The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in February 2008. 


Find James Semple’s stings for Trail of Cthulhu here, and you can also find the soundtracks James composed for Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Sting, Sting, Sting

A GUMSHOE issue we’ve talked about before is the challenge of smoothly ending investigative scenes, especially interactions with witnesses and experts. In the fictional source materials on which the game is based, authors and scriptwriters deftly and invisibly handle scene endings. A mystery novelist need merely end a scene on a pivotal line and then cut to the next one. Shows like Law & Order make a science out of finding interestingly varied reasons for witnesses to scoot offstage as soon as they deliver their core clues. Whether they have classes to attend, clients to see, or children to look after, minor characters on procedural shows are always halfway out the door. Scenes in the interrogation room are usually cut conveniently short by the appearance of the defendant?s lawyer, or the squad lieutenant, appearing to bring yet another piece of crucial intelligence.

Although you can sometimes give your NPCs reason to cut off interview scenes after the clues have been dispensed, continually coming up with these organic scene-enders can be taxing. So in the core GUMSHOE rules, as per The Esoterrorists, p. 55 (of the first edition), we offer this suggestion for an out-of-character signal that a scene has ended.

Before play, take an index card and write on it, in big block letters, the word SCENE. As soon as the players have gleaned the core clue and most or all of the secondary clues in a scene, and the action begins to drag, hold up the card. When the players see this, they know to move on.

Since then I’ve found a better technique which seems more organic still. (It requires the use of a laptop, which some groups find disruptive.) In place of the SCENE card, use brief music snippets. In soundtrack parlance, quick clusters of notes signaling a jolt or transition are known as stings. That’s the music you hear in a horror movie when something jumps out of the closet, but turns out to only be the house cat. Although they’re grouped together for jarring effect, the most famous movie stings of all are the piercing violin glissandos accompanying the shower murder sequence in Psycho.

Music works differently on the brain than a visual cue like a card with text on it. We’re used to having music appear under our entertainment to subliminally direct our emotional responses. Text jars us from one mental state to another, forcing us to more consciously decode the contents into meaning. The card is disruptive, breaking us from the imaginative state required for roleplaying, where music enhances that state. Oddly enough, the appearance of the music cue begins to seem like a reward for a job well done than a strange intrusion from another mode of cognition. It feels more like permission to move on than a jarring shove forward.

I started using the stings at a player’s suggestion, borrowing the most ubiquitous sting in television, Mike Post’s cha-chungggg scene transition sound from the various Law & Order shows, as a scene closer for internal playtests of Mutant City Blues.

When it came time to playtest Trail Of Cthulhu scenarios I opted for the three-note threnody that is the monster’s motif in Franz Waxman’s seminal score for The Bride Of Frankenstein . The use of a score from the 1930s period greatly enhanced the period atmosphere.

Now, courtesy of longtime gamer and media scorer James Semple, we have four custom stings for your GUMSHOE pleasure. They evoke the classic horror scores of Waxman and Max Steiner but, because the scary music grammar they laid down seventy years ago persists to this day, work just as well for Fear Itself or The Esoterrorists as for Trail Of Cthulhu.

Another musical enhancement worth considering is the introduction of a theme song. You’ll be expecting your players to sit through this every week, without the visual accompaniment that comes with a TV title sequence, so trim your chosen theme music to twenty to thirty seconds. The main purpose of a theme song is to produce a cognitive marker separating the preliminary chat phase of your session from the meat of the game. Again, this is a much more pleasant and subtle mood shifter than the old, ‘OK guys! Are we ready to start? OK, good!’

A theme song also provides thematic indicators to any campaign, GUMSHOE or otherwise. Want to emphasize sleek futuristic action? Pick a chunk of your favorite techno track. Is your emphasis more on psychological destabilization? A spiky work of classical modernism may prove suitably unnerving.

To help players think of their characters as part of a fictional reality, I also often kick off a first session by having them describe the pose they strike during an imaginary credit sequence.

Of course, this just scratches the surface of the uses to which cued-up audio can be put during a game session. When the heroes walk into a smoky bar, you can signal the kind of establishment they’ve entered by playing the music pounding from its PA system. Sound effects are all over the Internet, from amateur freebies to expensive cues created for professional productions. Once you get used to using your laptop’s audio program as a game aid, you’ll never have to describe a wolf howl again. Instead you can cue up real wolves to do the howling for you.

As technology becomes cheaper, multimedia game aids will become increasingly prevalent. When digital projectors hit impulse-purchase pricing levels, look out.

Related Links


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.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

by Graham Walmsley

At first sight, Gumshoe would make a perfect LARP. There’s little die-rolling, so it suits a game played standing up; and, as an investigative game, it’s about talking to people. It sounds ideal. Would it work?

In this article, I’ll attempt to create a Gumshoe LARP. For the setting, I’ll use an English murder mystery: a staple of investigative LARPs.

For the ruleset, I’ll use Fear Itself. So it’ll be a horrific murder mystery: think Conan Doyle’s The Hound Of The Baskervilles or Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

This LARP will have little combat and much talking. There’ll be about 20 players, in costume, and pregenerated characters. The game will last about four hours, at the end of which the players will find, amongst themselves, a murderer.

The Characters

As with all Fear Itself characters, the PCs will have a Worst Thing They Ever Did and Sources Of Stability. These are superb roleplaying tools, especially for a LARP.

The characters will also have a Risk Factor: the reason they don’t just call the police and lock themselves in the bathroom.

In addition, there’ll be Affinities and Enmities. These will create alliances and factions, which are golden in LARPs: they instantly let players know who they’re with and who they’re against; who to talk to and who to avoid.

Finally, each character will have something They Want. Let’s take this a step further: we’ll fix the pregenerated characters so that every character’s want could be granted by another character. That gives everyone a goal: something to work for, which they might achieve.

Let’s call this new characteristic “What I Can Give”. It might, for example, be Money, Forgiveness, Property or Healing. For game purposes, each character has an infinite amount of this quality to give: if a character can give Money, they have an infinite amount of money to give, to whom they choose.

Investigative Skills

When you’re walking around, playing your character, complex character sheets get in the way. Instead, let’s put the skills on cards: instead of having two Streetwise points, you’ll have two Streetwise cards. Rather than spending a point, you discard a card.

We’ll let players choose skills as follows: there’s a central pile of cards, from which each player takes 10. This also means skills will be distributed between the players: if there are only three Architecture cards, a maximum of three people may have that skill.

Clues

Some clues will work exactly as in Fear Itself: the GM holds them and players spend points – or, rather, discard cards – to get them.

For example, you’d discard an Investigative Procedure card to get the following clue:

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There are scratches surrounding the lock, as if it has been picked.

If a player told the GM he was closely examining the lock, he’d also get that clue.

There will be Core Clues, too.

Core Clue: Streetwise

A street kid tells you that Father Morgan was attempting to wash blood from his hands in the gutter.

And some clues might have time limits.

Core Clue: Architecture

There is a false wall behind this bookcase. (Do not reveal until after the second murder).

But we can be cleverer. LARPS work best when players talk to each other, not the GM. So let’s put clues in the hands of the players.

Player Clues

Each player will hold a number of clues: say, three or four. These will be allocated to each pregenerated character before the game.

Clue: Flirting or Intimidation

You know Dr Brown intended to change his will.

If you hold this clue, and someone uses Flirting or Intimidation on you, you must reveal it.

Players will hold Core Clues, too. Again, some of these might have time limits attached.

Core Clue: Cop Talk

You know damn well Father Morgan killed Sir Ralph and you’ve got photographs to prove it. Do not reveal this until after the second murder.

Murders

Best of all, the murders themselves will be Core Clues. Here’s an example:

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die.

Also, each murder will have associated Clues, some of which would be Core Clues, and some not:

Core Clue: Medicine or Investigative Ability

From a blue tinge to the lips, you can tell the victim has been poisoned with cyanide, ingested in the last ten minutes.

Clue: Investigative Ability

The glass from which the victim was drinking has been wiped clean of prints, save for the victim’s fingerprints.

The murder victim would hold these clues and, after they die (giving the “Murder” clue), they’d give out other clues to players who used an appropriate ability.

Stability

How can we work Stability into this?

Since we’re using cards already, let’s have Stability Cards instead of Stability Points. However, you can’t hold negative cards, so we’ll have to tweak the rules.

Let’s move the scale upwards: on 5 Stability Cards or less, you’re shaken; on 2 or less, you’re mentally ill; when you’ve no cards, you’re incurable. You start with around 10 cards.

Note that we’ve halved the length of the scale, so we must halve the Stability Losses:

  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to do serious harm: 1 Stability Card
  • A human opponent attacks you with evident intent to kill: 2 Stability Cards
  • Witnessing a grisly murder: 2 Stability Cards
  • Discovering the corpse of a friend or loved one: 3 Stability Cards
  • Seeing a friend or loved one killed: 4 Cards

However, in Gumshoe, you roll dice to check Stability. Dice work badly in LARPs: because everyone’s walking around, it’s hard to roll them.

Instead, let’s try this. On the wall, we’ll have a clock. Then, on each Stability card, we’ll print 6 random numbers, from 1 to 12.

To do a Stability check, look at the clock and note the number the minute hand points to (if there’s doubt, ask someone else and agree). Then draw one of your Stability cards, at random. If that number is on the card, you’re fine; if not, discard an appropriate number of Stability cards.

As in the original Gumshoe rules, you may spend Stability to increase the chance of succeeding. Simply draw any number of extra Stability Cards. You must discard these extra cards whether or not you succeed: but, if the number is on them, you succeed the Stability check.

The chances of succeeding, using this system, are slightly different from those in the original rules. In the original rules, the probabilities of succeeding would be:

  • With no points: 50%
  • With one point: 66%
  • With two points: 83%
  • With three points: 100%

In our revised LARP rules, the probabilities are:

  • With no cards: 50%
  • With one card: 75%
  • With two cards: 87%
  • With three cards: 93%

and, with more cards, the probability of success increases gradually towards 100%. Nevertheless, it’s a good approximation to the original rules.

I’ve chosen a clock because it seems appropriate to a murder mystery: I imagine grandfather clocks and meals served at specific times. However, there are various options: we might use occult symbols instead of clock numbers. The symbol to match against could be on another Stability card.

Mental Illness

If you get a mental illness, how do you communicate that to the other players? In a tabletop, it’s easy; but, in a LARP, you don’t want to stop the game to accommodate it.

Instead, let’s use sticky notes. When you get a mental illness, you collect a sticky note from the GM, and place it on your forehead.

You won’t know what it says, but other players will read it and react: “Talk about me behind my back”, perhaps, or “I am talking at twice the normal speed” or “I am covered in blood”.

What Would Cause a Stability Check?

Firstly, the GM might have pre-arranged Stability checks written into clues.

Clue: Investigative Procedure

There is an ancient skeleton lying under the floorboards (Stability Check: 1 Card).

Then, prospective murder victims would have stability checks written into their Murder Clues. The gorier the murder, the greater the Stability check.

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the second murder victim. After one hour, you collapse, poisoned, and die. (Stability Check: 1 Card fpr witnessing the murder )

Core Clue (Murder)

You are the third murder victim. You die by being mauled, by an unseen assailant, perhaps a huge dog. (Stability Check: 2 Cards fpr witnessing the murder )

Of course, you lose more Stability Cards if the victim is a friend or loved one.

Finally, of course, a player can cause another character to check their Stability, by attacking them.

Health

How should we handle combat and Health levels? We could do it in a similar way to Stability: have Health cards, perhaps, with clock numbers printed on them.

However, combat plays little part in murder mysteries. Sure, there are murders, but they’ll be pre-planned. Also, in a short LARP, it seems unfair to allow players to remove each other from the game by killing each other.

So let’s make a bold decision: there won’t be Health levels. You can attack someone and force them to make a Stability check. You can even decide, together, that the attack caused a wound. But you can’t kill anyone.

To me, this makes for a more interesting game. Attacking someone won’t hurt them: but it might send them mad.

Denouement

So, that’s the backbone of Gumshoe as a murder mystery LARP. Taking a step back, how does it seem?

There are issues. What happens if a player wants to imprison another? What if they want to break through a door?

Also note that, because there’s only one location, there’s effectively only one scene in the game. This is a problem: Gumshoe games use scenes as a pacing device: for example, the final clue will rarely be available in the first scene, only in a later scene. This game needs a similar pacing mechanism: perhaps the clue giving the identity of the murderer is unavailable until after the final murder.

Despite these, I like the idea. It seems playable and fun. I’d happily wander round, investigating murders, and, if I needed a change, attack someone to drive them mad.

So, that done, the only thing left to do is play it and see if it works.

Sample Characters

Lord Bristol
Concept: Vain landowner
Risk Factor: Dismissive
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Disinherit my son, Alfred when I found out he was about to marry Sarah, the maid
What I Want: Absolution for my part in the war
What I Can Give: Property
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Mrs Warpole
Enmities: Alfred Bristol, Jack Brass

Jack Brass
Concept: Cunning Master of the Stables
Risk Factor: Thrill-seeking
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Shoot Lord Bristol’s best stallion in a drunken rage
What I Want: A small townhouse
What I Can Give: My hand in marriage
Affinities: Sarah Devizes, Alfred Bristol
Enmities: Lord Bristol, Father Nigel

Sarah Devizes
Concept: Religious maid
Risk Factor: Horny
The Worst Thing I Ever Did: Throw a pan of boiling water over Emma, my sister
What I Want: A good husband
What I Can Give: Forgiveness
Affinities: Sir James Degby, Father Nigel
Enmities: Jack Brass, Lord Bristol

Sample clues

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Lord Bristol
After one hour, you are trampled to death by a horse in the stables.

Core Clue: Natural History
Held by: GM
Found in: Stables
The horses have been drugged with extreme doses of a stimulant.

Clue: Reassurance
Held by: Sarah Devizes
Alfred used to beat you. You were glad when he called the engagement off.

Clue: Streetwise
Held by: Jack Brass
You’ve seen Bristol drinking very, very heavily. He has a secret whisky bottle concealed under the study floorboards.

Core Clue: Murder
Held by: Sir James Degby
The first time you are served food or drink after the first murder, you are poisoned.

Clue: Investigative Procedure or declared search
Held by: GM
Found in: Study
Under the study floorboards is a whisky bottle, half empty.

Core Clue: Intimidation or Reassurance
Held by: Father Nigel
After three hours, reveal that Sarah confessed to you that she was planning to kill her father-in-law.


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.

The following news items and diary entries originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2006 and 2009.

You can find the entries for 1998-2000 here.

You can find the entries for 2001-2002 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.

2006

The ‘Footsteps of Fools’ series – An interlocking series of Cugel-Level adventures. The first ones are for sale via the products page and at RPG NOW. These are “The Day of the Quelo” (a Cugel-Level adventure that can stand alone or be incorporated into the second FoF release – “Strangers in Saskervoy“), and “All’s Fair At Azenomei” (the first adventure in the new FoF series).

News for June 2006 – The Pelgrane is flapping forward with so much vigor this month that we’ve had to create a separate page for all the details.

2007

News for February 2007 – The GUMSHOE system has been launched with The Esoterrorists, a game of investigation and occult horror. You can get it at the webstore. The Forum (ed. – now defunct) now has GUMSHOE and Esoterrorist areas.

Forthcoming GUMSHOE releases include:

Fear Itself, the GUMSHOE Horror game. (Already written and in layout.)
Trail of Cthulhu, by Kenneth Hite, licensed from Chaosium, Inc. (Underway)
The Book of Unremitting Horror, based on Dave Allsop and Adrian Bott’s excellent d20 version with a new adventure and new material for The Esoterrorists. (Due to be completed mid-March.)
Little Girl Lost – an epic Esoterrorist campaign by Ian Sturrock.

News for April 2007 – More PDF versions of our products are available from our webstore, including the Esoterrorists. If you’ve bought the print version, you can download the PDF from your existing order page. Robin gives us part II of his article on structure in GUMSHOE adventures. Finally, more Dying Earth goodness from Ian Thomson with spells and cantraps of forest and field in Violet Cusps.

News for July 2007
Fear Itself , the next GUMSHOE publication, is now at the printers. It should be out next week.
I received proof copies of The Compendium of Universal Knowledge, but I’m not happy with the hardback, so that will be delayed a little until I have seen further samples.

GUMSHOE Unremitting Horror is awaiting an index.  Albion’s Ransom (fomerly Little Girl Lost), the first big Esoterrorist adventure has been playtested and is receiving its final edit.

We’ve done a reprint of XPS 4/5 available from the webstore. If you have purchased a PDF, please email me and I’ll send you a voucher for the difference.

News for August 2007
Fear Itself is released. Fear Itself plunges ordinary people into a disturbing contemporary world of madness and violence. Players take the roles of regular folks much like themselves, who are inexorably drawn into confrontation with the creatures of the Outer Black, an unearthly realm of alien menace. With or without its distinctive mythology, GMs can use it to replicate the shudders and shocks of the horror genre in both film and literature.

The limited edition Compendium of Universal Knowledge for the Dying Earth is being printed this week.

There are fifty copies in total, and about twenty remain unreserved. If you’d like to reserve a copy, please email me. It will be $49.95.

The GUMSHOE book of Unremitting Horror is being printed, and includes everything from the d20 Book of Unremitting Horror, as well as new creatures, Esoterrorist background material, and lots of adventures.
All these books will be available at GenCon Indy, where there will also be demos of Esoterrorists and Fear Itself. We’ll also be producing a limited edition of Robin’s comic The Birds. Robin will be on the stand for signings.
The Lords of Cil” is the third pdf release in Ian Thomson’s epic Cugel-Level campaign for DERPG.

2008

News for January 2008

We’ve released The Fields of Silver – a new Turjan-level campaign from Lynne Hardy.  Read more in this article.

2009

News for April 2009

We will no longer be selling the Dying Earth as of 1st May 2009. Print products and PDFs are available from the Pelgrane store and Indie Press Revolution.


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.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 


A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Mixing and Matching With GUMSHOE

In addition to its primary goal of rethinking the way we run investigative scenarios, GUMSHOE is also an ongoing experiment in rules modularity. Along with whatever plain, ordinary rules are needed to evoke a particular setting or sub-genre, each new iteration of the game introduces new tools and techniques which can be mixed and matched to create your own investigative games. Many can also be applied to other roleplaying games and genres.

The Esoterrorists presents a simple, introductory version of the core GUMSHOE rules. It sets forth a simple, accessible setting, along with the very basic components you need to run occult investigation: Stability rules, a stripped-down approach to weapons, and so on.

Fear Itself reproduces horror stories in which ordinary people come face to face with things that go bump in the night. It removes a few of the complexities of The Esoterrorists, which assumes that all of the players are professional investigators. For example, the many technical abilities of the first game are collapsed into a catch-all, as are many of its academic skills. To preserve the ordinariness of the characters, it encourages a maximum of one PC from any sort of law enforcement or military background.

These are rare examples of modular adjustments to GUMSHOE rules that can’t be fed back into an Esoterrorists game. It is not so much a rules addition as a necessary rules subtraction, again to evoke a specific sub-genre. These changes can, however, suit another game concept featuring non-specialist investigators.

Other new facets of Fear Itself can be added to The Esoterrorists, or used in elements in other investigative settings. To start with a small example, Fear Itself introduces a new general ability, Fleeing. This is a necessary component of any undiluted horror game, reflecting that genre’s many characters who are not all-around athletes but nonetheless turn out to be highly capable at screaming and running away. This narrow ability can be imported to The Esoterrorists or other settings.

When you depart from the horror genre, Fleeing remains useful when giving game statistics to supporting characters that the PCs might be trying to either chase or rescue. They may not be able to perform feats of strength or put up a struggle when caught, but they can get away from pursuers, at least for a while.

Fear Itself includes a number of psychic abilities, including Aura Reading, Remote Viewing, and Premonitions, granting PCs access to minor occult powers. These could easily be made available to Esoterrorists characters. Most GMs will want to do as Fear Itself does, and allow only one character per group to have a psychic ability. Add too many psychics into the mix, and you start to drift from the realm of horror into contemporary fantasy.

On the other hand, you could embrace this tendency, creating an all-psychic detachment of the Ordo Veritatis to which the PCs belong. This might be a sort of suicide squad within the organization, sent in to tackle tough, psi-oriented assignments that ordinary agents can’t handle. If so, they’re probably followed by a monitoring team composed entirely of supporting characters, who keep them under surveillance and watch for signs that they’ve lost their already-tentative hold on sanity. As the psychic Ordo members go crazy, their minders swoop in, spiriting them off to permanent incarceration in a Veritatis-approved mental institution. In extreme cases, they may need to efficiently take out freshly-crazed psychic operatives with well-placed sniper bullets.

Be cautious when populating your world with psychics. Superhuman powers which work in unpredictable or undocumented ways throw a wrench into players’ efforts to reconstruct the events they’re investigating. They have to be able to incorporate the existence of such abilities into their theories of the case. Let’s say they find out that a supporting character lets slip a fact she could only know if she was present at the crime scene. If she is capable of Remote Viewing, that’s a second possibility, which the investigators must now be able to take into account. This difficulty is in large part the subject matter of Mutant City Blues, the upcoming GUMSHOE game of police procedural investigation in a world of widespread super-powers. There, the operations of the various superhuman powers are well-known and incorporated into forensic science. The investigators must take them into account, but unquestionably know how they work, and what their various limitations are.

Also appearing in Fear Itself are a number of techniques to flesh out characterization. They belong in a pure horror version of the game because, by enabling us to relate more acutely to these ordinary people before they’re plunged into deadly jeopardy, they intensify the terror. They include the directed scenes, in which the players are given personal goals for their characters, as they would be in a scene of improvised theater. Directed scenes prove especially useful to play out flashbacks. These scenes from the past bring the character’s backstory, which usually languishes unrevealed in each player’s personal notes, vividly onstage, for the entire group to see. They also enable the players to sharpen their character-portrayal skills, as they’re called on to act out minor roles in each others’ directed scenes and flashbacks.

Though initially designed for horror, these techniques work in any genre. You could employ them to introduce dramatic elements to the otherwise highly mission-focused Esoterrorists structure. For that matter, as they’re unconnected to GUMSHOE’s other rules structures, you could just as easily insert them in nearly any other RPG, from D&D to Vampire. With the exception of certain rigidly constructed indie-style games, or comedy games that require relatively facile characters, like Dying Earth or Og, they fit almost any gaming experience.

Mutant City Blues offers a different, but related, mechanism. It creates a structure resembling many police procedural TV shows, giving the players partial control of it. Players are encouraged to submit possible Sub-Plots, story threads of personal drama involving their characters when they’re not solving the main cases. This technique could equally well be added to any ongoing Esoterrorists or Fear Itself series, or any other GUMSHOE game of your own devising, so long as it features continuing characters and cares about their personal development. Like directed scenes and flashbacks, this element can be completely uncoupled from GUMSHOE and welded onto most other normative RPG games.

Another feature of Fear Itself requires players to select Risk Factors for their characters, explaining why they head toward trouble when other ordinary people would flee from it. This is a necessary component of any horror game, answering the question: why do they go down into that basement? Given the risk-aversion characteristic of some players, it’s also one requiring some reinforcement in play. Risk Factors include Gung Ho, Skeptical, Horny, and Oblivious. Though the descriptions of the various factors are keyed to horror, they could easily be adapted to any other genre requiring selfless, proactive protagonists.

We’ll continue to search for similarly useful modular elements for future GUMSHOE products. If we’re really lucky, we’ll start to see GUMSHOE gamers designing their own add-ons, and sharing them with the rest of us, via their blogs or on the Pelgrane forums.


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article for the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in December 2005.

At last – a new Dying Earth release – All’s Fair in Azenomei! It’s available as a downloadable PDF exclusively from Pelgrane. This professionally produced scenario gives your PCs the chance to explore Azenomei in depth, enjoy all the fun of the fair, and take part in a series of contests on behalf of a local sponsor of dubious repute. The PCs will have to use their full repertoire of chicaneries and wiles to triumph over the predicaments in which they find themselves.

While we wait for a full review of the Book of Unremitting Horror, I recommend you pop over to the Ogre’s Cave to see their Christmas recommendations .

This month, we’ve finally sorted out what is going in XPS 7/8 (ed: now collected as the Excellent Prismatic Spray) and what is going in the Compendium of Universal Knowledge – our next major release. A sample entry can be seen here.

The Compendium is a gazetteer, a bestiary and an encyclopedia of the Dying Earth. It includes entries by almost all our writers, and is being compiled and edited with additional material by David Thomas. At the moment, I am tending towards a thick hardback volume with color plates, probably a limited edition, with a paperback version later.

The Rhialto supplement is being edited by John Kahane, but Robin will be adding a new chapter on Sandestins and offering some simplified rules in Mid-February.


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.

The following article for the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in November 2005.

Push aside the detritus to see the shiny gew-gaws horded by the Pelgrane

I have two things to announce, one horrifying, the other edifying.

For your edification, we have relaunched the webstore after its long hiatus. Rather than leave you at the mercy of unreliable sandestins, we’ve come to an arrangement with our sister company, ProFantasy Software Ltd. Their minions have been working for over a decade processing multiple mail orders every day, and will deal with Pelgrane orders with barely a mumble of protest and with their customary efficiency.

If you buy any of our older books, you’ll find that you can get the PDF within minutes of your order. The link will be presented on your receipt.

We also are proud to launch the Book of Unremitting Horror, full of creatures which would grace the snopes urban legend site. The disturbing content contrasts admirably with the quality of the layout. There is already a short review , and one commentator suggests that it “puts the V in vile.” Persons of quality will buy it forthwith.

XPS 7/8 (now collected in the Excellent Prismatic Spray) is progressing, and Jim Webster has agreed to field any and all questions on the topic after I threatened him with desanguination. We would also appreciate any letters to the editor, either in or out of character.

Finally, I must report on a complex development. The Gazetteer and Bestiary are to be rolled into a larger work – The Dying Earth Cyclopedia (ed: now called the Compendium of Universal Knowledge). Edited by David Thomas it will be our largest work, and our most impressive.


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.

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

The following article for Fear Itself originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in November 2004.

 

AP Morton-Blunkett (1899-1921)

“A man, mortal, looks to the world to come…”

A little-known poet who may have become a great talent.. He was born in Forrest Court, Berwick, Scotland in 1899, the son of the Lochbridge Toll watchman. He was educated in the Public School, and frequented the library, where I fondly imagine he read the romantics and composed his first clumsy stanzas.

His best early work was a series of short love poems to Naomi, possibly Naomi Hay, daughter of the local policeman, although there is no record of an engagement or marriage.

In September 1921 he received a commission from a local landowner, possibly Sir Walter Hamilton-Dalrymple? to write a laudatory ode in praise of the Burgh Golf Club, to be engraved on the clubhouse plaque. He was offered the princely sum of one guinea, which must have been a cause of great excitement to him.

He took himself to the Isle of Islay, perhaps to seek inspiration, where he was found hanged in his room, having penned the poem below – a strange verse, greatly out of character. We know of no motive for his suicide. Perhaps Naomi rejected him, or perhaps there was a more sinister reason. The local waters are said to be infested with strange grey creatures, named after a dialect term for Satan – the Clooties.

The Sea Speaks Not and Yet…

I cannot sleep.  I hide my face
From surf and swell and blow
Since I have seen the queer grey men
That nightly come and go.

The village squats in sodden dusk
With sea-mist draped, and drear.
And aye the waves, and aye the waves
Come rushing far and near.

When every door is locked and barred
And every curtain drawn
‘Tis then they come, unseen, but heard.
Forsook.  Forgot.  Forlorn.

The old know better than to look.
The young are fast abed.
But I, with lonely cynic’s pride
And science in my head,

I looked.  I shall not look again.
For yet I see them pass,
The hollow faces of the drowned
In mist beyond the glass.

 


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 Unremitting Horror from the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The GUMSHOE Community program is now even bigger!

Earlier this year we launched the GUMSHOE Community program, making Ashen Stars content available to creators. We have now expanded the content available, and so the program now includes the following game lines:

If you’re not familiar with the Community Content concept, it means we’ve made some elements of these GUMSHOE games (e.g. some IP elements, art, and layout assets) open for members of the community (that is, you!) to write and publish your own GUMSHOE content on DriveThruRPG.

We’ve got a number of great Ashen Stars PDFs already available, to show you what’s possible. These include:

If you’re interested in learning more about the GUMSHOE Community program, check it out here.

A column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

When the original Fear Itself came out in 2007, horror was in the depths of its torture phase, typified by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Always the most reliable indicator of the zeitgeist, horror cinema reflected America’s anxieties about its place in the world under the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The early Obama years saw a retrenchment into Hollywood’s recycling ethos, with a spate of remakes recapitulating the shock cinema of the 70s and 80s. Both of these horror cycles predominantly featured casts of young friends and peers facing the hideous fates that await most scare-flick protagonists—the default assumption of the game. One current horror wave, post-dating Fear Itself, places the family unit in the crosshairs of supernatural or monstrous danger. A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Sinister, Bird Box, Us, and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House all evoke fears of family dissolution in the face of threats from without. The more ghostly variants often show the influence of Kubrick’s The Shining. Political in a different way than the previous torture cycle, they touch on domestic economic unease, depicting families fighting to survive, and remain intact, under crushing external pressure. (Although they’re still going strong, I’d categorize these as products of the inward-looking late Obama period. Cultural waves take a while to show up on screens, so Trumpian horror may mark another imminent shift, with The Purge and its follow-ups as leading indicators.) To tweak Fear Itself for family horror, revisit character generation to create a cast of close relatives who will face a terrifying situation together. Start by dropping Drives. The implicit need to protect one another, literally and metaphorically keeping the family together, motivates the characters. Drives ensure that PCs act like horror characters, often giving them a positive reason to head into danger. In a family game, the characters generally seek to escape a situation which continues to ensnare them.

  • They’re socked in for the winter at the creepy hotel.
  • The ghost manifestation follows them even when they abandon the creepy house.
  • Monsters are everywhere and no place stays safe for long.
  • The source of horror is coming from inside the family.

Here, characters investigate to escape the problem, not to burrow deeper into it. The GM must actuate that by keeping the pressure on, driving them toward the information that might just allow them to get through this. During character generation, ask each player in turn to specify their role in the family. You might specify that at least one player must take on a parental role. Or, if no one wants to be Mom or Dad, most characters wind up as siblings—presumably orphaned in an earlier manifestation of the scenario or campaign’s central menace. Some players may try to wriggle free of emotional obligation by creating distant relatives. Redirect the urge to play third cousins or distant uncles. A recently arrived newcomer to the family, such as a new spouse or a biological half-sibling who showed up waving a genetic test, still works. Specify that they’ve had enough time to commit themselves to the family unit. They might have an outside perspective but still need desperately to preserve their connection to the others. In a DramaSystem game you’d then devise a map of blocked emotional agendas that each seeks from the others. Although conflict may exist or arise between PCs, in this case the focus is on coming together against an outside danger. Characters might be distant from another at first; if they survive, it’s because they bond in pursuit of survival. This theme appears in some familial horrors, like The Haunting of Hill House, but isn’t so much a factor in A Quiet Place. Instead start off the collective thinking by asking the group to come up with an answer to the following question: What blow has the family recently endured? Groups who like to dig in and find their own way can take it from there. Ones who prefer to choose from supplied prompts can pick one of these choices, perhaps riffing a variation:

  • We all mourn our missing family member, who was killed either recently, by known means, or many years ago, in an incident we still struggle to understand.
  • We underwent a bankruptcy or are on the verge of one.
  • The head of the family has been suffering professionally.
  • One of us committed a crime that made life hard for everyone.
  • One of us underwent a medical crisis and yearns for tranquility and quiet.
  • One of us was victimized or traumatized.
  • We survived a terrible accident, perhaps of mysterious origin.
  • A weird destiny encircles us.
  • Our family has been cursed for generations.
  • We have just moved house, and we have to make it work.

As GM, you might instead specify a collective blow tied into the premise. That last item on the list fits a classic haunted house outing. A crime within the family might trigger supernatural vengeance. The head of the family in professional crisis could be headed for the psychic break that escalates the horror, because as we all know, ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY. Skip the step where players choose Sources of Stability. Instead, each family member treats all the others as sources, suffering the ill results when one of the PCs fatally succumbs to the horror. Family-based horror works well for convention scenarios, providing an immediate premise and stakes for the players. Save time by handing out pregens with family roles already specified, allowing participants to pick which ones that appeal to them. Some players prefer to avoid the emotional intensity of familial interaction, often for strong personal reasons you don’t want to blunder into. They may have already experienced family dissolution, or regard relatives as people to escape from. In horror, this impulse might be called “Mummies? Yes! Mommy? No!” Be sure to secure buy-in, either by talking to your players at home or clearly signaling the premise of your con game on the sign-in sheet.


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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