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.)


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.

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.


Watch part 1 now on our YouTube channel!

Recently retrieved from The Royal Opera House, London. Edom Operatives believe “O.” to be Olivia Liu, informant working with anti-vampire operatives in Europe.

A full report of the events at the opera house are contained here.

(Hastily handwritten text reads: “I heard you were here. We need to talk. O.”

A group of unknown antagonists recently rescued a reporter from a kill squad in Marrakesh; they were then spotted in London at the site of an assassination. What follows is an intercepted internal memo from a mysterious organization calling itself EDOM. Interested agents who want a more detailed account of the events as they transpired should click here.


Just before Christmas, I finished off the first part of my home campaign of THE YELLOW KING. We’re running it at a fairly fast pace (we’re alternating sessions with Warhammer in deference to the sensibilities of players who want to hit things with swords), and with only a limited number of sessions, I based virtually all the adventures around the player’s Deuced Peculiar Things.

It’s useful to my mind to think of YELLOW KING scenario planning as a grid. Along the top, you’ve got the array of Carcosan characters and tropes – The King, his Daughters, the play, the Yellow Sign, Castaigne, Mr. Wilde, black stars, madness – and any elements from the current sequence (Parisian political and artistic intrigue, the Continental War, the overthrow of the Castaign regime etc). Along the side, you’ve got the prompts provided by your players as Deuced Peculiar Things. You dig for horror and mystery where those lines cross.

So, my players gave me:

  • Chester: I met an enchanting man in a bar, we shared a night of passion, but I woke up in bed to discover I was lying next to a woman, who left without a word.
  • Sillerton: I dreamed I was at a strange party in a chateau outside Paris; when I investigated, I learned that the chateau burned down many years ago.
  • Ada: My brother Theo has vanished and no-one else – not even my other brother Chester – remembers he ever existed.
  • Reggie: My cat had a litter of kittens, but they came out as this ghastly congealed mass of conjoined bodies and limbs, a sort of feline centipede.
  • Dorian: I saw L’Inconnue de la Seine, and chased her into an entrance to the catacombs.

While I could have started with any of these, I picked Reggie and his cat-monster for two reasons. First, it’s the most immediate problem – three of the others are weird encounters, and Theo’s been missing for some time (and felt more like a long-running plot than a trigger event), whereas Reggie’s catipede was right there (well, right there in a bag, as they hammered it to death very quickly). Second, cats give me a link right to Mr. Wilde from the Repairer of Reputations (the mania he had for keeping that cat and teasing her until she flew at his face like a demon, was certainly eccentric. I never could understand why he kept the creature, nor what pleasure he found in shutting himself up in his room with this surly, vicious beast.”)

Carcosan Hybrids

So, what’s the crossing point? What Carcosan element might Reggie’s cat intersect with. A flip through the Paris book gave me the matagot (p. 159), a supernatural Carcosan spy in the shape of a cat. Maybe Reggie’s pet cat mated with a Carcosan entity, and that spawned the malformed catipede?

That worked – and instantly gave me a horrible consequence to play with. If mating with a Carcosan entity creates some sort of hideous hybrid… and Chester slept with a mysterious shapeshifter…

But if I was going to make hybrids a big part of the plot, I needed a reason for them to exist. The cat might be a random encounter, but why would some Carcosan courtier take the time to sleep with Chester? I went with the concept of anchors in our reality, which let me bring in the dreadful play and foreshadow stuff that’ll come up in the Aftermath sequence. So, Carcosa needs to get its hooks into reality. It starts with the infiltration of a concept, a malign thought – the play. As the play corrupts reality, it allows the establishment of stronger anchors, allowing Carcosan entities to cross over physically. They then create even stronger anchors, bootstrapping an invasion.

Living Statues

Dorian’s encounter with the mysterious inconnue connected to this plot too. L’Inconnue died in the 1880s, so she must have been a ghost, an illusion or some other supernatural weirdness. I decided to loop in both the art world and another of Chamber’s tales, the Mask. If there’s a mysterious fluid that turns flesh to stone, then maybe the same fluid could turn stone to flesh. The girl with the familiar face was a statue brought to life using Carcosan chemistry. Why? Because these living statues were the middle-stage anchor – host bodies of pseudo-flesh used like space-suits by Carcosan nobles in the period before they could manifest in all their glory.

The Cult of the Yellow Sign

So, there was still a gap in my cosmology – if the existence of the play in a given reality corrupts it enough for Carcosan weirdness to filter in, and if Carcosan weirdness gets worse as the King’s court establishes stronger anchors and invades, where did the play come from in the first place? I still had two Deuced Peculiar Things to play with – the vanished brother, and the mysterious party.

I came up with a sketched-out occult society who experimented with telepathy, spiritualism and other weirdness, the Society Jaune, who accidentally made contact with the King and saw the Yellow Sign. Theo fell into the clutches of survivors of this cult, and wrote the play after exposure to the Sign. A twist of temporal weirdness through Carcosa let me shove Theo out of linear time and back to the burning of the cult chateau during the Siege of Paris.

The View From The Cheap Seats

Obviously, slotting Deuced Peculiar Thing A into Carcosan Motif Y is only part of the adventure-design. Just because I knew that, say, a crazed sculptor was creating statues and bringing them to life in the catacombs didn’t mean I had a full adventure ready to go. All this technique gave me was a set of Alien Truths to build adventures around. However, keeping everything strongly connected to the players’ Deuced Peculiar Things and the most significant bits of the Yellow King Mythos let me give the players a whistlestop tour of Dread Carcosa while giving satisfying answers to all their Deuced Peculiar prompts.

The Wars start next week. Check back in a few months to see how that turns out…

“He placed me in a comfortable chair, and arranged the phonograph so that I could touch it without getting up, and showed me how to stop it in case I should want to pause. Then he very thoughtfully took a chair, with his back to me, so that I might be as free as possible, and began to read. I put the forked metal to my ears and listened.”

— Mina Harker’s Journal

The Gates of Roscoe Village, 2016 (Not Pictured: Dracula)

The Gates of Roscoe Village, 2014. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

Way back in the palmy days of the Dracula Dossier Kickstarter, it was decreed by the archons and by the people (i.e., by Cat) that I should spend every waking minute on every podcast that would have me, talking up The Dracula Dossier and generally being publicitous. One such podcast was the wonderful and widely-enjoyed One Shot podcast, which not coincidentally is based right here in Chicago, much like all the most wonderful and widely-enjoyed podcasts are at least so semi-based.

At any rate, One Shot is one of those Actual Play podcasts that the kids are into these days, and so in October 2014 or thereabouts, genial host James D’Amato turned his GMing microphone over to me to run a session of Night’s Black Agents from a necessarily fictive Dracula Dossier campaign.

Joining me and James at the palatial One Shot studios in the glamorous Roscoe Village neighborhood of Chicago for what we later dubbed Session One (oooh foreshadowing) were Grant Greene a.k.a. “General Ironicus” of the Six Feats Under podcast (which has a 13th Age Actual Play you might also be interested in), super-designer Nathan D. Paoletta of the Design Games podcast (co-hosted with fellow super-designer Will “Eternal Lies” Hindmarch), and Zach Weber who doesn’t have a podcast apparently but give him fifteen minutes. (And give him my apologies, at this late date, for spelling his name wrong in the playtest credits.)

Here’s me explaining the rules for Night’s Black Agents in about ten or fifteen minutes to the assembled group: Night’s Black Agents Rules Expo

And here is Session One in all its terrifying majesty:

Session One Part One: Welcome to Belgrade

Session One Part Two: Never Get On the Boat

Session One Part Three: And Quiet Flows the Danube

Session One Part Four: Fear Death By Water

The game ran long, because we wanted to hit a good climax in the adventure, and because all the players were really bringing it. Then we went and got Thai food and went on with our lives.

Well, the Kickstarter delayed itself a little bit, but eventually launched while the Session One recordings were still running on One Shot, and I heard from quite a few people that hearing me run the game was not just great fun but, even better, impelled them to go ahead and back the Kickstarter. So, mission accomplished!

Until … time flowed on as is its wont and Dracula Dossier got itself five ENnie Award nominations and Cat started to think maybe we could stand to have a little more of that One Shot love during the voting window. Fortunately, James had been swamped* with emails importuning him to bring me back on and run the conclusion of the adventure we left so very climactically suspended.

And so, in June of 2016, we gathered again in the dark heart of Roscoe Village to run Session Two. Zach Weber has the misfortune to not actually live in Chicago, so in place of Zach we brought in Darcy Ross, who may very well have a podcast by the time I hit “Publish” on this post but is part of the Gnome Stew bloggoth and of the ConTessa nobility.

And here is Session Two in all its grim glory:

Session Two Part One: New Friends For Old

Session Two Part Two: Art in the Blood or Vice Versa

Session Two Part Three: White City, Black Castle, Red Death

I think there’s something in here for new and old fans alike of the Dracula Dossier universe, and for fans of my game style, and for fans of any or all of the excellent players in their own personae.

* “Swamped” is not a term with legal or mathematical meanings. Some settling of contents may have occurred during shipping. Stunt driver on closed course. Do not attempt.


The Belgrade Betrayal: What It Is And How It Came To Be

The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)

The Siege of Belgrade, 1456. (Not Pictured: Dracula)


This section contains spoilers for the podcast adventure above. Don’t read it unless you are cool with knowing things while you enjoy closely related things.


I wrote the first version of The Belgrade Betrayal (as I silently named the scenario) to run at Queen City Con in Buffalo in September 2014. I picked Belgrade because I’d already done the research for that city for (S)Entries, the introductory scenario included in the Night’s Black Agents corebook. For a convention scenario intended to not-so-subtly advertise The Dracula Dossier, I knew it needed to include an on-stage role for both Edom and Dracula, so the player Agents could get caught in the cross-fire, so to speak. So I needed a sample Edom-Dracula op (kill an AQIR cell in Belgrade) and something to go wrong: Dracula double-crosses Edom. (Otherwise Edom just sets Dracula on the players and everyone dies.) That leads to a series of questions I asked myself; their answers built the scenario spine:

What should the double-cross look like? Dracula kills the Edom cut-outs, forcing Edom into the foreground.

Why? In this first version, just to be a jerk and to demonstrate that Edom doesn’t really control him.

How does Edom control Dracula in the field then? By providing his Kevlar-sealed and guarded coffin.

So how does Dracula plan to sleep by day in Belgrade? Dracula already has a place in Belgrade he can hide out and sleep by day, one that Edom doesn’t know about.

What place is that then? Belgrade Castle, where a young Vlad Dracula (unbeknownst to history) accompanied Janos Hunyadi’s relieving army during the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. (Of course he’s hiding in the Castle. He’s Dracula.) Vlad turned while inside the castle, so he can always find rest there. Since I knew Hunyadi had died of “plague” right after the siege, that gave me a nice historical death-ball to roll Dracula-as-vampire up in. Dracula kills Hunyadi and lots of other Hungarian soldiers as the blood-thirst comes upon him — which is why Hunyadi’s son, Matthias Corvinus, imprisoned Vlad in 1462. Ta-daa!

I then came up with the improv-style “name a thing you’ll encounter during this adventure” intro to make up for the lack of proper Dracula Dossier-style improvisation and collaboration and hit the dice. The die, rather.

In that first Buffalo run, the players tracked Edom to the safe-house, rumbled the hospital madman and the party boat rendezvous, and then sensibly refused to follow a coffin delivery onto the boat, watching a confusion of blood and mist and weird cold spots in the IR lenses from the shore. They then doubled back to the AQIR cell, watched Dracula massacre a whole building full of people, and tracked him to the zoo (wolves howling, and I think maybe some drone imagery) and thence to the Castle, where they fought through track-suited Novi Svar Renfield thugs (“Trackulas” they called them), and if I remember correctly one of Dracula’s Brides, to Dracula’s resting place and staked him at dawn. Great fun, everyone had a good time, I forget how many player characters died but it was more than zero.

Changing it up for the podcast, I removed the Trackulas (because I knew that would go viral and not in a good way) and settled in. The improv-style answers fed the play somewhat — I never got to the chess-playing fixer, sadly — especially the bank vault. That meant there was a treasure involved. Time for more questions:

Who are Dracula’s minions if not the Novi Svar? Slovakian river pirates, of course.

What’s in the bank vault? A treasure, obviously, one so important to Dracula that he’ll betray Edom for it. (This answer gave Dracula a proper motive, which strengthened the scenario immensely. If I had been writing it for publication, I probably would have come up with it earlier.)

How do I bring it onstage? Dracula has arranged through cut-outs to buy the treasure, so there’s a seller who can show up wherever the Agents are and look sweaty.

What is the treasure? Proof that Dracula was in Belgrade during the Siege, which means a chronicle of some kind.

In Session One, the podcast players really leaned into the adventure, and to my delight boarded the party boat. I inserted the sweaty Hungarian art dealer, Arpad, but the boat fight took long enough that the rest of the scenario was moot. Or so I thought.

In Session Two, I had to tighten up the explanations somewhat, since Darcy decided to play Hound instead of just another combat monster. (Who would have been introduced by a chess-playing fixer in the park, of course.) Thus the meet between her and the Exposition-Dropping Slovak. Minions monologue about the Master, so that worked just fine. I also knew I needed to tie off that meddlesome priest and prevent the players from reloading the Tranq Gun of Christ. Between the meet with Hound, bombing the priest, and undoing the garlic on Josip the Mad Commando, Dracula’s Conspiracy had a full day in Belgrade, and I knew I could drop echoes of their actions to the pro-active players as the game went along.

Before we started Session Two, I had a bit of time to kill while James printed out the character sheets. So, I decided to punch up the chronicle a little bit, since I knew it would have to come onstage now. So I popped onto Wikipedia and looked up Siege of Belgrade (1456) and discovered this tidbit:

“Taken by surprise at this strange turn of events and, as some chroniclers say, seemingly paralyzed by some inexplicable fear, the Ottomans took flight.”

So that gave me a great line to drop into the chronicle, and narrowed down Dracula’s turning to before the final rout of the Ottomans. So he turned during the worst of the siege, while the Ottomans were infiltrating Janissaries into the lines — hey, what if the Turks were infiltrating one of the feral vampires from Tokat Castle, as seen on p. 251 of  The Dracula Dossier Director’s Handbook? That vampire bites Vlad, he kills it, and becomes a vampire.

Damn, James is really wrestling with those character sheets. Guess I’ll see what else Wikipedia can bring me. Let’s Wiki up the Belgrade Castle:

“Legend says that Attila’s grave lies at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube (under the fortress).”

The players heard my gasp all the way across the room.

Now that gave me a climax worthy of One Shot. And it also conveniently explained why, if Dracula is a Wallachian warlord, he asks Harker (in Chapter II): “What devil or what witch was ever so great as Attila, whose blood is in these veins?” And but me no buts about Attila not having been killed (or put in a suspended-animation sarcophagus) by Church vampire hunters — Michael A. Babcock’s The Night Attila Died: Solving the Murder of Attila the Hun presents a sound-enough-for-gaming case that the chronicler’s version of Attila’s death was a pious legend, and the Scourge of God was killed by assassins working for the Emperor Marcian. Assassins, slayers, it’s basically the same thing.

Fortified with the best possible reveal, I just had to let the players get there, which of course they did because, hey, great players. Listen to them. What gaming they make. Twice.

Co-Designer of Owl Hoot Trail Clinton runs a game of the finished Owl Hoot Trail on google hangout with Jason Morningstar, Andy Kakowski and Bert Isola.

The following is a post from the RPG.net forums by PTiKachu about his experiences running RMS Titanic: The Millionaire’s Special with a group of artists in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Warning: may contain game spoilers, so read at your own risk!


[GUMSHOE] Converting new players to Trail of Cthulhu…and it feels awesome!

So, there is such a thing as new roleplaying gamers in 2013. And now they’re getting hooked onto Trail of Cthulhu.

Left to right: Acap, Zulhilmi, Juan.

Just at the start of this year, I met Zulhilmi and Syafiq, both of whom are animators at Animasia Studio here in Malaysia. Zul and his circle of friends at work had been playing boardgames and cardgames after work for a while now, and after hearing about D&D, they wanted to start it. D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder seemed a bit too complicated, so they settled on 4th Edition. But it’s not always easy to run a game for the first time, even with the newer systems.

Zul contacted me online after hearing about my Malaysian gamer group, Gamers of KL, and expressed interest in D&D. We met up at a friendly local comics shop and I ran a short D&D 4e scenario for Zul and Syafiq. They had a great time, borrowed a couple of my books, and soon they were running 4e games at lunch break in the studio, four times a week.

Four sessions a week. Yeah, these were short sessions, but, oh man, that’s dazzling enthusiasm.

Jump forward to late April. I don’t get much chance to meet Zul in person, as we have different weekend gaming circles. He asks for advice on running a survival horror game for some new players from his studio on May 1 (Labour Day holiday), and asks if I want to try running something as an introduction to roleplaying.

After some discussion, I suggest introducing them to something vastly different from D&D. A type of game that’s been close to my heart of over a decade. Horror and investigation.

* * *

Dear Sir/Madam,

You are cordially invited to a Luncheon with Mr Jefferson Shaw at his Personal Suite on the ‘A’ Deck of the RMS Titanic on 12th April 1912. The Event will feature an Exclusive Unveiling of Rare Artefacts of the Most Stupendous Nature from Egypt, to be delivered to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. Delicacies and Beverages to be provided by the Café Parisien.

RSVP. Formal Attire Only. Due to the Macabre Nature of this Unveiling, Small Children and Animals are Not Permitted.

Yrs Truly,
Jefferson Shaw.

Spoilers for the adventure follow.

Here’s a summary of the adventure: All the PCs are first-class passengers on the RMS Titanic on its first (and only) voyage. They are among a group of passengers invited to Jefferson Shaw’s luncheon where he reveals his latest prize, the mummy of an Egyptian priestess, Hettunaway. The mummy, who was a priestess of the Black Pharoah Nephren-Ka, awakens and starts haunting those who gaped at her. Eventually, the ship hits an iceberg and the mummy reanimates fully, walking around in a reanimated body to hunt and kill those she has cursed. All this, while the great ship slowly sinks as the band plays on…

Adam Gauntlett’s written a very straightforward scenario – just one basic mystery (what’s up with that mummy?) and a few NPCs. I did a read-through the night before, printed out some Titanic deck plans and did research on the events of the sinking as well as some key historical figures like Captain Smith, Margaret Brown, John Jacob Astor IV and J. Bruce Ismay.

Trail of Cthulhu is powered by GUMSHOE, which is a pretty simple system to teach new players. Use Investigative Abilities, get clues. Spend Investigative Ability points, get bonus clues. Spend General Abilities and roll a single die to perform other actions like combat and sneaking and swimming (swimming being VERY important!). And that’s it. The Millionaire’s Special adventure came with a bunch of pre-gens, which makes it very convenient for a one-shot with newcomers.

Zul chatted with his friends ahead of time about what kind of pre-gens they would like to play.

Spoiler: Big chat.

I brought all six of the Millionaire’s Special pre-gens and also added Professor Lucas Wright from another scenario, Watchers in the Sky, as one of the new guys, Juan, wanted to play a British gentleman.

* * *

So. It was awesome.

That’s Juan and Syafiq.

I’ve gamed with an awesome RPG artist before, so seeing the events of the session illustrated by a talented artist is not new to me.

Try four artists as players. Zul’s group all drew their portraits onto the character sheets within minutes of the start of the game.

The new players, Acap and Juan, had only played in a single D&D 4e session before. They were enthusiastic and excited and flung themselves into the spirit of their characters right away. Juan in particular was playing the Professor, and decided right away that his wife Gertrude (listed as a source of Stability) should be along for the ride.

That’s Juan’s sketch of Lucas and Gertrude at the top.

The first scene with the unveiling of the mummy set the high-society-dabbling-with-the-supernatural-on-a-doomed-ship tone perfectly. Soon Acap (playing the con man) and Syafiq (playing the adventurous heiress) were having a grand time in the smoking lounge, gambling for Credit Rating points (the 17-year-old heiress won hands down, stealing most of the con man’s money).

We had dinner with high society NPCs like John Jacob Astor and Molly Brown. We had an investigation into third-class decks to find the widow of a previous victim of the mummy. We had ghastly visions of the ship’s fate to come. We had foolhardy spiritualist schemes by Jefferson Shaw, whose electrical seance machine awakened the mummy and led to horrific bloodshed.

At the start of the final tragic two hours of the six-hour session, Zul’s French artist/war veteran and Acap’s con man were locked below decks after being found at the site of Shaw’s murder. Not a good place to be as the iceberg hit and the flares shot into the sky over the ship. They had to break down the door of their cabin and make a desperate deck-by-deck escape as the waters slowly claimed the ship.

The sedate and snail-slow evacuation to the lifeboats gradually turned into a race for survival. The mummy awakened and started appearing all over the ship, killing Shaw’s friends and guests from the luncheon. Syafiq’s heiress secured a place on the first lifeboat thanks to her new friend Molly Brown.

Juan had the most memorable scene of the finale when Professor Lucas Wright, hobbling along at near-zero Stability and Health scores, carried his wife to escape the mummy’s rampage.

Having lost their pursuer (so it seemed), they end up in line for one of the lifeboats. But the mate insists on women and children only. Gertrude is let aboard the boat, but Lucas is pushed back.

Lucas and Gertrude cry out to each other. “Please let him aboard!” “Gertrude!” “Lucas!” The mate interrupts by shouting at the crowd to “let the last woman through…the black haired woman.”

Lucas smells the incense of the mummy Hettunaway. Realisation dawns for all the players simultaneously. A great “oh shit” moment.

Juan wins his “best player of the day” award by urging Gertrude to leave without him. The professor tosses his wedding locket to his wife and falls back into the crowd, never looking away from Gertrude even as the mummy’s arms reach out and pull him away into the shadows…and the lifeboat departs.

Shortly after, we all drew upon our memories of the Titanic film for the imagery of the sinking of the ship. The lights going out…the funnels toppling as the ship snaps in half…and Zul and Acap’s characters make it to the boat deck and start casting the spell to banish Hettunaway just as her lifeboat is about to catch up to the heiress. The mummy returns to dust, and our two heroes are swept into the icy ocean. Despite brave swimming attempts, only Acap’s con man manages to climb onto a wrecked lifeboat and survive.

We had an epilogue scene in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York city, where the professor’s widow, the heiress and the con man decide what to do with the spellbook they found, and our players decide (without my prompting) that their survivors could form the basis of a future Cthulhu campaign…

* * *

A week later, Zul showed me a picture of a work in progress by Juan:

Left to right: Gertrude (NPC), Professor Lucas Wright (Juan), Norton the con man (Acap), Winnifred (Syafiq), Arnaud (Zulhilmi).

And Zul’s going to start running Trail for his group now. Most successful demo session ever!

That, people, is why I love roleplaying games.


13th Age at Fair Game 23 FEBThe Naperville Freaks, Geeks and Weirdos meetup group hosted a One-Shot RPG gathering at Fair Game in Downers Grove, IL. Ben Roby ran a modified version of the Blood & Lightning adventure from 13th Age and sent us the following play report.

Ben and his co-GM Sarah are running 13th Age again in March. Register for 13th Age: Quest for the Twilight Lotus.

The adventure was planned to fit into six hours with a short amount of character development in the beginning. Basically I had all the crunchy bits completed and let the players develop their own unique thing, backgrounds, and icon relationships. The adventure was a heavily modified and abbreviated version of Blood and Lightning. Basically I made the adventure adapt to whatever icons the characters chose to associate with.

As we sat down for the session I got a feel for everyone’s roleplaying experience. I explained that there would be a lot of familiar stuff but three big features characterized 13th Age: Unique Things, Icons, and Backgrounds.

The one unique thing got them excited to have a personalized touch to their character. Since I had been play testing 13th Age for several months, I used examples from our regular game to give them ideas of what to invent. The party consisted of a bard version of Indiana Jones, a paladin who was the beloved of the Elf King, a ranger raised by wolves, the last scion of a Demon Touched Drow noble house of sorcerers, and a Halfling who was fathered by the Prince of Shadows after stealing her from a God’s mind.

When we moved to Icon Relationships I jotted down everyone’s connections. It became apparent that the Elf Queen was the common thread and only one evil icon was present – The Lich King, who had a complicated relationship with the Bard in her exploration of tombs for magical artifacts. I jotted down some notes and circled the appropriate alterations in my adventure to make the villain the Lich King, and their patrons the Elf Queen and High Druid.

I explained the difference of backgrounds from a skill list and let the players define them using their unique thing and icon relationship as inspiration. The players wrote down ideas and allocated their points. I encouraged a few players to crank up the flavor in their backgrounds (Thieves Guild became “Brotherhood of 1,000 blades”, etc.)

Once all the characters were ready, we began the adventure. The Dark Elf sorcerer was given a chance to redeem his house in the Elven Court by retrieving an ancient artifact from Boltstrike Spire: Glazentorg, a gauntlet able to wield vast amounts of energy. The gauntlet was being used to charge one of the last remaining Grey Towers along the Iron Sea. Once fully charged, the tower would maintain the wards keeping the horrors of the sea at bay. The Elf queen had hired an expert in magical artifacts (The Bard), a military commander (Paladin), as well as two emissaries from the High Druid (Ranger and Rogue). The sorcerer eagerly agreed to regain some favor for his house.

A High Elf accompanied them as a guide and gave me the opportunity to casually inquire about their characters. As they did so, I occasionally interjected and described how the terrain was changing. It gave the players a chance to get into character and tell some stories relating to their backgrounds. Their travel was suddenly interrupted by the High Elf getting taken down by a crossbow bolt and screams coming out of the forest.

A raiding party of Goblins bore down on them while they were stuck in a Ravine. I was using a grid map and mini’s in the loosest way I could – Just to give players a visual representation of what was going on, not to limit or codify how they moved. The paladin quickly threw himself into the fray and got the first opportunity to see how great the Mook mechanic works: With a well placed smite he set three goblins flying in pieces. Our rogue hustled up the Ravine wall with a use of his Swashbuckle talent to hurl some archers down to his allies. The sorcerer and Ranger traded shot for shot with a pair of decaying shamans. The bard kept fumbling rolls and soon had a goblin on his back trying to shiv him with a dagger.

Every player quickly found something fun on their character sheet. The only amount of confusion came with how the Wood Elf’s Elven Grace ability played out. The escalation die steadily turned the tide of battle in the player’s favor. The battle eventually started winding down but not before the lifeless corpses of the goblins raised up for one last attack before crumpling. It became clear that Necromancy was afoot and the Bard was able to use his backgrounds to fill in the party on what to expect. Cautiously, the party journeyed on.

When the adventuring party reached Boltstrike Spire, they were greeted by Zanj, a high elf fighter. He led the party on to the grounds and explained the purpose of Boltstrike Spire: It channeled energy from the sea to help empower the surrounding wilderness and the wards. The Artifact, Glazentorg, was being used to help direct those energies and would need to finish its ritual before being disengaged from the spire. Zanj handed the party off to the commander, Quellis, a Druid who maintained the watch. Zanj departed, escorting mages up the spire to help with the ritual. When the party mentioned Goblins in the woods with necromantic energies, she was alarmed. They had beaten back a small nest of them lately and they would not return without help.

Attack on Boltstrike by Aaron McConnellWhen Quellis took them to the cliff face that Boltstrike rested upon, all hell broke loose. With a deafening shockwave, the top of Bolstrike exploded raining down debris. The Bard and Paladin immediately ran up the tower followed by Quellis. The three remaining characters unexpectedly stayed on the ground (The rogue stating the money wasn’t worth the risk). Improvising, I narrated that giant arcs of lightning were streaking down from the tower, carving huge scars into the ground. The sorcerer, rogue, and Ranger had to try and find cover and shepherd several guards to safety. The rogue ended up getting hit pretty bad by a tree exploding in front of him.

When the Paladin and Bard reached the tower they had just enough time to see a great Dracolich take flight with Zanj on his back. Zanj raised Glazentorg and fired off a lethal bolt of lightning at Quellis, taking her down. With her last breath she commanded the adventurers to recover Glazentorg, no matter the cost.

Recovering from the chaos the party set about trying to figure out just where the dragon would have fled to. The rogue used his relationship with the Prince of Shadows to claim he had a contact in the tower who could help them out. The paladin and ranger combined their military and area knowledge to pinpoint a cave lying underneath a nearby Ruin, Greenstand. The bard and sorcerer discovered that the ruin had been booby trapped by Zanj when he was second in command and that the correct key word could disable its defenses.

The party set out once again, determined to punish Zanj and recover the glove. They got the drop on a horde of zombies and necromancers outside the fortress and hatched a plan. The paladin and sorcerer drew the mindless zombies out while the bard, ranger, and rogue swept around and decimated the casters. The rogue was especially happy to use his swashbuckle talent to handspring off a zombie’s head and get a lucky critical strike on one of the necromancers. The sorcerer blew apart the zombies with a nasty series of empowered Breath spells. And the Paladin loved being swarmed by seven zombies at once.

Once inside the ruins they found Zanj in a large chamber with stained glassed windows overlooking the ocean. When the rogue tried to fling a dagger into his back, it stopped in midair revealing a protective shell around him. At once the party was attacked by twisted abominations of magic gone wrong. Monstrosities who had been warped into scale-covered bodies with great claws for hands. Zanj continued to hurl lightning bolts out at the party, but with each abomination that died, his shell became weaker.

When the shell eventually shattered, he charged the bard and got a powerful critical strike, wrapping the gaunlet around his throat and electrocuting him. He eventually succumbed to a lethal pummeling in large part to the sorcerers Arc Lightning. When Zanj went to one knee, the Dracolich crashed through the stained glass windows. Zanj begged Glazentorg for aid and the gauntlet moved on its own to point toward the Dracolich. A stream of energy drained the undead dragon of its remaining power and Zanj mutated before the party’s eyes.

Zanj, now a horrific abomination, leaped into the party, viciously ripping into each member in turn. The Sorceror and Paladin went down, inspiring their allies with their sacrifice. The Bard managed to pry Glazentorg off of Zanj, and turn its power against him. As Glazentorg disintegrated Zanj into dust, the party was happy to have triumphed and saved the realm.

All in all, it was a fantastic session, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the parties figure out he character creation process. The combats were quick and highly cinematic. Three of the players were very eager to know when they could purchase the game.

Photo credit: Josh Stein

Halloween is drawing near, and you might be looking for appropriately spooky games to run for your players. Here’s a quick roundup of seven Pelgrane Press games and adventures that might fit the bill:

  • Night’s Black Agents by Kenneth Hite – The designer of this mashup of the spy thriller and horror genres describes it as “The Bourne Identity, if Treadstone were vampires.” The Zalozhniy Quartet by Gareth Hanrahan is a Bourne-style Night’s Black Agents run-and-gun adventure in four parts that can be played in any order.
  • Ashen Stars by Robin D. Laws  – An ENnie Award-winning science fiction game where the players are freelance troubleshooters and law enforcers in a rough sector called the Bleed. Tartarus is an adventure with a setup that strongly resembles a sequel to a recent SF/horror blockbuster movie: an interstellar corporation hires the players to investigate the disappearance of a survey team  on the notorious Bad Planet of Tartarus.
  • The Book of the Smoke: The Investigator’s Guide to Occult London by Paula Dempsey – 2012 Gold ENnie award winner for Best Writing, this supplement to the horror RPG Trail of Cthulhu takes the form of a guidebook to the actual (if somewhat fictionalized) occult landscape of 1930s London. In addition to being a rich source of horror adventure hooks, the book itself gives readers an opportunity to unravel the mysterious death of its fictional author — though nobody’s succeeded yet.
  • Fear Itself –  A game of psychological horror, where ordinary people face the terrors of the Outer Black.
  • The Esoterrorists – Elite investigators take on occult terrorists bent on tearing open the fabric of reality.
  • The Book of Unremitting Horror  – A supplement for Fear Itself and Esoterrorists that’s so unsettling a reviewer on RPG.net deducted a star from his rating because it crossed too many boundaries. Not for the faint of heart.
  • Invasive Procedures – 2012 ENnie nominee for Best Adventure. In this adventure for Fear Itself and Trail of Cthulhu, players are patients in a hospital where something horrible is happening. There’s no chance to stop it — all they can do is try to get out alive. Listen to an Actual Play session on Role Playing Public Radio in which everyone who played the game died of terror. (Possibly. I haven’t listened to the whole thing, yet.)

Have fun rolling the bones…

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