Ken and Robin mark 9 years of podcasting with a 450th episode LIGHTNING ROUND!!!

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This cocktail isn’t as brilliant an invention as the GUMSHOE mechanic of the same name, but it’s mighty tasty all the same. If you’re drinking it, you have by definition planned in advance to have the ingredients on hand.

Preparedness Test

1 ½ shot Kraken spiced rum

½ shot red vermouth

½ can aranciata rossa

3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir. Serve on the rocks.


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 installment of their clearly enunciated podcast, Ken and Robin talk geocaching scenarios, the CIA’s Rex Harrison mask, directional taboos, and sinister Argentine occultist José López Rega.

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To discard most Shock cards, characters in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game pay a price or take a risk. There’s an easier way to make this Shock Card disappear.

Shock Card

2 shots bourbon

½ shot cherry brandy

1 shot red vermouth

2 dashes Angostura bitters

½ can limonata

Stir, serve on the rocks.


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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The advent of some mutant abilities has created whole new categories of criminality, while other powers are covered by existing laws. It’s still aggravated assault with a deadly weapon if you threaten someone with a sharp blade, even if you grew that blade yourself using your Natural Weapons ability. Some of the more obscure legal interactions that might crop up in your Mutant City Blues campaign…

The use of the Cognition power is treated as card-counting in Mutant City casinos; it’s not technically illegal, but those known to possess the power are banned by the casino owners and forcibly ejected if found to be gambling.

Of all the Command powers, Command Insects is the most likely to cause serious property damage or degrade the ecology of the local area. A common use of the power is the so-called ‘Pied Piper’ effect – instead of spraying a structure for termites or other insects, a mutant can just compel the insects to leave. Practising this form of extermination commercially requires a licence, and proof that the mutant has somewhere to safely dispose of the insects.

Using Earth Control’s earthquake ability is a legal nightmare, exposing the user to endless suits for damage to property. Earthquake-hit structures must be thoroughly examined by a qualified engineer to ensure they are still sound.

Illusion is a tricky power when it comes to the law. Many uses of illusion fall under existing laws covering fraud, deception, intimidation and so forth – there’s no difference, legally, between conjuring an illusion of a monster, and putting on a monster costume to scare someone. However, as illusions leave no traces or physical evidence, it makes proving a crime considerably harder. Attempts to have non-consensual, non-declared illusions deemed illegal have foundered in the courts, and there’s a growing number of professional illusionists who use their abilities for quasi-legal activities like providing alibis (‘six witnesses saw my client drinking in the bar when the prosecution claims he was robbing the house’).

Plants under Plant Control count as tools or weapons, so using a plant to entangle someone counts as assault even if you never lay a finger on them. That said, it can difficult to conclusively prove that a particular plant controller was commanding a particular plant, leading to the trope of the ‘Mad Gardener’, a hypothetical plant controller who wanders around Mutant City controlling plants at random, and who just happened to be passing when the defendant was alleged to have used the same power.

Reduce Temperature can result in reckless endangerment charges if the mutant uses the ability in an enclosed space with others present.

Speed limits do not apply to runners or cyclists, so the Speed power is not restricted. However, using Speed in highly trafficked areas may result in charges for jaywalking.

Webbing counts as littering.

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In the latest episode of their chill, sweet podcast, Ken and Robin talk scenarios with multi-year time scales, a colonial dream archive, 19th century cocktails, and the OTRAG project.

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Redmedic

In the reality horror world of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, a redmedic is a parasitic humanoid guised as a doctor or nurse.

In our reality, it is a refreshing cocktail starring muddled fresh strawberries.

Redmedic

2 shots gin

¼ shot gum syrup (or simple syrup)

3 dashes rhubarb bitters

3 – 5 strawberries

½ can club soda

Muddle strawberries and syrup with extreme prejudice, add other ingredients, stir. Serve on the rocks.


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 green but not envious podcast, Ken and Robin talk premise subversion, the Bert & Ernie theory of creative production (with Jeff Tidball), Poe in the Yellow King, and TikTok moldavite curses.

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Black Lake

Today’s cocktail brings lightless deliciousness from the Lake of Hali.

Black Lake

2 shots Cachaça

2 shots chilled espresso, incl 2 tsp sugar or sweetener

6 shots water

2 dashes mole bitters

½ tsp vanilla extract

Stir. Serve on the rocks.

Requires the advance prep of making and chilling the espresso, but more than worth it.

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By Kevin Kulp

Combining focused ambition with poor judgment is a great basis for an adventure. When you want to run a last-minute Swords of the Serpentine game and aren’t sure where to begin, start with one or more of the factions. You’ll see an example of this in the two free adventures here at See Page XX, The Dripping Throne (which starts with Commoners and Mercanti) and Sin-drinker (which starts with the City Watch and Thieves’ Guilds).

The following supporting characters and plot hooks, one for each of the twelve factions, focus on rebels: people who aren’t afraid to stand up to the status quo, even when it may be dangerous or foolhardy. Grab these, change them, and make them your own as you populate your own game.

Read part 1 here.

Mercenaries

Concept: A rogue Mercenary company, funded by one of Eversink’s rivals, hopes to undermine and destabilize the city – and will work (almost) free for anyone with those goals.

Description: The Company of the Golden Coin is a mercenary company with a patriotic and trustworthy name, a charismatic leader, and a rebellious plan to undermine and destroy the city’s church and government.

Funded by a rival trading city in nearby Capria, Commander Lielle presents herself as a stunningly straightforward, competent, and trustworthy leader. It’s this skill that has allowed her to avoid prosecution for two drunken murders, a mutiny, and three separate acts of possible terrorism. Lielle and her soldiers are in Eversink to spy and surreptitiously make its defenses and stability worse, and they’ll charge less for any job they think might help accomplish that. They only work for clients, though; that way if it all goes sideways, they can heroically and patriotically kill their client and claim it was that person’s fault all along.

Plot Hook: The Heroes stumble into the Company of the Golden Coin time and time again as they face off against foreign or subversive enemies, and soldiers in the company seem to have legal protection against prosecution or arrest. Research shows that’s due to poorly written pro-mercenary laws Lielle managed to influence, laws that say only the client who hires a mercenary company can be held liable for their actions. The problem is, the Company of the Golden Coin now consider the Heroes a personal threat, and volunteer their service to any of the Heroes’ enemies who want to hire them.

Alternatively, the Heroes find a dire threat to Eversink’s security or stability, and it’s the Company of the Golden Coin who are responsible for making sure the Heroes can’t do anything about it.

 

Monstrosities

Concept: Important civic leaders are making oddly kind decisions, declaring new out-of-character – and generous? – policies and laws for several days before disappearing and dropping out of sight. The Watch assumes they’ve been assassinated for their boldness, and they have.. but not in the way anyone expects.

Description: Ilgazar is a facestealer, a doppelganger who literally steals someone’s face and identity when he takes their form. He has a bold new theory: monstrosities in Eversink tend to feed on the poor, sometimes including their emotions. Right now many people are sad, beaten down, and hopeless. What if, Ilgazar reasons, he could help make the poor healthier, happier, and more welcome in their own city? Then Commoners would thrive… and so would monstrosities who feed on them.

As a result, Ilgazar is targeting church elders, political officials, committee leaders, and judges – anyone with the authority to make life less miserable for the lower classes. He steals their identity, spends several days setting new selfless policies, then kills the victim and moves on to his next target. Ilgazar is no mastermind, his tactics are going to become predictable, and the Heroes are going to be able to catch him. The question is, once they do, will they want to stop him?

Plot Hook: After rumors of five other church and political leaders acting generously before disappearing, Swanmother Gabriella’s assistant in the Church of Denari fears the worst when she orders coins and food distributed for free to the poor of Sag Harbor. Not wanting to look stupid in the church hierarchy if he’s wrong, Gabriella’s assistant hires the Heroes to investigate. Why has her personality apparently changed, and what is she up to? Finding the actual Swanmother’s body in an unsealed crypt, unconscious with no face, may lead the Heroes to confronting Ilgazar. When they do, Ilgazar is more likely to confess than run. Can he recruit the Heroes into helping improve life for people instead of confronting him?

 

Outlanders

Concept: An exiled princess from the Borderland kingdoms arrives in Eversink to recruit help winning back her stolen kingdom – and a surprising number of people want to kill her, cheat her, or take advantage of her. The Heroes get to pick a side, whether that’s to leave Eversink and help win back a kingdom – or to just help the princess navigate the politics and perils of Eversink.

Description: Princess Kayleth was raised in the saddle with a sword and a bow within easy reach. When her kingdom was overthrown she swore to take it back from the usurper who slew her father and stole the throne, but she’s going to need help (and money) to do so. So far she has neither. But rumors travel quickly, and there is plenty of opportunities to win a fortune working with her – or to win a fortune assassinating her for the warlord who stole her kingdom.

To complicate the matter, decide her backstory. Is she the legitimate ruler? Is she loved or hated? Was her father a bandit who stole the kingdom from the man who then stole it back and currently rules it? Are her enemies fully human? What makes the kingdom so important? Does she have more secrets that even she isn’t telling?

The answer to that last one is “yes”.

Plot Hook: Rumor reaches Princess Kayleth’s advisor that the Heroes are a good and trustworthy local contact in Eversink. Her enemies hear the same thing and try to hire the Heroes first.. and if they can’t, they might try to remove the Heroes from the picture instead. This plot hook is particularly good if you want a longer adventure where the Heroes are traveling, forced to work alongside a newly-hired mercenary company to defeat the Princess’s foes.

 

Sorcerous Cabals

Concept: Charismatic devotees of a foreign demon come to Eversink. Instead of keeping their presence secret, they stay strictly within the law and make themselves incredibly well-known – as they work to undermine the church’s authority simply by being more popular, more interesting, and more stylish than Church officials.

Description: The Valiant Order describe themselves as worshipers of a foreign god, and that’s debatable; every single one of their elite membership can wield sorcery, and they promised their souls to a demon for power. Their “god” gives them easy access to sorcery that helps them manipulate others. None of them would dare externalize Corruption in the city of Eversink, however, because far too much is at stake.

The goal of the Valiant Order is to find the bright ones, the people who shine, the naturally charming and beautiful and charismatic in Eversink – preferably amongst Commoners, but they’re not too picky. Then they seek to induct these people into the mysteries of their order, and prepare them to bring about the overthrow of the Triskadane.. not by sorcery, but by creating natural leaders with political power who are sympathetic to their cause.

Plot Hook: The Valiant Order works hard to convey that they are far too prestigious and well-known to touch politically, but the Inquisitors have their suspicions… and as they explain to the Heroes, if this is a cult, the longer they wait the more difficult it will become. Their hands are tied, however, probably due to cult interference with their superiors. They ask the Heroes to infiltrate the Valiant Order or otherwise find out what they’re really up to, and to acquire proof that will let the Inquisition sweep in legally. What the Heroes find is far worse than anyone expected, however, and the most expedient way to destroy the cult might also kill everyone in it. Is the risk (and the ensuing power struggle) worth it?

 

Thieves’ Guilds

Concept: In a plot hook partially inspired by Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, a new thieves’ guild sponsored by a Mercanti family makes it their mission to steal from all the other thieves’ guilds – and then blame the thefts on an entirely innocent Mercanti rival, hoping that they are crushed in the process.

Description: The Guild of Feathers (formally “By appointment by Her Munificent Mother, the Right and Official Guild of Feather-plucking and Waterfowl”) is a small and rapidly declining guild headquartered near the slaughterhouses of Sag Harbor ever since they were unable to pay their rent on their old guildhouse in Temple Market. Their bailiwick is the use and resale of feathers from any poultry or seabirds slaughtered within the city. In truth, however, most of their business has been blatantly stolen by richer and more prominent guilds such as the Guild of Goose-keepers. The Guild of Feathers can’t afford the legal fees required to fight their rivals in court, and so they are destined to be run entirely into the ground within the next decade, their remaining contracts bought up for loose change by their former rivals.

Their guildmaster Orlando di Penna has decided that he prefers to go out fighting. He is using his remaining funds to finance a group of exceptionally talented thieves and con artists who have little loyalty to Eversink’s traditional structure. These thieves, led by Orlando’s sister-in-law (and possibly the Heroes themselves, if that’s fun for your group), are to rob and anger as many of Eversink’s thieves’ guilds as they possibly can. Ideally she will work them into a frenzy of paranoia and suspicion. Then, at the right time, she will pin the thefts on the Guild of Goose-keepers. Orlando expected the Goose-Keepers to go down in blood and flame, and he’ll be there to step in and pick up the pieces. The best defense, he reasons, is one dramatically out of proportion to the offense that inspired it.

Plot Hook: The Heroes could approach this plot as the thieves themselves, agents of the Guild of Feathers, agents of the Guild of Goose-keepers, agents of the thieves’ guilds who have been robbed, or even City Watch assigned to investigate the thefts. As they learn details it’s up to them to decide what to do; whatever their choice, it’s certain that some other group will object, and that’s when the blades come out. In addition, what happens to all those ill-gotten gains that were stolen from the thieves’ guilds? That’s an adventure in itself!

 

Triskadane

Concept: At the height of summer in the middle of a heat wave, a sorcerous cabal offers a fortune for a Triskadane coin – and the resulting chaos, theft, forgery, scams, and murder throw the city into chaos.

Description: The Triskadane are  secret members of Eversink’s ruling council, selected by the goddess by way of a divinely-infused golden coin. Whether it’s true or not (that’s up to you), popular belief is that if you steal a council member’s coin you also steal their role as a secret lord of the city. The Children of Ytt are a sorcerous cabal that loves creating chaos, and they decide to seize the opportunity during a brutal heat wave that is already causing dissent. They announce that they’ll give 100 Wealth (which is basically a lifetime of wealth, especially if people start trying to murder you for it) in exchange for a real coin. They also claim enemies of theirs are the cult members who will make the exchange. Virtually every faction erupts in anger or greed, and a whole series of dangerous adventures might result.

Plot Hook: Whichever allied faction you find most interesting asks the Heroes for help in securing a coin, researching who might have a coin, protecting a real Triskadane member, or taking a coin away from a cult member (real or imagined). Meanwhile, it’s likely this much chaos is a smoke screen. What are the Children of Ytt really up to, and how is it worse than what they’ve already accomplished?

 


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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Both Paris and The Wars feature General Kits: prepackaged sets of General Ability scores, so a player can just grab a General Kit, pair it with an Investigative Kit, and quickly come up with a character’s ability ratings. The other two settings, Aftermath and This Is Normal Now don’t include General Kits, on the assumption that by the time the average Yellow King campaign reaches the third or fourth sequence, the players are familiar enough with the rules to dispense with them.

However, if you’re running a one-shot in either setting, or you need an extra character in a hurry, or (and I speak from deep personal experience) your players are astoundingly lazy, here are some quick General Kits for Aftermath and This Is Normal Now.

In both cases, they’re designed for Horror, not Occult Adventure.

Aftermath

If you’re playing in Occult Adventure style, then add 2 points to Composure, Fighting and Insurgency in each kit.

Agitator

You inspired people to rise up against the Castaigne regime with speeches, essays, and acts of public defiance.

Athletics 1

Composure 6

Driving 1

Fighting 2

First Aid 0

Health 4

Insurgency 6

Mechanics 6

Morale 6

Network 6

Politics 6

Preparedness 0

Sense Trouble 1

Sneaking 1

 

Bruiser

You took the fighting to the streets, battling the Castaignes and their monsters and lackeys up close.

Athletics 4

Composure 6

Driving 2

Fighting 6

First Aid 2

Health 6

Insurgency 4

Mechanics 0

Morale 2

Network 4

Politics 2

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble 4

Sneaking 2

 

Cell Leader

You were an organiser and co-ordinator during the insurgency, planning attacks to destabilise the regime.

Athletics 2

Composure 6

Driving 2

Fighting 4

First Aid 2

Health 2

Insurgency 6

Mechanics 2

Morale 4

Network 6

Politics 6

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble 1

Sneaking 1

 

Fixer

You knew how to get things done, how to find necessities on the black market, how to scrounge and survive long enough to bring the regime down.

Athletics 2

Composure 6

Driving 4

Fighting 2

First Aid 6

Health 4

Insurgency 3

Mechanics 6

Morale 0

Network 2

Politics 3

Preparedness 6

Sense Trouble 1

Sneaking 1

 

Ghost

They never caught you. They never even suspected you, until it was too late. You struck from the shadows, terrorising the monsters like they terrorised ordinary people.

Athletics 4

Composure 8

Driving 2

Fighting 4

First Aid 0

Health 6

Insurgency 4

Mechanics 2

Morale 0

Network 0

Politics 2

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble 6

Sneaking 6

 

Mask-Wearer

You concealed your true intentions beneath a mask of flesh, and hid your support for the insurgency from your superiors in the regime. You held a position of influence or importance in the Castaigne apparatus – until you finally revealed yourself to be an insurgent.

Athletics 2

Composure 8

Driving 4

Fighting 2

First Aid 0

Health 4

Insurgency 4

Mechanics 0

Morale 2

Network 4

Politics 6

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble 4

Sneaking 4

 

Saboteur

You struck against the regime with carefully targeted acts of sabotage and destruction.

Athletics 2

Composure 6

Driving 2

Fighting 4

First Aid 0

Health 4

Insurgency 8

Mechanics 6

Morale 2

Network 2

Politics 2

Preparedness 4

Sense Trouble 2

Sneaking 2

 

Smuggler

You ran the ratlines and the underground supply chain, smuggling weapons or vital information or even people past the regime’s security checkpoints.

Athletics 6

Composure 6

Driving 4

Fighting 2

First Aid 0

Health 4

Insurgency 4

Mechanics 4

Morale 0

Network 4

Politics 2

Preparedness 4

Sense Trouble 2

Sneaking 4

 

Wheelman

You were a getaway driver, escaping Castaigne pursuers on the highways of America.

Athletics 2

Composure 6

Driving 8

Fighting 4

First Aid 0

Health 4

Insurgency 2

Mechanics 4

Morale 2

Network 4

Politics 4

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble 2

Sneaking 2

 

This Is Normal Now

If you’re playing in Occult Adventure style, then add 2 points to Fighting and Health in each kit.

 

Gym Enthusiast

You have capital-O Opinions about Crossfit.

Athletics 6

Composure 8

Driving 2

Fighting  4

First Aid 2

Health 6

Mechanics 4

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble  2

Sneaking 0

 

Haunter of the Coffee Shop

Or the bar. You like to chat and make connections.

Athletics 4

Composure 7

Driving 2

Fighting  2

First Aid 2

Health 4

Mechanics 2

Preparedness 4

Sense Trouble  5

Sneaking 4

 

Handy with a Drill

You’ve got a toolbox full of bits and pieces, and a workspace full of unfinished projects.

Athletics 4

Composure 9

Driving 2

Fighting  3

First Aid 2

Health 4

Mechanics 6

Preparedness 6

Sense Trouble  0

Sneaking 0

 

Gets Into Trouble

Maybe you don’t mean to get into scraps. Maybe you go looking for fights. Either way, you’ve seen more than your share of trouble.

Athletics 6

Composure 7

Driving 2

Fighting  6

First Aid 0

Health 5

Mechanics 2

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble  1

Sneaking 5

 

Petrol Head

You’ve got a car, and are very enthusiastic about this. You probably make some extra cash on the side using a rideshare app.

Athletics 2

Composure 8

Driving 8

Fighting  2

First Aid 0

Health 4

Mechanics 6

Preparedness 2

Sense Trouble  2

Sneaking 2

 

Way Too Online

Distressing Notification: Your screentime exceeded 24 hours/day for most of the last week.

Athletics 2

Composure 7

Driving 2

Fighting  2

First Aid 4

Health 4

Mechanics 3

Preparedness 5

Sense Trouble  4

Sneaking 3

 

Good In A Crisis

When someone has a breakdown or a breakup, you’re the one they call.

Athletics 2

Composure 9

Driving 2

Fighting  3

First Aid 7

Health 4

Mechanics 2

Preparedness 5

Sense Trouble  2

Sneaking 0

 

Runner-Up All Rounder

You’re pretty ok at most things, but don’t stand out in any field. Quiet competence, it’s the way to go.

Athletics 4

Composure 7

Driving 3

Fighting  4

First Aid 2

Health 4

Mechanics 3

Preparedness 3

Sense Trouble  3

Sneaking 3

 

 

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In the latest episode of their pagoda-protecting podcast, Ken and Robin talk realism in F20, pancake restaurant tomb looting, non-Western narrative traditions, and Theosophy on the Nostromo.

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Summer weather has made a surprise appearance up here in the land of the silverbirch. And that means it’s time once again for the feature that really draws you to a site for a publisher of tabletop roleplaying games—cocktail recipes.

Let’s return to the favorite color of our favorite grim-visaged, reality-bending monarch with…

The Yellow Thing

2 shots dark rum

½ shot hazelnut liqueur

Juice of 2 Key limes

½ shot simple syrup

5 dashes angostura bitters

½ can club soda

Stir and serve on the rocks.

As always, erode the bounds between normality and decadence responsibly.

2 Comments

In response to our scenario design workshop, we were asked to delve a bit further into the distinction between core and alternate scenes in a GUMSHOE adventure.

TLDR: Make sure there’s one path through a GUMSHOE scenario. Those are your core scenes. Add more paths. Those are your alternate scenes.

A Core Scene provides one or more core clues—information the characters need to find other scenes, where they will gain further information and ultimately gather all the facts they need to solve the central mystery.

To confirm that your story has such a path, plot your core scenes on a diagram. If you can draw a line connects them all, you have a story the characters can be successfully navigate.

For players to exercise agency, though, they must also be able to choose how they move through the story. That’s where the Alternate Scenes come in—they provide other ways for gain some or all of a scenario’s core clues.

You can build in player choice by using only Core Scenes, with scenes that include more than one core clue. If the scene “Library Fire” contains two core clues, which lead to “Coal Chute” and “Wary Widow,” the group that chooses “Coal Chute” first creates a different sequence of events than the one that picks “Wary Widow” first.

Alternate scenes allow a simpler, surefire way of guaranteeing choice within the story. If the core clue leading to “Coal Chute” is found both in “Library Fire” and “Map in the Glovebox,” the players can get to it from at least two directions.

You don’t need more than two or three alternate scenes. By definition, an alternate scene might not happen. By adding more of them you both increase choice, and increase the amount of material you prepare that won’t appear in play.

Not all alternate scenes include core clues. They might feature interesting or fun sidetracks that players can go down or not, as they prefer.

Other scenes might put the characters in danger without providing information. Most notable of these types is the Antagonist Reaction, triggered by player actions, in which bad guys initiate events that push back against the protagonists.

Non-informational scenes, triggered by player decisions, appear in some GUMSHOE games, an example being the Hazards seen in The Yellow King.

Every scenario diagram will and should look different. (The one shown here has its scene titles stripped out, to avoid spoilers.) As you can see, it is a pretty simple example, with a couple of Alternate Scenes and as many Hazards.

When designing a scenario, the first sequence of scenes you invent as you plot from beginning to end are your Core Scenes. That’s almost certainly the easiest and clearest course of investigation for the characters to follow.

When you build in additional choice by creating additional scenes that provide core clues, those are your alternate scenes.

The core / alternate distinction is a tool that helps the designer ensure that the scenario includes a) one viable path through the story and b) and other paths, too.

If you’re writing for another GM to run, the distinction shows your work, indicating which scenes will most likely happen and which ones might or might not.

Players never need to know any of this. For them, the scenes they choose to activate are the story. They don’t see what might have happened if they’d made other choices—unless they read the scenario, or get the GM to tell them.

Though the difference between the two scene types may seem complex when explained, it’s dead simple in practice:

  1. Find one sequence of scenes the characters can navigate to solve the mystery. Those are your Core Scenes.
  2. Add scenes that provide alternate paths through the scenario. Those are your Alternate Scenes.

As long as you follow those two simple steps, you can’t go wrong.


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 purple velvet podcast, Ken and Robin talk convincing your fellow players to follow your plan, Robert Anton Wilson, the not-Bronfman Curse, and NESARA.

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“I told you to keep to the paths. You wandered into the Yellow Zone.”

— No. 6 to Nadia, “The Chimes of Big Ben,” The Prisoner

Robert W. Chambers may have invented reality horror, combining Poe’s fragility of self with Bierce’s arbitrary universe and his own artistic flair, but it arguably reached its peak, ironically in a theatrical form, seventy years after Chambers opened The King in Yellow. More specifically, it peaked in seventeen plays – teleplays – that changed up Poe by leaving the narrator-protagonist as the only fixed point in a slipstream world. I speak, of course, of the greatest television series ever filmed, Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner.

Tell me, have you seen the Yellow Pennyfarthing?

If you haven’t watched The Prisoner, go do it right now. The constant threat to McGoohan’s Prisoner (designated No. 6 by his jailer, No. 2) is precisely the personality disintegration that follows exposure to the Play, weaponized and scientized by the Warders of the surreal Village. The Warders plant doubles, sleepers, and moles within the Village, so No. 6 never knows whom to trust. No. 2 arbitrarily manipulates and alters the Prisoner’s environment to catch him off guard or in a dilemma, forcing him to act without reliable outside information, hoping to grind down his resolve to resist. In short, No. 2 is a GM.

“The result is bad. (That the prisoner has escaped without betraying a single word of information useful to us.)”

— Robert W. Chambers, In Secret

In our brainstorming during the GUMSHOE Scenario Workshop, Robin, Gar, and I came up with the notion of a castaway on the shores of the Lake of Hali. This idea further inspired me with the notion of a Carcosan Village, and the unknown No. 6 immured therein. So how might you introduce a suitable No. 6 into your own Yellow King RPG campaign? The basic challenge is this: the more the Prisoner might know, the less he trusts the PCs to hear – and the less they should believe what he does tell them.

Perhaps the simplest version of the story involves a prisoner of The Wars, escaped from a mysterious prison camp on the northwest coast of Morocco (or was it Wales, or Lithuania?) who reaches the PCs, ostensibly his allies and fellow-countrymen. He tells them about this reality-shifting prison, and his miraculous escape – at which time, the players most likely start interrogating him as avidly as his former Warders did. How did you escape? Why did they focus their attention on you? Did you desert? Were you on a mission? What was it? A roaring, inflatable Pallid Sphere hunting their new comrade down could be proof of what he says – or proof that he’s its master, covertly using it to break their discipline. As a new enemy offensive weapon? As a test of loyalty by their superiors?

In Aftermath, the PCs uncover evidence of a Castaigne psychological prison-village in Harmony, Colorado, where Carcosan magic and arcane technology fuse to control every aspect of the inmates’ perceptions and beliefs. The PCs’ preferred faction wangles the authority to investigate it, assigning the PCs to oversee the cleanup as temporary liberation coordinators. But sadly, the prison records have been sabotaged or forged or both by the time they get there. Before they know it, the PCs have become the new Warders, and have to sort out which of the prisoners are genuine resisters, and which were the original Castaigne Warders – and who was the Carcosan representative who ran the prison-village from behind the scenes? One suspect seems very likely – if only the PCs could break him …

“Break down his sense of reality, No. 12. Once he begins to doubt his own identity, he’ll crack.”

— No. 2 to No. 6, “The Schizoid Man,” The Prisoner

Rather than set the PCs as the structural Warders, what about making them the Prisoners? On paper, it couldn’t be simpler: they go to sleep, and wake up in the Village just like No. 6 did, gassed and kidnapped and transported to a brightly-colored gulag. You could theoretically run a setup like this in any of the sequences, from a Carcosan outpost in 1895 that uses eerily futuristic 1960s technology to a weirdly retro facility in the modern day that seems to have been built by mad scientists in 1966. (In any version, you might think about having a beautiful female No. 13, as a tip of the hat to Chambers’ heroine.) The PCs might not even know the secret they must keep – that they are player characters, especially real thanks to their accidental linkage between realities. Hopefully they can distract their jailers during the community theater performance …

It probably works best of all in Aftermath or This is Normal Now. In the latter setting, they awaken in the former setting, perhaps even in their old PCs’ bodies again but with eerie knowledge of their “normal now” lives. Someone (A Castaigne holdout? An unscrupulous Guardian cell? An old villain from The Wars, somehow still alive?) has re-built or re-purposed the old Castaigne prison-village in Harmony to trawl for reality shifting life-lines and caught the PCs. They have to figure out who’s running this place, and how to get themselves sent (or send themselves) back to their proper timeline. But do their old PCs want them to succeed? Any unfinished business from the previous sequence should definitely come back to haunt them.

In Aftermath, the PCs wake up in a Castaigne-run Resort, an Beaux-Arts no-place reminiscent both of the TV series and of the Belle Epoque. Dr. 2 (“names are just labels”) informs them that the Castaigne empire never ended; they are here in the Resort to recover, so they can return to the valuable security work they were doing before their breakdown, hunting down malcontents and rebels like their PC selves. Come up with Castaigne regime figure identities eerily reminiscent of the PCs’ Aftermath selves, which the Resort attempts to fit the PCs into. Dr. 2 might be the sort of holdout or revanchist mentioned earlier, attempting to forcibly shift the whole world back onto a new Castaigne-victorious track just as Hildred and Wilde did in 1895/1920.

In either of these versions, of course, the GM could be working with one or more of the players. Especially if their PC has proven to be unreliable in previous adventures or sequences, their identity in Harmony or the Resort is fake – they are actually doubles impersonating their actual self, working with the Warders and Carcosa. Depending on the group’s appetite for suspicion and paranoia, this might comprise a series of scenarios each revealing a new double and culminating in the one true PC’s decision/breaking point, or it might just be one big adventure playing with very plastic identity that leaves just enough loose ends to justify the occasional weird callback later on in the game. Be seeing 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 players 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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The Zone Jaune is a region in north-eastern Europe that was deemed “inhospitable to human life” in the wake of the Continental War. The widespread deployment of Carcosan ‘yellow science’, not to mention conventional artillery and chemical weapons, rendered the region – some 2,000 square kilometres of forest and former farmland – utterly hostile and unable. “Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to agriculture: 100%. Damage to reality: unmeasurable. Impossible to endure,” reads one report, written shortly after the end of the war.

The French government established the cordon around the Zone Jaune within a month of the ceasefire. In the years that followed, several nations bordering the zone unofficially began using the area as a dumping ground for left-over munitions and Carcosan technologies. Whole battalions of stalkers were driven into the woods and abandoned, their legs broken on steel hedgehogs (some accounts use the term ‘herded’, implying that there may be some truth to the tales of some stalkers developing a degree of self-awareness and independent action). Dragonflies and other aerial vehicles were packed with Carcosan technology and crashed deep in the zone. Darker stories tell of convoys of trucks and special trains loaded with ‘livestock’ that were driven into the Zone Jaune and left there.

Today, the Zone’s surrounded by many miles of barbed-wire fences and ditches. Entry into the Zone is forbidden; nature has been allowed to reclaim the land within, although it’s debatable which nature holds sway in that yellow wood – the French government insists that any unusual plant species are the result of toxic chemicals and not invasion from Carcosa. Farmers bordering the Zone often dig up munitions and other remains, including ‘biological matter’; these are collected by a special division of the French military, CEOM, for safe disposal. CEOM also monitors the ‘deep zone’ – there are observation towers within the forest, accessible by long roads that cut through the haunted woods.

Encounters in the Zone Jaune

  • Sacrifice Villages: Abandoned rural villages, now ruined. Some were abandoned before the war; others were evacuated when the Zone Jaune was established. Full exorcisms were carried out where feasible, but many hauntings have been logged by CEOM patrols.
  • Unexploded Munitions: The landscape of the Zone is littered with millions of tons of artillery shells, mines, dumped tanks of chemical weapons, toxic occult waste and other hazards – all hidden beneath the undergrowth. One false step can prove instantly lethal.
  • Damaged Places: Reality has suffered considerable damage here. The Zone Jaune is riddled with natural portals to other worlds – primarily Carcosa, but it’s possible to slip from one version of Earth to another if you know the right path through the woods.
  • Hunters: Nature has reclaimed the zone – it’s full of wild animals, including bears, deer, wolves and gravegrinders. Hunters and poachers slip past CEOM patrols to bag a trophy  – and Carcosan entities hunt the hunters and steal faces so they can escape the Zone undetected.
  • CEOM Patrols: On the borders, CEOM turns trespassers away with little more than a slap on the wrist. A foolish tourist or would-be hunter gets arrested, dragged off to a holding facility, and then given a fine and a lecture by a very angry officer before being released. Deeper in the woods, away from cameras and prying eyes, CEOM shoots intruders on sight.  
  • Scavengers: There’s a brisk trade in what’s euphemistically called ‘scrap metal’ from the Zone. Intact Carcosan relics and the remnants of Science Jaune grimoires are especially sought after. Scavenger teams enter the Zone disguised as hunters – or bribe CEOM guards for priority access.
  • Mustard Fog: The most infamous of the Zone’s hazards, mustard fog is a toxic stew of poison gas leeched from rotting artillery shells, mixed with lingering magic. Survivors speak of hearing hauntingly beautiful music and seeing strange lights in the fog, as if there was some enchanted ball going on just on the other side of the fog bank – just before they vomited up their liquified lungs and died. Other accounts claim to have seen huge animals like flying whales moving through the yellow mist.
  • Active Machines: Abandoned stalkers, dragonflies and other machines of war sometimes spark into life within the zone, dragging their broken metal bodies through the underbrush until whatever surge of occult energy that activated them passes once more.
  • Zone Natives:  Warspawn and other Carcosan entities can survive within the Zone, even as the influence of Carcosa fades outside.

Using the Zone Jaune

  • In The Wars: While the official Zone was only established after the war, the region that became the Zone was blasted by occult weapons when the fighting was still ongoing – and had already acquired a reputation as a lethal assignment. Units sent to the Zone never return.
    In Aftermath: Castaigne survivors in search of Carcosan energies flee overseas to France, bringing matters of international diplomacy and extradimensional extradition to the table in post-regime politics.
    Alternate Aftermaths: Instead of playing revolutionaries in a post-Castaigne New York, you’re playing the leaders of a small town on the edge of the Zone. Some of you are veterans, some are the next generation, growing up in a world where the horrors of Carcosa and the Continental War are fading memories. The town strives towards normality and a new beginning, but the scars of the war still linger – and the council must balance mundane municipal duties with supporting the needs of the local CEOM garrison.
  • The Wood Between The Worlds: The war blew holes in reality in the Zone; characters trying to slip from one reality to another – like, say, This Is Normal Now investigators trying to loop back to Paris – might travel to France and enter the woods. Just keep walking until the fog turns yellow…

 


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 anomaly-detecting podcast, Ken and Robin talk science mystery scenarios, a cannibal fugitive, hardboiled 30s Mutant City Blues, and changing the condiment timestream.

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Pelgranista Default N*P*C*s!

During one of the informal Pelgrane meetings, Robin asked all GMs present about their default NPC-style. The PCs start interacting with an NPC we haven’t planned something for; what style of NPC do we tend to default to? I kept notes!

  • Gareth said he tends to introduce upper-class fops. And drunks. Maybe drunk upper-class fops.
  • Cat also tends towards drunks. And Valley girls, because: the accent. Not necessarily drunk Valley girls. But not necessarily not drunk Valley girls.
  • Noah’s default NPCs aren’t defined by personality, more like by activity. His players tease him because whenever there’s an unexpected NPC interaction, someone is busy loading or unloading a truck, or its era-appropriate equivalent. His default NPCs are stevedores and at any moment they can say, “Well the truck is ready, I gotta go.”
  • Robin brings on dumb-guy walk-on characters or disarmingly frank and charming Big Bads. But if the NPCs are just one-scene villains, meant to be defeated, they frequently work very hard to hurt the PCs’ feelings, making their comeuppance that much sweeter.
  • Similarly, I tend to introduce NPCs who are positioned to be sarcastically mocking, possibly because of the situation rather than their actual words. And I use funny voices. Which may burble out of control.
  • Speaking of out of control speech patterns, when Ken used an extremely funny accent for descendants of the Marsh Family, his players kept arranging visits with the Marshes for no reason other than to force Ken to use the accent. This is probably payback, because when Ken’s players interact with new NPCs, these NPCs are most frequently worryingly helpful.
  • Wade says he has two flavors of default NPC that emerge at the spur of the moment. One flavor is gruff and super-intense. The other flavor is absurdly wide-eyed and earnest.  Both flavors of NPC tend to react the same to the PCs—with barely suppressed incredulity. “Well, that’s one approach I guess,” an NPC will say after hearing the PCs’ plans. “You certainly do seem to know what you’re doing, I mean, you must do this kind of thing a lot without lots of people getting killed and things catastrophically blowing up, so maybe that would work.”
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A Cthulhu Almanac

April 30th rolls ‘round again, season of doors and frightful manifestations. You may know it as Walpurgisnacht, the Witches’ Sabbath – at least according to poor Walter Gilman, the ill-fated protagonist of Dreams in the Witch House.

Now he was praying because the Witches’ Sabbath was drawing near. May-Eve was Walpurgis-Night, when hell’s blackest evil roamed the earth and all the slaves of Satan gathered for nameless rites and deeds. It was always a very bad time in Arkham, even though the fine folks up in Miskatonic Avenue and High and Saltonstall Streets pretended to know nothing about it. There would be bad doings—and a child or two would probably be missing. Joe knew about such things, for his grandmother in the old country had heard tales from her grandmother. It was wise to pray and count one’s beads at this season.

It’s certainly a potent date in Mythos terms, a time when the Old Ones are uncomfortably close at hand, a night for rituals and bonfires. In Germany, for example, it’s Hexennacht, and one’s supposed to dress as a witch and make noises to keep real witches and evil spirits away. Old Keziah Mason isn’t the only one abroad that night – Wilbur Whateley and his brother were conceived on the night of April 30th, and it’s also one of the two nights when the folk of Innsmouth were obliged to offer sacrifices to their Deep One allies, or so Zadok Allen tells us. Perhaps other entities can also use the doors of Walpurgnisnacht to move between the spheres – it’s in May that Professor Peaslee is taken by the Great Race of Yith, and he begins to have cogent dreams about his abduction in the same month a few years later.

A few other Lovecraftian dates:

  • February 2nd – The Feast of the Presentation, also known as Candlemas, “which the folk of Dunwich observe by another name”. It’s the date of Wilbur Whateley’s birth; also the Roman feast of Lupercalia, with its associations of fertility and beasts.
  • February 28th – The anniversary of the rise of R’lyeh in 1925. Presumably, as the orbit of the Earth around the sun brings our world back to roughly the same star-configuration, it might be possible for Great Cthulhu’s call to be heard more clearly on this auspicious date.
  • August 1st – Lammas Night, a festival celebrating the harvest. Also the night on which old Wizard Whateley passed away. Did he linger long enough to find some door into the outer sphere, where the whippoorwills couldn’t catch him?
  • October 31st – All Hallows’ Eve: Obviously, lots of spooky connections here. Notably in the Mythos, it’s the other date that the Innsmouth sacrifices are made. Wilbur Whateley makes cryptic expeditions into the hills on this date, too.
  • December 21st – Yuletide, “Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind,” as The Festival puts it.

 

Festivals in Your Games

Tying events to a particular anniversary can be a handy trick in a Trail of Cthulhu scenario. The classic is “the cult’s summoning ritual can only be performed on Lammas Night” or whatever seasonally appropriate date you prefer, giving the investigators a hard deadline – if they don’t thwart the cult before then, the world is doomed. Another option is to use a festival as the inciting event for the scenario – if the killings start on May 2nd, then maybe something crept through into our reality when the veil was thin on Walpurgnisnacht, and now it’s up to the investigators to track it down. You can also use a seasonal ‘window’ for a survival-horror game, where the challenge is simply escaping the monster until the date changes and the stars are no longer right. Maybe a bunch of investigators in the wilderness run into Ithaqua on the Yuletide, and need to survive until dawn on December 22nd. Astronomy or Occult Studies can clue investigators in to the celestial connotations of a date.

Finally, don’t neglect obscure festivals and feast-days as inspiration. The Wikipedia page for a particular day is a great tool for bisociation – for example, a quick scroll of the April 30th page gives us both Operation MINCEMEAT and St. Adjutor, the patron saint of boaters and the drowned. What else did the Seraph dump in the sea on Walpurgisnacht? In whose name did she make offerings?

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In the latest episode of their pig befriending podcast, Ken and Robin talk proactively playing your Deucedly Peculiar Thing, top ten films of 2020, and the case of the disappearing magician.

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In the latest episode of their petrification-resistant podcast, Ken and Robin talk least favorite monsters (looking at you cockatrice), the Yellow Fleet, recent horror film essentials, and Austin Osman Spare.

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A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Last time we started laying out a loose episode structure for your Yellow King Roleplaying Game Paris sequence. Start there for episodes 1 through 7.

Episode 8: Visit from Home

Follow a time-honored serialized storytelling convention, bringing in a relative who drops into Paris to complicate an art student’s life, illuminating their backstory.

The relative’s personality contrasts with the characters’, sparking entertaining conflict. A stern investigator has a flighty, extroverted mother. The flibbertigibbet Poet has to squire around the forbidding father who wants him to set prose aside for the family insurance firm.

After a light comic opening, reveal that the relative arrives pre-enmeshed in Carcosan trouble. Mom has invested in a skin cream that owes its remarkable properties to black star magic. Father wishes to procure an antique at the behest of a masked blackmailer capable of ignoring the constraints of time and space.

A player may have already laid seeds for this by connecting their Drive to a relative. If someone’s looking for a missing sister or hoping to clear the name of a falsely accused brother, or came to Paris to escape a scandal involving a wastrel father, that story now surfaces, with a decadent, supernatural hook.

Episode 9: Police and Thieves

Dispatch the art students into the Parisian demimonde to solve a mystery with a criminal element. See pages 133-137 of the Paris book.

  • Oddly chosen targets of the latest anarchist bombing wave suggest a connection with Carcosa.
  • Prisoners released from Le Sante Prison commit murders they can’t remember. The art students must identify the inmate distributing smuggled excerpts from the play and untangle his vengeful scheme.
  • Sûreté head turned private eye Marie-François Goron enlists the art students in his inquiry into a hypnosis-related murder that echoes the old case that haunts him, the slaying of high profile courtesan Régine de Montille.

Episode 10: Psychogeography

Create a scenario that draws the art students to an iconic Paris location.

  • A ritual to feed souls to the king must naturally take place at the city’s axis mundi, also known as the Eiffel Tower.
  • How did strange yellow flowers come to overrun the botanical exhibits at Jardin des Plantes?
  • Are the lights seen at night at the Picpus Cemetery connected to victims of the revolutionary guillotine, or something older?
  • The Catacombs—portal to the shores of Hali?

Episode 11: Ripples from Brittany

Bring in haunted Brittany, site of Robert W. Chambers’ better supernatural stories outside his King in Yellow cycle. Either have the weird beings of its folklore show up in Paris, or send the art students on a road trip to the sea-swept coastal town of Brest. In this latter case, disturbances inland and out on the sea could presage the rising of Carcosan island, the model for the legendary city of Ys.

If you want to keep the students in the city, the mystery might revolve around:

  • the hulking, demonic church guardians called the Nain.
  • the troublingly self-willed and mobile skull of a Breton sorcerer.
  • a rash of improbable deaths, each heralded by the sound of an unearthly locomotive—a sign that the long-tressed Breton herald of death, the Ankou, has come to town.

Episode 12: Royal Return

A new mystery leads once more to the member of the Carcosan royal court you introduced in Episode 6. The plot the art students uncover is meant to further the royal’s previously established agenda. Build in opportunities for:

  • the player character most connected to the royal to pull away—or draw closer.
  • the other characters to interact with your big bad.
  • Foreshadowing an even bigger plot, which comes to fruition in episode 17.

Episode 13: Family Obligation

A message arrives from back home, urging one of the art students to attend to a matter concerning the family business empire. This leads to business or political intrigue instigated by a conspiracy bound together by the Yellow Sign. Depending on how the player describes the source of Papa’s wealth, this might involve:

  • sabotage of a ship or factory.
  • embezzlement to fund the conspiracy’s activities.
  • a smokescreen that falsely implicates the company in assassination or massive graft.

Episode 14: Weird Science

An experiment gone awry, no doubt after someone in the lab read the play, sends the art students on the trail of Patchworks, radium ghosts, or a device that sees past events—and then alters them.

Episode 15: Secondary Villain Returns

The recurring antagonist first seen in episode 3 returns, seeking revenge on the art students or running a new scheme for domination only they can unravel. This time, give them a solid opportunity to finish off this foe for good.

Episode 16: Political Entanglement

When scandal threatens a prominent politician, the art students can’t help but see a Carcosan modus operandi behind it. Investigation draws them into the halls of power, as they determine which of France’s factions have been suborned by the pallid mask. Is it the Legitimists, aka Monarchists, desperate to reverse their vanishing influence? The Bonapartists, believing themselves to be in communication with the spirit of Napoleon? Or those normal-seeming Moderates, who currently hold power and thus have the most of what Carcosa seeks?

Episode 17: A Glimpse of Hali

A climactic mystery brings back your chosen Carcosan royal and gives your players the chance to wrap up various sub-plots of this first sequence. The scenario allows the art students the chance to behold Carcosa, perhaps to travel there briefly. Whether they achieve a victory that feels suspiciously like a happy ending, or are drawn into a doom that will bedevil later counterparts depends on how well they do during the closing confrontation.

In the next installment of See P. XX, the series outlines continue, with the front half of a similar episode guide for The Wars.


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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A Scenario Hook for Ashen Stars

The lasers pick up a contract for what appears to be a simple rescue mission. The massive freighter Never Given has lost faster-than-light capability and has become lodged in a translight corridor.

Characters with Astronomy or Forensic Engineering want to hear that last bit again. Lodged in a translight corridor? That isn’t possible!

Well, replies the client, it might not be possible, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening. Worse, the freighter’s presence prevents other ships from using the corridor. In an area with few FTL jump points, the accident threatens catastrophic shortages on a dozen worlds.

Hails to the Never Given garner nothing but static and garble. The contract calls for a crew to establish contact with them, rendering whatever aid is required to get that ship moving again.

The mostly automated ship runs with a skeleton crew. Once aboard, the lasers discover the survivors suffering from acute sensory disruption. They’re hallucinating, experiencing their memories of the Mohilar War. Like everyone, including the investigators, they lost all recollection of that conflict when it ended. Whatever they’re reliving, it’s traumatic, and jacking their medical readings into the danger zone.

Not long after boarding, the lasers start to flash back to their own repressed war histories.

Through investigation, the group discovers that radiation from cutting-edge computer components in the cargo hold has altered the temporal frequency of the entire ship, causing everyone on board to exist in two times at once. As they race for a fix before they too succumb entirely to the chrono-hallucinations, they must ask themselves—do they stay in their altered states long enough to learn more about the Bogey Conundrum? Or do they decide that the knowledge of the war ought to remain in the box some unknown force so dramatically put it in?


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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In the latest episode of their virtually priceless podcast, Ken and Robin talk Fall of DELTA GREEN meets Night’s Black Agents in Cambodia, penultimate horror essentials, NFTs of Carcosa, and saving Will Rogers.

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By Kevin Kulp

Combining focused ambition with poor judgment is a great basis for an adventure. When you want to run a last-minute Swords of the Serpentine game and aren’t sure where to begin, start with one or more of the factions. You’ll see an example of this in the two free adventures here at See Page XX, The Dripping Throne (which starts with Commoners and Mercanti) and Sin-drinker (which starts with the City Watch and Thieves’ Guilds).

The following supporting characters and plot hooks, one for each of the twelve factions, focus on rebels: people who aren’t afraid to stand up to the status quo, even when it may be dangerous or foolhardy. Grab these, change them, and make them your own as you populate your own game.

 

Ancient Nobility

Concept: A rebellious young noble, hating everything the nobility stands for, is trying to sabotage her  family’s reputation and standing.

Description: Gabrielle Ambari defines herself by “what will make my family angriest?” She grew up without much money but bathed in social prestige; she was raised to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that members of her family were blessed by the Goddess and amongst the most important people in Eversink. That illusion quickly crumbled when she gained enough empathy to look at the Commoners around her. The more she learned about everyone else in the city, the more disillusioned she became with her family and the nobility. Now she broadcasts her title and lineage at every opportunity but embraces fashion that would appall any noble, and she works for Commoner rights and against noble tradition. Most nobles would like her exiled or dead as a traitor to her heritage. They just need a subtle way to make it happen.

Plot hook: The heroes are hired by Gabrielle’s family to “help” Gabrielle in a way that gets her out of town or sufficiently distracted. Alternatively, Gabrielle hires the Heroes to pull a scam on the Ancient Nobility, understanding that if it goes well it’s going to make a lot of nobles very angry indeed.

 

Church of Denari

Concept: A trusted church official is secretly a heretic and is trying to undermine official doctrine.

Description: Orthus Swanbeak is a wrinkled, cheerful, elderly man who was given to the church as a toddler and has been raised in its folds his entire life. He’s been involved in almost every aspect of the divine bureaucracy, from the inquisitors and the church militant, to the prophets, to tithe collection, to being an advisor to the high priestess herself. Everyone seems to like Orthus, and he’s a repository of institutional knowledge; when anyone needs to know something about church tradition, Orthus can probably tell you.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Orthus is secretly a spy and heretic. It’s up to you what flavor of heretic he is. He may have glimpsed Denari’s true will and is working against the church bureaucracy that constrains and defines Her; he might be a secret sorcerer determined to topple the church through unsound business decisions; he might be mind controlled by outsiders; he may hope to find and destroy the Golden Contract, the document that allows Eversink to exist. Regardless, he’s playing the very long game and keeps his secrets close. His main weapon is everyone’s misplaced trust, and he’s not going to squander that unnecessarily.

Plot Hook: The Heroes are hired by the Church to ferret out a traitor in their midst, and Orthus “helps” them do so. (If your players read this blog, feel free to have Orthus be actually honest and loyal, and the true traitor pins his or her sabotage on Orthus instead.)

 

City Watch

Concept: A City Watch officer who encourages vigilantes instead of cleaving to the rule of law.

Description: Captain Settana Malfi was raised as a Commoner. She made a name as muscle-for-hire around the Tangle, and spent more than a decade breaking heads and guarding questionable shipments before she decided to earn regular pay in the City Watch. It took her some time to understand the political quagmire that any Watch officer has to wade through, balancing bribes against special interests against actual justice. She’s not well-liked – at one time or another she’s managed to tick off just about every important group in the city – but she’s fair, consistent, and really doesn’t like doing things the “official” way.

Settana is stationed in Sag Harbor because she’d rather encourage adventurers and vigilantes than arrest them. Why should she get in trouble for taking sides when the so-called “heroes” can solve her problems for her without any political backlash? Settana personally encourages and mentors young adventuring groups, showing them how to fight crime while remaining just barely on the side of law – and in doing so, she gets her problems cleaned up without any risk to her own Watch officers.

Plot Hook: Settana shows up after the Heroes are arrested, and instead of imprisoning them she lets them go with nothing but good advice. In exchange, they’ll owe her – and she has a whole lot of quasi-legal problems she wants solved.

 

Commoners

Concept: A popular commoner is doing his best to organize the populace against the government, and multiple factions are trying to recruit him for their own purposes (or wipe him out completely).

Description: Pendle Shortstreet is arguably the most popular person in the Tangle. The adult son of a poor but well-known grocer, Pendle has always used his natural charisma to makes friends and connect people who need help. He and his husband have been the unofficial mayors of their neighborhood for several years now, and they’re universally looked-up-to and well-respected.

That makes a lot of powerful people nervous, because Pendle is mad as hell about how Commoners in Eversink get treated. The people in charge try to bribe and mollify him, the factions who are not in charge try to ride on his coattails to greater power, and Pendle is losing his patience with anyone trying to manipulate him.

Plot Hook: The Heroes might get involved when Pendle is framed for accepting bribes and then blackmailed. He needs someone unknown to steal and destroy the forged blackmail materials. The question is, are they forged after all… and who’s willing to kill the Heroes to get their hands on the material themselves?

 

Guild of Architects and Canal-Watchers

Concept: A rebellious ancient architect, deformed and brimming with sorcerous power, gets tired of living hidden underground and decides to make herself well-known back in the city.

Description: Long-missing Master Architect Liera Oberi, once chair of the powerful Waterways Committee and long thought deceased – there was even a huge funeral! – shows up back at her favorite restaurants, horribly deformed but still as abrupt and sarcastic as ever. As is traditional, she had worked for the Guild of Architects until her deformities from internalizing Corruption made it impossible for her to continue without being suspected, at which point the Guild relocated her to the secret underground community where ancient architects retire. Liera, however, grew bored. She decided to break her vow (and trigger an associated curse) and return to the surface, to the embarrassment and disgrace of her powerful Guild. She knows incredibly valuable architectural secrets, she’s stubborn and opinionated, and she’s strong enough to reshape an entire district. Who is going to handle her, and how?

Plot Hook: Master Architect Liera is a shockingly capable sorcerer with the sorcerous spheres of water, stone, buildings, metal, and air. Once this is discovered any number of factions will attempt to ally with her for their own purposes. Before this can happen, an allied faction – perhaps the Architects themselves – hire the Heroes to make friends with Liera and convince her to return home if she won’t become their ally. And what if she decides she’s tired of internalizing her Corruption?

 

Mercanti

Concept: A selfless Mercanti philanthropist is trying to use his fortune to help others, and his peers want him stopped NOW.

Description: Alchemist Zorios Sandefar was originally an Outlander brought to Eversink as a young boy by his foreign parents, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming tremendously wealthy. Now retired but formerly the head of the Alchemist’s Guild, he’s the ultimate rags-to-riches story; it was Zorios’s combination of business acumen, faith in Denari, and alchemical talent that allowed the guild to gain a profitable stranglehold on alchemy in the city.

Zorios is kind, middle-aged, and bored, and that’s a dangerous combination. His dream is to use his wealth to make life better for everyone else. Healthier food? Better sewers? Higher pay? Delightfully inebriating drugs? Guaranteed clean water? Reduction in disease? Transformation into inhuman killing machines for self-defense? Zorios wants to establish his legacy, and while he may not be the wisest person you’ll ever meet, his heart is in the right place.

That threatens many, many other factions. He’s creating unprofitable risk through his meddling, and sabotaging his peers in the process. Doesn’t he know enough to enjoy his money and keep silent? Many Mercanti want him exiled or killed, and they aren’t the only ones.

Plot Hook: His bodyguards dead, Zorios is desperate and on the run from assassins when he bumps into the Heroes. He offers to pay them well (5 Wealth a person) if they help him. Then all they’ll have to do is dodge assassins and injunctions as they track down who is trying to stop Zorios this week. And is that someone impersonating him? Worse, his enemies will offer to pay the Heroes twice that if they take care of the Zorios problem themselves…

 

Read Part 2 here…

 


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 efficiently delivered podcast, Ken and Robin talk civilization saga gaming, Alexandrine of Taxis, mid-oughts horror cinema, and the Highgate vampire.

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Recently on the Pelgrane Press Twitch channel, game designers and writers Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan walked through the process of designing a scenario for The Yellow King RPG.
If you missed it on Twitch, catch it over on our YouTube channel now!

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The Ordo Veritatis works to thwart the ghastly schemes of the Esoterrorists, who seek to undermine humanity’s sense of a rational, secure universe by playing on our fears and paranoias until reality collapses and the Membrane protecting us from the forces of the Outer Dark is forever torn. The Esoterrorists believe that destroying the Membrane will give them the ability to work magic, but this power comes at a terrible, unthinkable price in suffering and horror. Fighting the Esoterrorists is, unquestionably, a moral act… so, therefore, using the tools of the Esoterrorists would be acceptable, right?

These techniques are not part of Ordo Veritatis training. They may be learned in the field, through interrogating captured enemy operatives or through study of Esoterrorist techniques. They’re passed around, too, by veteran Ordo investigators – unofficially, quietly, and with the greatest of care. They’re a dirty little secret among those who’ve looked into the abyss, and who know that no

Any use of Esoterrorist magic is utterly against the credo of the order, and any operatives who demonstrate knowledge of these techniques will face sanction.

These techniques, called Reality Hacks, only work in places where the Membrane has been severely weakened by Esoterrorist activity – and using a hack will further weaken the barrier, permitting more horrors from the Outer Dark access to our reality.

Learning Hacks

Each Hack corresponds to an investigative ability. The Agent must have at least one point in that ability to learn the hack.

Each Hack must be learned separately at the cost of 2 Experience points.

Using A Reality Hack

To use a Hack, the Agent spends one point from the investigative ability, and makes a Stability test (Difficulty 4, +1 per Hack previously used in this adventure). If the Stability test fails, the hack further weakens the membrane in the local area, possibly letting in more entities from outside.

Some hacks require a target; usually, the target must be within a short distance of the caster – er, investigator, not caster. These aren’t spells. OV agents don’t use magic. Optionally, spending more investigative points lets the investigator work the hack at a greater distance or using sympathetic techniques.

Powerful Esoterrorists are immune to hacks, as are most Creatures of Unremitting Horror.

Hacks only work in places where the Membrane has already been considerably weakened.

Academic Hacks

Interpersonal Hacks 

Technical Hacks 

 


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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“Man should not know the future. Such knowledge can be fatal.”

— attributed to Wolf Messing

In 1977, researchers Victor Marchetti and John D. Marks uncovered evidence in the accidentally unshredded MK-ULTRA files that the CIA had hired the stage magician John Mulholland as a consultant. After decades of further research, and the fortuitous discovery of the “magic manual” Mulholland prepared for CIA Technical Services head Sidney Gottlieb, some portion of the truth is out there. Born in Chicago in 1898, Mulholland moved to New York City, briefly apprenticed with Houdini, and became known as “the prince of prestidigitators.” During the 1920s he toured the world, returning to launch a successful stage career in New York in 1927. He briefly investigated UFOs in 1952 (ascribing them to hallucinations and unreliable eyewitnesses) and in 1953 (probably) joined MK-ULTRA to write a manual on, and teach CIA agents, how to use misdirection in the field. Specifically, according to the manual he wrote for the Agency, how to handle tablets, powders, and liquids, surreptitiously remove objects, and work as a team. Later, he investigated claims of telepathy (pronouncing them bogus) for the Agency; his last surviving invoice dates from 1958. His health damaged by chain-smoking, he died in 1970 with an enormous magical library, including virtually all of Houdini’s papers. His own papers contained no trace of his CIA work.

Wolf Messing, not messing around

Was there a Soviet equivalent to John Mulholland? Since the KGB was far less sloppy with its record-handling than the CIA, we may never know for sure. But the most plausible candidate we know of for “the KGB’s magician” is Wolf Messing, a Jew born in Russian Poland in 1899. Around 1910, he drifted to Berlin. There, a gift for catalepsy got him a job in a freak show, where he learned many more sorts of stage magic, including hypnotism, suggestion, and the mentalism that became his trademark. Blindfolded, he would carry out complex series of instructions “telepathically sent” by members of the audience. Touring Europe in the 1920s, he may (or may not) have encountered Erik Jan Hanussen, the mentalist and occultist popular with the rising Nazi elite; he claimed to have escaped the Gestapo by mentalist suggestion in 1940 and certainly arrived in Belorussia that year. He toured as a “psychological demonstrator” (Soviet ideology frowned on mentalism and magic) and made enough money to pay for two fighter planes. Anecdotes of Stalin testing his abilities personally come from a ghost-written (and unreliable) memoir published in parts in 1965 (and pulled from publication in 1967), but rumors persist then and now of Messing working with the KGB — probably willingly. By the late 1960s he was also claiming prophetic visions, likely a sign that his covert days were behind him — but the Soviet government insisted he keep touring almost until his death in 1974.

“There is no overall secret to magic, or any part of magic. It is the multiplicity of secrets and the variety of methods which makes magic possible.”

— John Mulholland, Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception

It doesn’t require postulating John Mulholland as a MAJESTIC control or Wolf Messing as a Yithian KGB asset to incorporate them into a Fall of DELTA GREEN campaign. (They might even have met in Europe during a Trail of Cthulhu campaign.) The actual story of intelligence agencies’ use of stage magicians and their techniques is wild and evocative enough. Although both Mulholland and Messing probably retire backstage before the 1960s, they might have prize pupils or magical heirs carrying on their good work and slowly becoming drawn into the unnatural world behind the clandestine shadows. A particularly thrilling Agent might even have a background as a stage magician, just like Rollin Hand from the Mission: Impossible TV show.

Stage Magician

Points: 10 Investigative, 40 General (includes 4 Special Training)

Art (Stage Magic) 2, HUMINT 2, Notice 2, Reassurance 2

Pick two Investigative: Anthropology 1, HUMINT 1*, Inspiration 1, Notice 1*, Occult 1

Athletics 4, Conceal 4, Disguise 4, Filch 5, Mechanics 4, Preparedness 3, Stealth 4

Pick two General: Conceal 4*, Disguise 4*, Filch 4*, Sense Trouble 4, Stealth 4*

Pick three Special Training (one free, others 2 build pts. each; FoDG, p. 072): Brush Pass/Pickpocket, Card Cheating, Escape Artist, Lockpicking, Sleight of Hand (see below)

Special Training Magics

Fall of DELTA GREEN Agents trained by Mulholland or using the Mulholland system can easily justify spending 2 build points on Special Training in Sleight of Hand (+2 to Filch rolls to palm, manipulate, and “vanish” small objects, very much including covertly spiking drinks), as well as the existing example of Special Training in Brush Pass/Pickpocket (+2 to Filch rolls to pass an object between two people, knowingly to both or unknowingly to one). Generous Handlers might allow one spend of 2 points to buy both abilities. Very generous Handlers might allow Sleight of Hand to count as a quick-draw technique (spend Filch on the surprise test; FoDG, p. 090). In Night’s Black Agents, a combine them both as a Filch cherry: Legerdemain. Spend 1 point of Filch to automatically slip a palm, pass, vanish, spike, pickpocket, load, or dip past a normal civilian (defined as anyone not: a stage magician, a pickpocket, a trained spy or cop watching for just such an action, or a supernatural observer). This also applies to the A Lift in Time Saves Nine cherry (Double Tap, p. 41).

Soviet agents trained by Messing or using his techniques have two arrows in their quiver: Ideomotorism, and Vnusheniye (Russian for “suggestion” or “inception”). Ideomotorism is a Special Training skill granting the ability to use Psychotherapy or Sense Trouble (pick one when buying the skill) to “read thoughts” by touch. For example, asking “where are the documents” induces a microscopic muscle reflex that the trained Ideomotorist can “read” to give a direction and possibly even a location (“it’s a long walk from here, and on a high shelf perhaps”). Vnusheniye allows the use of Disguise to present (seemingly obviously) false credentials, state an incorrect identity, or otherwise convince someone you showed them something or said or did something that they expected. Both skills require a test of the relevant ability, and do not include a +2 bonus. Agents resist Ideomotorism using Stability, and resist Vnusheniye with Sense Trouble; the Difficulty equals the total of the KGB operator’s roll+spend.

Player Agents who can somehow convince the Handler to let them use either of these two Soviet Special Training skills should also have to spend 1 point of HUMINT for Ideomotorism and 1 point of either Intimidation or Reassurance for Vnusheniye. In Night’s Black Agents, Ideomotorism is a cherry for Shrink or Sense Trouble; with a spend of 1 point of Bullshit Detector it automatically works on mooks, scrubs, and similar bystanders. With Disguise 8+ Night’s Black Agents characters can take Vnusheniye as a cherry; with a 1-point spend of an appropriate Interpersonal ability it likewise works automatically on the weak-minded.


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 shrieking, wing-buffeting podcast, Ken and Robin talk turnip-headed wyverns, Sumerian F20, horror of the early oughts, and faked snow conspiracy theory.

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In the latest episode of their entrancingly carpeted podcast, Ken and Robin talk place as the center of a scenario, a spiralbound cookbook from almost Nebraska, end of the century horror essentials, and Baird Spalding.

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Run Away!

claw demonBoth Trail of Cthulhu and Fear Itself feature protagonists who are comparatively (or cosmically!) feeble compared to the foes they encounter. By no coincidence whatsoever, both games also incorporate the Fleeing ability, an ability that’s used only for running away.

To make Fleeing a bit more complex and combat-like, here are some optional expanded Fleeing rules, drawing on the Thriller Chases of Night’s Black Agents.

Escape or Capture

The aim of a chase is to win three contests in a row. If a runner gets three wins in a row, that character has escaped. If the runner loses three rounds of the contest in a row, the pursuer catches up with that the runner. The pursuer rolls once and compares their result to all the runners, so it’s possible for one runner to succeed and another to lose in any given round (and for one runner to rack up three successes and get clear!)

To avoid having contests drag on too long, if the monster has 0 Athletics or Aberrance left, assume it gives up unless it’s one win away from catching a runner.

If A Runner Wins A Round

Whenever a Runner wins a round, they get to pick one of the following benefits.

  • Gain Some Distance: The runner gets a +1 bonus to their next roll in the chase.
  • Help Another Runner: Another runner gets a +1 bonus to their next roll in the chase.
  • Create an Obstacle: Make an Athletics or Mechanics test. Next round, if the monster’s result is lower than the result of this test, then the round counts as a win for the purposes of determining escape only. The runners don’t get to pick a benefit next round if they win.
  • Hide! Instead of continuing to run, a runner can Hide and hope the monster doesn’t find them. It’s a Hide (or Stealth) test, Difficulty 6, modified by the monster’s Awareness modifier.
  • Take A Breather: Refresh 2 points of Fleeing or Athletics.
  • Shoot! If the runner’s got a ranged weapon, they can take a snap-shot at the pursuer. (Stopping to make a melee attack is tantamount to ending the chase.)
  • Split Up! The runners go in different directions. The pursuer can only chase one of them – but gets a +1 bonus to all its rolls for the rest of the chase against that quarry.

If A Pursuer Wins A Round

If the Pursuer beats any of the Runners, it gets to do one of the following actions.

  • Swipe: The monster gets close enough to make a Scuffling attack on the runner. The runner gets a +2 bonus to their Hit Threshold.
  • Trip: The monster nearly grabs the runner, making them stumble. The runner’s got a -2 penalty to their next roll in the chase.
  • Scare: The monster pops up right on top of the runner, jump scaring them. The runner must make a 3-point Stability check.

If it beats all the runners, it gets to pick one of the following:

  • It’s Gaining On Us! For the rest of the chase, the monster gets a +1 bonus to all its chase rolls.
  • We Can’t Get Out This Way! Reset all the runners to 0 wins in a row.

 

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In the latest episode of their hard-hitting podcast, Ken and Robin talk scenes of aloneness in one-player games, Count Dante and the Chicago Dojo Wars, 90s horror film essentials, and keeping France Angevin.

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In this story hook for preteen weird investigation in Fear Itself, excitement over Mars exploration turns to alien terror in a sleepy small town.

The young protagonists assemble when assigned to a group class presentation about the latest NASA rover mission to Mars. They establish their group dynamic while poring through images on the NASA site on a Zoom conference.

As the discussion wanes, one member of the group hears an alarming bashing sound outside the house. This character is alone in the house for reasons you ask the player to specify. They go out to check and see the Mars rover sorting through their trash cans. Seeing that it’s been spotted, it rattles away, vanishing from sight despite its ungainly construction.

The group might gather to search for it then. Or become alarmed the next day, when they stumble across a raccoon, coyote or other example of local wildlife, subjected to the same sort of dissection described in accounts of cattle mutilation. Nearby: tread tracks that look awfully like the probe.

Inquiries to NASA get the brushoff. But then the kids see government investigators show up to ask questions. And then disappear, their vehicle still running by the roadside.

The group hears of more sightings, but only from their classmates. Whenever they’re asked about it, adults either convincingly say they’ve seen nothing, or enter a glazed-over state indicating that they’ve had their memories tampered with.

The kids see that second group of adults constructing something at night, moving about robotically, as if under external control. After observation—with the threat of discovery and a chase—they can determine that it is a corral of some kind.

Seen up close, the probes do not quite match the NASA versions. Lines that ought to be straight instead display organic irregularities. The metal breathes. A camera blinks, revealing itself as an eyeball.

By capturing one of the probes and making a Science spend they can not only communicate with it but compel it to reveal its story. It belongs to a shapeshifting alien race. Its people encountered the probe on Mars and took it for Earth’s dominant life form. Not long after their raiding ship landed in the old quarry outside town, they realized they’d chosen the wrong form. But never mind—they’ve still managed to move about, psychically enthralling enough victims for the slaughter to soon commence. Those space agency investigators seemed an impediment at first, but quickly became an appetizer for the great feast to come.

Only the young are immune to their psychic powers, leaving our heroes alone to destroy the corral before it becomes a slaughterhouse, taking out the shapeshifters and their ship. Build your conclusion around the players’ plan, throwing in a surprise obstacle or two along the way.

Probe Monsters

Abilities: Aberrance 14, Athletics 4, Fleeing 12, Health 4, Psychic Blast 10

Hit Threshold: 3

Armor: None

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: -2

Damage Modifier: +3 (psychic blast vs adults); -2 (psychic blast vs teens or younger)

Aberrant Powers: Can alter its outer surface to a frequency outside the human visible spectrum, spending 1 Aberrance per adult observer or 2 per younger observer to become effectively invisible. Can erase itself from the memory of any adult on a 1 pt Aberrance spend and gain obedience from an adult on a 2 pt spend. Refreshes Aberrance at dusk each day.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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In the latest episode of their stone cold podcast, Ken and Robin talk crunch vs simulation, the Red Barn Murder, yet more 80s horror, and those darn monoliths.

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In the autumn of 1967, a highway patroller radios in a report of a multi-vehicle automobile collision just outside of Ipswich, Massachusetts, on the Great Arkham Highway.

There’s no such road.

Over the next few days – before DELTA GREEN closes down the area – there are more reports of strange incidents. A motorist is stopped by a pair of gas-masked officers who demand to check her vehicle for ‘contamination’, and spray her with an unknown chemical. A delivery truck crashes, spilling its cargo across the road – a cargo of devices that look like radios, but don’t function according to any known laws of physics. A customer at a roadside diner finds a copy of a tourist guide, left behind by some other traveller, describing good places to eat in the city of Great Arkham. A naturalist observes a flock of wild geese take flight across the grey sky, only to vanish in mid-air.

And across North America, a whole host of people – artists, poets, aesthetes, dreamers, sensitive souls – suddenly start making offhand references to the city of Great Arkham, as if it’s always been there, to be mentioned in the same breath as Boston or Chicago.

A portal to another reality has opened, only it’s not in some distant Antarctic plateau or deep in the trackless sands of the desert, it’s right in the middle of New England.

They’ve codenamed it YANKEE IREM.

 

The House on Castle Hill

In this Fall of Delta Green/Cthulhu City crossover campaign, the player characters are DELTA GREEN agents assigned to investigate and contain the situation. It’s one of the largest operations DELTA GREEN’s ever undertaken; the cover story is that it’s a military exercise designed to test civilian readiness for a Soviet atomic attack, hence the area around the breach has been evacuated (bar a few stubborn or isolated holdouts). An operational headquarters has been established at the stately home on Castle Hill outside Ipswich, under the command of Colonel Michael Kerovouri (FoDG, p. 163). As the campaign begins, teams have sealed off the major routes in and out of YANKEE IREM, and are getting ready to insert the first exploratory teams into the portals. The top priority: ensuring that whatever alien force has taken over a chunk of American soil about three miles in diameter doesn’t expand its foothold.

Inside YANKEE IREM is the city of Great Arkham, as described in Cthulhu City. There are only a handful of portals in and out of the city – some of the roads out of Great Arkham go to the version of the United States the characters came from, and others… go elsewhere. Once inserted into the city, the characters need to ensure they have lines of communication and retreat back to their entry point, or they may be trapped in this otherworld forever. The ‘ordinary’ people of Great Arkham take to the intrusion of mysterious federal agents into their city in the same way they take to the intrusion of other mysterious, sinister, oppressive forces – with dogged ignorance and resignation. However, on the other side of the portal, the characters must also deal with an influx of individuals ‘called’ by the city, reporters and upset citizens trying to get answers about the duration and extent of the ‘military exercise’ and the growing number of portals between Great Arkham and our reality. The alien city’s grasp on our universe is strengthening…

Some Horrible Revelations

  • Isaac Vorsht (Cthulhu City, 124) claims to be a DELTA GREEN Agent, who was investigating strange events in the ruins of Innsmouth before the city swallowed him. However, the program has no knowledge of him.
  • The Black Stone Towers (CC, 18) appear in advance of any expansion of the city into our reality. They appear overnight, as if they’ve always been there, and then over the course of the next few days, the YANKEE IREM zone expands around the cyclopean marker.
  • As YANKEE IREM infiltrates our reality, it begins to infect history, changing the past. References to the city start appearing in old history books and newspapers; people start recalling their own histories differently, incorporating the strange city into their recollections. Railway tracks and old roads sprout like tendrils, looking to connect the city with Boston and other towns in the area as it’s always been there.
  • The cloudy skies above Great Arkham are full of strange lights and glimpses of mysterious objects – and given the increasing scale of the threat, Colonel Kerovouri can hardly afford to turn down help from MAJESTIC.
  • Some of the citizens of Great Arkham are people from ‘our’ reality, residents of the coastal area consumed by the city who got rewritten in accordance with the ‘new’ history – but there are millions more living in the city. Do they have counterparts in our reality? Might there be alternate versions of the Agents living in Great Arkham? Or are the inhabitants of the strange city unique, another branch of humanity living in some alternate reality? Are they human, or body-snatching aliens wearing masks of flesh?
  • To stop the city’s expansion, the Agents must identify the Openers and Closers (CC p. 40) and ensuring Closing wins, cutting YANKEE IREM off from our reality once more.

 

 

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In the latest episode of their well-oiled podcast, Ken and Robin talk fitting your PCs into historical events, the spy career Anton LaVey made up for Robert W. Chambers, ironic horror of the early 80s, and automaton maker John Joseph Merlin.

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For International GMs Day, Ken’s favorite GMing tip is very timely indeed.



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 groovy podcast, Ken and Robin talk gaming Swinging London, the rise of the horror auteurs, Gamestop in Carcosa, and the Hart Island amusement park.

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“Tall, gaunt, cynical, with tragic eyes … like a man who had seen the inside of hell.”

— description of Liam Tobin by IRA mole David Neligan

Michael Collins, the George Washington of Ireland, picked a 23-year-old man named Liam Tobin to be his spymaster. If I were related to George Washington’s spymaster, I’d never stop talking about it, but I had to find out about Liam Tobin not from Pelgrane’s esteemed co-owner and managing director but on the Internet like a savage. Go figure. (According to Cat, Liam is “possibly like a sixth cousin but we haven’t really looked into it.” According to me, he was her great-great-grand-uncle. This will not be the last engaging lie I tell in this column.) Born in Cork in 1895, Liam Tobin joined the Easter Rising in 1916, where he first caught Collins’ eye. The British commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, then released him with many other revolutionaries in 1917.

Liam Tobin, hero from a line of heroes

Thoroughly radicalized, Tobin rose through the IRA’s inner circle: Dublin Brigade intelligence officer, then intelligence officer for Munster in 1918 (under the cover of an insurance agency in Cork), then IRA Deputy Director for Intelligence in January 1919. Like Washington, Collins remained his own director of intelligence; Tobin basically served as his right hand. Based at 3 Crow Street in Dublin above a print shop within 200 yards of Dublin Castle, the British headquarters in Ireland, Tobin’s operation rapidly built up a database (with photos) of British Army, G Division (the intelligence unit of the Dublin Metropolitan Police), and Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC, or “Black and Tans”) officers, mostly using OSINT such as newspaper society pages, the London Gazette (which reported officers’ postings, including “special assignments” to Ireland), and Who’s Who. Tobin recruited doormen and telephone operators in all Dublin hotels, allowing the IRA to track comings and goings as well as listen in on British comms. One of Tobin’s agents got access to Dublin Castle personnel records, supplying photographs and dossiers of every typist and clerk who worked for the British, allowing the IRA to recruit and suborn agents in place throughout the occupation government.

Tobin did more than manage information gathering. One of only six men in the whole intelligence command (until it expanded in July 1920), he also ran agents in the field, identified and fingered British spies, and occasionally hands-on renditioned and killed targets when needed. In October 1919, Collins sent him to London for two weeks to case security for the British Cabinet: Tobin reluctantly decided assassinating the entirety of His Majesty’s Government was too hard. Tobin led the squad that grabbed Alan Bell, president of the Irish Banks Court (investigating IRA funding) off the tram to work and gunned him down on the morning of March 26, 1920.

That squad was part of “The Squad,” the IRA’s wet works division. IRA training commander (and CO of the Dublin Brigade, who first recruited Tobin back in 1917) Dick McKee hand-picked “The Twelve Apostles” (engaging lie note: there were almost certainly more than a dozen men in the Squad) in September 1919 to execute British officers, spies, and collaborators. The Squad reported to Tobin, although only Collins could order an execution. By March 1920, the Squad were full-time assassins, using a cabinet-making shop on Abbey Street as a front and home base. The British response to the Squad was to recruit their own team of specialized infiltrators in January 1920, the “Cairo Gang.”

So-called either from their previous service with Army Intelligence in Cairo during WWI, or from their Dublin hangout the Café Cairo at 59 Grafton Street, the Cairo Gang were officially the Dublin District Special Branch, or D-Branch. (Engaging lie note: Few of them provably had any connection to Egypt, and the term “Cairo Gang” first appears in print in 1958. They were probably just called “the special gang.”) Doggedly, they pursued the IRA command, especially Collins and Tobin; Tobin posed as an informer (using a different name) and got inside their decision loop. But not too far inside: the Cairo Gang raided Vaughn’s Hotel on November 13, 1920 while the IRA leadership were meeting there, and only iron control (and sloppy British prep work) let Tobin and Collins bluff their way out of the arrest.

Collins’ response: ordering simultaneous hits on the 20 top British assets in Dublin, including most of the known Cairo Gang. At 9:00 a.m. on “Bloody Sunday,” November 21 1920, ten teams of a dozen men each struck their targets. (Engaging lie note: About a quarter of the teams didn’t show up, and over half the targets escaped.) Seven intelligence operatives died on Bloody Sunday, along with three RIC Auxiliaries working security, two British Army court-martial officers, and two seemingly uninvolved former British officers. The Black and Tans retaliated that afternoon with a massacre at a soccer match, killing 14 and wounding 68. Although “Bloody Sunday” didn’t quite decapitate the Cairo Gang, like the Tet Offensive it scored a massive propaganda victory.

In January 1921, the British recruited a new team of Irish Unionists from the provinces (“Tudor’s Tigers,” also known as the Igoe Gang after their leader Eugene Igoe of Galway) who knew their local IRA men on sight, and sent them on hunt-and-kill missions. Tobin spent most of the next six months playing a game of cat-and-also-cat with the Igoe Gang until the Truce in July 1921 ended the war. Collins brought Tobin along on the intelligence staff of the Irish treaty delegation in October 1921, promoting him to Major-General in the Irish Army. Tobin may or may not have masterminded the “off-book” killing of arch-Unionist British General Henry Wilson in June 1922; he briefly ran the Irish CID and served as Director of Intelligence for Ireland until his political opponents sidelined him in January 1923. After leading a failed mutiny against those opponents in March 1924, he resigned his commission and ran a car-hire service until 1931. He helped organize the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, and then ran security for the Irish legislature from 1940 to 1959. He died, covered in glory and redeemed in honor, in Dublin on April 30, 1963.

Sunday Yellow Sunday

“One day or other some of these people will assassinate you.”

— Hildred Castaigne to Mr. Wilde, “The Repairer of Reputations”

If you look in the history books, especially the excellent Michael Collins’ Intelligence War by Michael Foy, you read that Tobin didn’t plan Bloody Sunday. Under Collins’ overall leadership, Tobin’s deputy Frank Thornton provided the intel while Dick McKee planned the strategy with Squad killer Charlie Dalton as tactical head. So narrow was the IRA margin that McKee was actually captured and interrogated early in the morning of November 21, and “shot while trying to escape” by the RIC that afternoon. Foy claims that Tobin had a “nervous breakdown” and was “on rest” that day.

So what was Tobin actually doing? Maybe tying off the loose ends from the late-July 1920 Denys Barry case in Kilderry in Westmeath, or shutting down the British intelligence vampire-research farm at Dun Dreach-Fhola in County Kerry (DH, pp. 235-236), or investigating porcine anomalies and time drifts at a house on the borderland of County Galway past Ardrahan. Any of those incidents might have caused his alleged “nervous breakdown.” Or maybe the “nervous trouble” was a cover for something else, something he couldn’t even tell Collins.

IRA mole David Neligan’s memoir claims that he met with Tobin at the Gaiety Theatre the night before Bloody Sunday to be briefed on the targets, which sounds like Tobin was very much involved in planning. Intriguingly, that night the Gaiety was mounting a 1914 play by Michael Morton, called The Yellow Ticket. Okay, that’s another engaging lie: The Yellow Ticket was in rehearsals then and didn’t open until December 1; the show actually running at the Gaiety on November 20 was the 1914 American version (by Harry B. Smith) of the operetta The Lilac Domino, based on the original 1912 German version by Charles Cuvillier. The Lilac Domino takes place at a masked ball in France and concerns a series of mysterious courtships somehow demarcated by dice. Cuvillier probably knew Robert W. Chambers in Paris, I note idly.

Another idle note: Among those killed on Bloody Sunday was one Leonard Aidan (nee William) Wilde, born 1891 in Reading to one Richard Wilde, who vanishes from the records almost immediately. Before the War, Wilde spent time in New York City (possibly teaching Spanish), and as a divinity student. He enlisted in the Staffordshire Rifles in 1915 and served as a second lieutenant until discharged for shell shock, upon which time he changed his middle name to Aidan. Becoming Vice-Consul in Barcelona in December 1916, he carried out a number of intelligence-type tasks, including investigating a monastery in Montserrat suspected of hosting a German radio transmitter. Discharged for running up debts in 1917, he nevertheless courted a rich American woman, Frances Rabbitts, whose pull got the happy couple a February 1919 wedding in Notre Dame in Paris, blessed by the Cardinal Archbishop in person. The Wildes returned to Spain, where amid some kind of chicanery Wilde emerged without a wife (she sailed to New York in June 1919) but with a “consular protection certificate” issued by the Foreign Office.

So yes, he could have been a spy. He could have even been in New York running a reputation-repairing blackmail operation in April 1920. He was 5’8″, and did admittedly have both his ears, along with a reputation as an eccentric and “a foreign appearance.” In August 1920 he moved into the Palace Court Hotel in London, the former home of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, for more Yellow Decade juju. On November 3, 1920 he checked into Room 22 (or 14) of the Gresham Hotel in Dublin on no clear business. And on November 20, thirteen IRA assassins (including one man with “a huge hammer”) led by Patrick Moran burst into that hotel. Section commander James Foley later listed one of the kill team as “Michael Noone,” who has no other record I can find. Tobin used false names regularly … perhaps including Michael “No One”?

According to the IRA after-action report, Wilde was in the hallway. Mistaking the IRA gunmen for British police, he identified himself as “Alan Wilde, British Intelligence Officer, just back from Spain.” Michael Kilkelly and two (unnamed) others shot Wilde in the head and leg, killing him. The manager of the Gresham Hotel found the body on the floor of his room, soaked in blood. After resigning his commission in 1924, Tobin runs his car-hire service from behind the Gresham Hotel, perhaps keeping an eye on any lingering fluctuations in reality and sending trusted former Squad comrades to investigate strange Signs throughout the 1920s and 1930s. So what do we know for sure, and what can we engagingly lie about? We know that in the “Castaigne” timeline, Mr. Wilde was killed by a cat. And in our timeline, Mr. Wilde just might have been killed by a Tobin.


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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Campaign Wins

This idea was suggested to me by the Chatty DM, although in doing due diligence I found that Rob already mentioned it in a “Rob says” sidebar in the 13th Age GM’s Screen & Resource Book. So, the first piece of useful, actionable advice in this article is “go read the Resource Book in detail, there’s great stuff there.”

And the second piece is “steal stuff from great GMs, but do it as an easily referenceable blog post as opposed to a twitter post or a sidebar, so people can link back to it and you get all the credit.”

The third bit:

A Campaign Win is the opposite of a Campaign Loss (13th Age, p. 166) – the penalty that the players incur when their characters choose to Flee. The heroes escape and survive, but at the cost of some horrible story-based setback. The village burns, the villain finds the relic they seek, some ally of the heroes get eaten. Campaign Wins, then, are story-based triumphs – the heroes rescue a prisoner who turns out to be a presumed-dead friend; the sun breaks through the clouds, weakening the undead host; the characters find a magical item they’ve long sought. Campaign Wins and Losses should always be orthogonal to the main story – they’re wrinkles, serendipities, complications, moments of grace or horror. In general, it’s best to have the players suggest options for a win or loss, and the GM then picks the most fitting suggestion. In a campaign, let the player save up wins and losses for a few sessions, so wins and losses can be applied to the most fitting unanswered questions.

The GM awards the players a Campaign Win when recurring villains escape automatically a fight that they’re about to lose. The heroes can’t stop the bad guys escaping, but they do get a Win in recompense. Just like Fleeing, not every fight can be escaped – the villains can run away the first time you beat them, but that just means you need to track them to their lair and defeat them there!

The players might also get a win from:

  • Playing Into The GM’s Hands by willingly putting their characters at a disadvantage. Of course I drink the wine – just because this guy’s called Petros the Poisoner doesn’t mean I’m going to insult him by refusing the goblet he offered me!
  • Pressing On when they’ve already had at least four major fights since their last full-heal-up and have significantly depleted their resources. In this case, roll a d6 at the start of each fight. On a 1, the characters earn a Campaign Win. The range of success increases by 1 for each fight (so, roll a 1-2 on the second fight, 1-3 on the third fight and so on).

Encourage the players to use Wins and Losses to spotlight stuff that interest them. A player who suggests a Campaign Win might result in the discovery of an ancient dwarven mine might be signalling they want a dungeon crawl – or that they want to do a spot of domain management, where they oversee the process of re-opening the mine, while a Campaign Loss targeting that village of sympathetic non-player characters might imply that the player wants some meaty tragic roleplaying scenes. After all, the real campaign win is finding out exactly what excites your players…


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 well-situated podcast, Ken and Robin talk location descriptions in city sourcebooks, Watergate era horror films, the eliptony of speed reading, and eldritch photographer William Mortensen.

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The paintings of the Russian-born French artist Jean Béraud (1849-1935) offer a trove of inspiring images for the Paris sequence of your Yellow King game. Straddling the warring Impressionist and Academic camps, he specialized in scenes of everyday life and worked during and beyond the game’s 1895 setting. Like the action of a typical scenario, moods range from the glamorous to the seedy. Players might find their own characters in his signature scenes of late night drinking. As Game Moderator, you might spot any number of GMCs on his canvases. He portrays places as evocatively as he does people, allowing you to illustrate scenes set anywhere from the ballet to the streets.

1895 finds Béraud at the height of his fame, having won the Legion of Honor the year before. If he shows up, play him with the sardonic edge seen in many of his images. He sits on various exhibition committees. The artists in the group may meet him as he decides whether to admit their work into one of the city’s prestigious competitions. Do the investigators have to pressure him to withdraw from exhibition a mysterious painting depicting the hideous action of a notorious play?

Typical player characters if I’ve ever seen them.

This investigator is about to give up on Bonhomie to get the next clue from this hardcore absinthe enthusiast, and switch to a little Steel.

The group’s Muse wonders if she’s been stood up for her appointment with a mask-wearing gentleman.

As the Sculptor spins theories, the Architect takes notes.

Use the Society ability to pry loose the decadent secrets this louche character can spill.

If you can’t find a witness at a smoky cabaret, it’s time to try an outdoor ball, lit by those fancy electric lights the city is now known for.

Shop for food and information at the legendary market of Les Halles.

When in doubt, create an accident as a diversion.


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 temperature-checked podcast, Ken and Robin talk introducing complex settings, late 60s horror films, bad cooking advice, and the Tsarichina Hole.

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The GM Screen of Narcissus

I ran a 13th Age one-shot for some wonderful authors as a part of the online TBRCon (check out the full set of panels), and the fact that it was recorded gives a chance to talk about one of the most important but most ephemeral aspects of rpg play – gamemastering decisions. As a GM, you make dozens of decisions about the plot, the description, the actions of the NPCs, the interpretation of the rules, the interpretation of the scenario, and how to react to and anticipate the actions of the player characters – but it’s all in the moment, and hard to pull out and analyse.

So, in this article, I’m going to try to reconstruct my thinking as I ran the game.

Pregame Thoughts

It’s a 13th Age demo for players who are familiar with D&D, with an audience and a faintly literary vibe. So, I handed out generic pregens (no One Unique Things, Backgrounds, or Icon Relationships) in advance, and sketched out a simple scenario – the player characters are adventurers hired by a local lord, Barismus Quent, to quietly re-murder his long-dead great-grandfather Uther Quent, who’s come back as an undead monster. Lord Barismus fears that his grandfather’s come back to chastise him for marrying a member of the Hale family, the Quents’ long-time rivals. In truth, Uther’s woken up because Barismus’ brother Asfod has stolen Uther’s armour, in the hopes of undermining his brother and rousing a peasant revolt. I statted up Uther and his undead guardians, as well as Asfod and some potential combatants in any such revolt – but I left the scenes after the barrow dungeon crawl very vague. As it was only a three-hour game, I didn’t want to commit to any complex plots that I couldn’t bring to a conclusion in time.

One-shots really benefit from a strong conclusion. That doesn’t necessarily mean a strong ending – the ending of this one-shot was fairly messy – but it’s good to give the players the impression that they played through a coherent and complete story, that what happened at the beginning of the game connects to the middle and leads to the end. If the players come away feeling that the adventure made no sense, then even fun individual scenes can feel like a waste of time. Conversely, an adventure that’s only ok to play through can become more satisfying in retrospect if most of the story elements connect.

Character Creation

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=133 The players introduced their characters.
GR Matthews: Halfling “Merchant” Scrammish Framwell

Anna Stephens: Dwarf Barbarian Bunny Smallbottom, with a large family and an anger problem

Justin Lee Anderson: High Elf Wizard Arian Ravenblood, highly arrogant and inquisitive

Steve McHugh: Wood Elf Ranger Bayn Fangwhisper, rebelling against evil parents

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=341 I told the players they could add backgrounds on the fly during the game. This works really well for one-shots – it reduces the initial complexity as the player doesn’t need to pick backgrounds until they need them, it gives the players a chance to embed their characters in the story, it boosts their chances of succeeding, and because it’s a one-shot, it doesn’t matter if a character ends up with +5 in “Recognising 8th Age Pottery”. I wouldn’t do it as readily in a campaign, as you risk the player investing in something that won’t come up very often.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=385 For Icons, I dropped the number of relationship points to 2, just to speed things up. In other one-shots, I’ve insisted on a common icon (“you all have to have a positive or conflicted relationship with the Priestess” or somesuch). Icons tend to be tricky to work with in one-shots – it’s still fun to work them in, but it requires a lot of luck and mental agility to weave half-a-dozen disparate Icons into a scenario. I do try to hit at least one Icon per player character, although in this game I really only got to use the Prince of Shadows.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=628 Note Steve’s connection to the Three here, which I got to invoke later on.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=663 One Unique Things! Arguably the most distinctive element of 13th Age, and one of the trickest parts of a one-shot. Ideally, you want the game to touch on each player’s OUT, at least a little bit. In a one-shot, it’s enough to just acknowledge the player’s contribution, but often you can drag the game to a satisfactory conclusion by tying whatever plot twist you need to add to a One Unique Thing. (“And because Bob is the Only Halfling Who Can’t Cook, he can poison the dragon with botched Halfling cuisine“).

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=689 Justin takes “Eidetic Memory”. This is one of those OUTs that sounds like a really powerful ability, but boils down to “look, GM, instead of taking notes, I’m just going to ask you to describe stuff a second time later on” and generally works in the game’s favour, speeding up investigative play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=698 Anna’s dwarf Bunny is the “youngest of fourteen siblings” – which is a fine OUT for a campaign, but I never had a chance to bring it into play in the one-shot. If I had more presence of mind, I could have turned one of the NPCs into a dwarf and added some family dynamics, but it never came to pass.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=740 GR’s halfling is a penny-pincher. I encouraged the player to exaggerate this trait a little, to make it a bit more unique, and immediately planned to hit the player with a roleplaying dilemma in the barrow-dungeon crawl. Given I already had an adventure based around the consequences of grave-robbing, I knew I’d easily be able to bring this OUT into play.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=766 Finally, Bayn can tell when someone’s lying. In a campaign, I’d almost certainly have put some restriction on this – either he has to do something (“I can tell when someone’s lying, but I have to be able to hear their breathing”) or there’s a tell of some sort (“I can tell when someone’s lying, because a giant ghost cat appears on my shoulder and hisses ‘lying’”). For a one-shot, I let it fly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=800 Both Scrammish and Bayn took connections to the Prince of Shadows, so I leapt on that as connective glue for the company. Those two started out travelling together, and the other two joined them. I let the other two players decide who was the long-time travelling companion of the two thieves, and who was the newcomer. Establishing simple relationships and status differentials like that early on gives players a little texture for roleplaying.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1023 Scrammish and Bayn decided they were smugglers, so I leapt on that and asked what they were currently smuggling. This meant that I was deviating from my initial outline (which started with a briefing scene giving the players the dungeon-crawl), but it did mean I could introduce the two feuding factions and give the players a bit more context. The wagon with the boxes of straw was improvised on the spot. A wagon gives the players something to defend and protect, putting the mysterious cargo in boxes defers making a decision about it until later (and gives a nice “what’s in the box” jolt of anticipation) and the straw suggests whatever’s in there is fragile.

Given that the cargo was going to the Hales, and their enemy Asfod Quent had a potential druidic connection, I guessed it was some sort of alchemical defoliant or plague – but I left my options open. (In retrospect, I should possibly have made it a potential _elven_ connection to tie into Bayn and Arian – but, equally, that might have been one level of complexity too much for a short one-shot.)

Gameplay

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1119 Mechanically, there’s absolutely no justification for this Intelligence check – it’s just purely a dice warmup and a super-basic mechanics reminder for the audience.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1313 And the party’s already splitting up…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1354 I wasn’t planning to endanger the wagon at this point anyway, but nothing gives the game away more than asking for marching order for the first time before triggering a trap. So, I started setting precedent that they’d have to worry about the wagon’s security.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1720 I have absurd hands. This is not of any relevance to gamemastering techniques, but it’s really hard to unsee.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=1749 My plan here was for Bunny to find evidence of the secret passage that the lord’s treacherous brother was using to sneak in and out of the castle. Her low roll meant that this discovery never happened. I try to bring this subplot into play again later on, and the players fail again. If this subplot had been necessary to the story, I’d have skipped the roll and just had the players find the secret passage (or better – tied it to Bunny’s icon relationship. “This castle is dwarf-built, and you know from your association with the Dwarf King that…”)

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2367 One of the key skills for a GM – shutting up when the players are riffing. It’s especially tricky in online play, where table crosstalk is harder to achieve.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2543 If the players evince interest in something, like talking to the lord’s wife or visiting the local library, run with it – but think about how it can lead back to the main plot! Often, you’ll have some key plot elements you want to foreshadow, and any form of foreshadowing works. If they’d asked to look at a portrait of the dead ancestor, or talked to the kitchen scullion, they’d also have learned about Uther’s shiny armour, but the information would have been presented differently, and in a way that suggested the player had asked a very clever question indeed.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2710 Justifying the failed roll on external factors (you don’t speak this language) instead of suggesting that the genius elf is at fault.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=2889 This scene with Lady Hale sets up the intended use of the cargo in the wagon, by showing her interest in the forest between the two domains. The cost was less time with Hargul, who I enjoyed playing – but as the players couldn’t understand his exaggerated gravelly grim dark voice, that’s for the best.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3269 I wanted to give Geoff a bit of spotlight time, and to hint at intrigue and disputes. The second Intelligence test would have spotted the same secret passage that Bunny missed earlier…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3468 An hour into the game, and we’re through scene one…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3511 This is a good example of giving the players a choice where both options are consequential but not entirely clear. Do they endanger the wagon by leaving it behind, or keep it with them and risk arriving at the haunted barrow by night? If the choice was “take the wagon with you or leave it behind”, it’s a lot easier for the players to default to the safest (or, rather, most controlled) option of taking it.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3660 When you say “don’t roll a 1”, players will roll a 1. My intent for this roll was just to remind the players that the wagon’s contents are perilous and fragile, but Anna’s roll of a 1 forced me to nail down the contents of the box.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=3755 To a degree “the box contains an egg” is basically “the box contains another, smaller, box”, but it is forward progress. Also, it gave me a chance to use an icon relationship – specificially, Bayn’s connection to the Three – to explain the nature of the egg. And because a Red, Blue and Black Dragon comprise the Three, it makes thematic sense for the egg to either go fiery-boom, weird-magic-boom, or acid-poisony-boom as needed. Later on, for example, the players contemplate blowing up the barrow with an egg. If they’d done that, I’d probably have decided that the eggs contained a poisonous vapour that didn’t affect the undead.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4341 As Bunny examines the tomb, she spots some religious paraphernalia. I’d originally planned to have a subplot where the players meet a sympathetic cleric who tried to exorcise the haunting of the barrow, but ended up dropping this and focussing on the druidic connection.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4521 The fight here – a bunch of low-damage mook skeletons who grab on and reduce their foe’s armour class, and two tougher skeletons with a high-damage attack that has a big attack penalty. So, if the players don’t deal with the mooks, the big guys can hit them with big swords. I made the mechanics of the fight very clear, and took things easy on the players until they go to grips with their abilities.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=4849 Another natural 1! Especially in a one-shot, it’s always good to make a fuss of memorable rolls, hence Scrammish gets used as a melee weapon for the rest of the fight. Note that this didn’t really penalise Scrammish that much – he was effectively Stuck but could still fight perfectly well – but it’s a memorable visual and a fun scene.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5517 It’s always a good idea to tie elements in a fight scene back to the overall story – when the dice come out and the conversation becomes all about attack bonuses and hit points, the plot can get forgotten unless you keep bringing it up. Hence, the detail that the mook skeletons are dead Hales.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=5884 Technically, this shouldn’t have been a crit, but I wanted to get moving with the fight and the wizard wasn’t yet breaking out area-clearing acid arrows…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6035 And yes, this wasn’t even a hit – but timing takes precedence over rules in a one-shot.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6135 I gave each player character 4 recoveries – a full complement of 8 is too much for a one-shot, as there’s almost no chance of burning through all of them. Similarly, when running a Night’s Black Agents one-shot, I tend to drop Network and Cover scores to half their normal values.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6514 Letting players narrate kills is always fun.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=6832 TFW you realise that none of the player characters have a single healing ability other than the barbarian.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7744 As soon as I made it clear that they could walk away from this encounter, the dynamic changed immediately.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=7935 Arguably, this should have been an autosuccess to spot the plot, ala GUMSHOE. Then again, in 13th Age, the plot tends to be a lot more wobbly and changeable.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8153 The temporary confusion of Margot Hale with the druid is an interesting point – in a short adventure like this one, the players are going to reasonably assume that any mysterious shadowy figure is connected to established plotlines or characters.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8299 And Bayn’s Bullshit Detector ability pays off nicely here, letting the players eliminate suspects and move along smoothly.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8664 Here, I use Lady Hale to draw all (fair enough, both) plotlines together – the players can use the weapons they’re smuggling for the Prince to blow up the barrow.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8739 And as we’re into the last 30 minutes of the timeslot, it’s time to bring everyone and everything together by having the druid show up.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8817 I really wish I’d brought Asfod “on-screen” earlier, as it’s really bad writing to have the villain of the piece show up only in the last scene. Oh well – that’s the nature of roleplaying games. You can’t neatly script satisfying and coherent plots. You’ve got to roll for and with it…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=8948 I’m fascinated by the potential of audience input during live online games…

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9378 This ability also had a cool hook into the potential peasant revolt, but again, you can’t always be sure how a scene will turn out.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9447 It’s always great when players come up with scenario-ending moves for you – and a player-generated plan should always take precedence over a GM’s solution to a problem.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9526 Hargul does deserve to be hit, to be fair.

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=9769 With only a few minutes left in the slot, and knowing that I needed to move towards an ending, we abandon the regular rules and move towards a looser, more narrative approach to the mechanics. You still want the uncertainty and fun of dice, so “roll high and cool stuff happens.”

https://youtu.be/016hcUaWeww?t=10097 Technically, yes, the bad guys won, but it’s still a satisfying end for the players.


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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See Page XX – February 2021

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Well, 2020 is over, finally!!, as is January 2021, which looked horribly like it was going the way of 2020 for a while. COVID-19 vaccines are starting to be distributed, and hopefully life will return to something resembling normalcy over the coming months. However, there’s nothing normal about our newest pre-order, The Fall of DELTA GREEN campaign The Borellus Connection, coming in at a mighty 416 pages. Pre-order now, and get Looking Glass: Saigon 1968 as a bonus download, along with the pre-layout PDF.

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A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Now that lots of you have had the chance to check it out, either in its original run on Twitch or now on YouTube, I thought you might enjoy a look behind the scenes at my process for preparing and running “Mr. Wilde’s Wild Halloween.”

These notes won’t make much sense until you check it out; it’s the Halloween game of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I ran for Misha Bushyager, Sharang Biswas, Ruth Tillman, Wade Rockett and Pelgrane magnifico Cat Tobin. It takes place in the game’s contemporary setting, This is Normal Now.

The premise for the scenario began with the desire to do something on Halloween. This led me to the thought of setting it at a Halloween party, with the players wearing their characters’ costumes.

Rather than use characters’ Freaking Weird Moments to draw them into the horror, I found reality horror inspiration in each costume.

Misha’s desire to be an Empress of Evil implied a group of would-be minions overly willing to perform horrible acts in her name—thus, the Larrys.

Cat’s flapper gear led me to invent the scenario’s central mystery. It provided an opportunity to invoke on a classic Gothic trope: the painting of an identical predecessor.

I knew that a weird scientist would hook directly into the scenario as it developed but didn’t immediately see an introductory moment. Eventually I hit on the idea of a desirable fellow party goer needing repairs to a robot costume. Sharang, it turned out, was way ahead of me, suggesting the very thing I’d hoped—a desire to meet up with someone his character was crushing on. This was a huge gift to me, as you can’t always count on tabletop roleplayers to want to bring a love interest into the mix.

My solo scene for Ruth was less about her costume than an opportunity to hang out with her favorite YKRPG character, the Dream Clown. (Her Black Star Magic scenario features this children’s TV host from the Aftermath reality.) She wound up springboarding that possibility sideways into another bit, the memories of the creepy imagined childhood staircase.

Finally, Wade’s idea that his character, James, would be half-assing his outfit led to the inevitable idea that his real costume, that of the King in Yellow, would be waiting for him at the party.

Splitting the characters up into solo scenes ensures a fair share of onstage time and narrative importance for each participant—a solution to a common problem of one-shots, where you don’t get a second session to give a neglected player more spotlight.

Having sketched these out, I worked out a backstory connected to the Robert W. Chambers story “The Mask.” You’ll find that at the end of this piece.

Then I backed up to the introduction. I wanted to start with matters already in motion, but not so abruptly that we couldn’t introduce the characters to each other and the audience. Here are my bullet points for the opening:

  • How are You Getting There?
  • Character Sheets and Rules Basics
  • Your Group Dynamic
  • What are You Hoping Happens at the Party?

Unlike a typical one-shot, this was a performance for an audience, where we wanted to fold in some system tutorial. In the end, it wasn’t that much different from what would happen at a convention table.

Just as in one-shots I run in Belle Époque Paris, I started with the opportunity for characters to encounter the evening’s horrors in an altered state. This shows off general ability tests and the Shock and Injury card system, and dovetails with the overarching theme of reality slippage.

The phantom Bugatti, visible to anyone receiving a Shock card, reenacts the accidental death of the woman in the portrait who looks like Cat’s flapper. This set up a direction not taken, in which the group finds out about her doppelganger’s death by researching the figure in the portrait, and then heads outside to get more information from the ghost.

(If no one had failed their tests, I would have given the vision of the Bugatti to the lowest successful scorers.)

From there you can see the scenario play out my sketched-out solo scenes, then reconverge the characters to commiserate, problem-solve, and investigate their way to the basement and the final confrontation.

Along the way you see my drop in a few of my fave moves:

  • the chance to make a deal with the devil
  • with the Larrys and their dance, an image that is funny yet increasingly horrible
  • an affable, matter-of-fact primary antagonist

Any scenario needs more possible paths than the players wind up taking. Otherwise you’re just ushering them through your plan, and not letting them help build the storyline. In a one-shot I’m happy to throw weird stuff at the players until they start looking for information. There is less clue-seeking here than you’d see if you eavesdropped on my home group—but our sessions tend to devote two or three sessions to each mystery. Here you see the players ignore all mention of a library in order to keep the story moving with the information they have on hand. Thankfully I had a bad guy willing to monologue the absolutely key parts to them during the climax.

The moment when everyone feels weird but no one takes a card was set up to have some of the PCs physically transforming into the costumes, as happens to GMCs at the party. This arguably happens to two of the characters anyhow, so it’s hardly a lost opportunity. Here are the cards that would have gone to characters who failed:

In an ongoing game I wouldn’t escalate the weirdness so quickly, instead doing more of a slow burn. I certainly wouldn’t kill off one of the players for having to leave early in the session! However Sharang’s brilliant characterization prior to his demise at a preset time fit the plot so thoroughly you might suspect us of colluding in advance.

But it wasn’t planned at all. I can prove that by showing you the rest of my notes. You’ll see lots of elements I had ready but weren’t needed.

Boris Yvain (1872 – 1895)

American born sculptor and chemist, parents French and Russian, died in Paris 1895

Gennady Yvain (1877 – 1941)

His brother, establishes Dragoncourt Chemicals, develops a line of preservatives (based on papers discovered in his late brother’s possessions)

Builds observatory as connection to the Hyades, crucial in developing new formulae, built in 1924

Jack Yvain (1900 – 1984)

his son, astronomer and, from the 1940s on, computer programmer

with the help of Carcosa uploaded his consciousness into mainframe at the observatory before his death

upgrades over the years have allowed him to live in increasingly comfortable servers, but he wants bodies, and with the alignment of the Hyades on October 31st he’s going to possess the bodies of multiple revelers

sure for that to work they have to mutate into monstrous versions of their costumes but hey you get embodied with the tech you have

Colette Nicolas (1902 – 1924)

Jack’s fiancee, flees the observatory after beholding the alignment of the Hyades, killed in one-car collision

distant relation of famous Lumiere brothers

at time of her death, her Lesley Gibson portrait is already in progress, it is completed and hung in the observatory in 1926

Jack has dalliances but never marries or has children, declaring the observatory his heir

Lesley Gibson (1874 – 1945)

American born painter, heir to the Gibson Shale quarry fortune

student in Paris at École des Beaux-Arts 1895-1894, friend of Boris Yvain

paints portrait of Colette Nicolas in 1923

Camille Lau – Chairman of the Yvain Observatory Foundation – she answers to Jack’s consciousness in exchange for prophetic stock tips; believes his cover story that the Halloween party is a much-needed fundraiser after the pandemic closures (which it is, but also mass possession) – dressed in stylish party dress with subtle cat ear headband

Ruben Suarez – party promoter; has a weird feeling but knows nothing; dressed as Mr. Wilde


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 plangent podcast, Ken and Robin talk international animal trafficking, more early 60s horror flicks, Erik Satie’s Vexations, and court magician Michael Scot.

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by Steven Hammond

Well, as we say in the software world, 2020 has passed and good riddance. I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you all the best in 2021!

Transparency is one of our company’s values. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you a summary of what went well and not so well in 2020 and some exciting things we have to look forward to in 2021. If you have questions, reach out to me through the Black Book contact form (https://theblackbook.io/contacts/new). I’m happy to answer pretty much anything.

2020 In Review

We had 3 major goals for 2020, and we hit all three.

Launch the Black Book GM Tools: The first, and most important, goal was to launch the GM tools. The first beta of the GM tools that we rolled out in 2019 didn’t work so well, largely because of some early design choices, including database selection. We spent most of the first half of 2020 completely replacing the database (CouchDB -> PostgreSQL) and the basics of our API (Rest -> GraphQL). The launch of the GM tools was a tremendous success. The Rhode Island Historical Society shared their Lovecraft walking tour as part of our virtual launch party at Gen Con. We had a good crowd and the feedback on the GM Tools was very positive. I am super happy with how this went.

Improve our Integration Story: The most common feature request used to be integration with Virtual Table Tops. Of course everybody wanted a different one, and several of the more popular ones are difficult to integrate with. Also, several people (including a few Pelgranistas) felt that VTTs were too heavy and needlessly complex for GUMSHOE games. Through discussions with our community, we learned that there was one tool that almost everyone uses when they play on line. Discord! And Discord provides a robust set of tools for integration. So we launched Discord integration at Gen Con as well. This has also been an enormous success.

Financial Self Sustainability: Our last goal was financial sustainability. We needed The Black Book to grow to where it covers the technical infrastructure costs for itself and other company projects. We achieved this as well, with a little extra to invest back in the business. Someday I’ll be able to leave my day job behind and focus solely on software to make games better. But it is not this day.

That said, we didn’t get everything we wanted done in 2020. I really wanted to get support for Swords of the Serpentine and QuickShock launched and our bug queue is a lot longer than I want it to be. Finally, even though we met our financial goals, I don’t feel like we’re really getting the word out beyond Facebook. I would really like to take part in the broader GUMSHOE community in 2021.

What’s Coming in 2021

We have some big plans for 2021.

The Black Book

Our overriding goal for the Black Book in 2021 is to make it the go to tool for running GUMSHOE games online. You shouldn’t need a VTT in addition to the Black Book —  we’ll have you covered. Here is a roadmap for the Black Book, roughly by quarters. Note that these are just the major things, the usual steam of bug fixes and smaller features will continue.

Q1: Our first goal for Q1 is to support all GUMSHOE games except Mutant City Blues (more on that later). The second goal is to have robust support for one-shots and con games. This includes GMs creating and managing characters for the players, and support for libraries of pre-gens that can be reused.

We are proud to announce that “game complete” includes Casting the Runes from The Design Mechanism and Quill Media! They have generously agreed to allow us to add their game of Edwardian horror to the Black Book.

Q2: Mutant City Blues and support for QuickShock combat will arrive during Q2. We’ve been saying that for a while, but both are harder than they first seem and both are going to be exceptional!

Q3/Q4: The goals for the last half of the year are to round out the functionality needed to run a great game. This might include sharing image assets with players and integrating with one of the audio tools that are out there. It might also include some special functionality for the more popular games. Things like a Chase Track for Night’s Black Agents. We’ll be reaching out to all of you for help in defining exactly what the Black Book needs to fulfill the vision.

Thank you!

I want to take this opportunity to thank all of our customers and supporters. Without you, we couldn’t do it. 2020 was a tough year for all of us. You certainly helped us through it, and hopefully the Black Book helped you. Don’t hesitate to connect with us on Twitter, Facebook or at https://theblackbook.io.

Sincerely,

Steven Hammond

Founder, Northland Creative Wonders

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“He had lately become a devotee of the William Mortensen school of photography. Mortensen, of course, is the leading exponent of fantasy in photography; his monstrosities and grotesques are widely known.”

— Robert Bloch, “The Sorcerer’s Jewel” (1939)

William H. Mortensen, the “leading exponent of fantasy in photography,” was born in Park City, Utah in 1897 to Danish immigrants. In high school he caught the drawing bug from his art teacher, James Taylor Harwood, who attended the Académie Julian (1888-1890) and the Beaux-Arts (1890-1892) in Paris, his time at those schools overlapping as it happens with Robert W. Chambers.

Drafted into and released from the Army in 1918, Mortensen stayed in New York to study at the Art Students League in New York City under George Bridgman (another Chambers overlap, at the Beaux-Arts from 1883-1889). He left art school on an impulsive trip to Greece in 1920, returned broke, and after a year teaching art himself in Salt Lake City moved to Hollywood in 1921 as a chaperon for his 14-year-old fellow Utahan Fay Wray.

Incubus, by William Mortensen (1925). Model unknown, but probably not a dimensional shambler

While keeping Fay out of trouble and getting her into pictures, he worked with the directors King Vidor and Ferdinand Pinney Earle as a matte painter, and then on costume design with Cecil B. DeMille on his Ten Commandments (1923) then (as his photography business expanded) as a still photographer on King of Kings (1927). He designed masks for and learned makeup from Lon Chaney, Sr., with whom he worked on Mr. Wu (1927) and West of Zanzibar (1928).

Following a scandal exacerbated by Fay Wray’s mother, a brief dalliance with Jean Harlow, and the not-unrelated destruction of his marriage he leaves Hollywood for Laguna Beach in 1931. There he opens the Mortensen School of Photography, marries one of his longtime models Myrdith Monaghan in 1933, and breeds Persian Blue cats. Even at that remove, he retains his cachet with Hollywood: his 1941 photograph of aspiring actress Martha Vickers gets her a contract at RKO without a screen test. His Hollywood photographs regularly appear in Vanity Fair and Colliers, he writes a column for LA Weekly, he mounts exhibitions as far away as London.

In the 1930s, Mortensen reigns as the king of the “Pictorialist” school of photography, pioneering techniques of photo-manipulation with lenses and razors to create bizarre and impossible images, and defending his principles in books like Monsters & Madonnas (1934) and The Command to Look (1937). His success with the grotesque and unreal sparks the hatred of Ansel Adams and the “Purist” photographers of the f.64 movement. Adams despises Mortensen and everything he stands for: wishing him dead in print, calling him “the Devil” and “the Anti-Christ.”

Perhaps Adams fixates on those terms thanks to Mortensen’s series of photographs depicting witches, demons, and monsters. Mortensen begins what he calls his “Pictorial History of Witchcraft and Demonology” around 1926, continuing it through at least 1935. He consults with his friend the occultist Manly P. Hall on the topic, freely borrowing from Hall’s library of 20,000 mystical tomes. At some point in the late 1930s he suddenly stops creating grotesques, switching almost entirely to nudes and rural workers (sometimes clad in Renaissance garb) as his subjects. At least a third of the approximately 150 images he created for his witchcraft and demonology series have disappeared.

The Shadows From the Shutter

“That is why the beings cannot be photographed on the ordinary camera films and plates of our known universe, even though our eyes can see them. With proper knowledge, however, any good chemist could make a photographic emulsion which would record their images.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Adams’ enmity, and changing public tastes, eventually drove Mortensen into obscurity and penury. On August 12, 1965, William Mortensen dies of a nosocomial infection in the La Jolla hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Myrdith sends a file of his negatives, prints, and scrapbooks to small time Hollywood publisher O. Howard Lucy (b. 1900?); he publishes botched editions of Monsters & Madonnas and The Command to Look in 1967.

And at some point, DELTA GREEN hears rumors about “The Last Mortensens,” a series of pictures briefly offered to collectors in the late 1950s. Supposedly the culmination of his “History of Witchcraft and Demonology,” taken in 1937 or thereabouts, they depict his most grotesque images yet: thoroughly alien shapes and beings in stark silver-gelatin prints. Perhaps a dead occultist (stumbled over or produced in the course of a previous investigation) has one print, and his eager letters point to more out there.

The Agents head for California, to interview Myrdith: she claims she only got half the material back from Lucy. Lucy says he gave it to his photographer partner Jacques de Langre (b. 1925), a lecturer on alternative healing and enthusiast for the magical powers of salt. De Langre claims he returned everything to Myrdith’s “intermediary,” who may never have existed. Manly P. Hall (b. 1901), an increasingly grumpy and neglected guru in Los Feliz, happily discusses Mortensen’s theories and learning but likely has no lead on a missing folio.

The Agents might also look up Mortensen’s old friend, model, and collaborator on his books, the former stage actor and director George Dunham, currently living in Corona del Mar. Or they might be attracted to the rumor that San Francisco magician and publicity hound Anton LaVey uses insights from The Command to Look to develop the “lesser magic” and psychological manipulation core to his new Church of Satan. (LaVey dedicates the 1969 edition of The Satanic Bible to, among others, “William Mortensen, who looked … and saw.”)

Another lead (via the dead occultist or a LaVey hanger-on) points to another interesting Mortensen collector: the psychic investigator Hereward Carrington (1880-1958). When the Agents go to his home in L.A., they discover that his widow Marie keeps Carrington’s immense collection of journals and photographs intact as an archive. Has it been robbed? Who can tell? What other secrets does it hold?

Perhaps it holds the patchy records of Carrington’s work with a band of Investigators in the late 1930s who selflessly rescued renowned photographer William Mortensen from the hideous Things he had unwittingly called up with the angles and alchemies of his lenses and emulsions. Shaken, he resolves to abandon grotesquerie and return to Myrdith. But, bitter and impoverished twenty years later, he made one last set of prints for a few rich and eminent collectors …

Fall of DELTA GREEN Handlers can riff on “From Beyond,” “The Trap,” and “The Whisperer in Darkness,” and on the images of monsters retained in glass in “The Unnamable,” for that prequel Trail of Cthulhu adventure. Did Mortensen learn these hypergeometric techniques in Greece, and Carcosan ratios from Chambers’ friends? Did he find unnatural clues in Manly Hall’s library, or in a Hollywood horrorist’s drunken rant? This works even better if you ask the players to describe the photos when their Agents find them in the 1960s (“oh, it’s a boiling sphere covered in eyes”). Then, in the 1930s, their Investigators have to face those unnamable models from their own imagination – and save Mortensen from them.


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 less than wholly Roman podcast, Ken and Robin talk Morning of the Magicians in FALL OF DELTA GREEN, mid-century gothic cinema, our favorite Old Ones, and the final meeting of the Prince-Electors.

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In the latest episode of their myrrh-swaddled podcast, Ken and Robin talk phoenix T-shirts, John le Carré, 50s science horror, and the giant of Kandahar.

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So, you’ve been bitten by the werewolf. Infected by the zombie virus. Snacked on by Dracula. Discovered that your grandmother came from Innsmouth, or that you were conceived in the Outer Dark. You’re a monster, and soon you’re going to succumb to the darkness in you and turn on your comrades.

Up until then, though, you can use your supernatural abilities to help your friends. You’re doomed, but maybe they’re not…

Monster Rules

The following rules apply to player characters turned monsters.

  • Dark Gifts: You can spend Stability as Aberrance at a 2-for-1 rate. If the monster you’re connected to has an Aberrance-fuelled power, then you can access that power by spending Aberrance. For example, an Ovvashii can use Aberrance to compel a victim to reveal secrets to it – if you’re tainted by an Ovvashii, maybe you can use this dark gift to question creatures of the Outer Dark!
  • More Than Human: You can also spend Stability to temporarily boost any of your Abilities or any of your Modifiers (Armour, Damage, Awareness and so on) – but you’re limited by the scores of the connected monster. So, if you’ve been infected by a werewolf (Damage Modifier +2), you can spend Stability to boost your Damage Modifier for one attack, to a maximum of +2.
  • Dark Insight: You gain a new Investigative Ability, Dark Insight, giving you, well, insight into the intentions and inhuman motivations of the monster. It’s not at all reliable, but can give you some inkling of the monster’s next target, its weaknesses, or its origin.
  • Degeneration: When you start Losing It (Stability -1 to -5), you gain a Stigma – a permanent and visible sign of your inhuman nature. This can result in changes to your character’s statistics – maybe your hands become claws, giving you a Damage Modifier. When you’re Shattered, you gain a second Stigma. Finally, when reduced to -12 Stability, you become a monster.
  • No Redemption: You gain only half the benefit from Shrink spends – and if you spend Stability for Dark Gifts or More Than Human, you must also reduce your Rank by the same amount.

A Monster From The Start

If the GM allows it, you can declare at the start of a campaign that your character is monstrous. You start with Dark Insight. Typically, being monstrous is a restricted concept, just like psychics. You don’t know what your monstrous nature is at the start of the campaign, and the GM is encouraged to mislead you with red herrings and cryptic allusions.

New Monsters

Both of these monsters work as potential connections for tainted investigators.

Paternals

Paternals are semi-parasitic creatures from the Outer Dark. They bind themselves to human anchors to keep themselves on this side of the Membrane. Once attached, Paternals protect their mortal anchors for the rest of the mortal’s life, defending the mortal against external threats, and only moving on only when it becomes clear that the mortal is dying of natural causes. The trouble is that the Paternal’s definition of “threat” is malign and erratic – your neighbour bought a new set of garden shears? Clearly, the neighbour’s plotting to murder you – better kill him first! Paternal Anchors find themselves at the epicentre of a spate of unexplained deaths, brutal murders, and supernatural weirdness. Moving to a new home provides a few months of relief, but sooner or later, the Paternal will find its anchor again…

(Some anchors have tried living alone in the wilderness, which works for a while – but eventually, the Paternal gets bored of having nothing but small animals to eviscerate, and starts roaming further and further afield…)

Paternals are almost invisible, appearing only as a shadow or stain. When actively attacking, the Paternal manifests as a vaguely male figure, shrouded in dark mist – imagine a statue of a Greek god made of boiling smoke.

When it’s time to take a new anchor, the Paternal looks for a young child, especially one that’s in danger. It then saves that child from peril, impressing itself onto it and detaching from the previous anchor – who it then sees as a potential threat that must be destroyed. Horribly, Paternals do seem to have some degree of genuine affection for their anchors, and never attack them if they have any other recourse.

Abilities: Aberrance 10, Health 12, Scuffling 16

Hit Threshold: 5

Armour: None, but most attacks go right through the Paternal’s shadowy form. A Paternal can only be injured after it manifests.

Awareness Modifier: +2

Stealth Modifier: +2

Damage Modifier: By telekinetic weapon or +2 (when manifest)

Telekinesis: A Paternal can spend Aberrance to fuel Telekinesis, as per the psychic gift (Fear Itself, p. 76). Paternals use this power to eliminate perceived threats.

Manifest: Normally, a Paternal is immaterial and mostly invisible. It can spend 1 Aberrance to become solid and visible for a round, allowing it to use its Scuffling.

Monstrous Strength: When manifest, the Paternal can spend 2 Aberrance to perform feats of incredible strength, like throwing a car or smashing through a wall.

The Unkind

The Unkind are almost human. Their ancestors were human. To be precise, their ancestors were all members of the Church of the High Rock in 19th century Massachusetts. The crazed preacher, Henry Sparrow, somehow tore a hole in the Membrane, cursing the members of the congregation assembled in the chapel on that fateful night. They became attuned to the Outer Dark, able to slip across the Membrane to the other side much more easily than normal humans. Worse, over time, the curse would transform them into creatures of unremitting horror.

Most of the congregation fled after Sparrow’s ritual. However, the curse is heritable, and their descendants are all doomed to fall through the Membrane to the Outer Dark, or become monstrous on this side of reality. Some of Sparrows’ followers have given into their corruption and worship the lords of the Outer Dark; they now seek out their lost cousins so they can bring them into the service of the horrors.

‘Mature’ Unkind – those who have crossed over enough times for their monstrous genetic heritage to come to the fore – are spindly, spidery things, with skin like yellowing paper and far too many joints. Their teeth migrate back down their mouths and throats, with replacement teeth sprouting in the gums – an Unkind might grin with seven or eight circles of sharp, sharp teeth. They also develop a third eye, located in the throat; this eye can see places where the Membrane is thin.

Abilities: Aberrance 6, Health 6, Scuffling 8

Hit Threshold: 4

Armour: None.

Awareness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: By weapon or Bite +1

Slip: An Unkind can spend 1 Aberrance to slip through the Membrane into the Outskirts of the Outer Dark, a parallel realm that looks like a shadowy, desolate, monster-haunted version of our reality. If the Unkind spends 3 Aberrance instead, it can open a small tear, allowing it to transport up to five other people.

Spy: An Unkind can look from the Outskirts into the ‘normal’ world, or vice versa, by opening its third eye. This costs one Aberrance.


Fear Itself 2nd Edition is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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Along with many other historical figures of 1895 Paris, characters in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game can meet Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered both the scientific and pseudoscientific strains of criminal forensics. He appears in the Paris book; we also discuss him in this episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff.

The mug shot remains his most credible lasting contribution to criminology. His effort to increase the reliability of police identification left behind a historical record you can now access via the Metropolitan Museum’s open access collection.

In other words, Bertillon left YKRPG GMs a rich trove of handouts for their Paris games. Obligingly, he took these in the exact historical era the game focuses on. As you’d imagine from a photographic record of arrests, many of the folks pictured clearly hail from the hardscrabble side of life. However you also see a number of dapper individuals, because many of the shots are of suspected anarchists. Given the era, they might indeed have been involved in deadly bombing plots—or were rounded up simply for their radical views or connections.

In some cases you might want to leave on the framing matter, and present the players with actual mug shots—perhaps provided to them by Bertillon himself. I’ve left on the frame for the first of the examples below.

To use them as images of GMCs the art students talk with during their investigations, simply crop off the frames.

As their arrests took place nearly a 130 years ago, I’m sure the subjects won’t mind being recast as fictional figures in your game. You could invent characters and then search for a mug shot to match. Some tantalizing historical details remain attached to the images. You can use them as the basis of your GMCs. With these as starting inspiration, you might flesh out your characters and then build a scenario around them.

This fashionable fellow was Alphonse Grégoire, a 27 year old mechanic arrested as an anarchist. The naive observer would attribute his dazed expression to the flash of a late 19th century camera. We know better: obviously he recently read the forbidden play, and sees visions of Carcosa behind the lens.

Men outnumber women in the mug shots, as they do in any lock-up. Again the political arrests help us out here, as in the case of accused anarchist Caroline Herman, a 33 year old couturier. You could cast her as any middle class woman of formidable aspect.

Okay, clearly a player character snuck into the mix here. I kid you not that this is a 19 year old sculptor named Minna Schrader, charged for “associating with malefactors.” What investigator hasn’t been booked by the gendarmes while gathering scuttlebutt in the wrong cafe? As a seasoned occult-buster, she knew to blink during the shot, rendering it less useful to police.

Images of working class folks also abound. House painter Émile Barbier might have seen something unwholesome from high up on scaffolding. He also looks like he could take care of himself in a dust-up, and might be anything from a henchman or mastermind in a Yellow Sign conspiracy.

The collection gives you some selection of older characters. This 72 year old mattress maker gave the surnames Guelle, or Guelle, but was also known as St. Denis. He looks like he’s been drinking away his hallucinations after glimpsing the shores of Lake Hali.

These are just a quick sampling, so be sure to check out the full assortment.


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 psychedelic podcast, Ken and Robin talk dramatically active red herrings, the old Cincinnati Public Library, 40s horror movie essentials, and the occultism of Timothy Leary.

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by Kevin Kulp

Want to set a Swords of the Serpentine game outside of Eversink? See Page XX will periodically give you starting ideas for alternate game settings, including Allegiance information. This month we’ll look at Joining, the small town I’m using to test future rules for non-human heroes. I wanted a setting that starts low-powered but which can ramp upwards in complexity and population, and which starts small and cozy but can easily accommodate a more cosmopolitan population as the game progresses.

Player Pitch: The Town of Joining

Massive, ancient trees stretching straight up to the sky. Dappled green sunlight. Burbling icy streams. Peaceful hollows of mossy rocks where silence sits and comfortably waits to be broken. A surprising quantity of ruins. Hints of an ancient metropolis. Inexplicable strangers. And rumors of ghost worlds between the trees.

Joining is a small town hidden deep in a vast and mighty forest known as the Cathedral Woods. The trees here are similar in size to the giant sequoias of Northern California, and the town of Joining is small, fewer than a thousand people. Its people feed themselves through hunting, fishing, and organized foraging, alongside the help of foreign caravan leaders who arrive with trade goods from larger cities far away and leave with Joining’s rare plants, mushrooms, and herbal poisons. Joining is a great place to grow up, and should be a place of deep and serene peace.

But.

But there are hints of oddness. Ancient and feral forest gods; druids who lair within the forest; wardens who patrol the area and discourage exploration; occasional glimpses of other worlds from between trees; far too many crumbled unexplained ruins; monsters emerging from the forest that have no right to be there; and hints through family heirlooms that Joining was once an extraordinarily rich town, with no hint of how that was or why it stopped.

This is where you grew up. You’re becoming an adult, the town is starting to feel small, and no one is answering your questions.

Welcome to Joining.

Interesting Features

Before beginning play, ask each player to specify an additional interesting feature of the town. This can be a location, a person, or an occurrence such as a holiday. Starting interesting features include:

  • Instead of naming streets, individual trees are named.
  • Buildings are built both on the ground and in the trees on carefully-balanced platforms that don’t hurt the trees themselves. The most prestigious (and safest) architecture is that highest up the trees. Ramps, ladders, bridges, and hoists give access to elevated buildings.
  • Rumors have always persisted of ghost-lights flickering between trees; wildly distant places are said to be visible in the pale and shuddering light. This hasn’t been proven to anyone’s satisfaction.
  • There’s a monthly tradition named Door Day, the night of each month’s new moon, when lovers anonymously leave small and unexpected presents outside the door of their intended. This often fuels romantic speculation.
  • Everyone looks forward to the summer festival of games, feasts, competition, dancing, and celebration. Apprentices are chosen during the summer festival.
  • The Grove of Arches is near Joining, and is a flower-filled forest grove so beautiful and quiet it inevitably feels holy.
  • Every few years a stranger comes to town looking for The Inn (always pronounced with capital letters.) When they see the actual inn, with all four rooms for rent, they inevitably go away dissatisfied. Someone is spreading rumors that reality can’t match.
  • There’s been a feud going on between the Tavish family (most of whom serve as guards and hunters) and the Daunton family (proponents of the old gods, and traditional foragers) that’s lasted seven generations now. Each side claims the other side started it, but it’s erupted in bloodshed a dozen times or more. Each family often strives to elect a mayor of their own blood.
  • It’s believed that somewhere out there in the woods are terrifying, deadly shapeshifters who stalk humans as prey. Don’t get caught alone in the forest.
  • Ruins are everywhere, crumbling stone edifices that speak of a time no one can remember. One particularly large set of stone foundations exists a mile upriver and is considered taboo and bad luck to discuss, although is sometimes referred to as Old Joining by the elderly. The hunters don’t follow prey into its boundaries.

Available Allegiances

  • Town government – specifically the mayor, an elderly and non-nonsense pragmatist who’s focused on keeping her town safe. An ally here means you have a trusted role in the town infrastructure; an enemy here means the mayor considers you a dangerous bother they’d be better off without.
  • Townsfolk An ally here means you’re a popular citizen of Joining; an enemy here means that locals consider you a bad influence or from the wrong sort of family.
  • Local sheriff and deputy, who spend most of their time dealing with drunkenness and an occasional monster. An ally here means the sheriff trusts you and will give you the benefit of the doubt; an enemy here means the sheriff goes out of her way to pin crimes on you.
  • Wardens (and possibly the supposed druids who watch the woods), mysterious figures glimpsed in the trees. An ally here means you are a warden yourself (possibly secretly) or are privy to their secrets; an enemy here means the wardens consider you a threat to Joining, possibly for asking the wrong sort of questions.
  • Outsiders (including hedge witches, tinkers, and traders who come to town). An ally here means you have a reputation outside of Joining as a good person to namedrop or contact; an enemy here means you once treated an outsider cruelly, and word has spread.
  • Church of the new gods, led by a charismatic young Tavish man who left Joining and came back from the city as an ordained minister. An ally here means you’re an active member of the congregation; an enemy here means they consider you a heretic or heathen, perhaps because of something they think you or your family has done, or because you espouse another religion.
  • The Tavish family (former mercenaries who lead most of Joining’s professional hunters). An ally here means the Tavishes trust you and think you keep their best interests in mind; an enemy here means the Tavishes think you’re a lackey of the Daunton family.
  • The Daunton family (proponents of the old gods who lead many of the foragers combing the forest for plants and food). An ally here means the Dauntons trust you and think you keep their best interests in mind; an enemy here means the Dauntons think you’re a stooge of the Tavish family.

Note that I’ve only included eight allegiances instead of the normal 12, as befits the feel of a smaller town. GMs should feel free to add their own or to change what’s here. Also note that “new gods” and “old gods” are completely undefined, other than a suspicion that the old gods are those of the forest, of nature, and of whatever it is that makes Joining particularly unique (see below).

GM Pitch: The Town of Joining

Warning: this section contains spoilers! If there’s any chance your GM will use Joining, please don’t read this. You’ll spoil some fun secrets.

Almost no one who still lives there knows it, but until 300 years ago Old Joining was one of the most famous cities in a half-dozen worlds. Driven by magical rules no one understands, each week portals in the nearby trees would open up to a specific different site in both this world and others. Adventurers, travelers, and traders used Joining to travel between realities or across their own world; they’d have a week to pass through the doorways from their own location to Joining, then they’d stay at The Inn of Arches until a magical portal opened up to their intended destination.

Back then, Old Joining (just named Joining at the time) was a metropolitan center of fantastic magic and culture. It was a joining (hence the name), a melting pot where important and interesting people from some 50 different locations across at least six worlds met, mingled, and exchanged information. Often times monsters would come through those gateways between trees, and when they did the elite wardens and their powerful druidic allies would destroy them, imprison them (crumbling prisons which still exist today) or send them back to where they came from.

No one is sure what caused the gateways to stop working and the city of Old Joining’s inhabitants to be ripped out of our world. Probably either a Tavish or a Daunton is responsible, and the other family tried to stop them and only made things worse. Perhaps some sort of magical anchor-stone was stolen that linked the many worlds and places together (a stone that now is somewhere around Joining today, although no one realizes its significance); perhaps a petulant god was offended; perhaps blood was spilled in a sacred place. Regardless, everyone in the city at the time – and almost every single object that wasn’t stone – was swept away into another place of your choosing. Faerie? Hell? A tropical island? Another huge city? It’s up to you. The gates winked out that night and haven’t consistently returned, and only people outside of the city at the time survived to found the current town. Led by religious extremists in the aftermath of the disaster, they didn’t make their tale public knowledge. The truth of the matter is now hidden or taboo. The Heroes will have to find out the secret gradually as they adventure, and then decide what to do about it.

Restore or fix whatever made the nexus of worlds possible, and the gates between worlds will open up again once more, resuming their schedule of one week per location before shifting. Alternatively (or additionally), the city of Old Joining (or whatever it has turned into!) might return if the Heroes can find a way to bring it back. The tiny town of Joining may find itself a gradual or sudden metropolis, and their world might change spectacularly as Joining becomes a center of commerce and adventure once again.

Structuring a Campaign Around Joining

Swords of the Serpentine campaigns are structured in series, a finite arc of adventures that’s treated like short stories in an anthology or a season of television. Series are usually 6-12 adventures long.

In Series One, the Heroes get to know Joining; perhaps they’re fledgling heroes still in their teens, or more competent heroes who have come to the town in search of something indefinable. They uncover clues about the town’s rich past, meet the wardens and druids, uncover ancient prisons, and learn some secrets about what used to be here. At the end of the series they might restore the nexus, and the gates between worlds are once again open.

In Series Two, complexity ramps up as people and creatures discover the gates have returned. Political factions form as Joining grows, and more Allegiances become possible. Internal and external threats develop from people who demand the town return to its old ways, something that may no longer be possible. Perhaps the heroes delve through the gates themselves, examining other places on this world and other planes of existence. In doing so they learn the fate of Old Joining and learn they can bring it back – if they want.

Future series may focus on Joining becoming one of the most important locations on multiple worlds; powerful external factions trying to seize it by force, invading through the gates; the cross-cultural growth coming from Joining’s unique role; and how the Heroes’ once-simple friends and enemies in Joining adapt to fit this new reality.

And of course, you may decide to transition your campaign to a different setting! If so, it’s as simple as the Heroes walking through a doorway between worlds—a doorway they made possible.

 


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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In the latest episode of their golden-garbed podcast, Ken and Robin talk expensive goods as period investigative hooks, a propagandistic first person shooter and the use Dracula made of it, 30s horror movies, and time-machining the invention of paper.

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The CougherIt’s rarely a good idea to mix immediate real-world awfulness with supernatural threats. Killer clowns are funny, but we’re not going to argue the Esoterrorists are behind QANON, even though it’s an obvious set-up. Hitler wasn’t mind-controlled by vampires or the Cthulhu Mythos. So, the existence of these pandemic-themed monsters for Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists shouldn’t be taken to imply that Covid-19 comes from the Outer Dark. However, if you’re running games in the present day (or better yet, you’re reading this from the future and considering running a game set in that brief, awful historical period of the pandemic), then here are some monsters that play off the zeitgeist.

The Cougher

Coughers are messengers and couriers for the forces of the Outer Dark, able to slip through into our reality and lope along at speed, hurrying through the streets to make contact with some deranged cultists or to some other seepage of unremitting horror. They manifest as almost human figures, gangly-limbed and hunch-backed, clad in filthy overcoats, their faces half-hidden behind a cloth mask that never quite seems to fit right.

They’re named for their hideous wracking, wheezing coughs, which they use to scare people out of their way. The cough is so ghastly, so full of spittle and slime, that one’s instinctive reaction is to step back and give way. Packs of coughers use their echoing hacking coughs to communicate, calling to one another across the night air.

They also use these bellowing coughs to hunt. A series of precisely times coughs can separate a victim from the crowd and herd it towards the rest of the cougher pack. Such attacks are rare – coughers are much more likely to be encountered alone – but not unheard-of. Chasing down a courier-cougher can provide useful information about local Outer Dark activity.

Abilities: Aberrance 6, Athletics 4, Fleeing 8, Health 6, Scuffling 6

Hit Threshold: 3

Armour: 1-point (Thick overcoat of flesh)

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +0 (-2 if you know about the coughing)

Damage Modifier: -2 or by weapon

Cough: By spending 1 Aberrance, the Cougher can cough loudly. Anyone nearby must make a Stability test (Difficulty 6); those who fail must move away from the Cougher for a number of rounds equal to the margin of failure.

Portal: By spending 2 Aberrance, the Cougher can open a portal to the Outer Dark. It can only do this when unobserved.

All That Remains

  • Medicine: That cough sounds… impossibly awful. Someone with lungs that clogged wouldn’t be moving that quickly.
  • Streetwise: All the witnesses agree that they heard a lot of coughing the night she died.
  • Occult Studies: Three break-ins at occult bookstores – all closed because of the pandemic -, three witnesses who report lots of coughing. And I don’t believe in co-incidences.

Room Raiders

Room Raiders are the latest manifestation of creatures like the Sisterites (Book of Unremitting Horror, p. 105). They haunt public Zoom calls, Discord servers and other video conferences. Initially, they look like a bland human face with a perfectly ordinary background – a cluttered home office, maybe, or a bedroom, or just a blank wall.

Then they latch onto a victim. They might send their victim a friend request, or just stalk them across other public zooms, lurking in the audience. In each conversation, the Room Raider’s background changes subtly, moving closer and closer to that of the victim. The wall behind them suddenly matches the colour of your wall. Now they’ve got the same book-case as you… and the same books. And now the same poster.

(Using virtual backgrounds doesn’t defeat the Room Raider. They can see through them.)

If the Room Raider’s background ever perfectly matches the victim, then the monster strikes. It can pull the victim from their home into the Room Raider’s copy, to be devoured at the creature’s leisure. The Room Raider then starts trawling for its next meal. Often, their lairs are crammed with dozens of previous backgrounds, stacked like stage sets from previous productions.

Room Raiders usually nest in abandoned buildings, near places where they can piggyback on an open wifi connection. They’re remarkably good at making facsimile objects out of trash and their sticky, resinous spittle – what looks like a perfect copy of your home office might be a pile of stacked milk cartons painted to resemble your bookshelves, a desk made out of a sheet of cardboard, and that lamp’s made from the gnawed bones of a previous victim.

A Room Raider can easily be thwarted by making changes to your background – even an errant coffee cup is enough to break the spell. Typically, the creatures gain access to a victim’s webcam so they can monitor the room for changes and pick their moment to strike…

In the ghastly flesh, a Room Raider looks like a squat, long-limbed lizard-thing with a grotesquely oversized mouth in its stomach, but it’s human from the shoulders up. It’s got four arms – two vestigial limbs next to the mouth that end in human hands, for typing, and two longer arms that end in long curved claws, for killing.

Abilities: Aberrance 8, Athletics 3, Health 10, Scuffling 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Armour: None

Awareness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +0

Damage Modifier: -2 (claw)

Digital Intrusion: At the cost of 2 Aberrance, the Room Raider can psychically infiltrate a computer with which it has an active video connection.

Grab: At the cost of 1 Aberrance, the Room Raider can pull a victim from one perfectly matched room to another. The victim may attempt a Contest of Sense Trouble vs Aberrance to end the call before being pulled through the screen.

All That Remains

  • Photography: Hey, that rando’s got the same photo as the guy who vanished.
  • Computer Use: Ok, I didn’t approve any new contacts on skype. I’ve been hacked!
  • Research: Look, I always check out people’s bookshelves behind them, and that guy has a copy of the Necronomicon too! Just like yours!

 

Isolation Beasts

Isolation Beasts are gigantic; they’re shambling horrors the size of a building, covered in rank, matted hair and dragging their slimy, misshapen limbs behind them. Such monsters can’t exist in our reality except under very exceptional circumstances. An Isolation Beast can survive the psychic pressure of a single witness, maybe two, but it cannot bear to be seen by crowds. This is not shyness – it’s the crushing pressure of our reality asserting itself on a thing that shouldn’t exist.

Historically, Isolation Beasts have lurked in the wilderness, giving rise to legends of giants or yetis, preying lone travellers and small groups. Now that the streets are empty and everyone’s staying indoors, the beasts can risk shambling into the cities for the first time in centuries without fear of being observed.

Isolation Beasts are so huge that aftermath of their attacks look more like disasters than anything else – car crashes, building collapses, gas explosions. They find houses where people live alone, then smash them open and eat the juicy contents. They’re also talented mimics; if a beast fixates on a dwelling with multiple inhabitants, it lurks outside, whispering through the walls in the voices of the occupants, sowing dissent and strife until one of them walks outside – then chomp!

And if one person looks outside – who’s going to believe them when they say that there’s a sloth the size of a double-decker bus lurking in the garden?

Abilities: Aberrance 10, Athletics 8, Health 40, Scuffling 12

Hit Threshold: 2

Armour: 4-point (Fur)

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Damage Modifier: +3

All That Remains

  • Outdoor Survival: This isn’t a crater – it’s a footprint!
  • Investigative Procedure: The earthquake stopped when that car came around the corner. Why?
  • Trivia: Ok, the victim took the time to write spiny norman in his own blood. That’s… certainly a thing.

Fear Itself 2nd Edition is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the Creatures of Unremitting Horror from the Outer Dark? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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New Gamemaster Month 2021

Have you, or someone in your game group, always wanted to give GMing a shot, but haven’t yet taken the plunge? What if we told you that by the first week in February, you could be an honest-to-goodness GM—and it’ll be easy!

January is New Gamemaster Month, and we’re joining our friends at Monte Cook Games, Arc Dream Publishing, Chaosium, Inc, Evil Hat and Atlas Games to give prospective GMs everything you need to run your first game of Trail of Cthulhu, including a 10% discount off the core book in our webstore with the code NewGMMonth2021!

During January, we’ll run a month-long course in the form of twice-weekly posts, which will take you through a step in the process, and include a brief lesson on an aspect of GMing followed by some quick, enjoyable activities that actually get you ready to run your first game. But if you’ve missed the start, never fear – all the posts from the start of the program are still available.

It’s not all academic, by any means—this is a hands-on seminar. By the end of the program, in early February, you won’t be a “prospective” GM any more: You’ll have GMed your first full-on RPG session, running it without a hitch and having a great time doing it!

So make a New Year’s resolution to join us, and finally take that leap into GMing! Follow along on the website, join the Facebook group and let us know how you’re getting on by tweeting us @NewGmMonth.

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Behemoths: Paths of the Koru

Fight off the creepy menace of the Shambler and its fungus-encrusted rot elves; join the Scavenger’s Parade to four magical markets in the far corners of the Empire; climb Skyveil’s spiral shell up into the overworld; or ride the massive behemoth, Dolphin, as it transitions between its land-form and its undead-haunted nightside-form in the depths of the Iron Sea.

Behemoths: Paths of the Koru is a 13th Age sourcebook for GMs running champion- or epic-tier campaigns.

Just as no two 13th Age campaigns take place in identical versions of the Dragon Empire, the Behemoths authors were not required to treat previously published material—or each other’s ideas—as canon. Each author created cults, parasites, behemoth barrows, and creatures of legend to unleash on their own campaigns. Whether you decide to use one or several, Behemoths’ eight chapters explore what the Koru behemoths might mean to 13th Age heroes . . . and how the behemoths might interact with each of the 13 icons in their struggle to remake the world.

Unleash the behemoths!

Authors: Liz Argall, Elizabeth Chaipraditkul, Benjamin Feehan, Julian Kay, Martin Killmann, Rebecca Lauffenburger, Jennie Morris, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

Developers: John-Matthew DeFoggi, Rob Heinsoo

Status: In development

[[behemoths in the mist art by Aaron McConnell]]

 

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The Old Guard (Netflix) – when you put ALL the points into Regeneration (connected: Messiah Complex)

Maybe you were already on this path when the Sudden Mutation Event happened, or perhaps your newfound superhuman abilities gave you a life you never expected. More likely, you got into this line of work because you needed something from it: more money than you could ever make through conventional employment. A fresh start, away from the mistakes of the past. A chance to really cut loose with your powers.

You’re a mercenary. A soldier of fortune.

Of course, when it comes to mutant powers, the notion of marketable abilities is a lot wider than it used to be. Anyone can be trained to use a gun. Walking through walls, that’s a different matter. Unsurprisingly, private military contractors were among the first to recruit and offer “special talent services” to clients.

‘Super-mercs’ have a somewhat better reputation than conventional soldiers-of-fortune, as their talents have a wider range of application. A biotech company might, for example, trumpet their hiring of a super-merc with plant communication and plant control who can safely locate and retrieve rare orchids from disputed jungles in South America, or have a mutant with read minds and lightning decisions spearhead their negotiations with disgruntled locals. That said, most super-merc missions come to down to “there’s the hard target, go work your mutant magic and eliminate it”…

Creating Your Mercenary

Pick one of the templates below to get started.

Personal Security

8 investigative, 48 general

You put yourself between the target and the bullet

Investigative: Ballistics, Bullshit Detector, Community Relations, Cop Talk, Criminology, Influence Detection, Intimidation, Streetwise

General: Athletics 6, Composure 4, Driving 6, Health 6, Medic 4, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Sense Trouble 6, Shooting 4, Surveillance 4

Trainer

8 Investigative, 40 General

Ready to turn militias and regular security into elite fighting forces

Investigative: Anamorphology, Anthropology, Community Relations, Forensic Psychology, Interrogation, Intimidation, Languages, Streetwise

General: Athletics 4, Computer 6, Driving 4, Health 4, Mechanics 2, Medic 4, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Shooting 6, Surveillance 4

Special Operations

6 Investigative, 48 General

A very particular set of skills

Investigative: Explosive Devices, Impersonate, Intimidation, Photography, Research, Traffic Analysis

General: Athletics 6, Computer 6, Driving 4, Health 4, Infiltration 6, Mechanics 2, Medic 4, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Shooting 6, Surveillance 4

Counter-Insurgency

10 Investigative, 36 General

Identifies and analyses threats

Investigative: Anthropology, Architecture, Community Relations, Forensic Accounting, History, Languages, Law, Negotiation, Streetwise, Traffic Analysis

General: Composure 6, Health 4, Mechanics 2, Preparedness 4, Scuffling 4, Sense Trouble 6, Shooting 4, Surveillance 6

 Technical Specialist

10 Investigative, 36 General

Network security and counter-bugging

Investigative: Architecture, Cryptography, Data Retrieval, Electronic Surveillance,  Energy Residue Analysis, Evidence Collection, Explosive Devices, Photography, Research, Traffic Analysis

General: Composure 4, Driving 4 Health 4, Mechanics 6, Preparedness 6, Scuffling 4, Sense Trouble 2, Shooting 2, Surveillance 4

 Ex-Civilian

Alternatively, you can play a regular civilian who developed mutant powers and got recruited into the shadow world of private military operations. You’ve got 60 General Points  to spend with no restrictions, but start with a -1 Stress Penalty in the category of your choice, reflecting your comparative unfamiliarity with military life.

 Desirable Powers

Article 18 powers – abilities that pose a danger to national security like Teleportation, or abilities that endanger large numbers of people like Radiation Projection – are especially sought after by PMCs. Of course, picking a power that makes you a walking national security threat means you (or your employer) will need to deal with government scrutiny – and paints a big target on your head.

Potent combat abilities like the various Blasts or covert action powers like Invisibility, Flight or Nondescript are more generally useful for mercs. Some powers that are of extremely limited utility for Mutant City cops come into their own in merc games – the cops rarely need Gills or Earth Control, but one can easily imagine an action thriller involving submarine sabotage, or see the utility of a mutant who can easily create defensive structures or clear rubble from roads.

Rules Changes

Consider borrowing the Thriller Combat rules from Night’s Black Agents. Some of them, like chases, are already part of the Mutant City Blues rules, but mercenary operations tend to involve a lot more fistfights and suppressive fire.

Make liberal use of Stress cards like “Hair Trigger”, “Flashbacks”, “Maverick” and “Wracking Guilt” to emphasise the questionable morality of the soldier-of-fortune lifestyle.

Mercenary Companies

Some sample employers for the player characters…

Betula Security Consultants (Mutant City Blues, p. 141) is a private security company that hires a considerable number of mutants. Betula’s operations are almost entirely domestic, specialising in corporate and personal security, not military work overseas. That said, some shareholders are pushing Betula to compete by offering a more professional and respectable alternative to Genestorm.

Genestorm: Genestorm’s the best known of the ‘mutant merc’ companies – or at least, the most notorious. The company sells itself as having ‘heroes for hire’, goobering its employees up by giving them flamboyant uniforms and superhero names. Of course, in the field it’s all camo gear and proper callsigns. Genestorm hires its mutants out to virtually any client, so it does a lot of business with autocrats, warlords and especially rapacious corporations. A cross between Blackwater and the World Wrestling Federation, with less ethics than either – but at least they pay well.

Heliopolis National Guard: The armed wing of the Heliopolitan separatist movement, the HNG intends to fund the establishment of a mutant-only state through mercenary contracts. They also undertake ‘humanitarian’ missions for groups and states near the planned mutant state in Somalia, in the hopes of establishing a buffer zone of friendly nations around Heliopolis. The legal standing of the HNG is questionable, and some have pushed for it to be declared a terrorist organisation.

Mutant Foreign Legion: The MFL was founded by a group of mutants whose lives were completely disrupted when their powers manifested. Now, the company is a place where mutants can begin again; new recruits are given new names and passports (the MFL has an arrangement with Malta) and a fresh start. The MFL’s under severe financial strain, and its mercenary teams are unusually underequipped and undergunned for their missions.

Greenman Group: A long-established Private Military Contractor, Greenman Group is in the process of hiring more mutants. The Group is extremely discreet, to the degree that they prefer their mutant hires keep their powers secret even from clients unless absolutely necessary.

Adventures

At least initially, present mercenary adventures as tactical challenges. The mercenaries might be hired to…

  • Kidnap a scientist from a rival corporation
  • Secure a mine or pipeline in an unstable region
  • Find out who’s been blackmailing a company executive and recover the incriminating evidence
  • Retake the boss’ superyacht after it’s overrun by pirates
  • Defeat the mutant-led insurgents

 Night’s Black Mutants

For a full-on mercenary campaign, lift the structure of Night’s Black Agents wholesale. The player characters sign on with a mercenary company, run a few missions – then discover their employers are even more corrupt and shady than they thought, and have to go on the run while fighting their way up the Conspyramid. Maybe the mercenary company is conducting experiments on mutants, or only hiring mutants to harvest powered organs for transplant…


Mutant City Blues 2nd Edition is an investigative science fiction roleplaying game originally written by Robin D. Laws, and developed and extended by Gareth-Ryder Hanrahan, where members of the elite Heightened Crime Investigation Unit solve crimes involving the city’s mutant community. Purchase Mutant City Blues in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

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In the latest episode of their terrifyingly festive podcast, Ken and Robin talk mummers, Hellenistika icons, silent movie horror, and the Lead Mask case.

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When Kanye West commissioned a hologram of her late father as a birthday present for his wife Kim Kardashian, he was giving a gift to her, no doubt about it. But wasn’t he also giving a gift to us, as Game Moderators looking for perfect scenario seeds for the This is Normal Now sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game?

West reportedly programmed this holo-tulpa-revenant to describe him as “The Most, Most Most, Most, Most Genius Man in the Whole World.” Gosh, how are we going to make this entirely regular spousal behavior into something creepy?

The simplest option is to simply have the hologram of a celebrity relative go berserk and start attacking people.

Alternately, a player character receives the gift of a hologram as a misguided gesture of affection, and must cope with the consequences.

In a baroque option, the hologram might come to the investigators, having somehow learned of their expertise in Carcosan-related problems. It suspects that it will be used as a murder weapon, or has already been. Invested with the conscience and personality of its deceased template, it wants to reveal the unknown culprits and then return to oblivion. It needs the player characters’ help in doing that.

Later the group might stumble across a covert community of sapient holograms. They fear exposure and wish to continue living among humans. The investigators might be tempted to sympathize with them, until they realize that the holograms have been protecting their privacy by murdering not only their original creators, but anyone else who stumbles onto their secret.

In all the above cases, the hologram gains the power to interact with its physical environment from a passage from The Yellow King embedded as comments in its code. An upgrade to a new software version, without the passage, deactivates them for good—if the team can figure out how to administer it. Until then, Kill results in combat merely dissipate them for a few days.

Numbers: 1 (or as many as the group)

Difficulty: Superior (Escape 5, Other 4, Kill 5)

Difficulty Adjustments: -1 if you know what it is; -2 if you have the Computers ability and have read its code; -1 if another investigator in the fight gets the previous bonus

Toll: 2

Tags: Construct

Injuries, Minor and Major: Holo Swipe/ Holo Strike


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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13th Age: The Register of Imperial Constellations

by Julian Kay

As penned by Viriel Pyrolea, formerly an esteemed seer of Lightwood, newly appointed as Imperial Astrologer as penance service for spurring theft and piracy along the Spray.

During my time in Axis, I have seen Thronehold’s glistening mounts, the clouds of Wyrmblessed, the liminal spaces between the palace portals, and more. But for all the wonders of the city, many are blind to the wonders that whirl endlessly overhead. Perhaps the cursed destinies of the Astrologer still haunt the empire, echoed in a wariness of skyborne wisdom. Knowing one’s fate can be a curse, but that fate remains all the same. I leave to the reader to judge how best to deal with knowledge that dwarfs our existence.

The imperial vizier has tasked me to share my knowledge of the stars with readers, for the benefit of your education. This is of particular use to courtiers, as I served as a servant of the Elf Queen for many years. It’s true that I relocated rapidly for personal reasons, and experienced misadventures before my royal appointment. Of course, you may idly muse, as many have, how much that relates to my own awareness of my fate. You can kindly keep musing on that mystery; I will not elucidate further.

Additionally, any suggestions that I’m penning this work to square some grudge against the Queen is a common notion I won’t humor.

And so, we begin with the simplest of matters: the thirteen major constellations. I have shared my knowledge of elven starseeking, melding it with official imperial dictum. We only find the truth of the skies through multiple perspectives.

The Three Significant Registers: To place the skies in perspective, there are currently three registers of constellations that those pondering upon the stars must consider. The first is main subject of today’s essay: the imperial register, consisting of those constellations the empire holds as favorable. You will find this distinction insignificant on the fringes of civilization, but here at the very center of our world you’ll find these constellations used everywhere, including imperial livery. Overuse, however, is a clear and tiresome form of bootlicking.

The second register, which we will consider on a subsequent date, is the capricious register, constellations that are neither loyal to imperial fortunes nor hostile.

The final register, as you no doubt have surmised, is the foreboding register, constellations of hostile stars. We will say no more of them today.

Our Subject, Our Strength: The imperial constellations are important for interpreting conditions favorable to the empire. When they cross Axis or the Road (see the Register of Capricious Constellations, to be penned shortly), times of glory are upon us. However, when they whirl closer to the barbarian lands, one should take precautions.

The Anvil: These seven stars represent the surface on which some dwarves claim the gods forged the world, and the ancient practice of their smiths taking their blades to great heights to be “sharpened by the sky” likely comes from this tale. Many forges seek mountains not only for their ores, but to clearly see the finest times for forging.

Similarly, the pre-battle tradition of raising one’s sword likely comes from the spread of dwarven battle traditions far beyond the mountains. Thankfully, the tradition of some crusading warriors to pile demonic and cultist bodies high to stand upon before brandishing one’s blade is a tradition still restricted to that grim lot.

The Crown: Claimed simultaneously to be an omen for the Dragon Emperor, Dwarf King, and Elf Queen. Though this is astrologically contradictory, I must officially state the Emperor is the crown-bearer. Still, this author makes no attempt to disabuse the King or Queen of their claims. I would also suggest that any reader take up a similar notion of neutrality.

Past records claim the crown once held a thirteenth star, but presently, we only see twelve. Is its disappearance symbolic of the fall of a ruler, like the Terrible Emperor? Or was it somehow stolen from the sky, as some have claimed?

The Dragon: But which one? The Black claim it’s the progenitor of dragonkind, a shadowy ur-drake born of the stars. Holy warriors see its proximity to the White Star to be symbolic of the Gold Wyrm, sealing the pale void in the sky just as it seals the abyss in the earth. Of course, likening a silver dragon’s shine to the stars is a traditional compliment for the Emperor’s winged allies. As with the Crown, I would advise neutrality in such debates, as there are as many tales across the world as scales in a dragon’s hide.

The Gauntlet: Sealing, protecting, crushing—the gauntlet is a symbol of divinely inspired warriors regardless of the god they cleave to. Having it point in the direction of one’s quest or crusade is a good omen for the endeavor, if not always for its participants. The gods never fail to appreciate an effective self-sacrifice.

 

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In the latest episode of their nimbly arboreal podcast, Ken and Robin talk conspiracies for your horror game, Dracula’s tree poaching, streaming structure, and the Israel Regardie library heist.

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One of the most horrible aspects of this whole pandemic – at least, from where I’m sitting – is that roleplaying conventions will be one of the last events to return safely. Your typical convention is also ideal for spreading coronavirus: a bunch of people talking loudly at short range? In rooms that are famously poorly ventilated? Alas – no conventions this year, and conventions next year will depend on suppression and vaccines.

So, as a substitute, we’ve got virtual cons, run over discord or zoom or other platforms. Some tips I’ve picked up running GUMSHOE games at virtual cons:

  • Don’t waste time
  • Set expectations immediately
  • Break the character sheet down by region
  • Do a sample test early
  • Have your assets ready to go
  • Use multiple channels

Don’t waste time

You definitely don’t need to fill the whole convention timeslot – if it’s a four-hour slot, that’s basically a three hour game plus setup, bathroom breaks, and an early finish if the game goes on track. It helps to keep the initial rules explanation to a minimum – the quicker you get from introducing the game to actually playing, the better. No-one wants to sit through a lengthy breakdown of rules.

Set expectations immediately

Give the players a variation of the elevator pitch so everyone knows what sort of game they’re playing. “You’re all burned spies hunting vampires,”, “you’re all paranormal investigators working for a mysterious Ordo, battling the evils of the Esoterrorists and their extradimensional allies”, “you’re all city watch in fantasy Venice”. Having media references works (“Jason Bourne vs Dracula!”), but make sure you do it as “X meets Y” or “It’s a bit like X or Y” – if you only give a player one touchstone, they’ll assume the game is just like that show.

Break the character sheet down by region

GUMSHOE’s a pretty simple system, and most of the abilities are nicely self-explanatory. Drive home that there are two sorts of abilities – Investigative (NO ROLLING! JUST INFO! SPEND FOR BENEFITS!) and General (SPEND POINTS AND ROLL A D6! BEAT A DIFFICULTY THAT’S USUALLY AROUND 4!) and you’re 90% of the way there.

Do a sample test early

It’s good advice for any convention game, virtual or otherwise, to run a simple demonstration of the resolution system early on, so the players have a handle on how many points they should spend on a typical test, how forgiving the damage system is and so forth. Refreshes are especially important in GUMSHOE, too, so show how they work.

Have your assets ready to go

If you’re using maps, images or other handouts, make sure they’re to hand, electronically speaking. I stick everything I’ll need (or might need) in one Dropbox folder so I can grab them quickly. You don’t need to fill every moment with action, but few things are duller than the GM googling for the right image. (If you do need to grab something, do it while the players are discussing strategy or roleplaying amongst themselves.)


Use multiple channels

Obviously, you can send notes to players as private messages, but the general chat channel’s also very useful for sending material to the players. If there’s a set of facts they need to reference through the scenario – a list of locations, a set of suspects, a timeline –  drop that in the chat channel so the players can easily look it up.

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In the latest episode of their monumental podcast, Ken and Robin talk worldbuilding without Machiavellians, the mammoth bone temple, Mythos Detroit and the First Sino-Japanese War.

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The holiday season is quickly approaching and we’re looking forward to spending quality time with family and friends. The Pelgrane office will be closed from December 23rd through January 4th.

Holiday Shipping Dates for the US and Canada

Orders placed by December 3rd should be received by December 24th, but this cannot be guaranteed. Because we ship via media mail from Nevada, orders to the west coast will arrive sooner than orders to the east coast.

If using USPS Priority or UPS/FedEx Ground (heavy orders over around 30lbs), place orders by Thursday, December 10th to arrive by the 24th.

Our US shipping point will be closed on December 24th and 25th.

Holiday Shipping Dates for Europe and the Rest of the World

  • Within the UK and Europe, most orders under 2kg will ship post. Orders heavier than 2kg, e.g. two hardback rulebooks, will generally ship by parcel carrier.
  • Outside Europe, post generally works best up to 5kg, and then parcel carriers take over.
  • Our non-US shipping point will be closed from December 23rd through January 4th.
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Please note that these dates are estimates. We cannot guarantee delivery by a particular date, and we suggesting ordering as early as possible. If you have any questions or need more information, please contact us at support@pelgranepress.com.

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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.

 


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 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 Zarra’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 Zarra 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 Zarra, 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 night time 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 late 40s.) (Command, Nobility, Trustworthy, or Ally: Mercanti)
  • Spying into their home will reveal the vat of pickle brine in their bathroom – 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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The Carcosans Are Coming

Have your The 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?

Legions of Carcosa: 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, Legions of Carcosa: 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.

Stock #: PELGY12 Authors: John Harness, Kira Magrann, Sarah Saltiel, and Monica Valentinelli, with Daniel Kwan
Artist: TBD Pages: 160pg, B&W, 8.5″ x 11″ casebound

Pre-order Legions of Carcosa now

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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.