed in with the photos of troop detachments and supply lines are a set of images of a strange futuristic city (the present-day setting of This Is Normal Now). The surveillance flights seem to focus on a coffee shop. Later, when you create characters for This Is Normal Now, you declare that the characters all favour a particular local coffee place,
  • In Aftermath, while going through surveillance reports recovered from the ruins of the Castaigne regime’s secret police, the characters find a bizarre transcript of a telephone call. One of the participants is clearly a Carcosan agent of some sort; the other participant’s speech is transcribed only as [INCOMPREHENSIBLE BUZZING]. Later, during This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters gets a phone call – you use the Carcosan agent transcript as your script, and let the player respond to the Carcosan’s rantings and ravings as they wish.
  • Alternatively, during Aftermath, the characters find a corpse in a disused suicide booth – but the victim wasn’t killed by the booth. During This Is Normal Now, one of the player characters’ friends vanishes, and their body is never found…

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.

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If your Yellow King Roleplaying Game art students make it all the way to October 1895 unscathed, a dramatic news event awaits them. The Granville-Paris Express spectacularly crashes at 4 pm on the 22nd of October. According to history as it comes down to us, the driver enters the Montparnasse station too quickly and is unable to stop the engine. It rams through its buffer, continues on through the station, and plummets to the street below. It strikes and kills one pedestrian, the wife of a newspaper vendor. The wreck results in a famous photograph, here distorted by the cruel filters of Carcosa.

The investigators might be prompted to look into the crash after the fact, perhaps upon hearing rumors of strange masked figures cavorting in one of its six passenger coaches.

Or was a shipment containing multiple copies of a certain banned play concealed among the crates and parcels of its postal service car?

You may already be thinking that this choice squanders a perfectly good action climax. The player characters ought to be on the car, engaged in a desperate struggle against gargoyles, vampires or an ankou, when it blows into the station. Surely the driver and the guard who failed to operate the handbrake were under attack at the time. Perhaps with the diligent intervention of well-heeled young American artistes they might be spared the fines and, in the driver’s case, brief prison sentence, that faced them in non-made-up history. The court system can’t admit to the presence of monsters conjured up by Carcosan emanations, but an Officialdom Push could go a long way to get them off the hook on the quiet.

Another option: player characters are outside the station, down on the street, when the accident happens, and the derailment is an attack on them. In this version, they might pull the lone victim out of the way in time.Then all they have to do is figure out which of their Aldebaran-worshiping enemies would attempt to wipe them out in such an outlandish and theatrical manner.

Or is the supposed news vendor’s wife in fact an incarnation of Cassilda or Camilla? If so, it’s probably the other sister who tried to drop a locomotive on her.

In yet another version of this event, the player characters might be the ones taking over the train and using it to target one of the princesses. When dealing with the royalty of Hali you don’t want to take chances with a vehicle of lesser impact.

Whichever way you choose to go, it certainly would be a waste of a famous incident of 1895 Paris to do nothing at all with it.


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.

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In the latest episode of their ennui-destroying podcast, Ken and Robin talk interesting boredom, Lair of the White Worm, John Carpenter’s Aliens, and the occult battle of Kursk.

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by Ambar Hammond

The time has finally come for the release of the Game Master Tools for The Black Book GUMSHOE Gaming Software! The Beta test for the Game Master tools re-released on July 1, 2020, and the official launch of the new tools will take place on August 1 at 6:00pm. 

Join The Black Book in celebration of the launch of the Game Master’s Tools with a launch party as part of GenCon Online 2020. The launch party will include a special exclusive presentation about H.P. Lovecraft, his works, and especially his connection with Providence Rhode Island and landmarks that feature in his works. The presentation will be put together and presented by a member of the Rhode Island Historical Society who normally runs the H.P. Lovecraft tours in Providence Rhode Island and will be followed by a Q&A with our tour guide. Registration for the event is through Gen Con Online 2020. The registration period has already begun, so visit GenCon Online for registration.

Following the Lovecraft presentation will be the launch of the official Game Master Tools and two prize giveaways! The second prize will be a 10” Ebony Dungeons Box for tabletop gaming sessions, as well as a free 1 year subscription to the Game Master Tools on The Black Book. Hold your dice, a miniature, and prop up your tablet to make running The Black Book even easier! The first prize giveaway is also a 10” Ebony Dungeons Box, a free 1 year subscription, and an 8” Samsung Galaxy Tab A Tablet to play your games on!

The Game Master Tools will be launched along with Version 2 of The Black Book, the long awaited tool that allows Game Masters to better run games, see and make edits to player character sheets, see live character matrixes, and highlight recent spends so you can be sure the spotlight is evenly distributed. Customized ability lists and QuickShock combat will follow soon after launch. Version 2 also comes with some brand new features for free and player subscriptions that have been requested for some time now! Including our most requested feature, integration with other gaming software. Discord Integration will be available with the launch of Version 2 along with persistent settings that will keep all of your selected settings when you refresh or exit your page. A variety of general bug fixes have also been included in the update. 

The Black Book will be giving away several Game Master Tools Subscriptions during the countdown to the release, and a grand prize that will be given out to people that are attending the launch party. Please join us on Facebook, Twitter, Discord, Reddit, and GenCon Online2020 for the countdown, launch party, and giveaways! 

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Discord @TheBlackBook42 for updates and information in the coming weeks!

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In the latest episode of their double-double good podcast, Ken and Robin talk villain plans, Tim Hortons, pod people of the 100 Years War, and Theodore Roosevelt vs the snallygaster.

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By Kevin Kulp

Swords of the Serpentine’s pre-layout PDF is available for everyone who has pre-ordered the game, so we wanted to sketch out an adventure seed to use alongside of (or instead of) A Corpse Astray from the rulebook. This seed is a solid session or two of adventure, easily customized for your own game. Note that due to space limitations you’ll want to fill this adventure in during your own play, adding clues, supporting characters, adversaries, and complexity to an extent that makes you happy.

Please don’t read farther if you’re a player, or you will find yourself spoiled.

Adventure Premise

The ghost of a murdered merchant asks the Heroes to investigate his murder. Doing so lands the Heroes in deep danger from a seemingly innocuous source, and presents them with a difficult decision: what happens when the thing that helps people isn’t the thing that’s both ethically and morally right?

You see, it turns out that Eversink’s Fishing Guild is run by a small sorcerous cabal who sacrifice human life in exchange for a bountiful catch. The ghostly merchant was this month’s sacrifice to the guild’s ancient fish god. Is one life a month a reasonable trade for a hundred thousand people staying well-fed?

Scene 1: The Ghost

In scene 1, a ghost hires the Heroes. The ghost is an Outlander merchant from wherever you choose, here in the city to purchase ceramics to bring home. (Pick whatever you wish, the more boring the better, to steer the Heroes away from his purchases being important.)

If a Hero has at least one rank of Spirit Sight, the ghost can hire them personally. If they don’t, the ghost will find a beggar that can see spirits and harass them until they approach the Heroes. Make the ghost entertaining, likeable, and angry he got killed in a way that left few traces. He’ll ask the Heroes to retrieve his body and avenge him, and offer them the Wealth he brought to the city in exchange (you can decide how much that is; make it 4 Wealth per Hero if you want to give them a taste of prosperity.)

Clues:

  • The ghost can sense where his body is and will guide the Heroes there if they hire a boat. It floated out of the harbor on the turn of the tide, and has floated into a swampy inlet some miles north of the city. (Optional clue; go to Scene 2)
  • The ghost remembers getting accosted by two smelly people at night while drunk in Harbor Approach, but didn’t see their faces. He knows where he was – on the docks near where The Scarlet Ruse was docked – and remembers that there was a toothless old beggar nearby who he’d just given coin to in a traditional exchange. Perhaps she saw who attacked him. (Core clue; go to Scene 3)

Scene 2: The Cove

In scene 2 (which is optional), the Heroes learn that ‘Sinkish citizens have been murdered monthly for about three generations, and their corpses have somehow ended up in one particular spot. Something supernatural is involved.

Ask the players to narrate a travel montage (p. 260 of the Adventurer’s edition) during their trip away from the city.

The ghost will lead them to an isolated marsh inlet north of the city, in an area of the swampy shoreline with a slightly treacherous tidal pattern. Follow the twisting tidal channel into the high marsh grass and you’ll find yourself in a large pond that’s full of fish, birds, and other small scavengers. Drifting lazily in the middle of the pond is the ghost’s corpse, mostly eaten by fish.

Clues:

  • The victim was hit on the head, then while he was alive his chest was cut open and his heart and intestines removed in a way that reminds you of gutting a large fish. Then the corpse was thrown into the outgoing tide. (Leechcraft)
  • The corpse shouldn’t have drifted to this spot on its own, based on tidal patterns. (Wilderness Mastery)
  • This pond is full of bones. FULL. Perhaps 800 corpses and skeletons lie under the water if anyone chooses to check. They vary tremendously by age, the oldest being perhaps 80 years dead, and a series that are clearly from the last year. Based on the progression, it reasonable to assume that one drifts in every month before being eaten by fish and sinking. (Core clue: Vigilance)

The Heroes will be attacked by hostile fish on their way back, two waves of a dog-sized leaping and biting fish named boneteeth that will leap into the boat to devour the Heroes. Think large, angry salt-water barracuda. There are two waves of coordinated attacks, with two boneteeth per Hero per wave; split these up into two or three Mook groups in the Initiative so that not all the fish attack at once. (So if there are 4 Heroes, the group is attacked by 8 boneteeth per wave, for two waves.) Use the advice on p. 198 to create a final larger, more dangerous fishy foe at the end of the fight if that would be fun for the group.

Boneteeth

Unnaturally hungry

Defense – Health: Health Threshold 3, Health 1

Defense – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Morale 1 (see below)

Offense – Warfare: +0; Fixed Damage 3

Special Abilities: Anyone swimming in a boneteeth swarm automatically takes 3 Morale damage per round from fear

Misc: Boneteeth don’t understand speech and thus are immune to language-based Morale attacks, but scare them with Sway and they’ll retreat

Refresh Tokens: 1

 

Scene 3: The Witness

In scene 3, the Heroes use the ghost’s descriptions to find a witness to his murder, and then one of the murderers himself.

The ghost was knocked unconscious on the docks after midnight on the night of a new moon. He remembers where he was killed, even if he didn’t see who attacked him. Living near that spot is an elderly toothless beggar named Crow. She’ll refuse to talk unless befriended with money, food, or kindness by someone with ranks of Trustworthy; a Hero with ranks in Servility or Ally: Commoners can also get her to talk if no one with ranks in Nobility is nearby.

Crow saw the murder, although she doesn’t think the murderers saw her. She describes one of the murderers as a fisherman she only knows as Eel. After he and his partner knocked out the stranger, they put his unconscious body in a boat and rowed into the darkness towards Sag Harbor.

Clues

  • Eel is a professional fisherman, out fishing every day from before dawn to sunset, but he drinks in the fisherfolk’s bar attached to Fish Hall in Sag Harbor. He rents a room there in the Guild Hall as well. Eel is a big, powerful, burly man with fish tattoos on his hands and arms. He’s not educated, but he’s considered solid, dependable, and deliberate. (Core clue: Scurrilous Rumors or Ally: Commoners)
  • Eel is a long-time trusted member of the Glorious Assemblage of Attentive Fisherfolk, the formal name of Eversink’s fishing guild. Their guild house, known as Fish Hall, is at the western end of Sag Harbor near the docks. The building stinks of fish and always looks like it’s about to sink underwater, but it’s been there in one form or another for centuries. (City Secrets or Ally: Mercanti)

You can decide for yourself who Eel’s partner was, and build the adversary using the rules in Chapter 7 (likely reworking an existing Adversary). For the most fun, make them quite different than Eel, but also a ranking and trusted member of Fish Hall.

At the end of this scene, Eel’s partner realizes that they never created a funerary statue for their victim to put his soul to rest. They do, and the ghost will disappear suddenly, shouting to the Heroes as he does that he is being drawn into Denari’s heaven. Remind the players how funerary statues work in Eversink (p. 274), and what must have just happened.

Scene 4: The Accusation

The Heroes can observe or approach Eel however they wish. Eel’s daily pattern is to leave Fish Hall before dawn, fish all day with a 5-person crew, return back with his catch before dusk, then eat and drink in Fish Hall until he falls into bed. The one exception is when the Fishing Guild has formal meetings; he never misses these. Eel doesn’t attend Denari’s services weekly, something that is slightly odd.

Confronting Eel about the murder will almost always result in violence unless he’s tricked. He knows the Guild will support him, and so he’d rather capture any accusers while rumors of what he does can still be contained. Eel will Summon friends (use Drunken Sailor stats on p. 221) and call on his Allies (use Brute stats on p. 225) to support him in a fight. Of course, his partner that you’ve created will try to protect him as well, but may cut and run if things look poorly.

If Eel or his partner die (as opposed to being defeated and left alive), and word reaches Fish Hall, they  will put out the word for the Heroes to be killed: Heroes receive the penalty of Enemies: Commoners 1. If Eel or his partner are just defeated, the Heroes receive Grudge: Commoners 1.

Ideally, have this fight somewhere interesting and use the environment in interesting ways. Swinging ropes, thrown anchors, swaying footbridges, unsteady ship decks, live fish, and slippery wood all help contribute to an interesting fight.

Eel, a fisherman

Loyal, pious, dependable, murderous

Defense — Health: Health Threshold 4, Health 10 per Hero

Defense — Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Morale 5 per Hero

Offense — Warfare: +1 (surprising strength); Damage Modifier +3 (fish-gutting knife)

Offense — Sway: +0; Damage Modifier +1 (threats)

Abilities: Malus 15

Special Abilities: Allies (cost 3 – Fish Hall), Strength, Summoning (cost 3 – Fisherfolk)

Misc: Stealth Modifier +1

Refresh Tokens: 5

Description: Eel is a huge broad-shouldered fisherman. He has been methodically gathering victims for the monthly sacrifice for over ten years, since he took over from the previous fisherman. He agonizes over every single one but knows in his heart that he’s helping the city he loves, even if it means a stranger had to die.

Amongst his possessions is a ring of keys that will open most locked doors in Fish Hall.

Clues

If no one is left alive to question:

  • The ring of keys Eel possesses will unlock many of the doors in Fish Hall. The fish image stamped into the metalwork is unmistakable, as it matches the guild’s symbol. (Core clue: Skullduggery)
  • Eel’s spirit (and the spirit of Eel’s partner) are stamped with the spiritual stink of rotting fish. There’s little or no room left for the goddess Denari in that spiritual space (Spirit Sight)
  • Eel’s back is covered with a homemade tattoo. It’s labeled “heroes of Eversink” and has 123 hashmarks on it. The last one is brand new, the next-to-last one looks about a month old, and so on. There is an old tradition that this is done when an executioner or a priest wishes to honor the memory of their sacrifices. (Laws & Traditions)

If Eel or his partner are left alive to question, Intimidation or another appropriate Social ability will reveal the following:

  • The Fishing Guild is also a church, but not to Denari. There is an ancient and primal small god who guarantees the guild a bountiful catch in exchange for a single sacrifice each month. Eel believes that a single death each month is worth guaranteeing food for a hundred thousand citizens. It’s regrettable, but he considers himself a hero. (Core clue)
  • Eel and his partner are loyal and willing servants. The high priestess of the small sorcerous cabal is Julliana Fishhall, the Guildmistress for over 40 years. She will do anything to keep or cover up this secret, because she thinks the city will starve if word gets out.
  • Eel doesn’t know for sure but assumes that the Triskadane knows about what happens in Fish Hall, and deliberately turns away their gaze. (Whether this is true is up to you, the GM)
  • Deep in the basements in Fish Hall is a throne that weeps seawater. The seat of the throne is made from the cornerstone of Eversink’s first bridge a thousand years ago. Victims’ viscera are placed on the throne during the new moon to be presented to the god. Doing so will guarantee that the corpse will drift away on the outgoing tide to be eaten by fish.

If Eel or his partner aren’t left alive, the Heroes can learn this information in Scene 5 from the guildmistress or one of her trusted confederates.

Scene 5: Resolution

It’s up to the Heroes how to handle this, and you’ll need to follow their lead. They could destroy the cabal and suffer consequences, join the conspiracy, or find some middle ground.

The following are likely possibilities:

  • They reach a point where they decide that Fish Hall is doing something good, and allow them to continue. If they do this, the guild will refrain from trying to have them killed and will reward them monetarily for their forbearance and silence.
  • They decide to expose the truth about Fish Hall without putting themselves in danger doing so. Church inquisitors, bolstered by the church militant and mercenaries, raid the guildhall several days later. The resulting scandal is quickly covered up, if possible. It’s up to you whether Julliana Fishhall and the Dripping Throne escape to continue their sacrifices. If they don’t, it’s up to you whether the rich fishing turns bad, or whether that was a lie all along and the sacrifices only fed a lying god.
  • They raid Fish Hall themselves, possibly calling for aid from their Allies when they do. Have fun with this! The fisherfolk in the building (use the Drunken Sailor and Obsessed Cultist adversaries) won’t be plentiful if the raid is done during the daytime when everyone is out fishing, but they’ll mount an impassioned but unprofessional defense. The Heroes will pass through a room of small clay funerary statues from almost every sacrificial victim over 70 years, and will encounter elderly Guildmistress Julliana Fishhall (use the Cruel Sorcerer stats and ocean/fish spheres), her entourage (use Sorcerous Apprentice stats), and the Dripping Throne deep in the sunken and flooded basements. Their god may have a fish-monstrosity there as a representative and guardian as well (re-skin the Chuggut swamp shaman as a hideous fish-thing). Follow advice in Chapter 8 on pacing and structure as you create encounters in Fish Hall, and throw in a water- or fishing-themed trap from Chapter 3 for extra fun. Just remember that you don’t need to map the building; instead, think through the three or four areas where the Heroes are likely to face opposition, and ask your players to help you describe only those spaces.

Conclusion

Heroic actions creating lasting change is what this game is about. What happens to Eversink’s fishing fleet and their previously remarkable success? Are the Heroes considered pariahs or saviours, especially in the eyes of the Church of Denari? The difficult decisions the players make in this adventure will affect their Heroes going forward; supporting characters met in this adventure can reappear in future adventures as well.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

 

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In the new Community Content Spotlight, each month I’ll be writing up a short review of a community content title, all of which are available on DriveThruRPG. See this page if you’re interested in creating something for our Community Program!
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Rogues' Galaxy Cover
With Rogues’ Galaxy, Chris Sellers turns the standard Ashen Stars setup on its head. Rather than playing official Lasers in the mode of Star Trek or Babylon 5, Rogues’ Galaxy gives you all the rules modifications and additions you need to play the lovable (or despicable) crooks the Lasers normally hunt.

In Rogues’ Galaxy you’re playing Firefly or Cowboy Bebop, and you’re striking a tone that, depending on what appeals to you and the other players, might fall anywhere along the spectrum from gritty noir to goofy heist flick. Sellers has put a unique spin on the Ashen Stars setting that tonally complements the shift from law officer to rascal, and I found myself imagining campaigns based around his new Class-K entities, the hierophants (which cause “irreversible psychosis in intelligent creatures” and reminded me of something out of the novel Blindsight) and the shroud (which have an ability to blink into star systems without warning, and thence onto non-shroud starships: “the ensuing mortality rate on those ships is total”).

This supplement includes new Groundside roles, variations on the original Warpside roles, and a list of all-new drives for your criminal player characters. There are new or modified Investigative and General abilities (while some remain the same as those in Ashen Stars), and write-ups of 13 icons (inspired by the 13th Age system) for your criminal Ashen Stars campaign.

Sellers’ text is canny about its audience: “If you’re reading this, you’re already hacking Ashen Stars, so you may want to customize your setting further,” and Rogues’ Galaxy provides folks with short sections providing guidance on customizing faster-than-light travel, rival gangs, and your own galaxy, before introducing Sellers’ own setting information.Rogues Planning

Sellers has tied each new aspect of this new (totally optional) setting material “into the inequitable power structures of the galaxy.” For instance, in the Rogues’ Galaxy version of hyperspace, the “augur drives” used for FTL travel only function at particular sites of spatial instability called “boreholes,” and because the mathematics of FTL travel are so complex, every augur drive comes equipped with its own computational artificial intelligence. But, because you’re in the Bleed, your AI has its own neuroses and psychopathologies (think HAL 9000). The AI becomes an in-built NPC the GM can immediately make use of, whether to help the PCs out or as a wrench to gracefully lob into their well-considered plans.

Sellers has expanded on ideas we’ve seen in See Page XX articles and in Accretion Disk (for instance, the porting of 13th Age’s icons into Ashen Stars was originally proposed by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan), making Rogues’ Galaxy an excellent addition to your collection of Ashen Stars options.

***

The introduction of Rogues’ Galaxy lets us know right away the kind of universe we’re playing in:

Let’s assume that in real life, you and your friends are law-abiding citizens of a just, equitable government. But what if we imagine the government is not just? Or the economic playing field not level? “Revolution”? That’s easy to say but hard to do. So what then?

A crime is just a revolution on a personal scale.

The tone of the book is something I can absolutely get behind, with the art (all by Sellers) vacillating between comedic, serious, and shameless callouts to Star Wars. The supplement also comes with a new character sheet for your roguish characters, a new galaxy map (including territory owned by those Class-K baddies), and a thirteen-page adventure to cap things off.

Perhaps the best praise I can give Chris Sellers’ Rogues’ Galaxy is that, reading it, I wanted to play. I just wanted to build a character and get going (former Laser who’d been ousted after refusing to keep cover for another officer in a scandal… who now works as consigliere for a thief ring à la Ocean’s Eleven… only survivor from a shroud encounter who’s emotionally scarred…?). I think that you’ll find lots of inspiration for your own Ashen Stars games here, even if you don’t decide to go the full criminal direction.

Title: Rogues’ Galaxy
Author: Chris Sellers
Price: $8.95 PDF, also available as a softcover color book for $11.95

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The Pelgrane Press Community Program brings you into the fold with other GUMSHOE game designers, affording creators (whatever that means to you!) the opportunity to post and sell their own products on DriveThruRPG. Currently Ashen Stars, Esoterrorists, Fear Itself, and TimeWatch are the only game systems we’re accepting material for, but keep an eye out for expansions into others! Have a kooky idea you’d like to write up and get out there? A flushed out scenario you think others would enjoy? The Community Program is the place to showcase these ideas. If you’re interested in creating something for the Community Program, read more about it here.

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Statting GMCs in GUMSHOE

A question from the mailbag – how do you assign values to the general ability scores of Gamesmaster Characters in GUMSHOE games? How much Scuffling should a cultist have? How do you rate a gorilla’s Health?

GUMSHOE’s area of focus isn’t finely balanced tactical combat (F20’s just down the hall, guys), so the honest answer is “eh… just eyeball it”. In play, I’ll usually make up the stats of most minor GMCs on the spot, or rely on generic templates. There are some factors to be taken into account, though.

Simple vs. Thriller

In most GUMSHOE games, the maths are simple. Spending 3 points guarantees success on a Difficulty 4 test. So, very roughly – 3 points = 1 successful test, 6 points = 2 successful tests and so forth. If you want the mobsters to keep up with the investigators in that Driving chase for at least two rounds, give the mobster wheelman a 6 in Driving. Any score over 10 or so is unlikely to be relevant; combat is usually decided in a few rounds, so it doesn’t matter hugely if your big bruiser GMC has a Scuffling of 10 or 18.

The one wrinkle is in games like Night’s Black Agents with thriller combat rules, where there are more uses for points. In games like that, tough bad guys do need extra points. (Fortunately, NBA has a nice roster of sample GMS to guide you, on p. 69-70).

Down vs Hurt

As a rule of thumb – cannon fodder background characters have a Health of 3-4 (2 if they’re really fragile; 5-6 if they’re noticeable tough). Named bad guys get Health scores of 8 or so (6 if they’re really fragile; anything goes for supernaturally tough foes).

In pulpier incarnations of GUMSHOE, minor bad guys are eliminated once they hit 0 Health, whereas player characters and other important individuals become Hurt, then Seriously Wounded before being Killed at -12 Health.

Common vs. Rare Abilities

Players usually invest the bulk of their points into the abilities that get used a lot (Athletics, Health, Stealth, some sort of combat skill), and might also invest in one or two abilities that match their character concept (lots of First Aid for a nurse, lots of Piloting and Mechanical Repair for a pilot). Other abilities might be neglected, or have just enough points for one good try. Two points in, say, Driving is enough to have a good chance of passing one Driving test – and most scenarios won’t have more Driving than that.

When building GMCs, look at the player characters. If you’re going to include a chase scene, and none of your PCs have invested many points in Driving, then you may not want to drop in an expert cultist wheelman with Driving 15. Tailor the challenges to the players. (At the same time, if a player’s deliberately invested lots of points in an obscure ability, then they want to be tested in that area. Taking, say, Riding 10 means the player really wants a cool horseback chase.)

Other Modifiers

In GUMSHOE, GMCs have Alertness and Stealth modifiers instead of Sense Trouble and Stealth pools (the players are the ones making the tests, so we apply modifiers from the bad guys). These range from +2 to -2 in most cases; average people are +0, training gives +1, and extremely specialised skills give a +2. Reserve modifiers of +3 or more to supernatural threats.

Stats like Hit Threshold, Armour and Weapons use the same rules as for player characters.

Spending Patterns

A related question to GMC design is “how many points should the bad guys spend on each roll?” Do you go for efficiency (“spend enough to guarantee a hit”), verisimilitude (“the alarm hasn’t been raised yet, so the guards probably think they’re taking pot-shots at squirrels, not shooting investigators – I’ll spend one point”) or other concerns (“Bob’s PC is at low Health already – I won’t spend to give him a chance of making it out alive”).

Some games (like Ashen Stars) suggest spending patterns, so a lumbering alien beast might spend points slowly at first, then build up (0/1/2/4), whereas an ambush predator front-loads its attacks (4/3/0/0). Personally, I tend to have cannon fodder spend 2 points per attack, and play the named bad guys according to their personality.

Numbers (Generally) Don’t Matter Much

GUMSHOE’s primarily a player-facing game. Some variants, like QuickShock or One2One, don’t even use pools of points for bad guys, just flat modifiers. The important question is always “what’s the Difficulty for the player characters?”, not realism or careful game balance. Human and human-adjacent characters operate in a relatively narrow range, so you can’t go far wrong by sticking to 3-6 points in an ability for minor foes, 6-12 for major threats. (Monsters are a different matter – and beyond the scope of this article!)

Quick Templates

(For Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, or Trail of Cthulhu)

Mook

General Abilities: Athletics 2, Fighting 3, Health 2

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +0

Weapon: Knife (-1)

Armour: None

Sentry or Criminal

General Abilities: Athletics 4, Fighting 4, Driving 4, Shooting 4, Health 4

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: -1

Weapon: Knife (-1) or Pistol (+0)

Armour: None

Big Bruiser

General Abilities: Athletics 6, Fighting 8, Health 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: -1

Weapon: Big Club (+0)

Armour: None

Cult Assassin

General Abilities: Athletics 8, Fighting 10, Shooting 6,

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Weapon: Sacrificial Knife (-1) or Big Handgun (+1)

Armour: Cult Robes (2 points)

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In the latest episode of their Number One podcast, Ken and Robin talk organic versus mechanical game design, mashing up The Prisoner with Night’s Black Agents, Beaupré the Giant, and the Tomb of Maeshowe.

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“Monk was asking Vida Carlaw, ‘Do you believe a mysterious jellylike creature did any killing?’ The girl hesitated, nipping at her lips. ‘You probably think I’m foolish, but, after all, no one really knows what is in the depths of the earth. Of course, scientists have a general idea, but there may be—things—down there that they don’t know anything about.'”

— Lester Dent, The Derrick Devil (Doc Savage Magazine, Feb 1937)

Cthulhu and his mythos emerged from the same news stands that produced the Shadow, Doc Savage, and lots of other larger-than-life characters who vastly outsold Cthulhu. Trail of Cthulhu honors that heroic origin by presenting rules and even gods in both Pulp and Purist categories, and Robin Laws especially honored it by presenting four straight-up pulp tribute adventures in Stunning Eldritch Tales. In the third adventure, “Death Laughs Last,” your heroes solved the mysterious death of milllionaire philanthropist Addison Bright, who fought crime in secret as … the Penitent!

Some detectives are stranger than others.

But what kind of pulp hero has only one adventure? (Most of them, sadly. Heroism was an unrewarding business, then as now.) The Penitent may be dead (for now) but if your Investigators acquired a taste for the lurid life, there’s more where he came from in the yellowed pages around them. Robert E. Howard alone provides plenty of inciting GMCs in need of two-fisted backup: River Street police detective Steve Harrison, boxer Kid Allison, sailor and boxer Steve Costigan, and that’s before you even get to Irish occultist John Kirowan or aging mercenary Kirby O’Donnell. Your heroes might cross cerebral swords with super detective Nick Carter, the young (ish) and (always) hungry Nero Wolfe, or any one of a hundred figures right out of Jess Nevins’ encyclopedias.

Compared to their descendants in the superhero comics, few actual pulp super villains survived more than one adventure. (Plenty of pre-pulp anti-heroes, such as Dr. Nikola, Dr. Quartz, Zenith the Albino, and Fu Manchu seemingly carried whole series by themselves, of course; classic pulps that attempted to recapture that spirit usually failed after a few numbers.) All their creators needed was a name and a gimmick — which is all a Keeper needs in a pinch, to be fair. So heroes are plentiful, and villains die fast — but which is which? Here’s a spinner rack full of pulp GMCs, packed like pulp-revival Ace Doubles, with both a hero side and a villain side. But even the heroes here have just a shmear of Purist flavor, meaning your Investigators might find themselves cast as the villains of this month’s exciting issue.

A-10

Decorated Great War ace turned barnstormer turned adventurer, “A-10” uses that code name when carrying out jobs for the FBI or the State Department with one of many state-of-the-art airplanes. Surveillance autogiros, speed-record interceptors, flying boats, even drone craft: A-10 can fly any of them better than any man alive.

Hero: Letitia Coolidge, self-taught electrical engineer, pulled an avionics control box out of a crashed disc-shaped craft in Vermont, put it in her second-hand Curtiss “Jenny,” and took off. She never gets used to having to plug wires from the stick into her brain, but the results are worth it … so far. Some of her “government orders” just come in on her airplane radio, a buzzing voice on a box …

Villain: Morland Harding flew too high over Brazil during an air show altitude contest, and made a deal with a Gaseous Wraith (Hideous Creatures, p. 108). All it wants is human sacrifices, and as long as he keeps killing people above 30,000 feet its vapors keep Harding literally at the top of his profession.

Fu Mien-chü

His name translates as “man who is a mask,” and his role in New York’s Chinatown is appropriately opaque. He has agents in every obscure temple, criminal gang, and house of ill fame in the district — and in every hospital, political campaign, and scientific laboratory. He holds at least two doctorates, in endocrinology and entomology, and speaks perfect un-accented baritone English.

Hero: This is the alias of the brilliant psychologist Dr. Fo-Lan, kidnapped by the Tcho-Tcho in 1902, who escaped them in 1906 by summoning the Elder Gods from Orion to destroy their city. Now, he investigates New York’s cult underground, warring against inhuman infiltrators and determining whether he needs to destroy yet another city to save the world …

Villain: “Fu” is either the Scorpion himself, Hsieh-Tzu (which is to say, L’mur-Kathulos of Atlantis), or one of his most trusted body doubles running the American branch of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan (Bookhounds of London, p. 63).

Jenna of the Jungle

Normally Jenna stays in her forest home in the Congo, but sometimes she visits New York in the company of her latest good-looking conquest. Both a wealthy English aristocrat and a jungle queen, she keeps a penthouse on Central Park West where she grows wild tropical plants and flowers, and where her pet panther Menes can sleep in the sun. Her prodigious strength keeps the mashers at bay when Menes isn’t around.

Hero: Born Geneva Jermyn, of the aristocratic Huntingdonshire Jermyns, she escaped the “Jermyn curse” of simian looks; although her arms and legs aren’t quite normally proportioned, and her nose is a little upturned, on her it looks amazing. When her cousin Arthur committed suicide and burned down the family mansion in 1920, she went to Africa to find out why. She came out a decade later, looking not a day older.

Villain: Did she visit the Anzique country on the way? Her boyfriends don’t last long, after all … Alternatively, perhaps she embraced the “White God” of Dzéwa, gaining her powers over plants and animals from its Xiclotli servitors (Shadows Over Filmland, p. 103).

Hugo “Doc” Woesten

There’s nothing he can’t do: scientist, surgeon, explorer, Doc Woesten embodies the perfect physical and mental development of the species. Using his “mental radio” at the top of the Empire State Building to receive uncanny distress signals from all over the world, Doc and his five assistants are always there when something weird and menacing threatens an heiress or endangers an archaeological dig. Only Doc’s assistants know what goes on in his secret psychic college beneath the New York State Psychopathic Institute in the Catskills.

Hero: Doc owes his abilities to alien possession: while experimenting with his mental radio during the 1927 nova XX Tauri, a “brother of light” incarnated into him. His operations on criminal brains further the “brother’s” search for minds possessed by Algol, Alphecca, or other “demon stars.”

Villain: Doc is a van Kauran on his mother’s side, from a long line of Mythos magicians in upstate New York. Henrietta raised him using twenty-one years of rituals and following every stricture in the Book of Eibon to create a “star child.” Doc travels the world “rescuing” artifacts (and eliminating rivals) to eventually bring about a new Hyperborean Age and make his mother proud of him.


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.

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In the latest episode of their not-distracted-by-the-woman-in-red podcast, Ken and Robin talk meme-filled meta-kibitzing, Montreal Open City, present tense in fantasy fiction, and the RFK-Scooby Doo time ripple.

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When asked to name his favorite monster, Noah selects a deep cut that cuts deep.


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.

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When Ruth Tillman picked ghouls, she scooped Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan for his choice of Favorite Monster. Surely that won’t happen a second time.


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 the Pelgrane Shop.

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Big Bloody Spoilers for both The Zalozhniy Quartet and The Persephone Extraction in this article. Don’t read if you’re a Night’s Black Agents player. Here, have some deliberate disinformation so you don’t accidentally read anything important.

 

  • DRACULA’S BEHIND EVERYTHING

 

  • EDOM STANDS FOR ENGLISH DEFENDERS OF MAGIC

 

  • YOU ARE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF THE VAMPIRES

 

  • IT’S ALL THE OCEAN GAME.

 

  • STAY ALERT TRUST NO-ONE KEEP YOUR LASER SIGHT HANDY

 

  • PELGRANE’S GOING TO LICENSE COUNT DUCKULA FOR A GUMSHOE KIDS/NBA CROSSOVER ANY DAY NOW

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Thanks to their beloved Patreon backers, Ken and Robin have made it to Episode 400. And you know what that means—LIGHTNING ROUND!!!

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As previously mentioned, I’ve been running Canadian Shield, my lighthearted Fall of DELTA GREEN riff, with QuickShock rules. This lets me find gaps in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game card set to rectify here on the Pelgrane blog.

Recently, an investigator’s careless words to a vengeful ghost resulted in an attack on an innocent person, who lost decades from his life to its premature aging power.

Paging through my folder of Shocks, I saw that the cards relating to shame and guilt in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game are all highly tuned to their circumstances. The most obvious candidates refer to the Morale ability, which appears only in The Wars and Aftermath.

Specificity of effect is a good thing, but it does leave room for more generic cards around this theme. After all, what typical group of player characters isn’t constantly pulling skeevy stuff that their fictional counterparts in other media would probably have to confront and possibly be altered by?

This card pair should cover most of the moral corners player characters tend to cut. As usual, the Minor card appears first and the Minor second.

RATHER THOUGHTLESS

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

Discard with a gesture of amends to the person you harmed.

CAN’T LOOK AT YOURSELF

Shock

-1 to Presence tests.

If in hand at end of scenario, roll a die. Odd: becomes a Continuity card.

Discard with an act of self-sacrifice commensurate with your offense.


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.

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When other members of the team thought of their favorite monsters, they picked the ones they wanted their characters to battle, or to unleash on their players. Head Pelgrane Cat Tobin picked the one she wanted to be.


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 the Pelgrane Shop.

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You may be wondering, either as a thought experiment or something to actually put in place, how to combine Injury and Shock cards from QuickShock, as seen in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, with the more traditional combat system found in other GUMSHOE games.

Reasons to do this: It shortens the learning curve for players who already know the other version. It extends fights longer, allowing excitement to build. It provides more details of the blow-by-blow, requiring less abstract thinking to narrate.

Reasons not to do this: It takes the most complicated element from one version of the game and bolts it to the most complicated element from another. It extends fights longer, devoting an increased chunk of time to bashing and getting shot that could be used interacting with GMCs and solving mysteries.

For those who feel the pros outweigh the cons and are ready to tackle a surprise wrinkle or three, these unplaytested initial notes might point the way

Final Card

As in QuickShock, decide how many cards of one type, Shocks or Injuries, a character can take before leaving play: a harsh 3 or a forgiving 4.

Shocks

Entirely replace the Stability point loss system with the QuickShock approach. Players test Stability or Composure to avoid lingering emotional consequences, usually with a Difficulty of 4, taking a Shock card in the case of failure. The character receives a minor Shock with a margin of 1 or a major Shock with a margin of 2 or more.

Reach your Final Card threshold, either 3 or 4 Shocks, and your character leaves play.

Hazards

Physical dangers outside of combat work the same way, except that you’re testing Athletics, Health or Sense Trouble to avoid Injury cards, taking the minor on a margin or 1 or the minor on a result higher than that.

Fighting

Combat proceeds as it does in standard GUMSHOE, up until the point where a player character drops to or below one of the Health pool thresholds: 0 points, -6 points, and -12 points.

At the 0 threshold, the character takes the minor Injury card dished out by the opponent who landed the blow. If that takes you to your Final Card threshold, you die, narrating appropriate details for your demise. Depending on the situation, your G may let you expire with a touching dying speech, surrounded by your grieving colleagues, after the fight has wrapped up.

At the -6 threshold, the character takes the major Injury card dished out by the opponent who landed the blow. If that takes you to our Final Card, you die, as above. Otherwise, you continue. Your character will also almost certainly have the minor card still in hand. Effects of the two cards stack. Where the two cards present effects that are incompatible or make no sense when combined, the character keeps the major card and swaps the minor one for “Reeling” below.

At the -12 threshold, the character takes the Shock card “Down for the Count,” below. Once more, if that’s a Final Card, the character dies immediately or by the end of the scene.

An attack that blows through two thresholds gives you two cards. Three thresholds, three cards.

REELING

Injury

-1 to all tests.

Discard when you discard another Injury card, or after an hour (table time.)

DOWN FOR THE COUNT

Injury

You collapse to a prone position. You can’t make tests or stand unaided. Your Hit Threshold drops to 2.

Trade for “On the Mend” after a day in intensive care (world time.)

The GM may design certain foes so that they dish out custom equivalents of these two cards.

Further Adjustments

Reskin and adjust cards for the game and genre you’re playing.

Divide general abilities into the three sub-categories (Physical, Presence and Focus) if your version of GUMSHOE doesn’t do that already. Use YKRPG as your model for that.

Make sure cards refer only to abilities that appear in your game. Revise references to Pushes if your GUMSHOE uses investigative spends instead. Rename cards to reflect your world: you’ll need laser blasts for Ashen Stars and damage for obscure super powers in Mutant City Blues.

Ignore Shocks from games that don’t take characters out of play for mental strain, such as Ashen Stars.

For Trail of Cthulhu, drop Sanity as a separate game statistic. Achieve its effect by making Shocks arising from Mythos contact Continuity cards with punishing or nonexistent discard conditions.

Create cards whose effects leverage statistics that appear only in standard GUMSHOE, from Hit Thresholds to Armor to weapon damage.

Conversely, don’t use “Don’t For the Count” in actual QuickShock games, where Hit Thresholds are not a thing.

And if you try this, let me know how it goes!


QuickShock GUMSHOE debuts in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game. YKRPG 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.

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By Kevin Kulp

As we enter June 2020 and Swords of the Serpentine’s pre-layout PDF reaches everyone who has pre-ordered the game, we want to make sure you have examples of what’s possible with hero creation. With a limited series of blog posts entitled Four Heroes, we’ll feature a sample Hero for each profession (or a mixture of professions) to use as a good example of a pre-generated character, or an example of how to use the rules to create the hero you want. These will often break out from traditional sword & sorcery stereotypes, and will usually be rooted in SotS’s city of Eversink, where the goddess of civilization and commerce holds sway.

Sentinel

Sister Claris, Inquisitor of Denari

Cynical, stubborn, plain, righteous, proud, probably disappointed in you

Drives (what is best in life?): Addressing the wicked and vainglorious; changing the world; exalting your friends

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3 to 6 (shield), Armor 2 (coin armor), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (high standards), Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 10: Damage Modifier +1 (guilt)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 5: Damage Modifier +1 (flail)

Investigative abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1, Taunt 2, Trustworthy 1; Felonious Intent 2, Laws & Traditions 1, Spirit Sight 1, Vigilance 1

Allegiances: Ally: Church of Denari 2; Enemy: Sorcerous Cabals 1

General abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 3, Preparedness 5, Stealth 2, Sway 10 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 5

Gear: Round shield with the heraldry of Denari; collection of astonishingly good tea; badge of authority; official letter from the Lord High Inquisitor assigning you to independent investigation; shining silver armor made partially of coins; your grandmother’s flail (Damage Modifier +1); Holy book of tax laws and prayer; keys to your mostly-empty room in the church dormitories; painting of you with your adventuring friends; a bright and shining holy coin

Design Notes: Don’t call the inquisitor a lonely and sour stick-in-the-mud. She is, mind you, but she’d look at you with disappointment in her eyes. Claris is a sentinel of the church, tasked with seeking out law-breaking sorcerers and their corruption. She’s hard to hit (especially when she hides behind her shield, although this penalizes her other actions), stubborn, and experienced at guilting her quarry into surrendering. Her capabilities as a sentinel are diversified, with a focus on detecting mischief, and she’s superb at social interaction. Just don’t expect her to be charming.

Sorcerer

Exorius of the Inner Eye, sorcerer, master of time and space

Pretentious, amused, spoiled, covetous

Drives (what is best in life?): Revealing your true power; having others indebted to you; being a key part of important events

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 1 (entropy), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (prescience), Morale 10

Offense – Sorcery: Sorcery 10 vs. Health: Damage Modifier +1 (aging)

Offense – Sway: Sway 3: Damage Modifier +1 (bombastic)

Investigative abilities: Command 1, Intimidation 1, Liar’s Tell 1; Corruption 5, Forgotten Lore 1, Prophecy 2 (talking to your future self)

Allegiances: Ally: Sorcerous Cabal 2; Enemy: Church of Denari 1

General abilities: Athletics 5, Bind Wounds 2, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 2, Sorcery 10 (Blast), Sway 3

Sorcerous Spheres: Aging, Art, Decay/Entropy, Mirrors, Transportation

Gear: Shimmering robes that always look new; a pouch that leads to the pocket of a differently-aged version of yourself; dismissible mirrors that circle you and slowly spin, each showing a different time and place; throne that appears whenever you wish to sit; ever-present loneliness; several framed paintings with sorcerously-imprisoned enemies trapped within them; the worry of never being quite relevant enough; a key tucked inside an old, poorly-written letter from your late mother, addressed to your real name of Cosimo

Design Notes: Ever suffered from imposter’s syndrome? Yeah, so does Exorious.

Inspired originally by Ningauble of the Seven Eyes in Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Exorious is a spectacularly powerful sorcerer, and he makes sure people know it. None of this whole “skulking around in the shadows” nonsense; he’s a sorcerer’s sorcerer, and he just makes sure never to let Corruption slip into the world when he is within Eversink’s city limits. Note how many of his signature gear simply explains his abilities; the pouch to a future or past self gives him an excuse for Preparedness, for instance, and the magically rotating mirrors are nothing more than a showy and ostentatious way to use his Prophecy.

Thief

Vincenzo, town crier (and hereditary King of Eversink?)

Friendly, inquisitive, helpful, polite, honest

Drives (what is best in life?): Staying alive; spreading the truth; protecting your friends

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 0 (threadbare clothes), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (incredulous), Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 12: Damage Modifier +1 (convincing)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 1: Damage Modifier +0 (unarmed)

Investigative abilities: Charm 1, Command 2, Liar’s Tell 1, Servility 2, Trustworthy 1; City’s Secrets 1, Scurrilous Rumors 3

Allegiances: Ally: Commoners 2; Enemy: Triskadane 1

General abilities: Athletics 4, Bind Wounds 4, Preparedness 8 (Flashback), Stealth 1, Sway 12 (Play to the Crowd), Warfare 1

Gear: Clean but thread-bare clothing; list of today’s stories to announce; a daily route through The Tangle; a small bag of coins; a group of Royalist nut-jobs who keep claiming your great-great-grandmother was Queen of Eversink; an invitation to “meet your destiny (i.e. “commit treason”) that you’re studiously ignoring; a really annoying birthmark you try not to think about; a warm and much-loved hovel; a true bounty of trusted friends

Design Notes: Vincenzo is an unusual thief. By setting him up as a friendly and mild-mannered town crier (with a large amount of Scurrilous Rumors) we give him an excuse to be unusually convincing. He lacks classic thief skills such as Burglary and Stealth, but Vincenzo knows almost everything that’s happening in the city, and if he doesn’t he knows someone who does. We make sure this doesn’t get boring by establishing that Vincenzo is also technically the heir to the crown, which doesn’t help him at all because Eversink hasn’t had a monarchy in five generations. Vincenzo is a nice and simple hero at the center of people wanting to manipulate him, and that’s bound to make him fun to play.

For anyone who’s a fan of the TV show Galavant, we picture Vincenzo as played by Darren Evans, the same actor who plays Chef.

Warrior

Foyle, Professional Monster Hunter

Pessimist, cheery, planner, thorough, insightful, pious, proud

Drives (what is best in life?): Eradicating the inhuman; a great plan; a narrow escape

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4 to 7 (dented great shield), Armor 2 (heavily scarred chainmail), Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (focus), Morale 8

Offense – Sway: Sway 5: Damage Modifier +1 (prayer)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +1 (Trial, ancient battleaxe)

Investigative abilities: Taunt 1, Trustworthy 1; Know Monstrosities 3, Leechcraft 1, Prophecy 1, Spot Frailty 2, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Allies: Church of Denari 1, Monstrosities 1; Enemy: Monstrosities 1

General abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Bind Wounds 4, Preparedness 4, Sway 6, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: New but heavily scarred chainmail (Armor 2, Swim penalty -4); new but badly dented great shield (+0 to +3 for Hit Threshold); Trial, an ancient battleaxe once belonging to your grandfather (Damage Modifier +1); the resigned annoyance that no one ever wants to believe you; two dozen conspiracy theories about monsters in Eversink, all true; a depressing lack of close friends who are human; a deep and abiding faith

Design Notes: Foyle has a few cross-profession Investigative abilities that give him prophetic hunches and a knowledge of disease and poison. He’s a monster-hunter in a city where the most dangerous predator is usually human, and that means that most people aren’t quite sure what to do with him. Foyle is actually friends with a handful of monstrosities he hasn’t tried to destroy (as per his Allegiances), and he’s one of the few people with access to the inhuman demimonde that exists in Eversink but which no one in authority cares to admit to. One thing is certain: Foyle notices the mental and physical weaknesses in everyone he meets, and he’s happy to exploit that if it gains him an edge in combat.


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, to be published in 2020. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

 

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In the latest installment of their play by clip game, Gar’s character makes a shocking discovery upon making his rendezvous with the Thing in the River, and Robin breaks down the fine art of the auto-success.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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In the latest episode of their heavily footnoted podcast, Ken and Robin talk gamifying Das Boot, RPG prose tips, scientific paper identity theft, and the manifold wonders of Davenport Iowa.

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Beat the scores of our top single or team contestants as our Virtual Pub Quiz unleashes fiendish questions from Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Cat Tobin, and Wade Rockett.

Is that dolphin charismatic or sinister? Grab a glass, virtual or actual, and find out.

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You Sinister Box

A 1933 teletype machineVirtually every group of player characters in The Wars possesses a boîtenoire, a wireless teletype machine that enables swift communication between the unit and headquarters – and, perhaps, other channels.

Even setting aside any supernatural elements, military communications are a rich source of horror. When encountering someone face-to-face – say, a commanding officer ordering you to advance into the teeth of enemy guns – you can quibble, plead, challenge, or otherwise appeal to one fellow human. A typed message offers no such leeway. All the players have is the brute text, unyielding, as cryptic or as unambiguous as the GM desires. Are the commanding officers coldly cruel, clueless, deranged or actively sadistic? Or have they been taken over by Carcosan horrors? The players can’t tell from the text…

The boîtenoire’s a great way to deliver handouts to the player characters; send them briefing documents or orders as boîte-noire messages. You can even do in-character session write-ups in the form of dispatches sent by the squad in the field.

Getting Technical

The operation of the boîtenoire is simple:  type your message, press send, and off it goes. One key question that the Wars is silent on, however, is the question of addressing – how do you tell the box where to send the message? Some options:

  • Closed Channel: Your boîtenoire only communicates with headquarters. There’s no addressing; it’s fixed when the box is constructed. Maybe headquarters has a master box that can communicate with multiple subsidiary units, or perhaps the devices are constructed in pairs, inextricably entangled with one another.
  • Frequency: A boîtenoire has a frequency selector; send a message, and any boxes set to that frequency receive the message. Does each unit have an assigned frequency? Do enemy boxes work on the same frequencies (requiring coded transmissions – which, of course, in the parlance of boîtenoire operators, are referred to as ‘masks’), or does physics now bow to different national flags? Picking up messages meant for another unit lets the GM hint at horrors elsewhere on the battlefield.
  • Code: Each box has a unique identifier; any message tagged with that code gets delivered to that box and that box alone. Messages cannot be intercepted – but anyone with your code can send you messages, and you have no way to reply or verify their identity unless they include their code in the message. What form does this code take – a string of digits? A passphrase? A cryptic sigil?
  • Addressed: For something more overtly weird and surreal, the boîtenoire works like a post office run by unseen angels. You literally address your message like a conventional letter (“Room 239, Hotel Splendide, Rue Jaune, Arles”), and if there’s a boîtenoire there, it gets the message; otherwise, it’s lost in the ether. While in the field, units must find semi-valid postal addresses to receive messages. (“Quick! What’s the address of that bombed-out hovel?”)
  • Desire: The box just… works. Enter a message, and it’ll be delivered to headquarters, or to the squad in the next valley, or to the spotter dragonfly circling overhead.

Getting Scary

For more overt supernatural weirdness:

  • Messages Out Of Time: In my campaign, the first boîte-noire showed up in Paris, as a gift to the characters from their unwanted new patron Cassilda. She communicated with them through the box – but they also got a bunch of meaningless messages about troop movements and artillery bombardments which made no sense to them at the time. Later, in the Wars, I intended to reuse those messages as transmissions to the second set of player characters. Messages from the future can hint at dire fates or give the players a chance to avert some catastrophe. (If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could even take the conceit of the Armitage Files and feed it through a boîtenoire.)
  • Messages From The Dead: From the classic “the guy in the other trench we’ve been talking to all session – he was killed in action a year ago” to using the machine to conduct seances, there’s a lovely creepiness to early telecommunications. Did Thomas Edison invent the boîtenoire through his research? Might the player characters pick up unsent letters from their Paris incarnations?
  • Messages From Beyond: Of course, any Carcosan technology falls under the dread rule of the Yellow King. How can the players trust what they receive from the box? What happens if the boîtenoire clatters, and the message begins: STRANGE IS THE NIGHT WHERE BLACK STARS RISE, AND STRANGE MOONS CIRCLE THROUGH THE SKIES…

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.

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In the latest episode of their awesomely helmeted podcast, Ken and Robin talk automatic successes, imperiled Czech mayors, the secrets of Valhalla Cat, and Nicolas Roerich.

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Response to the murder of George Floyd

In recognition of the need for concrete action in response to the murder of George Floyd, the latest in a long list of Black people unjustly killed by police, Pelgrane Press is donating $1000 and 10% of all our webstore sales in June to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Police impunity remains an ongoing and powerful force, creating selective authoritarianism within systems worldwide. It is just one component of the systemic racism that oppresses Black people every day, disenfranchising them from equal access to basic civil rights such as education, housing, employment, and voting.

The Legal Defense and Educational Fund addresses these global structural issues through litigation, advocacy, and public education programs. In solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, we have chosen to support and spotlight it.

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Our virtual panel series cleans ichor from its blades as very special guest Sandy Petersen joins Swords of the Serpentine designers Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, along with Kenneth Hite, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and moderator Robin D. Laws to provide tips and hooks for mixing swords and eldtrichery.

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“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.

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In the latest episode of their hellhound-haunted podcast, Ken and Robin talk PC endgames, folk horror 101, Symbolist painter Odilon Redon (as seen in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game), and saving Robert Johnson.

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When the Pelgranes started talking about their favorite monsters, @brightneedle jumped in to put dibs on her subterranean, misunderstood besties.


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 the Pelgrane Shop.

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13th Age designer Rob Heinsoo takes you on a tour of the monsters he has known and loved throughout his gaming career, before finally naming on a particularly powerful and clever adversary as his favorite monster.


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. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 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.

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In the latest episode of their intrepid podcast, Ken and Robin talk Sense Trouble, fatbergs, William Stephenson, and doomsday predictor Albert Porta.

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Building on fond memories of other random generators, what might a random Trail of Cthulhu adventure generator look like? The tables below generate a highly random Trail mystery. As with all random generators, the goal is to prompt the Keeper’s creativity in connecting disparate elements – don’t expect coherence from random rolls alone!

Adventure Hook (d12)

Why do the investigators get involved? (You can also use this as a way to determine the theme or atmosphere of the adventure if you’re not using pregenerated characters.)

  1. Adventure
  2. Arrogance
  3. Antiquarianism
  4. Artistic Sensitivity
  5. Bad Luck
  6. Curiosity
  7. Duty
  8. In the Blood
  9. Revenge
  10. Scholarship
  11. Sudden Shock
  12. Thirst For Knowledge

(The drives Ennui and Follower aren’t used in the list above.)

Location (d20)

Where does the adventure take place? The somewhat eclectic list of suggestions below is based on the locations discussed in the Trail of Cthulhu rulebook.)

  1. United States – Rural
  2. United States – Small Town
  3. United States – Urban
  4. United States – Lovecraft Country
  5. Abyssinia/ Belgian Congo
  6. Antarctica
  7. Brazil
  8. Burma
  9. Egypt
  10. Germany
  11. Greenland
  12. Haiti
  13. Mongolia
  14. Peru
  15. Rumania
  16. Saudi Arabia
  17. Soviet Union
  18. Easter Island/South Pacific Mandate
  19. Spain
  20. Thibet

Apparent Situation (roll 1d20)

What are the investigators doing here?

  1. Commercial interest – it’s related to the business of an investigator, like a real estate deal
  2. Investigate disappearance – of a friend, relative or other acquaintance. Or a strange, if the investigator is a police officer, detective or other specialist.
  3. Investigate untimely death – as above.
  4. Investigate cryptic events – lights in the sky, strange footprints, sinister letters.
  5. Investigate criminal activity – bootlegging, extortion, theft
  6. Investigate alleged supernatural event – ghosts, seances, vampire attacks, curses.
  7. Investigate medical mystery – strange disease, sudden madness
  8. Investigate prodigy – fallen meteorite, brilliant scientific discovery
  9. Carry out personal errand – execute a will, return a book borrowed years before
  10. Carry out mundane task – something connected to the investigator’s occupation
  11. Carry out official duties – as above, but a little more formal and significant
  12. Survey site – examine a location in detail, for commercial or archaeological reasons
  13. Report on story of interest – even if the investigator isn’t a reporter, they might be asked to look into a local mystery
  14. Research local history – as a hobby, out of antiquarian interest.
  15. Visit distant cousins or aged relative – haven’t seen them in years, I wonder what they’re up to
  16. Visit old friend or correspondent – as per Henry Akeley in Whisperer in Darkness
  17. Vacation or (recuperation after traumatic experience) – just what you need after that last nightmarish encounter
  18. Vehicle breakdown or travel delay – you’re stuck here for a while
  19. Drawn here by strange dreams – because you’re a Lovecraftian protagonist
  20. Seeking mysterious object or book – that has recently come to light

Horrible Truth (roll 1d12)

What’s really going on?

  1. The Apparent Situation is the true situation
  2. There’s a CULT here, and their activities may be exposed by the Apparent Situation
  3. There once was a CULT here; it’s mostly moribund, but some horror connected to the cult lies buried here and may be exposed by the Apparent Situation
  4. There’s an active and ambitious CULT here; the Apparent Situation is connected to some malign intent of theirs.
  5. There’s a CREATURE here, disinterested in humanity unless provoked.
  6. There’s a CREATURE here, preying on humanity.
  7. There’s a CREATURE here, slumbering – but it may be awoken by the Apparent Situation.
  8. The Apparent Situation was triggered by a TOME OR ARTEFACT
  9. Someone’s using the Mythos for personal gain using a TOME OR ARTEFACT
  10. There’s a GOD OR TITAN slumbering here, and its presence disturbs the world
  11. There’s an ancient ruin or tomb connected to a GOD OR TITAN here, guarded by a (1-3: CULT, 4-6: CREATURE)
  12. There’s a clash between two entities (roll 1d6 for each: 1-3: CULT, 4-5 CREATURE, 6 GOD OR TITAN).

Cult

Roll on the the Cult Size, Cult Status, Cult Intent and Blasphemous Rites tables.

Cult Size (roll d6)

  1. A single sorcerer
  2. A small cabal (a single family, a few locals)
  3. A congregation (two dozen or so)
  4. Endemic in the area (lots of people in the area are involved)
  5. Far-flung (only a small cabal here, but the cult is spread across the world)
  6. Great conspiracy (cult is world-wide and exceedingly well connected)

Cult Status (roll 1d6)

  1. Dead – no cultists left, only their works
  2. In decline – only a few left
  3. Secret – cult is hidden and mostly inactive, only performing rites on rare occasions
  4. Active – cult continues its sinister practices
  5. Recruiting – cult seeks new members
  6. On the verge of triumph! – cult is about to take a major step towards its goal

Cult Intent (roll 1d6)

  1. Worship of CREATURE with offerings, sacrifice
  2. Worship of GOD OR TITAN
  3. Study of TOME OR ARTEFACT
  4. Acquisition of power
  5. Keepers of CREATURE
  6. Summon GOD OR TITAN, end reign of humanity.

 Blasphemous Rites Include (roll 1d10)

  1. Worship outdoors at ritual site
  2. Worship at hidden temple, cave or ruin
  3. Bizarre surgical experiments
  4. Congress with CREATURE
  5. Use of drugs or extracts
  6. Ritual initiation
  7. Travel through dreams or magical gateways
  8. Use of ritual magic
  9. Ritual sacrifice
  10. Transformation

Creature (roll 1d100)

1-2 Bat-Thing
3-4 Bhole
5-6 Black Winged Ones
7-8 Byakhee
9-10 Colour Out of Space
11-15 Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath
16-20 Deep One
21-22 Dimensional Shambler
23-24 Elder Thing
25-26 Flying Polyp
27-28 Elder Thing
29-30 Formless Spawn
31-32 Gaseous Wraiths
33-38 Ghoul
39-40 Gnoph-Keh
41-42 Great Race of Yith
43-44 Hound of Tindalos
45-46 Hunting Horror
47-48 K’n-Yani
49-50 Lemurian
51-52 Lloigor
53-54 Masqut
55-56 Medusa
57-60 Mi-go
61-62 Moon-beast
63-64 Nightgaunt
64-66 Raktajihva
67-68 Rat-Thing
69-70 Sand-Dweller
71-72 Serpent Folk
73-74 Servitor of the Outer Gods
75-76 Shan
77-78 Shantak
79-80 Shoggoth
81-82 Son of Yog-Sothoth
83-84 Space-Eater
85-86 Star Vampire
87-88 Ultraviolet Devourer
89-90 Tcho-Tcho
91-92 Vampirish Vapour
93-94 Wendigo
95-96 Worm-Cultist
97-98 Xothian
99-100 Y’m-bhi

Gods & Titans (roll 1d20)

  1. Azathoth
  2. Chaugnar Faugn
  3. Cthugha
  4. Cthulhu
  5. Dagon
  6. Daoloth
  7. Ghatanothoa
  8. Gol-Goroth
  9. Hastur
  10. Ithaqua
  11. Mordiggan
  12. Mormo
  13. Nodens
  14. Nyarlathotep
  15. Quachil Uttaus
  16. Shub-Niggurath
  17. Tsathoggua
  18. Y’golonac
  19. Yig
  20. Yog-Sothoth

Tomes & Artefacts (roll 1d20)

1. Necronomicon, original
2. Necronomicon, modern
3. Cultes des Goules
4. De Vermis Mysteriis
5. King in Yellow
6. Book of Eibon
7. Pnakotic Manuscripts
8-9 Idol of GOD or TITAN
10-11 Idol of CREATURE
12-13 Relic or Mummy of CREATURE
14. Remains of ancient sorcerer or priest
15. Ancient Stone
16. Dust or Elixir
17. Cryptic Machine
18. Weapon or Tool
19. Enchanted Place
20. Gateway or portal

Structuring the Adventure

As a starting point, assume 3-5 core clues must be discovered and 1-3 hazards must be overcome to complete the investigation.

Random Core Clues

Clue Type

1-2 Academic
3-4 Interpersonal
5-6 Technical

Academic

  1. Accounting
  2. Anthropology
  3. Archaeology
  4. Architecture
  5. Art History
  6. Biology
  7. Cthulhu Mythos
  8. Cryptography
  9. Geology
  10. History
  11. Languages
  12. Law
  13. Library Use
  14. Medicine
  15. Occult
  16. Physics
  17. Theology
  18. Roll again, but it’s an impossibility
  19. Roll again, but it’s a personal connection
  20. Roll again, but it’s a terrible revelation

An Impossibility: This rock is older than the universe! This painting is moving! This library is carnivorous!

A Personal Connection: Your Medicine can’t tell you anything about this condition – but you do know a retired physician, Doctor Black, who lives nearby. Maybe he can help.

A Terrible Revelation: Oops! I just correlated hitherto disassociated fragments of knowledge. Rookie mistake.

Interpersonal

  1. Assess Honesty
  2. Bargain
  3. Bureaucracy
  4. Cop Talk
  5. Credit Rating
  6. Flattery
  7. Interrogation
  8. Intimidation
  9. Oral History
  10. Reassurance
  11. Streetwise
  12. Roll again, but it attracts the attention of sinister forces

Sinister forces: It’s not wise to ask questions about certain topics.

Technical

  1. Art
  2. Astronomy
  3. Chemistry
  4. Craft
  5. Evidence Collection
  6. Forensics
  7. Locksmith
  8. Outdoorsman
  9. Pharmacy
  10. Photography
  11. Roll again, but it’s an impossibility
  12. Roll again, but it exposes the investigator to something toxic or hazardous

Exposure: You see a strange light as you look through the telescope; you pick the lock, but discover the door’s a twist in space and time…

Random Hazards

  1. Athletics – a chase scene, a physical obstacle
  2. Conceal – a hidden trap
  3. Disguise – you must infiltrate a group
  4. Driving – dangerous conditions or a car chase
  5. Electrical Repair/Mechanical Repair – a piece of equipment is vitally needed
  6. Explosives – it’s the only way to be sure
  7. Filch – you must steal something
  8. Firearms – a combat scene at range!
  9. First Aid – someone’s dying or badly injured
  10. Health – exposed to a toxin
  11. Piloting – we’re on a boat
  12. Riding – we’re on a horse
  13. Stability – keep it together, man!
  14. Scuffling – a combat scene, up close!
  15. Sense Trouble – there’s something out there.
  16. Shadowing – quick, after them!
  17. Stealth – you must infiltrate a place
  18. Weapons – a combat scene, with sharp bits
  19. Roll again twice
  20. It’s a combat scene, with a complication. Roll again for the second ability involved, other than a combat ability. For example, Riding implies a shoot-out on horseback; Stealth implies an assassination attempt.

Putting It All Together

Let’s roll up a random adventure and see what comes of it!

Our initial hook is SCHOLARSHIP, and our location is ANTARCTICA. Clearly, we’re on a scientific expedition – maybe the Starkweather-Moore expedition promised at the end of At The Mountains of Madness. It’s hardly worth rolling an Apparent Situation in this case. The Horrible Truth is that there’s a CREATURE preying on people – specifically, a BLACK WINGED ONE, the assassins of the Cthulhu cult.

Our key clues are: BUREAUCRACY, ART and OUTDOORSMAN, and our random hazards are FILCH and RIDING.

So… the expedition to the Antarctic includes a secret worshipper of Cthulhu. He summons up a Black Winged One to kill other members of the expedition, for he seeks to get to the glacier where Cthulhu slumbers. Bureaucracy reveals that someone infiltrated the expedition under an assumed name, Art (plus Filch) means the investigators steal the cultist’s sketchbook and see his crazed scribblings of a buried god, and Outdoorsman & Riding imply a desperate sleigh-dog chase scene across the frozen wastes!

Another random attempt yields:

ARROGANCE for our hook, SPAIN for our location, VACATION for our Apparent Situation. That sounds like a bunch of idealists charging off to volunteer in the Spanish civil war. The horrible truth is that there’s a clash between two Cults.

The first Cult is a lone sorcerer who’s on the verge of triumph – he seeks to acquire power, and his blasphemous rites include Ritual Initiation.

He’s opposed by a second cult that Endemic in the Area, highly Secret, and worships… hmm. The Tcho-Tcho. Their rites include congress with a creature – rather an involving a second race, let’s assume it’s congress with Tcho-Tcho. Presumably, there’s a connection between the Plateau of Leng and the Meseta Central.

Obviously, if it’s the Spanish civil war, then the two cults are on opposite sides. A Communist sorcerer? Fascist Tcho-tchos? Or the other way around?

Our core clues are INTIMIDATION (Interrogating a prisoner, maybe?), OCCULT and COP TALK; hazards are Piloting and Sense Trouble.

So – the investigators are volunteers on the Republican side. Interrogating a prisoner, they learn of a fascist plot to bomb mountain villages. (Time to do some research on aerial bombardment and air power during the Spanish civil war; Guernica can be a touchstone here). OCCULT discovers the villages are being targeted because of their connection to the Tcho-Tcho cult; the investigators need to use Piloting and a borrowed biplane to shoot one bomber down before it commits the mass sacrifice needed a portal to Leng and the triumph of the Nazi sorcerer behind the bombing plan. Cop Talk and Sense Trouble warn the investigators that their Tcho-Tcho-worshipping allies will turn on them after the fighting’s done, and they should head back to the safely of the lowlands if they hope to survive…


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.

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Recruit your team of 2-3 players, or play as a solo contestant, as Pelgrane Press brings convention camaraderie to your screen with its first Pub Quiz. Join us on Zoom on May 27, 2020 at 5 PM Eastern. Vie for semi-valuable prizes with your mastery of Pelgrane game trivia and regular trivial trivia, with questions posed by such stalwarts as Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and Wade Rockett. Hoist the beverage of your choice toward the gallery view!

For Zoom link and password, hop on over to the Pelgrane Discord channel. If you have yet to join us there, get your Invite link to our Discord by dropping us a line at support@pelgranepress.com.

If you can’t join us at the appointed time, you can try to beat the champs when the event is later posted on YouTube.

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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.

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In the latest episode of their easily spotted podcast, Ken and Robin talk Invisible Men, coarse vs granular ability lists, and Ken’s last book raid for the duration.

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In our latest virtual panel, Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan are joined by special guest, Chaosium’s Lynne Hardy, to discuss the perennial connection between H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. We cover the core elements of Cthulhu gaming, Call of Cthulhu’s impact on the hobby, striking a balance between hopelessness and flipping out, how gaming changed the mythos, our favorite bits of Yog-Sothothery, and more.


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 the Pelgrane Shop.

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We continue to be in the grip of the toughest pandemic of our lifetimes, and we’ve shifted towards a more virtual way of living here in the Pelgrane’s Nest. Find out what’s new and happening in the Pelgrane in the Time of the Corona below, and check out new pre-orders Swords of the Serpentine, Honey & Hot Wax – An Erotic Art Games Anthology PDF, and the 13th Age Book of the Underworld.

New Releases

      • Swords of the Serpentine: The Adventurer’s Edition pre-order – A GUMSHOE sword & sorcery game of daring heroism, sly politics, and bloody savagery, set in a fantasy city rife with skullduggery and death. Pre-order now and get a limited edition colour print map of Eversink.
      • Honey & Hot Wax – An Erotic Art Games Anthology PDF pre-order – A digital-only anthology of games about sex by a diverse group of 10 designers, which will challenge how you think about roleplaying, sexuality, and human relationships.
      • Book of the Underworld pre-order– Pre-order this campaign setting for 13th Age, revealing the secrets of the Dragon Empire’s Underworld, and get the final PDF now.
      • Book of the Underworld PDF – A campaign setting for 13th Age, revealing the secrets of the Dragon Empire’s Underworld.
      • The Yellow King RPG – Four full-colour 6″ x 9″ hardback books in a slipcase, with accompanying GM screen. The dread horror of Robert Chambers’ King in Yellow stories take RPG form, confronting your players with an epic journey across four Carcosan-drenched time periods.
      • The Yellow King RPG Basic Shock & Injury decks – These optional accessories allow The Yellow King Roleplaying Game GMs to quickly grab and dish out Shock and Injury cards during face-to-face play.
      • Absinthe in Carcosa – An 8.5″ x 11″, full-colour hardback, this indispensable city guide for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is yoked together from travelogues, newspapers, and the disquieting ephemera of the occult tradition.
      • The Missing and the Lost – A thrilling, thought-provoking novel, which can be read as a mystery of a dread-drenched alternate reality, or use it as a model for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game when you play its Aftermath setting.
      • Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition – Pre-order the updated and expanded mutant-powered police procedural GUMSHOE game, and get the final PDF now.
      • Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition PDF – Pre-order the updated and expanded mutant-powered police procedural GUMSHOE game, and get the final PDF now.
      • Even Death Can Die – Pre-order this adventure collection for Cthulhu Confidential and get the pre-edit draft PDF now.

Articles

13th Age

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In part 2 of Gar and Robin’s Play-By-Clip game, Gar walks us through his process for allocating GUMSHOE general ability points. And his character examines an alarming message he was not meant to read.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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In the latest episode of their correctly advertised podcast, Ken and Robin talk intelligent maps, Guelphs vs Ghibellines, bad place psychology, and a terrible novel and/or occult tome.

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Join us on YouTube for the latest Pelgrane Virtual Panel, with tips and tricks for GUMSHOE One-2-One play and design from Robin D. Laws, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Ruth Tillman and Cat Tobin.


GUMSHOE One-2-One retunes, rebuilds and re-envisions the acclaimed GUMSHOE investigative rules set for one player, and one GM. Together, the two of you create a story that evokes the classic solo protagonist mystery format of classic detective fiction. Can’t find a group who can play when you can? Want an intense head-to-head gaming experience? Play face to face with GUMSHOE One-2-One—or take advantage of its superb fit with virtual tabletops and play online. Purchase Cthulhu Confidential and future GUMSHOE One-2-One products in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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13th Age permits players to take negative relationships with Icons, to define their characters in opposition to these mighty foes. Sometimes, though, it’s tricky to reconcile that opposition with the mechanical benefits of icons. It’s easy to justify getting a benefit from a positive or conflicted relationship – I’m a loyal follower of the Crusader, so sometimes I get help from the Crusader and his allies. It’s easy, too, to come up ways to involve enemies of the evil icons – I’m a foe of the Crusader – so sometimes I get help from the Priestess or the Great Gold Wyrm.

However, it can be a bit harder to come up with foes of the good or neutral Icons on the fly – especially if your players don’t want to ally with evil forces. Who stands against the Archmage, the Priestess, or the Great Gold Wyrm, but isn’t in league with darkness?

Archmage

Non-evil Iconic Enemies: High Druid, Elf Queen

  • Champions of nature, who object to the Archmage’s cavalier manipulation of the cosmic order.
  • Survivors of magical experiments gone awry.
  • Renegade spellcasters, who chafe under the Archmage’s strangehold on magical research.
  • Rival powers like the Elf Queen or the Diabolist, who have their own claims on magical authority that clashes with the Archmage’s domain.
  • Thieves or spies investigating the Archmage’s operations.
  • Magic-hating dwarves.
  • Spirits trying to escape magical bindings or wards.
  • Wizard King loyalists insulted by this pretender to the title

Dwarf King

Non-evil Iconic Enemies: Elf Queen, Prince of Shadows

  • Miners or adventurers objecting to the Dwarf King’s claim on all underground riches
  • Elves pressing the ancient rivalry with the dwarves
  • Robin Hood-esque brigands fighting dwarven mercantilist hegemony
  • Ambitious dwarven nobles or oppressed dwarven commoners plotting against the king

Elf Queen

Iconic Enemies: Dwarf King

  • Folk of Drakkenhall, who want to expand into territory claimed by the Queen
  • Dwarves pressing the ancient rivalry with the elves
  • Foes of the Dark Elves
  • Common folk who’ve been bewitched/abducted/enchanted by wayward fae
  • Agents of the Archmage, who seek magical powers forbidden by the Queen

Emperor

Non-evil Iconic Enemies:-

  • Revolutionaries and the unjustly accused, fighting against the oppressive state
  • True allies of the Emperor, conspiring against the evil nobles and advisors who’ve led the Emperor astray, or who use the Emperor’s name to further their own selfish ends
  • Enemies of corrupt officials
  • Separatists from the Empire’s remote provinces who plot to secede from Axis
  • Champions of some higher cause or calling than mere mortal law

Great Gold Wyrm

Non-evil Iconic Enemies: –

  • Well-meaning monks who believe it’s time for the Great Gold Wyrm to finally move on to the afterlife.
  • Unwilling heroes tormented by maddening dreams sent by the Wyrm.
  • Foes of corrupt or crazed paladins.
  • Heroic dragons who seek to replace the Wyrm; as long as the Wyrm remains trapped in the mouth of the Abyss, there’s no-one to counterbalance the threat of the Three

High Druid

Non-evil Iconic Enemies: Archmage, Emperor

  • Civilisation in all its forms – wood-cutters and farmers, scholars and city-builders, road-makers and hunters
  • Alchemists seeking curative ingrediants in the woods
  • Foes of the former High Druid, who fear the new Druid will prove as monstrous as her predecessor
  • Rival druids who seek to challenge the High Druid, and must weaken her first
  • Sages and spellcasters who fear the High Druid will endanger the Empire by breaking protective magical wards.

Priestess

Iconic Enemies: –

  • Servants of the Dark Gods, who believe the Priestess threatens cosmic balance by favouring the Light.
  • Servants of certain Light Gods, who believe the Priestess threatens cosmic balance by secretly favouring the Dark
  • People who just think anyone that nice must be up to something.
  • Those who feel that whatever divine penance or punishment they suffered was too harsh.
  • Merchants and nobles who aren’t evil, per se, but who’d like a little moral flexibility
  • Hard-as-nails adventurers who know that, sometimes, you have to be do cruel things for the greater good, and so are at odds with the Priestess and her followers

Prince of Shadows

Non-evil Iconic Enemies: Archmage, Dwarf King

  • The authorities in any city, cracking down on the Prince’s criminal empire
  • Victims of the Prince’s schemes
  • Rival criminals, taking their shot at the Prince.
  • Thief-takers and agents sent to recover stolen goods.
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In response to Gar’s senseless assault on a beloved GUMSHOE ability, Robin reluctantly reveals a terrible secret.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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By Kevin Kulp

There’s value in seeing how a hero you know translates into Swords of the Serpentine, especially when that hero changes over time.

SotS lets you play fledgling (less experienced) and sovereign (exceptionally experienced) versions of the same character, jumping back and forth in time between adventures in the same way a collection of fantasy short stories might jump between different eras of the same hero’s life.

For comparison, a sovereign Hero has about 16 adventures worth of experience over a standard Hero, and a standard Hero has about 17 adventures more experience than a fledgling Hero. That’s enough of a power and capability difference to feel like you’re at very different stages of the Hero’s career. A fun scenario might be to run three adventures: one at standard level to showcase a threat or problem, then one at fledgling level to show how the threat or problem originated, and finally one at sovereign level to let your Heroes crush the threat once and for all.

For a look at how you might translate this concept into a game character, let’s look at an iconic barbarian modeled on Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Note that we don’t pick Conan so you can play this exact character; there are plenty of really amazing RPGs that let you do exactly that, including one by our friends from Modiphius. Our goal here is to show you how a Hero might change between stages of their career, not to capture the literary Conan perfectly.

As always in Swords of the Serpentine, you should be able to know a character just by reading their Adjectives, Drives (or “what three things are best in life?”), and Gear.

Fledgling

At fledgling power, we have is a Conan who is more thief than warrior. He’s adept at breaking and entering, good in a fight (especially if he fights unconventionally) but without tactical mastery. He’s young, and only knows how to relate to others through posturing and insults.

Conan, fledgling thief (as in The Tower of the Elephant)

Naïve, adventurous, hostile, greedy

Drives (what is best in life?): To stand alone against danger, to gain another’s wealth, to buy respect with blood and steel

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 3, Armor 0 (loincloth), Health 8

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (stubbornness), Morale 7

Offense – Sway: Sway 3: Damage Modifier +1 (hostility)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 6: Damage Modifier +1 (sword)

Investigative abilities: Intimidation 1, Taunt 1; Skullduggery 2, Spot Frailty 1, Vigilance 1, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 2; Enemy: City Watch 1

General abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Burglary 4, Stealth 4, Sway 3, Warfare 6

Gear: Loincloth, well-honed sword, stolen dagger, rope and grappling hook that need only survive this one adventure, empty coin purse, empty skin of wine, empty belly, but a full and endless supply of disdain for the soft and the civilized.

Standard

At the power of a typical Hero, Conan excels at battle. His charm is more evident now, although he still excels at terrifying or angering his enemies; he sees the weaknesses in his enemies’ defenses and he’s quick to exploit any advantage this gives him. His allegiances have shifted due to his life of piracy, and his skill with a blade now allows him to cleave his way through foes with nary a pause.

Conan, barbarian conqueror (as in Queen of the Black Coast)

Confident, canny, territorial, vengeful

Drives (what is best in life?): To risk all for an ally, to conquering the weak, and to uncovering that which is hidden

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Armor 2 (chain, assuming he’s bothering to wear a shirt at all), Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 3, Grit 1 (stubbornness), Morale 8

Offense – Sway: Sway 5: Damage Modifier +1 (hostility)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 8: Damage Modifier +2 (great sword)

Investigative abilities: Charm 1, Intimidation 1, Taunt 1; Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 3, Vigilance 1, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 1, Ally: Pirates 1; Enemy: Outlanders 1

General abilities: Athletics 8 (Dodge), Preparedness 3, Stealth 6, Sway 5, Warfare 8 (Cleave)

Gear: worn chain armor, great sword, smoldering blue gaze, panther-like demeanor, full skin of wine, urge for adventure, and still a full and endless supply of disdain for the soft and the civilized.

 

Sovereign

Late in life, Conan is almost unmatched in battle and tactics. He may sit in a throne room uneasily, as his skills are meant for the battlefield. He’s cleverer and better at threats than he was in his youth, and his ability to conquer is buttressed by good luck and a lifetime of battle. One thing is for sure, though; enemies from multiple nations want his head, and more than one sorcerer falls asleep at night dreaming of the tortures they wish to inflict upon him.

Conan, sovereign warrior (as in The Scarlet Citadel)

Masterful, impatient, driven, vengeful

Drives (what is best in life?): To crush your enemies, to rule your conquered nations, and to put your enemies to the sword

Defenses – Health: Health Threshold 4, Health 10

Defenses – Morale: Morale Threshold 4, Grit 1 (stubbornness), Morale 10

Offense – Sway: Sway 5: Damage Modifier +1 (hostility)

Offense – Warfare: Warfare 10: Damage Modifier +2 (great sword)

Investigative abilities: Charm 1, Command 1, Intimidation 1, Taunt 1; Ridiculous Luck 1, Spot Frailty 2, Tactics of Death 4, Vigilance 1, Wilderness Mastery 1

Allegiances: Ally: Outlanders 2; Enemy: Outlanders 2, Enemy: Sorcerous Cabals 1

General abilities: Athletics 10 (Dodge), Preparedness 4, Stealth 6, Sway 5, Warfare 10 (Cleave)

Gear: rich robes that seem out of place, disdainfully-worn crown, look of boredom, the hatred of treasonous nobles, nostalgia for the battlefield.

In a campaign, the GM can flip back and forth between heroes of different abilities, just as the stories in a fantasy anthology may jump back and forth in time. It’s a nice way to emphasize how a hero grows over time.

 


Kevin Kulp (@kevinkulp) and Emily Dresner (@multiplexer) are the co-authors of Swords of the Serpentine, currently available for pre-order. Kevin previously helped create TimeWatch and Owl Hoot Trail for Pelgrane Press. When he’s not writing games he’s either smoking BBQ or helping 24-hour companies with shiftwork, sleep, and alertness.

 

 

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Controversy rocks the Pelgrane Video Dispatches as Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan uses our newly revitalized YouTube channel to call out his least favorite GUMSHOE ability.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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“Another queer happening, of a totally different kind, occurred four or five years ago. A woman‐friend and I were out walking one night in a lane near Auburn, when a dark, lightless and silent object passed over us against the stars with projectile‐like speed. The thing was too large and swift for any bird, and gave precisely the effect of a black meteor. I have often wondered what it was. Charles Fort, no doubt, would have made a substantial item out of it for one of his volumes.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, letter to H.P. Lovecraft (November 1933)

Clark Ashton Smith: Decadent, Horrorist … Fortean? Smith first read Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned in October 1930, according to an earlier letter to Lovecraft: “I don’t care for the style — but the assembled data is quite imposing, and worthy of close study.” (Lovecraft read Fort’s works in March 1927.) By the next year Smith had gotten over his allergy to Fort’s telegraphic prose, writing to one William Whittingham Lyman: “When it comes to fictional inspiration, I had more in the writings of Charles Fort … than in any of the orthodox crew. Fort has spent his life amassing a gorgeous collection of data …” Could Smith have turned to Fort, going to the considerable trouble of checking The Book of the Damned out of the California state library by mail, to investigate his own Fortean encounter? As he wrote to Lovecraft in November 1933, some time in 1928 or 1929 or 1930 he saw “a dark, lightless, and silent object … a black meteor” “too large and swift for any bird” that “passed over us against the stars with projectile-like speed.” Did the Black Meteor leave its shadow behind on the Sorcerer of Auburn? Perhaps, perhaps, and perhaps that is why Smith datelined the letter describing his UFO sighting “Tower of black jade in lost Carcosa. Hour when the twin suns are both at nadir.” The “tower of black jade” crossing the stars on the darkest night of dark Carcosa, in other words.

“Klarkash‐Ton had seen one, had seen something, a year or two before. It was on a hot night and he had been lying outside on his sleeping bag, gazing upward into the depths of space. Suddenly he became aware of a large object, like an indistinct shadow, darker than the night, passing slowly above him, blotting out the stars.”

— George Haas, “As I Remember Klarkash-Ton” (1963)

From left: Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Barbour Johnson, George Haas, and Stanton Levey

Smith didn’t leave Charles Fort’s skies behind with the Weird Tales crew. In 1949, he praised an Arkham Sampler SF issue for “the prominence given to Wells and to Charles Fort.” In 1951 he wrote the foreword to a book of poems (including such Fortean titles as “Cosmic Saboteurs” and “Since We Are Property”) by Lilith Lorraine, the pseudonym of SF author Gertrude Wright (nee Mary Maud Dunn). (Smith may have met Wright in person while she was living in Berkeley and running a Theosophical sex cult, ca. 1923-1927.) And in 1953 he met gardner, Fortean, and SF fan George P. Haas who went on to fame as an early Bigfoot hunter.

Haas also introduced Smith to fellow Weird Tales alumnus Robert Barbour Johnson and to area occultist-photographer-organist Howard Stanton Levey, who would later become the Satan-monger Anton LaVey. (While we’re engaged in Fortean synchronicities, Johnson had worked as a big cat trainer, and Levey kept a pet panther named Zoltan.) Haas talked Fort with Smith on their first meeting in September 1953, and elucidated either a garbled rendering of Smith’s 1928 encounter, or a repeat sighting. Given the different circumstances in each description (alone and lying down in his backyard vs. walking with a girl on a road) we can’t rule out a second encounter of the first kind, around 1951 or 1952.

Smith’s home town of Auburn, California has a smattering of UFO sightings to its credit, dating back to the 1896 “airship” flap for proper Fortean juju. (Does anybody else think the 1896 Airship makes a great Carcosan irruption for a Yellow King RPG game set in San Francisco? No? Just me then.) If flying shadows cruised Auburn’s skies in 1928-29 only Smith seems to have seen them, or written about it. UFOs buzzed Auburn, as well as nearby Roseville and Sacramento (only 30 miles away) in June and July of 1947. Two Air Force officers saw a “cylinder with twin tails, 200 ft. long and 90 ft. wide” over McClellan AFB in Sacramento, moving north (toward Auburn) at “incredible speed” on 13 March 1951, right in the window for Smith’s second sighting. (In 1952, Beale AFB near Auburn was officially on “inactive status.” Sure it was.) Another UFO flits over Citrus Heights on 20 August 1956. Smith dies of a series of strokes in 1961. In September 2009, numerous witnesses see “black triangles” in the skies over Auburn.

“A dark meteor, made of some incombustible, indestructible matter which is seen to fall. It is found to be a sort of shard containing an alien entity in a state of suspended animation. (Such a meteoric object might be found buried in the archaean strata, where it had fallen in the earth’s youth.) The alien being might be a king of some trans-galactic world, who had been ((thus)) kidnapped and dropped on the earth by enemies. His subjects, knowing that he still exists, have sought him for aeons through the universe, using a magnetic detector which would reveal the presence of the strange element which he is enclosed.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, story treatment “The Dark Meteor” (n.d.)

Your Fall of DELTA GREEN Agents may well want to investigate the 20 June 1966 UFO sighting in Auburn, especially given that Beale AFB (just down the hill from Auburn, even closer than McClellan AFB) begins basing the top-secret SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance plane in January 1966. And when they look back through the records and papers, and ask around town, they discover that a man who knew a whole lot about the Unnatural used to live up on Indian Ridge before a mysterious fire burned down his cabin in 1957. But fortunately, he may have left a clue in his Black Book.

Smith’s notebook, the “Black Book,” describes one possibility. A king of Shonti or Nython, an empress of Sadastor or Xiccarph, lies bound in a black meteor, imprisoned in an interdimensional orbit that emerges over Auburn, California every seven years (1930, 1951, 1966). Alien enemies — Mi-Go? — seek the meteor, as perhaps does MAJESTIC. The Air Materiel Command of Roswell fame (now Air Force Logistics Command) bases out of McClellan AFB in Sacramento, after all. The search for the Dark Meteor, or the flight from the avengers of triple-sunned Xiccarph, may send your Agents deep into the shadows over Auburn and still deeper into the incantations of Klarkash-Ton.


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.

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In a virtual version of their popular 13th Age Monster Design Workshop, Rob Heinsoo, ASH LAW and Wade Rockett explore principles of F20 monster design and, based on audience suggestions, spitball a joy-eating fungal threat.


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. Created by Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet, 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.

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Pelgrane Press writer and production apprentice Noah Lloyd readies himself for intrigue on twisting fantasy streets with his pick for favorite GUMSHOE ability.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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Cat Tobin, Pelgrane Press co-owner, managing director, and conspyramid head, zeroes in on the bedrock technique of mystery-solving as she reveals her favorite GUMSHOE ability.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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In the latest episode of their safely sheltering podcast, Ken and Robin talk remote play tips, secret museum scans,  war movies you can nerdtrope into Yellow King RPG: The Wars scenarios, and USAF involvement in UFO patents.

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We usually do our perennial GUMSHOE panel, the Investigative Roleplaying Masterclass, at conventions ranging from Gen Con to Dragonmeet to the Kraken. With the convention circuit suspended indefinitely, we thought it was time to do a virtual version of it, as part of our lockdown-inspired ramp-up of our YouTube channel. The live stream has now been archived to view at your leisure. It starts with Ken arriving fashionably late in order to preserve the in-person convention feel:

You’ll note that we retitled it a bit to be search-friendly for the broader YouTube audience. And yes, that includes the dreaded space between “table” and “top” in “table top roleplaying” because that’s how the kids search for it these days.

To join our fledgling Discord channel and get announcements and access for future Pelgrane virtual panels, drop us a line at support@pelgranepress.com.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”, to quote Lovecraft. However, when it comes to translating his fiction into games, unknown monsters can be tricky to handle. In a roleplaying game, the players need to be able to make meaningful decisions, and for that, they need some information to give context to those decisions. The more they know, the less unknown there is. (One reason why classic monsters like vampires work well in rpgs – the players know the rules already, and you can present them as a part of a bigger mystery instead of making the investigation all about the monster. They no longer draw their power from fear of the unknown – it’s all about fear of what they might do with their known powers and hungers.)

Sometimes, getting more information about an unknown threat can be scarier. For example, if the characters are the crew of an isolated research base, and they find the mangled corpse of one of their co-workers outside on the ice, that’s scary – there’s a monster out there! However, if the characters then discover another corpse inside a locked room in the base, that’s even scarier – can the monster walk through walls? Is it a shapeshifter, now disguised as one of the crew? Is it in the air ducts?

The players need to discover the ‘rules’ of the unknown monster, and there’s an awkward dance here, especially if the monster can only be defeated by exploiting a particular trait, and especially in a one-shot or short adventure. You need to ensure the players find the information they need without making it obvious or contrived (nothing spoils atmosphere like having a really obvious LOOK, LOOK, HERE’S THE IMPORTANT BIT scene), while still keeping the monster mysterious. So, what are some elegant ways of getting information to the players, without making it seem like you’re setting up the pins with one hand and handing the players a bowling ball with the other?

(An aside – one key question to ask yourself is always, “what’s the characters’ goal?” If the characters can achieve their aims – break the family curse, escape the nightmarish town, discover the fate of their old friend – without having to defeat the monster outright, you can get away with revealing less about the monster. But if your campaign setup or scenario hook demands that the characters take an active role in investigating or thwarting the Mythos, they’re likely to press on to a final confrontation – and if you want to avoid that final confrontation from becoming a chase scene or a shootout, it’ll have to hinge on a meaningful decision by the players, which means giving information about the unknowable horror.)

  • GUMSHOE, of course, promises the players will always get the clues they need if they use their investigative abilities. Try to use multiple tangential clues to the nature of the monster, as opposed to one core revelation that spells out what must be done. Say, for example, the characters are up against a horror from the logos – a monster that manifests when its name is spoke aloud. Dropping lots of hints that connect to this – a corpse with its tongue torn out (Forensics), Occult references to the unspeakable one, a bunch of references to the Scottish play (Art History) – lets the players make that final intuitive leap.
  • In The Dunwich Horror, the Son of Yog-Sothoth can only be destroyed by a ritual. Lovecraft handles this by having the first Whately brother draw attention to the book containing the banishing ritual in an earlier scene. Have the players discover information about the monster while pursuing an apparently unrelated lead.
  • Pacing out the information also helps. The bigger the gap between the players discovering information about the monster, and actually encountering the monster, the better. If the players run into a Colour Out Of Space five minutes after encountering the local inventor with his shed full of high-voltage electrical equipment, then it’s obvious that the Keeper intends for them to use electromagnetic fields as a weapon against the otherwise invincible foe. However, if the players run into the inventor near the start of the adventure, and encounter the Colour much later, then it feels much more like the players cleverly calling back to an established bit of background colour. Lovecraft uses something like this technique in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, where Doctor Willett discovers the dismissal formula long before he finally uses it to banish Joseph Curwen. (Of course, the scene where Dr. Willett randomly starts chanting spells out loud would be intolerable railroading in a tabletop game…)
  • Another approach is to undercut expectations. Say the players find out that there was a series of murders fifty years ago when a cult opened up the Box of the Shining Trapezohedron, and now there’s another set of identical murders. Clearly, someone’s taken the gem from the magic box, and the obvious solution to the scenario is to put the gem back in the box. Twist this by having the cult destroy the box before the players can return the gem. Now, the players have to come up with their own variation on that original solution by finding another way to bury the gem before the monster finds them…
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In the first installment of their new Play By Clip series, Robin and Gar invent a new flavor of GUMSHOE—and an ancient city of galactic mystery. Check out Mother of Cities.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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The GUMSHOE Community program is now even bigger!

Earlier this year we launched the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. We have now expanded the content available, and so the program now includes the following game lines:

If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of these GUMSHOE games (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own GUMSHOE content on DriveThruRPG.

We’ve got a number of great Ashen Stars PDFs already available, to show you what’s possible. These include:

If you’re interested in learning more about the GUMSHOE Community program, check it out here.

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Kevin Kulp teases the upcoming Swords of the Serpentine as he reveals his favorite GUMSHOE ability. Or abilities.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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Over the years, we’ve released a number of one-shot adventures for our systems during Free RPG Day, and we often get messages asking us for the PDFs. As we know everyone’s looking for more gaming opportunities at the moment, we’ve collected them all here, now.

All we ask is that if you download, run and enjoy these adventures, you consider making a donation to Doctors Without Borders, to assist in their efforts to fight the coronavirus COVID-19.

Donate to Doctors Without Borders

 

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Are you a new GM looking to dip your toes into the horror genre? Are you hoping to nudge someone into running a scary game for you? As part of their Adventure Goddess program, which encourages women to take the GM’s chair, Carolyn Noe of Superheroines Etc organized this virtual panel featuring Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, and Ruth Tillman. Join them as they share their most chillingly useful Game Moderating tips.

GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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Harness the power of the seemingly inconsequential with Wade Rockett as he reveals his favorite GUMSHOE ability.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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In the latest episode of their damn fine cup of podcast, Ken and Robin talk Lynchian roleplaying, Marie Curie, stews & lockdown cooking, and mystical economist George AE Russell.

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With physical conventions off the table for the moment, Pelgrane Press is cooking up a series of virtual panels over on our newly bustling YouTube channel. To kick things off Ken and Robin entered the Dreamlands of Zoom to take questions from a crew of stalwart volunteers. Now you too can watch as they nerdtrope the 100 Years War, share online RPG play tips, blackguard Joseph Campbell, praise Charles Portis, contemplate socially distant game snacks, and more.

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While digging through old boxes, I came across a copy of long-vanished British gaming Roleplayer Independent magazine from the hoary ancient days of December 1992. It took me a few minutes to work out why I’d kept it – there’s a random Cthulhu scenario generator in there by Jim Johnston. (In fact, that article must have been my first encounter with the Cthulhu Mythos, as the first time I actually played a Cthulhu game was January 1994 – but I digress).
Random inspiration is great for Cthulhu scenarios. One of the charms of the Mythos is its sheer incongruity and omnipresence – look under the wrong stone, and you don’t just find a monster, you find an infinitely deep abyss. The Mythos is infinitely mutable, with the possibility of horror lurking in any aspect of reality.

For example, take the first table from that old random generator.

From RPI December ’92

Any of those could lead to a single monster – the lights in the night are a lone fire vampire, accidentally summoned by an archaeologist meddling with an ancient relic, and the worst the investigators might face is a little combustion. Or maybe the lights are Yog-Sothoth manifesting to spawn his hybrid son, and the stakes are nothing less than the destruction of all life on Earth.

Another possible prompt is to pick a random investigative ability, and build a scenario around a clue discovered with that ability. So, lights in the sky + Reassurance – why is some witness so terrified by the lights that reassuring her unlocks the mystery? Maybe the lights are ghosts – psychic projections from the brain-matter of the recently deceased, agitated by some cosmic force afflicting the graveyard (a Colour, maybe?).

Picking a random monster or mythos tome also works – the trick is finding something seemingly incongruous, and then challenging your brain to find connections. As an exercise, let’s take a random event from 1937. A quick jaunt on Wikipedia gives me:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_1937_Folsom_escape_attempt

A random pick of investigative ability gives me Architecture, and picking a random monster from Hideous Creatures gives me the Dark Young. So… the escape attempt involved a carved wooden pistol. Maybe the pistol wasn’t carved, but grown, and one of the prisoners was a secret worshipper of the Black Goat who erected a secret temple to her in some hidden corner of the prison (Architecture). The escape attempt fails, but the worried warden turns to the investigators to discover the origin of the unholy weapon.

Alternatively, taking the same historical event, but a different ability and monster – Law and the Moon-Beasts. Ok, clearly, the prisoners are escaping because the state of California has a secret bargain with the Moon-Beasts, and prisoner ‘executions’ at Folsom are a cover for the unholy teind of victims to the Moon-Beasts…

A third random prompt  – Flattery and the Ultraviolet Devourers out of From Beyond. Here, maybe an arrogant prisoner claims to know a better way out of the prison – he’s going to walk through the walls. Flattery gets him to reveal that his friend on the outside has a mysterious machine that can shift its targets out of conventional space-time and back again. One day soon, his cell’s going to light up all purple, and he’ll be gone. His friend’s testing it – what do you think drove those other prisoners crazy enough to attack the warden like that?


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.

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In our latest Pelgrane Video dispatch, Ruth Tillman (Cthulhu Confidential, Black Star Magic) shows us how much fun her favorite GUMSHOE ability can be.

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In the latest episode of their swelegant podcast, Ken and Robin talk GUMSHOE One-2-Ones you should writer, an Esperanto commune, screwball comedies, and the Takenouchi Documents.

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Wade Rockett 13th Age designer logoAlso, check out Robin D. Laws’ “9 Tips for Remote Tabletop RPG Play”.

Greetings, fellow dungeon dwellers! Today, I wanted to talk about playing 13th Age on the Roll20 virtual tabletop. However! Because I’m a Roll20 noob, I asked Aaron Roudabush, the master of 13th Age online play, to share some tips.

You can purchase three 13th Age adventures on Roll20—as of today Pelgrane Press has made one free to purchase (forever!), and the others 20% off through September 2020.

Make Your Own Luck (free forever): a stand-alone adventure which also works as a prequel to the megadungeon campaign Eyes of the Stone Thief. Includes 3 full color maps, 20 unique character tokens, 12 pregenerated characters using the official 13th Age character sheet, and a PDF of the adventure, as well as handouts within Roll20 to help both players and GMs who are new to Roll20 or 13th Age.

Shadows of Eldolan (20% off through September): an introductory 13th Age adventure for 1st level heroes that provides a GM with a partially fleshed-out town setting full of intrigue. Includes 11 full color maps, 38 unique character tokens, 12 pregenerated characters, and 19 handouts written and organized specifically for the Roll20 edition. A PDF of the adventure is also included.

Swords Against the Dead (also 20% off through September): a quick-start zombie-fighting adventure with multiple possible paths. Includes 6 maps complete with Dynamic Lighting and support for Advanced Fog of War, macros for all combat NPCs, for instant automatic rolls, statted token art for every character and monster, 6 pre-gen characters with variants, the full adventure broken out into easy handouts and folders for whatever direction the players go.

Aaron’s Roll20 13th Age GM Tips:

If you’re using maps, you don’t need to use the grid Roll20 defaults to. You can turn it off in the settings for each individual page. However, keeping the grid on helps you size tokens equally, so take advantage of that. Turning it off and on again only takes a moment so use what best suits your immediate need. I turn the grid on to place tokens, but then turn it off for gameplay.

Macros help! You can learn more about them here: https://roll20.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/360037256794-Macros. You can use macros as part of your character sheets, but they can also be useful on their own. Sometimes you just need to roll a d20 or d6 or any other dice, such as when you take impromptu damage from skill challenges or when you are simulating gambling in-game. Especially helpful is the Rolling a Macro with a Variable section, which is great for GMs to do their attack rolls. Additional bonus: any macro you make as a GM can be shared with the players, so they can use it too—just scroll down on the macro creation popup. Just don’t forget to show the macro quick bar, and check each macro you want to use.

You can place maps or tokens on multiple visible levels. Take advantage of this. Do you need to put a token to represent a torch on the map but don’t want to accidentally move it around? Put it on the map level and not the token level. Have monsters waiting to ambush the characters, but don’t want to spend time dragging the tokens onto the map from your library or journal? Just set them up ahead of time and put them on the GM-only level. If you’re using fog of war, you can also hide these monsters in there until they need to be used. Do you need to have a “before” and “after” map, such as when you need to show the aftermath of an explosion or rockslide? Put the after map on the GM-only level and right click to change its layer.

You might know that you can designate a token to represent a particular character in the Journal—but did you know you can set that token up so you can immediately show its HP and recoveries as well as other attributes? To do this, set up the token on the play space. Drag your image onto the page, then double click it to bring up the Edit Token page. Use the drop down on the left to select the character it represent. On the right, you can then pick things for the bars to represent. If you’re using the official 13th Age character sheet, you can easily set the bars to show HP and Recoveries (listed as “rec” in the dropdown). But you can use the bars for more as well, such as rogue’s momentum, commander’s command points, and so on. Once you’ve set up the token to your liking, save the changes and close the Edit Token page. Then open up the associated character’s page. Select the Edit button at the top right. On the left, you’ll see an area called “Default Token (optional)”. Select the token, then click the “Use Selected Token” button. Now, you can drag the character from the Journal page onto a page and it will have all the correct information you’ve set up every time. It sounds like a lot of work for not much reward, but it saves time and effort for me every game.

To roll initiative using the official 13th Age sheet select your token, then click the Initiative button on the character sheet. You will save yourself a lot of errors if you remember this.

As a GM you can drag the views of all the players to a specific point by using shift + long left click. Extremely useful if you have a big map or need to draw attention to something on an area players might not be looking at.

I almost always make a setting or world map page for my campaigns, then use an abstract token to show players where they are in the grand scheme of things. I take players back to this page if they’re not anywhere specific or if they’re traveling, much like the map scenes in an Indiana Jones movie. This page is also useful if players need to test out tokens or if you, as the GM, need to do the same. If you don’t need a map, put down something else! A landscape or piece of action packed art can set the scene for everybody and get them in the right mood.

Even if you don’t use maps, you don’t have to use a blank page, either. Get a landscape or picture which represents the location your players are in. A blank white screen is very likely to make people’s attention wander away from the screen to check email or social media or whatnot. Something visually stimulating they can focus on helps alleviate that issue.

Watch Aaron run 13th Age at Roll20con 2016:

“Wade Says” designer symbol by Regina Legaspi


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.

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You won’t guess Rob Heinsoo’s favorite GUMSHOE ability, but you will find it deeply Heinsovian.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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Bugs! Everywhere you look there’s another kind of bug
Makes you want to get a club and clout ’em
Yes everybody’s talking bout the worrysome bugs
But ain’t nobody doing nothing about ’em …

Bugs! Everywhere you look there’s another type of bug
But if ya live in the delta ya got ’em …
— Bobbie Gentry, “Bugs” (1967)

In 1951, the sudden onslaught of the Korean War drove a somewhat less-sudden onslaught of Federal preparedness programs: civil defense, counter-intelligence, and — as it happened — bacteriological warfare defense. Thrust onto the front lines of this effort, Alexander Langmuir, M.D. (b. 1910), the Director of the Epidemiology Program Office of the CDC, proposed the creation of a special unit of “shoe leather epidemiologists” to investigate suspicious clusters. Langmuir believed in national surveillance as the key to detecting outbreaks and determining hidden patterns and vectors, but without intelligent observers on the ground, analysis was worthless.

Do not lose the briefcase. Do NOT lose the briefcase. DO NOT LOSE THE BRIEFCASE.

The resulting Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) started up in 1953, with a “class” of 22 doctors and veterinarians. Langmuir runs the EIS out of his hip pocket, and after exposing a faulty polio vaccine in 1955 he begins salting other offices of the CDC with EIS alumni. EIS officers discover links between cancer and birth defects in Niles, Illinois; clamp down on the Hong Kong flu epidemic in 1968 (which nonetheless kills 100,000 Americans over the next three years); and discover norovirus in Norwalk, Ohio in 1969. By the 1960s, the EIS has around 40 members, all post-graduate medical professionals: doctors, veterinarians, nurses, microbiologists, and the inevitable-for-the-decade statisticians. The numbers go up in 1966, when the EIS becomes a recognized alternative to the draft; the doctors nickname themselves the “Yellow Berets.” But EIS officers still get sent to remote lands: not just hurricane-devastated stretches of Mississippi or dengue-ridden fields in Puerto Rico, but to Jamaica (for diptheria vaccination), rebellious Biafra in West Africa (for smallpox eradication efforts), and the remote back-country of Bolivia.

In that last operation, the U.S. Army Medical Unit (USAMU, which becomes USAMRIID in 1969) tasks the CDC to bring back samples of the bubonic plague from an outbreak in July of 1964. The EIS sends a team under a CDC plague specialist to the village of Descargadero, where a quarter of the local Quechua population had died of the plague. They dig up the most recent plague victim, sever her pinkie finger (plague viruses survive longest in bone marrow), pack it in dry ice and bring it back to Fort Detrick, Maryland.

“It’s an awful thought—whole forgotten cycles of evolution with beings and races and wisdom and diseases—all lived through and gone before the first amoeba ever stirred in the tropic seas geology tells us about.”

— H.P. Lovecraft and Adolphe de Castro, “The Last Test”

Grave-robbing and plague-collecting seem to lead us ineluctably to the DELTA GREEN side of all this. You can simply have an EIS Officer as part of the standard Agent team; whether Langmuir is cleared or just knows to look the other way is the Handler’s call. Or Langmuir could be MAJESTIC, possibly MJ-8 connected. (Or both! His CDC tenure goes back to before the formal DELTA GREEN-MAJESTIC split.) He might simply be legitimately, rationally terrified of alien viruses — but since the EIS also practices live trials of both vaccines and strains of disease on Federal prisoners, he might just be another mad scientist with a slightly better rep.

Or you could play an all-EIS (or mostly-EIS with one USAMU liaison to shoot people) team, mostly fighting legitimate diseases in a legitimate way, with new pneumatic Ped-o-Jet injectors and clever grid maps of infection punched into computer-readable cards. And every so often, yes, fighting ghouls. Run each containment effort as a chase, using the average of the team’s First Aid as their chase pool and varying the Disease pool to reflect its virulence and lethality. Rather than the Fall of DELTA GREEN best-of-three chases, use the full thriller chase mechanics from Night’s Black Agents (NBA, p. 53), rolling one contest per scene (or per day). Each point of Lead the disease opens up kills 10 (or 1, or 100, or whatever) people; at Lead 10 it becomes a full-blown outbreak. The scenes themselves become interpersonal interactions with possible victims, and searches for vectors: Are these canned tuna full of botulism? Did these farmers eat crops tainted by fungicide? Is the disease spreading from UFO contactees? If the Handler has determined a vector, the Agents figuring it out can count as a Swerve on their part, or just affect that scene’s contest like a standard Investigative spend. Alien or sentient diseases, or those spread by villains, can Raise and Swerve or even attack the Agents!

Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer

Start with Physician (FoDG, p. 043) or the basic Medic template (if your Agent has military training; FoDG, p. 026) and layer on CDC Researcher (FoDG, p. 034). Add Traffic Analysis 1. For a veterinarian or microbiologist (or other medical specialist), spend 2 build points on Special Training (FoDG, p. 072) in that specialty, which adds +2 to your First Aid tests to save a subject’s life, or to the Health test of a subject under your care (resisting toxins, for example) within that specialty. It doesn’t increase the amount of First Aid points you have to spend refreshing the subject’s Health.

Army Medical Unit Field Investigator

Well, you say you’re with the AMU. You might be with the Biological Warfare Laboratory, also at Fort Detrick, which doesn’t shut down until 1969. Build an active-duty Army Medic (FoDG, p. 026). Add Agency (AMU) 1, increase Medicine to 3.

Add one of: HUMINT 1, Photography 1, Reassurance 1

Add one of: Athletics 3, Firearms 3, Health 3

CIA Project CHICKWIT Liaison

Hey, if you’re going into the Lake Mlolo area anyway, maybe someone from Langley could tag along. No reason, just more of a backstop for you, really. Also, don’t pay any mind if he puts any unusual biological samples — yellow lotus, or Glossina diabolis flies, or what-have-you — into this sealed container.

Every dangerous biological investigation operation needs a Paul Reiser type, and the Agency has lots of them to spare.

Build a Political Action Division Officer (FoDG, p. 043), with the following exchanges: Biology 2 instead of the Art and History abilities; Negotiation instead of Inspiration.


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.

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by Steven Hammond

Lockdowns and quarantines are vitally important, and you want to keep your game going if for no other reason than to have something to do and stay sane. Remote gaming has been a thing for several years, but did you know The Black Book offers functionality tailored to run GUMSHOE games online?

Our GM tools are still in beta, but you can get access to them with a Player level subscription. During the beta test, GMs can invite both free and subscribing players to join their campaigns. Free players get full access to the live player tools while connected to a campaign.

Until further notice, the $14.95 Player level subscription has a 60-day free trial. That way, you can use it through the quarantine and lockdown period without being charged. We’ll even send you a reminder a few days before the trial period is up, so you can cancel if you don’t want to continue using the live play tools. No hassles from us, we’re happy you could use the tools to keep your game going. However, we’re betting that you’ll like the tools and want to keep on playing with them.

What do the Player Tools do?

Many people think of the Black Book as a character generation tool; we provide this service for free to the GUMSHOE community. But paid subscribers can use the Black Book as a digital character sheet during play. The following features are available for live play.

• Track spends and refreshes of individual Ability pools.
• Refresh all ability pools
• Track Health, Stability and Sanity
• Automatically roll dice with General Pools spends, if desired
• Works offline and syncs between devices

Here’s a short video that demonstrates the Player features.

What do the GM Tools do?

The best way to understand what the GM Tools do is to see them in action. The following 5 minute video provides an excellent overview of live play features.

The GM features include:

  • Live character matrix: see all of your PC’s Ability pools and ratings updated in real time
  • Highlight missing abilities: the tool highlights abilities that none of your characters have so you don’t ask for them in play
  • Spotlight Highlighting: the app also highlights the last 10 spends on the matrix so you can see which player has been getting spotlight time recently
  • Live die rolling: if your players use the automatic die roller, you can see the results as they roll them

Please take advantage of this offer to help keep your game going during the lockdown. Stay safe, healthy and be kind to each other!

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In our third Pelgrane Video Dispatch, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan reveals his favorite GUMSHOE ability. Robin’s was obvious. Many guessed Ken’s. But can you predict Gar’s answer? Only a click on the video will tell the tale!


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in the Pelgrane Shop.

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Our new Pelgrane Video Dispatches series continues with Ken’s favorite GUMSHOE ability. Robin’s was easy to predict. Will Ken’s choice come as a surprise?


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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With most of us stuck at home, either all day or after returning from a day’s work of essential service, we at Pelgrane figured it would be a good time to get plans for video content off the backburner. The contents of my own YouTube subscription list are looking pretty sparse these days, with mainstream producers off-line and scrambling to create their own work-from-home alternatives.

We hope to get some longer-form pieces out to you eventually. As con season rolls around we’ll all be hungering for the panels and events we’d otherwise be enjoying at in-person events.

First though we’re getting our feet wet with a series of Pelgrane Video Dispatches, starting with various members of the team revealing their favorite GUMSHOE abilities.

Once we’re done with that question we’ll tackle others. Feel free to pitch us suggestions to add to our list!

Collect every installment by subscribing to the Pelgrane Channel on YouTube.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

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That Wide-Screen Underworld Feel

Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan writes game books meant to be turned into wide-screen adventures. Book of the Underworld goes one better: the sunbearer golems who march an endless path through the four warring Kingdoms of the Mechanical Sun aren’t just made for cinema, they’d also work splendidly as the subject of a area-control and route-carving wargame!

In Gareth’s words: “In ages past, the dwarves forged the Mechanical Sun. This incredible artifact is a globe of crystallized flame, which sheds warmth and light in the same manner as the surface sun. Four golden golems carry the globe, marching tirelessly through the underworld like artificial Koru behemoths. The golems’ path is marked by magical waystones, which can be adjusted to change the sun’s speed and direction.”

Warring underground kingdoms fighting over waystone locations! Costly rituals to reroute the golems, with your results not clear until the golems pass that waystone again! I want to design this game now.

Here are a couple illustrations that capture the feel of this dream-boardgame and that show how inspired the artists were by Gareth’s story. The illustration above, by Rich Longmore, shows the four golden golems carrying the Mechanical Sun. The illustration below, by Roena I. Rosenberger, shows a noble warrior from the Queendom of Voth, one of the four Kingdoms of the Mechanical Sun, where light is the most precious magic.

Book of the Underworld is on pre-order and in the middle of layout. The fully laid-out version will be available through the pre-order soon.

Pre-order now

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Gaming for Kids

I’ve been running impromptu games for my two boys since they were four or five (they’re now seven), and I’ve been thinking about a GUMSHOE Kids framework that I’m going to develop as a priority now. In the meantime, though, I’m aware that there are suddenly a lot of people working from home with kids who can’t go to school, so here’s the benefit of my experience.

Use A Focus

Especially for younger kids, it’s good to have something physical they can focus their attention on and remind them that they’re actually playing a game with rules and structure as opposed to “let’s pretend”. When I ran No Thank You Evil, I hardly used the rules, but I more than got my money out of the cloth map. A sketch map, a wargame using toys – any bit of ritual to catch their attention and remind them to concentrate.

A character sheet isn’t as important as a physical representation (“this is my guy”) on the map.

Run Short Games

Young kids have short attention spans. Most games won’t last more than 30-45 minutes at most. Look to tell simple stories, and try to work the kids’ ideas and discoveries into the conclusion as much as possible. If the kid decides that they befriend a random frog you mentioned as set dressing, then – lo! – the bad guy’s secret weakness is frogs! How did you know!

Take Turns

Especially if you’ve got multiple kids playing, you’ll need to enforce turn order very strictly. Once kids get excited, they’ll start shouting and demanding attention. Make sure everyone gets a chance to talk and act – and, where possible, make sure everyone has an equal impact on the story, especially its conclusion.

Oh – one kids get going, they tend to seize control of the narration. (“I punch the bad guy, and his head explodes, and then and then and then”). You’ll need to balance wonderful exuberance with keeping the game from descending into chaos.

You’re In Their World Now

Kids don’t have the same set of cultural touchstones that adult gamers do. Expect to see a lot of elements crossing over from whatever cartoons, computer games or other entertainment they’re into. Creepers and Pigmen from Minecraft mean more than orcs and goblins to them, and all pop culture is one big shared universe – I’ve run a bunch of dungeon crawls where the player characters are youtubers and characters from computer games. Work with whatever they throw at you, even if that means Batman and Buzz Lightyear fighting Sauron.

Give Clear Options

Provide a bit more guidance to new players than you would to experienced gamers. Present them with a clear menu of options – you can go down the corridor, or try the door. You can talk to the goblin, or try to scare him. GUMSHOE really comes into its own here – the investigative abilities work as a clear list of ‘questions I can ask’. Then, ask them to describe how they take that action. You have to give a clear structure for the shared imaginative space, or things will spiral out of control.

Sneaky Teaching

The content of your adventure can have some educational elements, without going overboard – just running a game set in, say, ancient Egypt lets you talk about mummies and pyramids and hieroglyphics or the importance of irrigation. Running a game in space lets you drop in a little science. Mechanics, too, teach basic math – if you spent four points from that general ability, and you rolled a 3, does that beat the Difficulty of 6? Rolling dice is always fun; for younger kids, it may be useful to give them tokens to track ability pools.

Have Fun!

The most important thing of all, of course. Think of it as a chance to spend quality time with the kids, while also ensuring you’ll have a gaming group on tap in the months to come…

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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.

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In the latest episode of their unswervingly loyal podcast, Ken and Robin talk Night’s Black Agents vampire concealment, Gideon & Longknife, Robin’s Yellow King novel, and Time Inc vs the Iowa caucuses.

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One stretch goal we didn’t get to in the DRACULA DOSSIER Kickstarter was the Plague capstone, where Dracula weaponises a new virus and takes over the world. I rather wish we’d hit that one – all that research and preparation would have been handy right about now.

Anyway.

Like the rest of the world, the Pelgranes are hunkering down and hiding in our respective nests while we weather this strange time. We’re switching our games online, we’re obsessively washing our claws, and we’re hugging our loved ones (or waving at them from a suitably safe distance). We’re mostly old-school gamers – virtually all of my gaming is face-to-face – so it’s something of a learning curve. But there’s no alternative, as we stare into this year of social distancing and probably-no-cons. No doubt many of you are in similar situations.

So – what can we do for you? What sort of resources, articles or products would be most useful to you in the days to come? Do you want more One-2-One scenarios to play at home? More content for virtual tabletops? Essays on running games for kids? Online panels? Let us know in the comments.

And stay safe out there. A world-wide threat that we can fight by staying home and gaming? This is the time we’ve been training for all our lives!

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St. Patrick St. Patrick. Your only man, really. Taken as a slave to Ireland, escaped, then went back to bring Christianity to the heathens of Ireland. A grasp of both theology and vegetation, by all accounts. Got rid of the snakes, so he did, so he did. Best known now for being a really effective marketing campaign for Irish tourism, but put that aside for now – and grapple with seven shamrock-flavoured GUMSHOE scenario seeds. Most of these are best taken with a pinch of salt… or a generous portion of Writer’s Tears whiskey…

Trail of Cthulhu

St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland, and we all know what snakes are a metaphor for, right? Tentacles. The pagans of Ireland had associations with underwater prehuman civilisations and monstrous gods – clearly, an outpost of the Deep Ones. The only question is, who was Saint Patrick working for? He’s said to have been inspired by a dream – which might be the mocking meddling of Nyarlathotep. Another tale speaks of his staff sprouting into a tree, which smacks of the Black Goat’s work. Or maybe his abduction wasn’t to Ireland, but to Yuggoth – was St. Patrick a tool dispatched by the Mi-Go to rid Ireland of the Deep Ones (or Serpent People)?

In 1937, your investigators are about to find out, when the draining of a bog reveals an ancient ruin…

Night’s Black Agents

A parade’s always a good place for a fight scene. It’s usually Chinese New Year or Carnivale, but there’s no reason you can’t have a cinematic chase sequence with the participants dodging through brass bands, Irish dancers and leprechauns. (Of possible use – plenty of police offices and priests, just what you need when hunting vampires). Bonus points if you set it in Ireland, maybe while pursuing clues from the Dracula Dossier – Irish Patrick’s day parades tend to be rather shabby and dull compared to American extravaganzas, so you’ll have heroic life-and-death battles on the back of a float advertising some local insurance company…

Mutant City Blues

The victim’s a mutant, so the case landed on your desk. How do they know she’s a mutant? Her skin’s bright green, shifted as part of the celebration using the Alter Form ability. It’s fading, though, which gives you time of death – about three hours after the parade. Alter Form’s correlated with Impersonate – and there was an incident during the parade where a firework went off right in front of the mayor’s stand, clouding the whole area in smoke. Could that have been cover for a switch-out? Was this mystery mutant mimicking the mayor? And if so, why? And who killed her?  

The Esoterrorists

The Irish are, in general, relatively easy-going. Cultural stereotypes of drunken brawlers with a dozen kids and a pig under one arm? Sure, ‘tis all in good fun. 800 years of oppression? Well, aren’t we all Europeans now?

Calling it “St. Patty’s Day?” War to the knife.

Why? Why does that error trigger blind rage? Why do other countries insist on doing it, when “Paddy” is right there? I mean, that’s not great either. And “St. Pat’s” is fine – what strange, esoteric sorcery is there to implant such horror in two little letters?

And once the Esoterrorists have refined this sigil, what else might they attach it to? The Illuminati had their fnords – what if the Esoterrorists successfully create a magical rune that can cause outbreaks of fury in anyone who unwittingly sees it?

Ashen Stars

The synth-culture planet of the Old Country was created to appeal to Human nostalgia for some vanished past that never was – it’s a planet of scenic little cottages, dreary bogs, dancing at the crossroads, and lively village pubs. During the Mohilar War, however, a Durugh warfleet occupied the peaceful Old Country. These Durugh refused to believe the war was over, have rejected the Durugh king’s command to switch sides, and have dug in, constructing underground shelters accessible only by phasing. Down there, they’re experimenting with last-ditch doomsday weapons including time-manipulation technology obtained from the Mohilar…

So, you’ve got an idealised fiction of mid-19th-century Ireland, occupied by heavily armed fairies. The Lasers get called in to find a way to convince the Durugh to lay down their weapons and accept that the war is over.

TimeWatch

No St. Patrick, no Christianity in Ireland. No Christianity, no monasteries. No monasteries, no preservation of knowledge during the Dark Ages. No preservation of knowledge during the Dark Ages, VICTORY OF THE SOPHOSAURS! The TimeWatch team need to guard young Patricus and ensure he meets his destiny…

EXCITING BONUS CONTENT!

Here in Ireland, and across much of the rest of the world, St. Patrick’s Day parades have been cancelled due to the, er, world-wide pandemic. There are plans afoot for virtual or roleplayed parades – kids will be sticking appropriately green-themed artwork in the windows across cities – and moving real-world events into imaginary or virtual spaces is a skill we’ll all have to master very quickly in the weeks to come. So, join us in our festive St. Patrick’s lockdown, and stick a shamrock in the window.

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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.

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For no reason that I can think of offhand, you may be wondering how to stay fit now that you’ve been sent home from work.

(In this scenario you are lucky enough to have a job that can send you home, and also fortunate enough to be able to contemplate an exercise routine.)

I swore I wouldn’t become the guy who talks about his workout but as someone who already works where he lives, I do have this one weird trick some of you may find useful.

If you don’t have the room or dough for a full-sized exercise bike, head to your online retailer of choice and type in “mini exercise bike” or “portable exercise bike” in order to own a cheap piece of plastic junk like the one pictured here.

As you can see, durability is not its strong point. The onboard timer on this one crapped out about a year in. The straps that keep your feet in the pedals have long since been replaced by generations of duct tape.

But if you pull up a chair, slide your feet in, and are ready for a bit of annoying wiggling around to keep it in position, bingo, you’ve got all the benefits of a fancy schmancy exercise bike.

I use the interval training system, the stop-start method of one minute fast and strenuous, alternated with one minute slow and leisurely. Over the last few years I’ve had bizarrely great results with it. As I am not a doctor or a fitness coach, I’ll leave you to research the details of interval training from people who are.

My whole routine, timed to songs, goes like this. For warm-up and warm-down, I pick songs between 3:30 – 4:30 long, except for the fast songs to cycle to, which can be any length as long as they add up to eight minutes.

One arm warm-up

One leg warm-up

One song of vigorous arm exercise

Eight minutes of interval on the bike, alternating fast and slow in one minute intervals

One medium tempo warm-down

One slow tempo warm-down

I use a phone app to time the shifts between intervals. There are a bunch of them out there. The one I use is the aptly named Interval Timer.

If you can stand my taste in music, I have a whole bunch of Interval training playlists on my Spotify account. Because I am a game designer, I have numbered them so I can pick one at random each morning. Here’s an example:

I find it much easier to talk myself into doing this routine than general aerobics. Yes, that’s what I’m saying, it is easier and gets better results than anything I’ve tried before. The biking even somehow gives markedly better results on the arm stuff. And while this paragraph makes it sound like I have purchased an interest in a mini-bike manufacturer. I assure you that I have not.

In particular I find this routine easier than calisthenics because, once the arm exercises are done, I can look at my phone the rest of the time, countering the WELL-DOCUMENTED MIND-NUMBING BOREDOM OF EXERCISE.

With interval training you are supposed to rotate days of not doing it. I am a non-stickler on this bit, usually knocking off on the weekends.

If you are anything like me you may also be happy, as we hunker down in our enclosed spaces for the coming rough patch, to have a way of offloading useless stress adrenaline. There are only so many beers. Or so many beers you should drink in a given period, at least.

And that’s the end of me breaking character. After this is over, remember, I never told you any of this.

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In the latest episode of their crispy-in-a-good-way podcast, Ken and Robin talk agency in the sandbox, air frying, Alphonse Bertillon, and numbers stations.

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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.

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In the latest episode of their multi-layered podcast, Ken and Robin talk narrative voices in RPG play, Whitey Bulger & MK-ULTRA, curse tablets, and Oswald Wirth & Stanislas de Guaita.

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For the long cases they seized proved upon opening to contain some exceedingly gruesome things; so gruesome, in fact, that the matter could not be kept quiet amongst the denizens of the underworld.

— H.P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Although DELTA GREEN keeps most of its attention focused north of Boston during the ripples following Operation RIPTIDE in 1963 (FoDG, p. 179), the area south of Boston attracts plenty of attention from its cousins in overt law enforcement. During the 1960s, Providence, Rhode Island served as the headquarters for the New England Mafia, running operations as far north as Maine. Where better to focus a few DELTA GREEN eyes in (or around) the FBI? Other federal fingers can poke in from the Naval War College in Newport and the Quonset Point Naval Air Station (ONI, DIA), or even the Rhode Island Nuclear Science Center (DARPA, AEC). Even if the Executive Committee doesn’t know why Providence should be a priority, your players might guess.

That’s Mister Patriarca to you, pal

Whoever’s looking at Providence, they’re going to be looking at Raymond “The Man” L.S. Patriarca, Sr. (b. 1908), the godfather of the New England mob. A former gambler, drunk-roller, and pimp, Patriarca graduated to burglary, safecracking, and armed robbery as Prohibition cemented the power of organized crime. After two brief stints in prison (a year and a day on Mann Act charges in 1933, and four months in 1938), he emerged as a savvy hood, “just the toughest guy you ever saw,” and rose through the ranks of the New England Mafia to become underboss in 1947. In 1952, Boston godfather Filippo Buccola retired, moving to Sicily to start a chicken farm. Patriarca took over and moved headquarters to his home town of Providence in 1956, leaving Gennaro Angiulo (b. 1919) in charge as underboss in Boston. Angiulo plays a divide-and-conquer strategy with the Irish gangs, sending hitter “Cadillac Frank” Salemme (b. 1933) to kill the last two members of the McLaughlin gang in 1966 to put the Winter Hill Gang tenuously on top.

Patriarca runs his empire from “the Office,” a two-story building on Atwells Avenue in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence. The National Cigarette Service Company and Coin-O-Matic Distributors based there somehow get their machines everywhere in New England, but earn only a fraction of the revenue Patriarca commands. He runs race tracks, including the Berkshire Downs and Hancock Park in Massachusetts and Lincoln Downs in Rhode Island. He has a large stake in the Dunes and Desert Inn in Las Vegas; after 1967 he controls almost all the fresh seafood shipments out of New England to the rest of the country. In addition to gambling, the Office oversees prostitution, pornography, robberies, and truck hijacking, and runs union rackets through Arthur Coia Sr. (b. 1914) of the Laborers International Union. About a dozen top soldiers run these operations and oversee others in Rhode Island: strip club racketeer Luigi “Baby Shacks” Manocchio (b. 1927), strong-arm man Giovanni “Candy” Candelmo (b. 1905), the “Swiss watch” mastermind and hit man John “Red” Kelley (b. 1914), and others. Frank Forti (b. 1916) taps carnivals, fairs, and similar attractions all over the state, while the fence Alfredo “The Blind Pig” Rossi (b. 1920) manages gangs of shoplifters and “boosters” all over the country.

Patriarca’s rules include keeping a low profile, paying all his men generously, and ruthless enforcement of his will. Rule three takes precedence: among other challengers, he has John F. “Jack” Nazarian, one of his own killers, whacked in a Providence restaurant in 1962 in front of 22 witnesses. The Office has ample pull in Rhode Island politics, including Governor Notte, Providence Mayor Joe Doorley, North Providence police chief Jack de Stafno, U.S. Senator John O. Pastore,  state legislators including majority leader (1966-1976) Joseph Bevilacqua, along with numerous judges, state’s attorneys, and lesser figures. Patriarca has a national reputation, to boot. He sits on the governing council of La Cosa Nostra, and even gets recruited by the CIA for Operation MONGOOSE in 1960: he contributes minor league second baseman turned hit man Maurice “Pro” Lerner (b. 1935) to the Castro kill squad.

The FBI begins its full-court press on Patriarca in 1961, as the losing Irish mobs call in the Kennedys on their oppressor, and wiretaps “the Office” starting in 1962. In 1964, Patriarca funds a gun-running depot disguised as a seminary in Maine, to be run by the American Nazi Party through his enforcer Louis “the Fox” Taglianetti (b. 1903). In 1965, his gambling chief and underboss Frank “Butsey” Morelli (b. 1896) dies of throat cancer; thinking “The Man” weakened, burglar Raymond “Baby” Curcio tries robbing Patriarca’s brother Joseph’s house and meets a fatal comeuppance. In 1968, Patriarca’s soldiers kill at least three more rivals and possible informants.

FBI pressure eventually shows results. Patriarca cuts out Joseph “the Animal” Barboza (b. 1931), a former light-heavyweight boxer and contract killer, from the Office for his flamboyant excesses in 1966. From prison, Barboza cuts a deal with the Feds, and the FBI indicts Patriarca in June 1967 for the 1966 murder of Providence bookie Willie Marfeo, trying and convicting him in 1969. The Bureau also flips “Red” Kelley, whose testimony indicts and convicts Enrico “the Referee” Tameleo (b. 1901), Patriarca’s underboss, for the 1965 murder of Teddy Deegan in Boston. (Courts later overturn Tameleo’s conviction, when evidence surfaces that FBI agent H. Paul Rico (b. 1925) perjured himself and suborned witnesses including Kelley.) Patriarca goes to Atlanta Federal Prison for five years, then serves two years in prison in Rhode Island (his parole letter is signed by Joseph Bevilacqua), running “the Office” from behind bars with his son Ray Jr. (b. 1945) as nominal figurehead.

Two Offices, One Fate

While Patriarca reigns in Providence, the Fate climbs to power in New York (FoDG, p. 288). So how does Patriarca’s reign fit into the shadowy world of sorcery and the Unnatural? Depending on whose undependable testimony you buy, Patriarca either deals narcotics through cut-outs or not at all, a pair of possible models for his dealings with the Fate. He deals with the New York families mostly through Tameleo (a Bonanno), and through his made man Nicholas “Nicky” Bianco (b. 1932), a Colombo associate. It’s possible that Patriarca keeps the Fate at arm’s length inadvertently, by keeping New York at arm’s length from his turf.

Regardless of Patriarca’s sensitivities, the Fate and Stephen Alzis want things in Providence, and in New England in general. But Alzis has the other Five Families to overawe; he may be slightly overextended reaching out to Providence. Does Patriarca use the Unnatural to fight the Fate? Was he one of the “hi-jackers” who opened alchemical coffins meant for Charles Dexter Ward in January 1928? Did he find another passage into the Pawtuxet cellar, and clear it out? Did he hear stories on the Providence docks, or run rum with weirdly bulging-eyed sailors? Perhaps he has some use for mind-switching witchcraft – he did, after all, get out of prison in Massachusetts in 1938 (for possession of stolen jewelry – an Innsmouth tiara perhaps?) after only four months by sending “an unknown girl” to bribe Massachusetts Governor Hurley.

Or does Patriarca hate and fear the Mythos’ poison even more than he hates and fears Alzis’ Lords? Possibly as a kid he got a bad scare playing in the abandoned Starry Wisdom Church on Federal Hill, just down Atwells Avenue from his own Spirito Santo Church. Maybe he was one of the Italians holding candles to hold back the Haunter of the Dark that August night in 1935. And now he’s holding more than candles, and his connections might let him pull in DELTA GREEN to help him light them up.


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.

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In the latest episode of their starry starry podcast, Ken and Robin talk alternate reality tech levels, Sarah Saltiel, emergent continuity and Belle Epoque astrologer Ely Star.

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In the latest episode of their pageant-like podcast, Ken and Robin talk where to start with Earth, your conspiracy bookshelf, Moina and Samuel Mathers, and The Rise of Skywalker.

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Crown of Axis Cover

A funny thing happened on the way to the Crown of Axis arena. Wade’s request for a cover image featuring two powerful female gladiators had been executed in style by Aaron McConnell:

original sketch

For a change, Aaron decided to hand-paint the piece, old school instead of digital. That turned out to create a delivery problem. At first, the paints wouldn’t dry. Well, they dried a bit, but the yellow was taking a loooooong time. Then Aaron’s scanner tech couldn’t pick up the colors he’d painted with properly. Neither could Aaron’s photos.

drying on the easel

So Aaron went over to Lee Moyer’s house, since they were working together on a different project and Lee has a Serious Scanner. And if you know Lee, you know Lee’s super-power—he had suggestions. They got the piece scanned and then worked together on the paints, turning a high-noon situation into an evening showdown. Aaron held onto the piece for another couple weeks, but he has overcome separation anxiety and is calling it done!

Crown of Axis cover by Aaron McConnell, with paints assist by Lee Moyer

 

 

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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.

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Sex is…

…exploring your partner’s body like an adventurer in a surreal landscape

…experimenting at a BDSM party in search of your perfect kink match

…helping your lover reach new heights of pleasure…with your vampire bite

…a confusing yet exciting gossip topic for slumber parties

…masturbating with balloons and talking about it in a chat room

…not gay if it’s with your bro

…almost everything you do, if you’re hosting an alien symbiote

…difficult to describe using only a plate of sandwiches

 

Honey & Hot Wax is an anthology of games about sex by a diverse group of nine designers, edited by Lucian Kahn and Sharang Biswas. From games that merely talk about sex, to larps that feature sex acts, these games will challenge how you think about roleplaying, sexuality, and human relationships. The anthology includes a foreword by game designer Naomi Clark of Consentacle and a chapter on safety and consent by Maury Brown. It also includes games suitable for remote play via video chat and games ideal for those living together during social distancing. 
 
Buy PDF now
 
Honey & Hot Wax includes the following live action roleplaying games:

In the Clefts of the Rock

by Lucian Kahn (Twitter: @oh_theogony)

You are a sentient, otherworldly landscape, and an explorer of landscapes. A surrealist game about touching each others’ bodies while imagining them to be other worlds.

 

Follow My Lead

By Susanne

An exploration of kink and kink negotiation where you play dominants and submissives searching for your ideal partners by leading or being led blindfolded through space.

 

Feeding Lucy

By Jonaya Kemper (Twitter: @VioletRiotGames)

A sex larp based on Bram Stoker’s classic vampire novel. Play the Lucy (a person whose body and desires are policed by society to be “pure”) or the Dracula (a vampire who in feeding off Lucy’s latent desires seeks to help her free herself to join the ranks of the beautiful creatures of the night).

 

The Sleepover

By Julia B. Ellingboe (Twitter: @QueenOvPirates) & Kat Jones

Play as adolescents learning and sharing knowledge about sex, sexuality, and gender identity. Explore how you take what you’ve heard from others and figure out what is true for you. 

 

Pop!

By Alex Roberts (Twitter: @muscularpikachu)

Play as people who love and have sex with balloons. Build community and culture in cyberspace!

 

The Echo of the Unsaid

By Sharang Biswas (Twitter: @SharangBiswas)

Two ostensibly straight college boys explore unresolved sexual tension, and quite possibly, romantic attraction. You tell the story of sex by not talking about it, letting silence speak volumes.

 

You Inside Us

By Kat Jones & Will Morningstar (Twitter: @RiverOfInk)

A romance for two people in one body. You play as a human host and the alien symbiote living inside them, sharing their senses. You’ll learn new ways to touch and feel, letting yourselves blur together until it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins.

 

Pass the Sugar, Please

By Clio Yun-Su Davis (Twitter: @cysdavis)

Friends and strangers meet for afternoon tea only to realize that they already hooked up with someone there at a secret BDSM sex party. Can you convey messages about your intimate experiences using only descriptions of the food?

 

This collection was made possible in part by a grant from the Effing Foundation for Sex-Positivity. (Website: effing.org)

Stock #: PELSW03D Author: Sharang Biswas, Lucian Kahn, Clio Yun-Su Davis, Julia Bond Ellingboe, Kat Jones, Jonaya Kemper, Will Morningstar, Alex Roberts, Susanne
Artists: Jana Heidersdorf Format: PDF

Buy PDF now

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Get Carcosanized

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.

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In the latest episode of their delicious yet impeccably organized podcast, Ken and Robin talk GUMSHOE with more die rolling, Auguste Escoffier, Hellenism at the British Museum, and Belle Epoque bookhound Edmond Bailly.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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By Jason Morgan

So you’ve played GUMSHOE One-2-One’s Cthulhu Confidential or Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops, and now every time you look at your gaming shelf those campaigns and scenarios you’ve always wanted to run but couldn’t pull a group together regularly enough to do it catch your eye. One-2-One makes gaming easy. It’s just you and a friend–one GM and one player. But how do you convert a scenario from Stunning Eldritch Tales or tackle the globe-spanning Eternal Lies?

GM Jason here, along with my player Nick (a.k.a. Langston Montgomery Wright from our year-and-a-half Cthulhu Confidential campaign that included a scenario from Pelgrane’s Mythos Expeditions and Chaosium’s legendary Masks of Nyarlathotep, and currently playing Jans Whorlman, an ex-MI-6 vampire hunter in our Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops campaign) with tips for how to convert adventures to the GUMSHOE One-2-One system. (If you want to hear how Nick found it, his perspective is here).

The Investigation

Luckily, GUMSHOE investigation ports over nicely to One-2-One. The biggest difference is substituting a Push for a point spend. Note that it’s not a one-to-one conversion (pun intended). GMs should use their judgement asking for Pushes when the standard GUMSHOE scenario asks for a point spend. Remember the core tenet of GUMSHOE: The player always gets the Core Clues. As a One-2-One GM, it’s your job to help get your Player to the next clue.

Which brings us to our first tip:

Sources/Contacts

Both Cthulhu Confidential Sources and Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops Contacts provide friendly NPCs for the Player to lean on. And lean on them they will. While there are nuances between Cthulhu’s Sources and Night’s Contacts, it’s imperative that you make them helpful. Use them to talk like another player without giving more away than necessary.

In a GUMSHOE One-2-One game, the player will internalize most of the information. To expand on the core books’ advice: Sources allow the player to open up, discuss possibilities, and collaborate on next steps. It also provides you, as the GM, a window into your player’s headspace. Is she frustrated? Confused? Unsure of the next step? Sources can help alleviate the stress of being the only player.

Make the Sources relevant to the Scenario’s setting. For example, in a globe trotting campaign like Eternal Lies, have local Sources available to the player when she reaches a new city. My player started in New York with four Sources. He traveled with two of them to Africa where he met a local tour guide and newspaper editor Sources who could give him the lay of the land and provide setting context.

Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops Contacts are shiftier than Sources, but remember: how contacts respond can either ratchet up the tension or provide a much needed pressure release valve. The same judgment you used in how the Contacts responded to the player in the core book scenarios will be how you handle them in your converted campaign as well.

Prepping and improvising challenges

You’ll want to try to stay one session ahead of your player when prepping challenges. At the end of a session, ask you player what direction she’ll take the investigation in the next session. This will give you some direction.

Of course, players love to spoil even the best laid plans. You don’t want to railroad your player into your prepped Challenges, so be flexible.

For me, prepping Challenges for upcoming scenes helped me understand how the scene related to the current investigation, the motives of the NPCs, and the opportunities or challenges that would arise if the die fell one way or another. Sometimes I’d get lucky and be able to use the Challenges I prepped as I prepped them, but more often than not, I’d modify them to fit my player’s actions, repurposing Edge and Problem cards as needed.

One thing that didn’t usually change, regardless of the General Skill called for, were the Setback, Hold and Advanced numbers. It’s important to continue to be transparent with these numbers even when you’re making them up on the fly. The Tables in Cthulhu Confidential (p. 291) Night’s Black Agents: Solo Ops (p. 96) do a great job of giving you an idea of where to set these numbers. If you’ve ran through the adventures within the core books, you should also have a good idea of Challenge difficulties.

The Golden Rule when improvising Challenges: Your player will not know what was prepped and what wasn’t. Take comfort in that, and by all means never tell your player what was prepped and what was improvised. The game always according to plan even when you’re making up that plan as you go.

In addition to the designing Edges and Problem advice in Cthulhu Confidential (p. 46) and NBA: Solo Ops (p. 99), here’s a great resource for coming up with Edge and Problem cards on fly:

https://site.pelgranepress.com/index.php/cards-on-the-fly-in-one-2-one/

Most importantly–be creative! Have fun coming up with unique cards. You can even get your player involved. Ask her to come up with the Edge or Problem if you’re stumped.

List of improvised Edges
List of improvised Problems

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which leads me to…

Work with your player.

GUMSHOE One-2-One requires more openness with the PC than other systems because it’s just the two of you. It’s important to maintain the narrative mystery but be open to working together to create the story. To echo both core books: It’s okay to have meta-game discussions. If you sense your player feels lost or frustrated, you should be asking your player meta questions like:

  • “What’s holding you back?”
  • “What are you confused about?”
  • “What’s frustrating?”

As a GM that might be a good time to get a Source or Contact involved to help the player along. Or maybe the player needs to stop the session to take some time to mull over the information.

Here’s what my player, Nick, had to say about investigation obstacles:

“It’s implicit in the genre that there will be times when you don’t have much to go on, particularly in the beginning of new investigation or setting. I think this is okay and fun because it means that you aren’t just riding the rails. As a player, you trust that the GM isn’t going to leave you swinging in the wind forever, that you will find something if you keep looking. If you have a clue or two… follow them.”

GMs, take Nick’s advice–don’t leave your player floundering for long. Give them the time to work through the information, but provide resources like helpful Sources/Contacts to get them to the next scene and clue.

Working together is imperative to running a successful session and a telling a collaborative story.


Jason Morgan is a writer and default gamemaster for his groups. You can follow him on Twitter @jmarshallmorgan where he shares his game prep and hopes his players aren’t reading.

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“I said to him, ‘What disguise will hide me from the world?’ … He looked at me with his large but indecipherable face. ‘You want a safe disguise, do you? You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless; a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb?’ I nodded. He suddenly lifted his lion’s voice. ‘Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!’”

— G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

I’ve been reading a pair of books by the pair of spies who consecutively headed the Disguise Section of the CIA’s Office of Technical Services (OTS), Antonio Mendez and the then Jonna Goeser (now Jonna Mendez). The Master of Disguise (1999) is a relatively straightforward memoir by Mendez; The Moscow Rules (2019) re-tells some of the stories in the earlier book but ties in some now-declassified missions such as the CKTAW weapons-lab tap, on which Mendez ran the disguise-and-evasion component.

Antonio Mendez meeting Jimmy Carter in 1980

Antonio Mendez meeting Jimmy Carter in 1980 — OR IS IT?

A long-time fan of stage magic, Mendez also pioneered the re-introduction of illusion and misdirection as key techniques of disguise and evasion. Ever since 1953, when the CIA recruited the magician John Mulholland to train its agents in (and write a manual of) sleight-of-hand for brush passes and covert drink-dosing, the Agency has paid at least some attention to its flashier brethren. (Mulholland stayed with the Agency as a consultant through at least 1958, developing a set of covert hand signals and investigating ESP.) Mendez specifically adapted stage techniques such as “keep them comfortable” — let the audience think they’ve seen through the illusion — and forced aversion — a reverse of the gorgeous assistant drawing the viewer, something unsettling that viewers instinctively avoid — in counter-surveillance techniques.

 

In Night’s Black Agents, the Agents use Filch for brush passes and the like. For evasion through misdirection, allow a one-time 3- to 4-point refresh of Surveillance for a clever description of how you accomplished the task right under the enemy’s eyes (“keep them comfortable”) or how you got them to look away for just long enough (forced aversion).

Spy Gear: Disguise

To hear Mendez tell it, at least, CIA disguise tech made a giant leap in a decade under his direction, mostly the result of his decision in 1971 to consult with Hollywood makeup genius John Chambers. Chambers, who designed Spock’s ears and the apes in Planet of the Apes, was also a diehard Cold Warrior, always up for experimentation. Here’s a quick rundown (using Mendez’ terminology, which is almost certainly bogus) of the developments in disguise between 1971 and 1981.

FINESSE: Agents can use this quick-drying liquid flesh to paint on any new facial features they like, available in varying skin tones. Available in the early 1970s, and possibly earlier if DELTA GREEN went to Hollywood before the Agency did. Requires a Disguise test to apply, but lowers Difficulty of tests against being recognized by 1.

GAMBIT: This thin face mask and long gloves allow an Agent to appear to be of a different race, complexion, or facial type (with FINESSE inserts). Available ca. 1971, used by the CIA in Indochina. Requires no Disguise test to apply, allows Agents to blend into a crowd. Lowers visual-recognition Alertness Modifier of non-expert (Alertness Modifier <+1) spotters by 1. This is what Agents should use if they don’t plan on encountering active surveillance.

SAM: Stands for Semi-Articulated Mask. This half-face mask composed of several small pieces of latex joins up with the eyes using FINESSE. It allows full mobility of and use of the mouth; it often incorporates a beard (less conspicuous behind the Iron Curtain, or infiltrating student movements). Debuted ca. 1977, based on the ape masks in Planet of the Apes (1968). Requires a spend of 1 point of Disguise to apply; provides a pool of 3 points to spend avoiding being recognized (usually Disguise or Surveillance tests). Pool is 4 points if a beard can be inconspicuously incorporated into the SAM.

DOTR: Stands for Disguise-on-the-Run. The CIA uses a New England tailor to create specialty clothing, in this case fully-reversible clothing that by itself allows the agent to re-roll a failed counter Surveillance test after donning it. The full DOTR developed in the late 1970s incorporates compressed garments that can be put on (or put themselves on) over the Agent’s clothes while walking, in about 45 seconds. The late DOTR changes cut and type, even going from a diplomat’s trench coat to the fuzzy pink dress of an elderly lady. Changing into the full DOTR requires a spend of 1 Disguise point but provides a 3-point refresh of your Surveillance pool against a spotter or tail.

DAGGER: This thin face mask fits into a small paper bag, and can be applied by touch and while walking. Development began in 1978; it becomes available in 1981. By 1989, a DAGGER mask is completely paper-thin, can markedly change your appearance, hold makeup, and appear natural even to trained observers. A Dagger mask is one-use, and cannot stand up to rain, heavy physical activity, or being punched in the face. It provides 5 pool points (3 or 4 for earlier models) of Disguise or Surveillance to escape enemy searchers; when the pool is empty, the mask is too badly degraded or sweaty to keep using.

If the CIA had all of this gear by 1981, they very well might have straight-up Mission: Impossible face mask technology (Double Tap, p. 64) by now. At the very least, between 3D printing and micro-thin fiber materials, the ability to print a skin-thin, photographically realistic (passing video surveillance and anything but up-close examination), self-adhesive DAGGER face mask to resemble a specific target almost has to be off-the-shelf tech by now. That would lower Disguise Difficulty for specific impersonations by 1 or 2, as well as providing the other benefits of a DAGGER.

DELTA GREEN might well have looked into such matters earlier, so Fall of DELTA GREEN Agents could justify FINESSE and GAMBIT, and perhaps specialty SAMs intended to provide the Innsmouth Look.

“A disguise is only a tool. Before you use any tradecraft tool, you have to set up the operation for the deception.”

— CIA agent “Bull Monahan”

TFFB: Just Don’t Look

The Agents use Intimidation (to spot a psychological weak point) or an Investigative 2-point spend of Shrink (to identify a phobia either from a psych profile or surveillance) on their future watcher. An Agent under surveillance by that watcher then pushes that weak point or triggers that phobia by their actions. For the next round, the Difficulty of their Surveillance test to escape watch (or their Disguise test to suddenly don a DAGGER or similar) lowers by 2.

TTTB: Know Your Audience

Europeans rest their weight on both feet; Americans usually favor one or the other. Americans and South Asians make eye contact with the opposite sex at different speeds. And so forth; knowing tiny cultural details allows you to blend into a crowd of foreigners. By spending Human Terrain, the winger can add pool points to the striker’s Disguise or Surveillance pools to blend into such a backdrop.


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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In the latest episode of their always activated podcast, Ken and Robin talk sandbox encounters, our top 2019 movies, and the tomb of Christian Rosenkreutz.

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In the latest episode of their mephitic podcast, Ken and Robin talk playing the secret assassin, sand pirate GPS spoofing, Clark Ashton Smith, and the terrible name megalosaurus almost had.

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Terrors Nextdoor

Next time you need an ordinary fear to escalate into horror territory, check out the Twitter account @bestofnextdoor. It highlights the oddest and funniest posts from the Next Door social media platform. Frequented mostly by older homeowners, it provides a forum for people to talk to their neighbors. Often this talk concerns yet other neighbors they’re worried about or wish to air beefs with. One thing most of us humans fear is other humans—generally with good reason. But what happens when the malign, unknown persons who share our quiet street with us band together with the animal kingdom, as seen here?

All you need to venture into horror territory is to take one of these neighborhood fears and give them a terrifying reality.

In Fear Itself, some sinister force could be marshalling area felines as spies or killers. They could have gained a collective sentience, perhaps putting humans back on the menu. They could be controlled by aliens, their old friends the witches, or demons of the Outer Dark. A nasty creature could be mistaken for a cat when seen fleetingly—or when observers’ minds reject the weirdness of what they did see, in favor of the comfort of what they must have seen.

In Trail of Cthulhu, weird cat behavior could suggest Dreamlands activity. Dreamland residents entering our world could bring cats of Ulthar in their wake. The appearance of strangely stealthy and intelligent cats could appear as an early symptom of a rift between waking and sleeping realms. Maybe they’ve come to find Randolph Carter to confront a dread manifestation back in Ulthar, but instead have to settle for the player characters.

Obsessive thoughts about cats in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game might likewise be a symptom of a shift in subjective reality, or a rupture in the objective one, particularly in the “This is Normal Now” sequence. Carcosa might make you think the cats are at fault, as a cover for its own actions in the neighborhood. But who’s to say that the alien realm of the Tattered King isn’t crawling with evil, sentient tabbies?

A pair of new Shock cards might help you develop that further:

AILUROPHOBIA

Shock

-1 to Focus tests.
No more than once per scene, confide your fear that cats are up to something to a witness, suspect or authority figure. Even: discard.

CAT HARASSMENT

Shock

Before taking any Presence test, roll a die. Odd: you see a cat or an image of a cat, and lose 1 Composure.

If that test succeeds, trade for “Ailurophobia.”

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The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook (DH) covers the present-day Legacies of the main members of the Crew of Light – Billie Harker, Tabitha Holmwood, Thad Morris and the rest, the descendants of the original group who battled Dracula. However, Dracula Unredacted reveals the existence of several other members of this fellowship who, for reasons sinister or editorial, were excised from the narrative. Once the players discover the existence of Kate Reed or Inspector Cotford, might they not try to track down their present-day heirs?

Here’s the first in a short series covering some other Legacies…

 

Anna Marshall

She’s in her early 40s, but looks and dresses younger; she lives in departure lounges and hotel lobbies. Her accent is transatlantic; her personality buried with her conscience. If you ask, Anna says she works in public relations, but she won’t give you her card. She’s employed by a small firm, ReVu, that specializes in crisis management public relations. They’re the people you call when you’re a celebrity who was just caught with a dead prostitute, or a tech company who just broke democracy. ReVu has a portfolio of special assets – they’ve got private detectives and hackers to dig up dirt on your detractors, botnets and troll farms to spread disinformation, and lots of blackmail material. The firm exists in the same space as companies like Black Cube or Cambridge Analytica; it’s headquartered in London, and definitely wasn’t founded by any ex-spies.

Marshall’s role is handling the traditional press (she has lunch with the Tabloid Journalist, DH, p. 134) regularly, and trades barbs on twitter with the Journalist (DH, p. 120), but she usually stays under the radar. She tells herself that any day now, she’s going to leave all this behind her, maybe move into the charity sector (maybe Heal The Children, DH p. 150), but she knows she’s made too many enemies to just walk away. Also, damningly, she’s good at this.

She has no idea of her ancestry, although she might recall seeing a photograph of her great-great-grandmother Kate Reed in her parents’ place. Optionally, she inherited a brooch like the Westenra Brooch (DH, p. 284). She sleepwalks, especially around mid-March.

Innocent: For certain values of ‘innocent’, obviously. ReVu might get hired by any well-connected Character or Node to deal with trouble caused by the Agents. Likely clients for Kate include either Holmwood (DH, p. 43/44), the Hungarian (DH, p. 94), maaaaaybe the Psychic (DH, p. 96), the Art Forecaster (DH, p. 103), the Drug Boss (DH, p. 113), the Petroleum Executive (DH, p. 127) and a bunch of Nodes like Nox Therapeutics (DH, p. 163).

Anna’s conscience isn’t completely dead; if reminded that objective truth and genuine goodness still exist, she might be motivated to assist the Agents. Getting her to read Kate Reed’s Diary (DH, p. 272), showing her the true extent of Dracula’s evil, or just a hefty Interpersonal spend might convince her to help the Agents.

Another possibility: Marshall hires the Agents as freelancers to track down dirt on some political foe; if the Agents need ready cash, a simple little breaking-and-entering side job might appeal. From there, they can discover the truth about their employer.

Asset: ReVu is an Edom cut-out, possibly founded by a retired ex-Duke (a previous Timnah, DH, p. 53) or the MI5 Deputy (DH, p. 95). The company handles cover-ups and media monitoring, and occasionally employs vampiric mind control to flip a witness or guarantee a story gets buried. Marshall’s too junior to know much about ReVu’s connections to the Secret Service, although she does know the higher-ups sometimes have urgent meetings at Ring (DH, p. 173) or Exeter (DH, p. 167). If she knew about the Reed file that marks her as a Legacy, she might flip on her employer.

Minion: Marshall’s family have been part of the Satanic Cult of Dracula (DH, p. 55) for generations; she was initiated as a priestess of Dracula at the age of 13, left alone in the Red Room (DH, p. 187) overnight to bathe in the psychic influence. ReVu covers up the cult’s excesses; once Dracula makes his move, the company may be ordered to expose or discredit Edom, distracting “D” with political pressure and scandals while the vampire breaks free. This version of Marshall is likely irredeemable (assuming she’s not a full-on vampire); she expects to be an immortal handmaiden of the Count once he takes over the world.

Defining Quirks: (1) Carries an antique umbrella (2) At least three phones (3) Sleeps with the lights on

Investigative Abilities: High Society, Traffic Analysis, Negotiation

General Abilities: Network 15


The Dracula Dossier reveals that Dracula is not a novel. It’s the censored version of Bram Stoker’s after-action report of the failed British Intelligence attempt to recruit a vampire in 1894. Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan have restored the deleted sections, inserting annotations and clues left by three generations of MI6 analysts. This is Dracula UnredactedFollow those clues to the Director’s Handbook, containing hundreds of encounters: shady NPCs, dangerous locations, conspiratorial nodes, and mysterious objects. Together they comprise The Dracula Dossier — an epic improvised, collaborative campaign for Night’s Black Agents, our award-winning vampire spy thriller RPG. Purchase the Dracula Dossier starter kit bundle in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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In the latest episode of their chainsaw-handed podcast, Ken and Robin talk comedic horror games, OSS graphic design, Guy Maddin, and sky amoeba UFOs.

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Bring Mind-Bending Spellcasting to The Yellow King Roleplaying Game

Ritual magic of the Belle Époque! The desperate Science Jaune of a war-torn continent! Parageometrical horrors perfected in the labs of the tyrannical, overthrown Castaigne regime! Signing, the latest way to turn social media dysfunction into sorcerous reality!

Your players can master them all—at perilous risk!

Each spell is a Shock card with effects both useful and sinister. Do they hold onto that that spell they need to do that thing, even as their inner realities start to break apart? Or do they take the safe route, and cast out the buzzing, insistent power of the Yellow Sign?

 

Black Star Magic features new magic rules for The Yellow King RPG, including 144 startling spells, background material on Carcosan magic in all four YKRPG settings, and GM guidance showing you how to incorporate player-facing occult powers into your game.

Plus, a quartet of scenarios, allowing the characters of each sequence to make double-edged deals with the world of sorcery:

  • Dancer at the Bone Cabaret pits the art students of Paris against a force that lures their Bohemian friends to the latest, hottest nightspot. But are they the patrons, or items on the menu?
  • A Casket at Le Thil sends the supernatural-quashing soldiers of The Wars into a village haunted by subterranean enemy activity.
  • Memories of a Dream Clown confronts the victorious revolutionaries of Aftermath with a treasured but tarnished memory of childhood—and murder!
  • Love Wears No Mask finds This Is Normal Now’s ordinary heroes battling an intrusive yet enthralling phone app, and the dramatic goings-on of the subtly destabilizing dating reality show it promotes.

Play them separately, or chill your players with all of them. All they have to lose is their grip on reality…

Stock #: PELGY11 Author: Robin D. Laws, Sarah Saltiel, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, and Ruth Tillman
Cover Art: TBD Format: Black and white perfect-bound book, ~176 pages

Pre-order Black Star Magic now

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It’s official – the GUMSHOE Community program is live!

We announced in our Swords, Spies and Shoggoths panel at Gen Con (which you can listen to here, thanks to our friends at the Plot Points podcast) that we were launching the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of Ashen Stars (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own Ashen Stars content on DriveThruRPG.

We’ve got a number of great Ashen Stars PDFs already available, to show you what’s possible. These include:

If you’re interested in learning more about the GUMSHOE Community program, check it out here.

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In the latest episode of their scrappy but determined podcast, Ken and Robin talk underdog opponents, the Sandby Borg massacre, All Rolled Up’s Fil Baldowski, and lunar metal.

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Just before Christmas, I finished off the first part of my home campaign of THE YELLOW KING. We’re running it at a fairly fast pace (we’re alternating sessions with Warhammer in deference to the sensibilities of players who want to hit things with swords), and with only a limited number of sessions, I based virtually all the adventures around the player’s Deuced Peculiar Things.

It’s useful to my mind to think of YELLOW KING scenario planning as a grid. Along the top, you’ve got the array of Carcosan characters and tropes – The King, his Daughters, the play, the Yellow Sign, Castaigne, Mr. Wilde, black stars, madness – and any elements from the current sequence (Parisian political and artistic intrigue, the Continental War, the overthrow of the Castaign regime etc). Along the side, you’ve got the prompts provided by your players as Deuced Peculiar Things. You dig for horror and mystery where those lines cross.

So, my players gave me:

  • Chester: I met an enchanting man in a bar, we shared a night of passion, but I woke up in bed to discover I was lying next to a woman, who left without a word.
  • Sillerton: I dreamed I was at a strange party in a chateau outside Paris; when I investigated, I learned that the chateau burned down many years ago.
  • Ada: My brother Theo has vanished and no-one else – not even my other brother Chester – remembers he ever existed.
  • Reggie: My cat had a litter of kittens, but they came out as this ghastly congealed mass of conjoined bodies and limbs, a sort of feline centipede.
  • Dorian: I saw L’Inconnue de la Seine, and chased her into an entrance to the catacombs.

While I could have started with any of these, I picked Reggie and his cat-monster for two reasons. First, it’s the most immediate problem – three of the others are weird encounters, and Theo’s been missing for some time (and felt more like a long-running plot than a trigger event), whereas Reggie’s catipede was right there (well, right there in a bag, as they hammered it to death very quickly). Second, cats give me a link right to Mr. Wilde from the Repairer of Reputations (the mania he had for keeping that cat and teasing her until she flew at his face like a demon, was certainly eccentric. I never could understand why he kept the creature, nor what pleasure he found in shutting himself up in his room with this surly, vicious beast.”)

Carcosan Hybrids

So, what’s the crossing point? What Carcosan element might Reggie’s cat intersect with. A flip through the Paris book gave me the matagot (p. 159), a supernatural Carcosan spy in the shape of a cat. Maybe Reggie’s pet cat mated with a Carcosan entity, and that spawned the malformed catipede?

That worked – and instantly gave me a horrible consequence to play with. If mating with a Carcosan entity creates some sort of hideous hybrid… and Chester slept with a mysterious shapeshifter…

But if I was going to make hybrids a big part of the plot, I needed a reason for them to exist. The cat might be a random encounter, but why would some Carcosan courtier take the time to sleep with Chester? I went with the concept of anchors in our reality, which let me bring in the dreadful play and foreshadow stuff that’ll come up in the Aftermath sequence. So, Carcosa needs to get its hooks into reality. It starts with the infiltration of a concept, a malign thought – the play. As the play corrupts reality, it allows the establishment of stronger anchors, allowing Carcosan entities to cross over physically. They then create even stronger anchors, bootstrapping an invasion.

Living Statues

Dorian’s encounter with the mysterious inconnue connected to this plot too. L’Inconnue died in the 1880s, so she must have been a ghost, an illusion or some other supernatural weirdness. I decided to loop in both the art world and another of Chamber’s tales, the Mask. If there’s a mysterious fluid that turns flesh to stone, then maybe the same fluid could turn stone to flesh. The girl with the familiar face was a statue brought to life using Carcosan chemistry. Why? Because these living statues were the middle-stage anchor – host bodies of pseudo-flesh used like space-suits by Carcosan nobles in the period before they could manifest in all their glory.

The Cult of the Yellow Sign

So, there was still a gap in my cosmology – if the existence of the play in a given reality corrupts it enough for Carcosan weirdness to filter in, and if Carcosan weirdness gets worse as the King’s court establishes stronger anchors and invades, where did the play come from in the first place? I still had two Deuced Peculiar Things to play with – the vanished brother, and the mysterious party.

I came up with a sketched-out occult society who experimented with telepathy, spiritualism and other weirdness, the Society Jaune, who accidentally made contact with the King and saw the Yellow Sign. Theo fell into the clutches of survivors of this cult, and wrote the play after exposure to the Sign. A twist of temporal weirdness through Carcosa let me shove Theo out of linear time and back to the burning of the cult chateau during the Siege of Paris.

The View From The Cheap Seats

Obviously, slotting Deuced Peculiar Thing A into Carcosan Motif Y is only part of the adventure-design. Just because I knew that, say, a crazed sculptor was creating statues and bringing them to life in the catacombs didn’t mean I had a full adventure ready to go. All this technique gave me was a set of Alien Truths to build adventures around. However, keeping everything strongly connected to the players’ Deuced Peculiar Things and the most significant bits of the Yellow King Mythos let me give the players a whistlestop tour of Dread Carcosa while giving satisfying answers to all their Deuced Peculiar prompts.

The Wars start next week. Check back in a few months to see how that turns out…

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“They say much of blood and bloom, and of others which I comprehend not, though I guess what they mean; but nevertheless they tell us all things which we want to know.”

— Abraham Van Helsing, in Dracula, by Bram Stoker

Through the persons of writer-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the BBC (and its pals at Netflix) has vouchsafed to us in this year of our Lord 2020 yet another tilt at the Dracula windmill, this time in a three-episode limited series. (Hereafter, “D2020“. Also hereafter, spoilers.) The specific merits of this iteration aside (which include a rich, Hammer-inspired camera palette and a credibly terrifying Dracula when he shuts up) it also — as with every version of Dracula, or of Dracula — provides a fair few gameable spins on the myth, and on vampires. For example, the bite of D2020 Dracula creates revenants (they look like zombies, but probably use mostly Feral stats (NBA, p. 150)); only a few of his victims survive Infection with enough personality to become true self-willed vampires themselves. The many, many boxes and crates (and habitrails, and fridges) of ferals work very effectively on screen, and likely works well at the table — it makes those warehouse fights more interesting, that’s for sure.

So let’s settle in and dip our fingers in the BBC’s goblet, shall we?

Dracula, hungry for learning

New Power: Drain Knowledge

When Dracula drinks any blood from a human in D2020, he knows their name and something of their background almost immediately. When he drains them, he picks up their entire knowledge base, possibly even including physical skills. (In episode 3, he complains of the taste of a physicist and a professional tennis player.) His language patterns shift, and he even (briefly) picks up a meaningless exercise habit from modern Londoners. Even by smell, he can detect members of a familiar bloodline and something about them.

Vampires with Drain Knowledge gain immediate, surface knowledge of any human whose blood they taste. A big sip (at least 1 Health) gives them the equivalent of a 0-point spend, or a few minutes’ Google search: name, background, emotional state, family connections, etc. Bigger drinks burrow deeper, uncovering closely held secrets; when the amount of Health consumed equals the target’s Stability (or kills the target), the vampire knows every aspect of the target’s thoughts and memories, including buried traumas or brainwashed secrets. (An Agent can resist giving up a secret with a successful Stability test against a Difficulty equal to 4+ their lost Health.) Even a quick gulp (2+ Health drained) provides language and social skills that allow the vampire to briefly blend into the target’s society (the equivalent of 1 point in High Society or Reassurance or another relevant Interpersonal ability); completely draining a suitable target provides technical skills if needed (e.g., a Transylvanian warlord can suddenly use Skype). As a rule of thumb, each point of Health drained past the first provides the equivalent of 1 point in an ability.

In D2020, this seems like a free (almost unavoidable) power; if the vampire can control it, it costs 1 point of Aberrance per target or per scene.

Node: The Jonathan Harker Foundation

The third episode also shares a liter or two of DNA with The Dracula Dossier, not least its covert vampirological operation. In D2020, this secretive medical charity operates out of (and beneath) Cholmely House, a crumbling Victorian building in Whitby near the Abbey ruins. Named for the dead fiancée of Mina Murray, built on the infrastructure of the nuns’ order at the Hospital of St. Joseph and Ste. Mary (DH, p. 230), and backed by mysterious financiers, it conducts hematological research and searches for the body of Dracula, presumed lost at sea with the Demeter. Its staff includes doctors and mercenaries, and its facilities include a glass-walled prison with a remote-controlled sun roof.

EDOM: Obviously, this was the first version of the vampire prison, before EDOM built the holding facilities on HMS Proserpine. In some campaigns, this might be the only vampire prison, or a staging area for Proserpine transfers (DH, p. 178). This also fits a much smaller version of EDOM (even Dustier or more Mirrored than on EFM p. 58), one that has to contract out mercenaries (via a shell corporation) for security instead of depending on the SAS’ E Squadrons. Either way, its guards use the Special Operations Soldiers stats (NBA, p. 70).

CIA: Or the Russians, or the Chinese, or whomever. Some other agency runs the Harker Foundation, tasked to steal a march on EDOM by trawling the seas off Whitby for lost vampires — either prisoners escaping from Proserpine, or vampirized sailors from the Demeter crawling anoxically over the bottom of the North Sea. Or perhaps, as speculated on DH p. 178, Whitby is one of the magical gates to England, so anyone looking to snare a vampire does well to set up shop here. Either way, they have to keep things to one building and use deniable mercs to avoid MI5 or EDOM noticing.

Conspiracy: Boy, Dracula got ahold of a WiFi-enabled tablet pretty easily in that show, didn’t he? What looks like an idiot plot is actually the action of Dracula’s sleeper agents, left behind in Whitby to infiltrate just such a facility. He funds it through cut-outs, and allows it to operate on the “keep your enemies closer” school of thought, and as a way to release useful blood samples or lore into the British medical stream.

Connections: At one point, the Foundation canonically has a Vial of Blood (only a single tube rather than the jar on DH p. 284), and a Legacy (Zoë Helsing instead of Dr. Jacqueline Seward (DH, p. 47) but you can switch those out). Given the number of vampiric revenants lying around (nine in Highgate Cemetery alone), the Foundation may have synthesized any of the Seward Serum (DH, p. 51), Serum V (DH, p. 162), Blomberg Serum (DH, p. 282), or Luria Formula (DH, p. 114). If it’s EDOM, it’s part of Dr. Drawes’ operation (DH, p. 50); it may also employ the Pharmaceutical Researcher (DH, p. 128). Its charity work could overlap or partner with Heal the Children (DH, p. 150). Its mysterious backer might be the venture capital group (or government black budget) behind Nox Therapeutics (DH, p. 162), which might have memos or (apparently) even regular Skype session logs documenting their connection. Since we know it runs human trials on the surface, its tunnels potentially even hold Camp Midnight (DH, p. 252) or the British (or private-sector) equivalent. Given its connections to the Budapest hospital, the Hungarian (DH, p. 94) likely knows enough to set Agents (or the Journalist; DH, p. 120) on its trail.


Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite puts you in the role of a skilled intelligence operative fighting a shadow war against vampires in post-Cold War Europe. Play a dangerous human weapon, a sly charmer, an unstoppable transporter, a precise demolitions expert, or whatever fictional spy you’ve always dreamed of being — and start putting those bloodsuckers in the ground where they belong. Purchase Night’s Black Agents in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

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In the latest installment of their well-rounded and informative podcast, Ken and Robin talk resource refreshing, the espionage career of the inventor of the pie chart, Earthdawn, and Gustavus Aldophus.

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“I could but tell them how I had just emerged from dungeon and jacket in the morning, and without rhyme or reason, so far as I could discover, had been put back in the dungeon after being out only several hours.”

— Jack London, The Star Rover

The only problem with dungeon crawls is there aren’t enough of them. I don’t mean that in a lived-experience sense, or even in a per-game sense. I mean, when you’re running a 13th Age game, as I have been for a good while now, there just aren’t enough dungeon crawls available that fit: a) your party’s level; and b) the general parameter of where the campaign sits at the moment. To say nothing of the paucity of dungeon crawls set in the Hellenistic-era Seleucid Empire, but I admit I’ve pretty much made my own bed in that particular case.

Don’t get me wrong: the dungeon crawls we do have are great! If your characters are ready for them, go right ahead and toss them into the maw of a living dungeon and wait for the chewing to commence! But any given dungeon, no matter how great, might not be right for your campaign, or at least not right now. For more impromptu encounters, I have put the Battle Scenes books to good use everywhere from a volcano in Sicily to Mt. Hermon in Coele-Syria to a dusty provincial capital in Parthia, but they’re necessarily somewhat open-ended and thus require a bit of chivvying the PCs that a good old “march down there and kill ’em” dungeon doesn’t.

A really great 13th Age dungeon. Everyone says so.

Fortunately, there are approximately eight billion other dungeon adventures available for Those Other F20 RPGs, and after a bit of skeptical poking I have become a total convert to totally converting them to 13th Age. And by “totally converting,” I mean, “doing just enough.” (If you want to see Whoa Plenty Converting the other direction, allow me to point you at Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s 5e conversion of Eyes of the Stone Thief.) Let me provide you guidance on such enough-ness, by way of three examples from my own campaign.

For the first dungeon, the characters were 4th level, in Ephesus in Asia Minor. I knew I wanted a drowned city, as Lysimachus drowned Old Ephesus by re-routing a river in 292 BC. (In my history, it was a siege; in our history, it was exuberant urban renewal.) On the advice of Will Hindmarch, I converted Dragons of Despair, an AD&D 2e adventure (Levels 4-6) by Tracy Hickman (the first of the Dragonlance series) to the city of Old Ephesus. For the second dungeon, I needed a fire temple, as my players (by now 6th level) were headed to the Zoroastrian shrine Adur Gushnasp to recover their occultist and the Ark of the Covenant, which the duplicitous Persian magus Gaspar had stolen with a dimension door. At Dark Side Comics & Games in Sarasota I thumbed through all the Pathfinder adventures (on the grounds that a fire temple should be jam packed with Stuff) until Legacy of the Impossible Eye (for 11th level PCs) fell into my hands. At ChupacabraCon in Austin, meanwhile, I had picked up a pretty cheap copy of the original AD&D 1e Against the Giants compilation, and I confess to planting the Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl (for Levels 8-12) deliberately in the (7th level) characters’ path on Mount Kaukasos. So, how did I do it, and how can you? Easy, that’s how.

Step One in dungeon conversion: Find a module that fits where your characters are already going. This might just be “a dungeon,” if they’re that kind of wandering monster-killers, but in my case it needed to be a drowned city and a fire temple. I just held on to the glacial rift until the PCs decided to go gather Prometheus’ blood from the top of Mount Kaukasos, and turned it into the “front door” of the mountain.

Step Two in dungeon conversion: Convert or replace the monsters. This isn’t as hard as it sounds. First, most dungeons only use a few monsters, and many of them already have direct 13th Age versions. Second, 13th Age monsters are very easy to shift up or down the scale if need be. As it was, for example, I took the Dragonmen and Gully Dwarves from Dragons of Despair and made them Drakonae (blackscale kroma dragonics) and Khudi (my Greekified name for c.h.u.d.s, but using kobold stats). Frost giants are pretty much frost giants, so no swapping required. I did swap Indian giants, or Daitvas (re-skinned ogre magi), in for the fire giant ambassadors in the original G2, mostly because we’d just had a lot of fire giants in Legacy. Swap (or stat) out as many as you think the players will encounter that session, or do it all at once if you’re fancy. I didn’t change numbers appearing, treasure (except to cut back on permanent items in favor of gold or healing etc. potions), or traps, because a dungeon is supposed to be pretty grueling. Well, I lie; I added a garrison to the fire temple in Legacy, since it was supposed to be active not abandoned, but I left everything else in place, just changing “former council chamber” to “council chamber” and the like.

Step Three in dungeon conversion: Find the “special thing” in the dungeon and replace it with whatever your PCs are looking for. In Dragons, it’s the Disks of Mishkal; they became the Tablets of Cadmus, the first writing. Also I put the mummified Queen Thalestris of the Amazons (and her Sword) in an otherwise empty chamber because the Amazon PC needed something special, and Ephesus has always been an Amazon city so an ancient queen mummy fits in. The temple in Legacy came with a prison (for the occultist) and a treasury (for the Ark instead of the