The 2nd edition of the Esoterrorists includes the Station Duty campaign frame, in which a Esoterrorist team is placed on long-term assignment to a particular small town for an ongoing investigation instead of the usual mystery-of-the-week. That approach also works in Ashen Stars. (The obvious worked example: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine swapped out the ‘planet of the week’ structure of the original series and The Next Generation for an ongoing plot involving Bajor, the Cardassians, and the wormhole aliens.)

Key questions to be answered, either by the GM or collaboratively with the players:

What’s The Scope?

Is this a single planet? A single star system? A group of systems? You could do as small a single city, or as wide as a whole cluster or outzone – maybe the station’s located at a crossroads in space where multiple translight corridors intersect.

Why Here?

Why does this place justify a permanent Laser presence? Is it strategically important – a choke point, maybe, at the mouth of a wormhole, er, translight corridor? Is it especially lawless, a pirate haunt that must be patrolled? Is there some vital industry here that must be protected? Is it a new government outpost that’s trying to return Combine order to the chaotic Bleed? Maybe this was the site of a major battle in the Mohiliar war, and there’s a scrapyard of wrecked warships here – or researchers investigating the doomsday weapons used by the mysterious enemy.

Who Are The Factions?

You need at least four or five major groups. What alien races are present? (At least some should be the same species as some of your more unusual player characters.) What major corporations? Nufaiths? Planetary governments? What are their attitudes towards the player characters and towards each other? Ensure there’s at least one conflict between every faction, even if they’d normally be closely aligned.

Possible factions include all the major Combine people (Human, Cybe, Durugh, Balla, Kch-thk, Tavak, and maaaaybe Vas Mal), plus the new peoples from Accretion Disk (boisterous Cloddhucks, drifting Hydrossi, corpse-stealing Icti, radioactive Ndoalites, fiery Raconids or shapeshifting Verpids); the various Nufaiths and Synthcultures, and the various political ideologies (Bleedist, Atomist, Combinism, Mercantilism, Empiricism and Racial Separatism).

Who Are The Criminals?

It’s a game about space cops, so stick in some space criminals. Having at least one established organised crime outfit (smugglers, illegal cyber-dealers, etc) and one bunch of space pirates or thieves is an absolute minimum. Which factions have ties to crime?

Who Are The Faces?

For each faction, come up with at least individual representative to give the players someone to talk to. Texture these characters by giving them a point of disagreement (possibly hidden, to be discovered by later investigation) with their own faction, and a connection to one of the other factions.

Also create a major location or headquarters for that faction, if one isn’t obvious already.

What’s New?

In addition to the arrival of the lasers, include some recent disruption to the status quo. This disruption might be something that lasts for the whole campaign (“the Combine’s returned to this sector”) or a plot arc that lasts for a few adventures (“space plague!”). Disrupting the status quo from the start lets the player characters become part of whatever new equilibrium is eventually established.

What’s The Station?

Is it a custom-built station? A derelict ship? A surface building? A moon colony? An old Combine military outpost?

The player characters still need a spaceship, as per the regular rules.

 Wire Up The Arcs

The final step is to plug the player characters into the web of factions and plots. In a station duty campaign, there’s much more scope for long-running plots, so integrate player character arcs into the setting. If a player’s arc is “find my missing sister”, her disappearance must be closely connected to one of the factions or some location (maybe she vanished into that wormhole). If it’s “prove my worth”, then the character might become the leader or chosen, er, emissary of one of the factions.

In the world of Mutant City Blues, there’s a single origin for mutant powers:  a mysterious virus called the ghost flu caused approximately 1% of the population to develop incredible abilities. In most campaigns, the ghost flu’s just part of the background, putting the focus on regular criminal investigations flavoured with tasty mutant weirdness.

However, if you want to push the mutant mystery to the forefront, here are four alternate origins for mutant powers. All these origins leave the signature Quade Diagram unchanged, but offer an additional line of investigation.

Mutagenic Meteor

Ten years ago, a meteorite broke up as it approached Earth. Portions of the meteorite fell through the atmosphere (other portions are still in orbit, and expected to pass close to Earth in a few years…) Much of the planet was bathed in dust; larger chunks of alien rock crash-landed more-or-less intact. People exposed to the dust developed mutant powers. Some of the fragments were collected and studied, but others have ended up on the black market. Snorting ground meteorite dust can trigger mutant powers; larger chunks have been fashioned into jewellery or tools, and are rumoured to boost mutant abilities to astounding levels or warp reality in other, stranger ways.

Investigating dust dealers and mutant-rock incidents are part of the remit of the Heightened Crimes Unit. Mutant City was hit especially hard by meteor fallout; they’re still finding meteor rocks in backyards and parks after all these years. And finding one of those rocks can literally change your life…

The Outsiders

The abductions began 10 years ago. About 1% of the population got beamed up by flying saucers (or stolen by the fairies, or folded into a higher dimension by hyper-beings). Those abducted sometimes developed mutant powers; others came back transformed in other ways, or were returned apparently unchanged. The military tried to intervene, but the aliens possess hypertechnology far beyond anything humanity can muster – and while the aliens’ intent may not be benign, it’s not overtly hostile either. These days, the abductions are just part of background weirdness – everyone knows someone who’s been abducted, and it’s common enough that ‘alien abduction’ is accepted without question as a reason for taking a sick day.

The Heightened Crimes Unit is responsible for following up on reports of abductions, and monitoring recent abductees to determine if they develop mutant abilities. HCU’s also tasked with investigating UFO sightings and other alien activity. Whatever the aliens are up to, they seem to be increasing the scale of their experiments in recent months.

Project HELIOS

Experiments in genetic enhancement of humanity began during the cold war; both the USA and the Soviet bloc carried out experiments to create super-soldiers. Their greatest success was Project HELIOS – a retrovirus that unlocked incredible powers. Only a handful of test subjects survived the HELIOS procedure, and the whole experiment was conducted in the greatest secrecy…

… until an augmented, airborne version of the HELIOS virus was released in the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in what’s now called simply the Incident. The virus rapidly spread all over the world, causing an outbreak of mutant powers. Unlike the military version, HELIOS2 caused few casualties. A year to the day after the Incident, a mysterious group called the Ascended claimed responsibility for the augmented virus, and declared that mutants would soon control the world.

There have been several other, localised, HELIOS outbreaks in the years since the Incident; these are referred to as HELIOS3, HELIOS4 and so on. These local outbreaks all caused powers restricted to a particular part of the Quade Diagram; while some credit the Ascended with these outbreaks, the official line is that they were caused by mutated versions of HELIOS2.

Wild rumours that might be true:

  • One of the original HELIOS subjects developed either super-intelligence or the ability to control viruses, and was responsible for the Incident.
  • The Ascended are a global network of mutants, plotting to overthrow society and usher in a mutant-dominate era.
  • The Ascended are a psychological operation, designed to turn ordinary people against mutants and justify oppression.

Mutant Vector

Taking a leaf from Greg Stolze’s Progenitor, in this setting, mutant powers are contagious. The first mutant was created by the Ghost Flu, as usual, but everyone after that developed their powers after being exposed to the powers of another mutant. Get hit by a lightning blast, and maybe you’ll develop your own lighting powers. Or superspeed. Or a totally unrelated power, although in general acquired powers tend to be closely related to the triggering power on the Quade Diagram. More likely, you’ll get third-degree electrical burns. Power transfer isn’t guaranteed – it’s a 1% chance per mutant ability point spent on the power use, or a flat 1% for Pushed investigative abilities. If you fail to develop powers on first exposure, you probably never will.

This has created ‘dynasties’ of mutant powers – many of the mutants in Mutant City, for example were created by fallout from an early terrorist bombing by a Self-Detonating man. Tracking ‘promiscuous’ mutants can help solve cases; if four victims of a con artist all develop mutant powers, you’re dealing with a mutant crook.

 

 

One of the easiest ways to quickly add iconic flavour to an adventure is to rework the monsters. If one of your players rolls a 6 on their Negative relationship with the Dwarf King, you can just hastily glue some beards to those ghosts in room 7 and call them the Spectres of the Tombless Dead. Need to work out how the Emperor plays into an adventure set deep underground? Turn those xorn into, er, Imperial Xorn. This trick is especially useful in the Underworld, which is (a) far from the regular haunts of the Icons and (b) already brimming with weirdness.

For the abilities listed below, use the attack bonuses and damages for creatures of the appropriate toughness and level on pgs. 254-255 of 13th Age. +X is the creature’s attack bonus, +XX is the creature’s damage.

A character with the appropriate Iconic relationships might know something about the powers and weaknesses of an Icon-warped entity.

Archmage

Magical Spirit: The creature is only partially manifest in our reality; it’s got Resist Non-Magic Damage 16+ in any round it doesn’t attack. Quirk: see-through.
Erudite: The creature can cast at least one spell (+X vs. MD, XX/2 damage, plus the target is Confused or Weakened, save ends). Quirk: long sagely beard.
Illusory: The creature isn’t really real; all attacks target MD. At the end of the battle, all participant regain one Recovery. Quirk: ham actor
Bound: The creature is magically anchored to an object or place; it’s got +1 to all defences while near the spot, but cannot move more than a short distance away. Quirk: little arcs of magical lightning link creature to its cage.

 Crusader

Spiky: -2 to disengage attempts; characters who try and fail to disengage take 3 damage (Champion: 6; Epic: 15). Quirk: Irritable
Blazing: Fire aura deals damage equal to the Escalation Die to any foes who start their turn engaged with this monster (Champion: x2; Epic: x3). Quirk: On fire. If already on fire, complains about it.
Relentless: The creature gets an additional saving throw at the start of its turn. Quirk: Rants and  raves about demons.
Bound: The creature is magically anchored to an object or place; it’s got +1 to all defences while near the spot, but cannot move more than a short distance away. Quirk: little arcs of magical lightning link creature to its cage.

 

 Diabolist

Demonic: The creature gains resist fire 12+ and Quirk: Little bat wings, reddish skin.
Beguiling: It’s hard to bring yourself to attack the creature; anyone attempting to do so must make a normal save. Fail, and pick another target for the attack. Add the escalation die’s value to the save roll. Quirk: cute, in a sinister way.
Summoner: When first staggered, the creature can summon a demon guardian as a free action. (Adventurer: dretch, Champion: Despoiler; Epic: 1d4 hooked demons)
Soul-Stealer: A character knocked unconscious by this creature has their soul stolen. A soul-less character rolls one fewer die for all recoveries, and may be vulnerable to other supernatural attacks or possession. Get that soul back before it’s sold! Quirk: Keeps other captured souls in jars, talks to them.

Dwarf King

Stone: Initiative bonus halved, -25%HP +2AC, +2PD. Quirk: Contains a relic or valuable item inside its hollow chest.
Begrudging: May add the escalation die to its attacks against the first foe to damage it. Quirk: If it survives the encounter, it continues to stalk the PCs.
Rune-Inscribed: Gains Resist Energy 12+ against the first type of energy-based damage it suffers. Quirk: Magic rune serves as key to some ancient dwarven door or treasure chest.
Armoured: -2 to attacks, +2 AC. Quirk: Grizzled grognard.

 

 

Elf Queen

Immortal: This creature has been around for many Ages, giving it great wisdom. It can talk, and is much clever and wiser than others of its kind. Oh, and it can’t due through physical damage – it can be reduced to 0 hit points only by a suitably thematic attack. Quirk: irritatingly long-winded.
Fae: Vulnerable to iron, but elusive – it cannot be intercepted and doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks by moving Speaks in dodgy Shakespearian verse.
Stargazer: At the start of the battle, roll a d6. While the escalation die matches that value, the creature gains +2 to all defences and may add the escalation die to its attack rolls. Quirk: Claims to have foreseen the future of the PCs.
Elven Grace: At the start of each round, roll a d6. If the roll is equal to or lower than the value of the escalation die, the creature gains an extra action and the die rolled increased by one step (d6 to d8, d8 to d10 etc). Quirk: Snooty

 Emperor

Disciplined: If there are two or more creatures with this trait all fighting side by side, they all gain +1AC.
Quirk: Martial martinet – snaps to attention, marches up and down, calls out attacks like a drill instructor.
Royal: The pride of this creature cannot be diminished by mere damage.
If it’s not staggered, reduce all damage taken by 5 (Champion: 10; Epic: 15).
Quirk: Lazy and condescending to the commoners.
Gladiator: If this creature is engaged with a lone foe, it may add the escalation die to its attacks.
Quirk: Can you smeeeelllllllll what sort of pop-culture trope this creature is cooking?
Glorious: Gains a fear Quirk: Speaks with solemn gravity and authority.

 

Great Gold Wyrm

Dream-creature: The creature isn’t really real; all attacks target MD. At the end of the battle, all participant regain one Recovery. Quirk: Speaks with the voice of someone important to the player characters.
Fire-Breathing: Once per battle, the creature may make a free fire breath attack (C: +X to hit (1d3 nearby foes in a group), XX/2 fire damage). Quirk: Hot-headed and quick to charge.
Glorious: Gains a fear Quirk: Seeks to inspire everyone, even foes. (“You can hit me better than that! Keep trying!”)
Smiter: Once per battle, the creature make a smite attack, gaining +4 to hit and dealing an extra d12 holy damage (Champion: 2d12; Epic: 4d12). Quirk: Hunts down evil with extreme prejudice.

High Druid

Elemental: Roll a d4. 1: Earth – gains +1AC while in contact with the ground; 2: Air – can fly; 3 – Fire: Anyone engaged with the creature at the start of their turn takes fire damage equal to the value of the escalation die (Champion: x2; Epic: x3); 4: Water – any critical hits have a 50% chance of turning into normal hits. Quirk: Seeks balance between elemental forces.
Plant: -5 penalty to attempts to disengage from this creature; also, it can hide in forests and other overgrown environments, attacking from ambush. Quirk: Speaks slooooooooooooowly.
Regenerating: Heals 5 points of damage at the start of its turn, up to five times per battle. Healing back up to full doesn’t count towards its total; fire and acid damage turn off regeneration. Troll stuff, right? (Champion: Heals 10; Epic: Heals 25). Quirk: Unrelenting in all aspects of its life.
Savage: If the creature’s attack roll is equal to or lower than the escalation die, and it’s a miss, reroll. Quirk: Pick some absolutely trivial aspect of the PCs’ appearance or background, and complain about it constantly. (“I’ll kill you! And your hat! I’ll especially kill your hat!”)

Lich King

Skeletal: Resist weapons 16+. Quirk: Philosophical and detached; mordantly humourous.
Zombie: On a natural 16+, both zombie and target take +1d6 damage (champion: 3d6; epic: 4d10). Quirk: Eats brains.
Spectral: Resist Damage 12+, except force or holy damage. Walks through walls. Quirk: Gets confused and forgets it’s not the (roll 1d12)th Age.
Alive But Creepy and Spooky: If slain, comes back to life with 10% of its starting hit points. Well, comes back to undead. It only self-resurrects once. Quirk: Fired from a Hammer Horror movie for over-acting.

 Orc Lord

Brutal: Increase the creature’s crit threshold by 3 if it’s not staggered. Quirk: Loudly proclaims impending triumph of orc lord.
Overwhelming Assault: Every time the creature misses, increase its damage by +1d6. Quirk: Sadistic and willing to use dirty tricks against PCs.
Savage: If the creature’s attack roll is equal to or lower than the escalation die, and it’s a miss, reroll. Quirk: Superstitious, laden down with amulets, performs rituals before battle.
Furious: Every time the creature makes a successful save against a condition or ongoing damage, increase its damage by +1d6. Quirk: Mocks weakness of PCs.

Priestess

Radiant: The creature’s surrounded by a holy aura; any nearby allies get a +5 bonus to saves. Quirk: Annoyingly serene.
Winged: It flies. Quirk: Annoyingly serene.
Redeemed: The creature’s usually associated with evil; this one serves the Light – and has a spear of light attack to boot (R: +X to hit, +XX holy damage). Quirk: Annoyingly serene.
Divine Emissary: The creature bears the symbols of a god associated with one of the player characters; that character is weakened in combat with the creature. Quirk: Annoyingly serene and knows all your embarrassing childhood secrets.

Prince of Shadows

Pickpocket: On a natural 1-5, the creature steals an item from the target. Quirk: Talks like a used car salesman.
Backstabber: If at least one other ally is engaged with the same target as this creature, it deals an extra 2d6 damage (Champion: 4d6; Epic: 8d6). Quirk: Whispers threats in your ear as it stabs you.
Whisperer: Every time this creature inflicts a critical hit, move one of the target’s Icon relationships one step towards Negative. The relationship die resets to normal after it’s next rolled. Quirk: Malicious gossip.
Elusive: When hit, the creature may make a normal save (11+) to turn that attack into a miss. Limited Use: 1/battle. Quirk: Shadowy and wears a dark cloak, regardless of the nature of the creature. So, yeah, it’s a dire bear in a dark cloak, a hydra in a dark cloak, a koru behemoth in a dark cloak.

The Three

Three-Headed: If the creature has a bite attack, then add “Natural 16+: Make another bite attack on a different target as a free action”). If it doesn’t have a bite attack, +2MD. Quirk: Argues with itself.
Fire-Breathing: Fire-Breathing: Once per battle, the creature may make a free fire breath attack (C: +X to hit (1d3 nearby foes in a group), XX/2 fire damage). Quirk: Apocalyptic prophet.
Sorcerer: Gain a spell attack (C: +X to hit, XX/2 damage, and the target is Confused or Weakened, save ends). Quirk: Talks in arcane mumbles.
Poisonous: The creature’s attack now deals 5 ongoing poison damage, save ends (Champion: 10 ongoing; Epic: 15 ongoing). Quirk: Communicates only in gestures.

You are Leyla Khan and you’re running from your past. Once, you fell under the psychic thrall of a vampire, and he forced you to do terrible things. Your memory of those awful years is mercifully tattered and incomplete. You know enough to hunt and kill your former masters, and that’s all that’s important. Now, you wage a solo war against the Un-dead.

Now your past has found you. A scouting mission in Prague goes sour, dragging you into a perilous web of occult horrors and organised crime. Is this a chance for redemption – or are they dragging you back into the darkness you thought you’d escaped?

The Best of Intentions is a thrilling stand-alone adventure for Night’s Black Agents: Solo Opspitting a lone player against the vampires and their malign conspiracies in the shadowy world of international espionage.

 

Stock #: PELGON02D Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Artists: Jen McCleary, Miguel Santos Pages: 44 pages B&W PDF

 

Buy PDF now

In a perfect world, I’d work up to revealing the final cover for Book of the Underworld, telling the step-by-step story of how it came to be and finally whipping the sheet off the easel.

But that’s now how the internet works. So here’s the cover as painted by Lee Moyer using some original pencil sketches by Rich Longmore.

How It Came to Be

Like Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s earlier Book of Ages, Book of Demons, and Eyes of the Stone Thief, the upcoming Book of the Underworld is a pinwheel of unforgettable ideas that are great for gaming. One of the high-class problems of working with material this good is that I feel responsible for finding ways of creating covers that live up to Gareth’s writing.

Last year, we handled this responsibility for Book of Ages by using a team-up. It was the same team-up we’d used previously on the core book and the 13th Age GM screen. Aaron McConnell created wonderful pencils (reprinted inside in the section featuring the Grandmaster of Flowers, page 91) and Lee Moyer handled the paints.

That team-up wasn’t available for Book of the Underworld, and at first it didn’t look like I had a way of getting Lee in on the project. Gareth, developer J-M DeFoggi, and I had some fairly standard art suggestion ideas for what we might do for the cover. But when I say “fairly standard” I also mean that I didn’t think our ideas were particularly good or entirely practical.

So eventually I called Lee, intending to tell him our problem and see if he had a suggestion for a better path. Lee listened and then suggested a better path that he was willing to carve himself.

Lee sent over a layout of an obsidian shard, hung in webs, the sketch just below. Lee asked whether Rich Longmore could provide pencils for a few characters that Lee would use to populate the obsidian mirrors. Lee had enjoyed painting over Rich’s pencils on the Timewatch GM Screen so this was another team-up that had worked before.

I sent Rich notes that went something like this:

The plan is to have a magical blade of obsidian (or something!) held up by spider webs. The obsidian will reflect several faces and scenes related to the underworld.

You will create four pencil sketches that will get slices taken out of them as shown in the blue shards cut out of the obsidian in Lee’s comp. The sketches don’t have to complete, but they need to be somewhat bigger than the spaces so Lee can move ’em a bit. They don’t have to be inked. They also aren’t part of something happening right in front of the shard, it’s more like a magic mirror effect, Lee will take what you draw and distort it in the slab.

Rich was into it and we agreed on the characters/creatures to be sketched: drow warrior; dwarf warrior; giant spider; and soul flenser.

Here are Rich’s sketches. I wasn’t entirely clear on how these were going into the painting, so I couldn’t have approved them without confirming that they were what Lee was hoping for. Yep, as usual Rich hit it on the first try.

And then came the blessed period when Lee goes away, spends three or four times as many hours as he said he would spend on the project, and comes back with something finished and wonderful. For a change, Lee handled the fonts and text for the cover, I think that may actually have taken him as much work as the painting. We’ll put the Pelgrane logo in the bottom right corner and we’re done with another cover that lives up to its book.

The number one critique of GUMSHOE among those who have little or no experience of the system is that the investigative rules turn the scenario into a railroad, where the players blindly follow a predetermined series of clues – which, being an erudite regular reader of Page XX, you know is not true. Hot on its heels, though, is another complaint you may encounter with new players – that the point-spending aspect of general abilities means that there’s little difference between a supremely skilled character and an amateur over an extended fight.

If I’m a super-lethal spy, the best sniper in the world with a mighty 15 in Firearms, then that probably gives me at most five guaranteed hits (spending 3 points per attack, plus my die roll against a Hit Threshold of 4) – possibly fewer if the bad guys have cover or other advantages. After I spend all my points, I’m rolling a plain d6 for my attacks, just like the schlub next to me who has only a single point of Firearms.

Three arguments for the current rules:

  • You Don’t Need That Many Successes: In most general abilities, you rarely need to succeed multiple times in an adventure. One or two guaranteed successes in Stealth, Mechanics, Preparedness or Driving is often more than enough to overcome any challenge. Most General Abilities only get called once per session at most. This argument does fall down a little when it comes to combat abilities, but for most abilities, a higher pool does model the effect of higher competence.
  • You Can Refresh: Especially in games that allow refreshes in the middle of the action (Night’s Black Agents and moves like Technothriller Monologue, Timewatch and Stitches), a player can take action to get points back. Having the sniper have to spend a round describing how they move to get to a better firing position is more fun than yet another round of “I shoot, I hit”. Forcing the characters to rest and refresh to get their abilities back pushes the game towards a nice rhythm and gives a sense of time passing.
  • It’s More Interesting: Players tend to have higher pools than most of their opponents, so switching to a different ability is often an option. Out of Firearms? Grab a knife and start swinging with Weapons. Out of Driving in a chase scene? Then ditch the car and start parkouring with Athletics. Out of Preparedness? Start improvising with Mechanics.

However, if a prospective player remains obstinate, one compromise is to give a flat +1 bonus to all tests involving a general ability if a character has a rating of 8 or more in that ability. So, if you’ve got Firearms 8 or more, you get a +1 bonus to all Firearms rolls. That gives the super-experienced, super-competent gunman a permanent edge over the barely trained goon, but doesn’t distort the regular GUMSHOE point-spending mechanic too much, so the characters will still need to make spends, seek out refreshes and so on.

This added rule can be added straight into most GUMSHOE games; for games that already offer 8-rating cherries like Night’s Black Agents, offer the flat bonus as an alternative cherry.

One of my favourite bits of working on Hideous Creatures – and the infamous H*wk*ns P*p*rs, for that matter – was writing up the in-character handouts that accompany each monster. Part of the joy was obviously seeing what artistic wonders Dean Engelhardt would come up with, of course, but even if you’re not blessed with a brilliant layout artist, you can still have fun generating fiendishly oblique handouts that hint at greater horror.

First, pick one or two aspects of the creature you want to highlight or foreshadow. These might be:

  • Horrible portents associated with the creature, so the players recognise them when they encounter them later on. A stench, a distinctive sound, a bizarre physical phenomenon, a sensation – anything that heralds the approach of the horror.
  • A distinctive way of killing, so the players recognise the creature’s victims for what they are.
  • A supernatural ability or phenomenon associated with the monster
  • A thematic association – if you’ve got a crocodile monster, your handout should reference something crocodile-related – Egypt? Rivers? Survivals from primeval times? Eggs? Lurking dangers? Floating logs? Teeth?

The trick is to find something that’s strongly associated with the monster in the scenario, but is still deliciously ambiguous. A bloodless corpse with neck wounds screams ‘vampire’ a bit too loudly, but unexplained illness with the symptoms of anaemia – that’s great, especially if you describe it in such a way that the players worry about other possible horrors too. Is the anaemia caused by a bloodsucking horror, by weird radiation, by an internal parasite? Foreshadow, don’t fore-explain. In handouts like this, aim for ambiguity that only gets resolved when the players actually encounter the monster.

You can be quite subtle here – the simple existence of the document means the players will give it added weight, and comb the document for hints. For example, say your monster is associated with weird time dilation. You could write a short diary entry where a young heiress talks about how she went out riding one morning after breakfast near the old standing stones, and lost track of time – she thought she was only out for a short time, but she arrived back to find it was already mid-afternoon. On its own, that’s a dull piece of text – but the fact it’s a handout means the players will pay added attention to it. (Note that they’ll also pay attention to irrelevant pieces of it – expect the players to get jumpy at mentions of horses, investigate the family history of the heiress, and investigate the old standing stones.)

(Also – the incongruous placement of a handout is a really great technique. Finding a heiress’ journal in a country house is unremarkably – it’s part of the conceptual furnishings. Finding that same journal in a ruined lighthouse, or a cult hideout in a slum, or in a tomb that hasn’t been disturbed since it was sealed 3,000 years ago – that’s a lot more intriguing!)

Second, catch ye hare. Think of the sort of handout you want. Try starting with a real piece of text to get a sense of language and phrasing. A diary from the 1920s is going to read differently from a diary from the 1960s – and that’s going to be very different to a blog post from 2008. Diaries and letters are the most flexible sort of handout, but they’re a bit cliche. Newspaper articles are always good as a starting point, but can’t get too close to the real mystery (unless you can hint at a sinister reason why the journalist was prevented from investigating and digging deeper). Official accounts, like coroner’s reports, are good when you want to summarise an incident (or describe a mutilated corpse in detail, which can be really handy – it lets investigators use forensic techniques on a death from maby years ago), but hard to keep to short, and the best handouts are short and punchy. Shorter documents – records, auction listings, classified ads – are tricky, as you’ve got to tell the story entirely in implications. (Using google image search can often find scans of old articles and clippings for a visual reference).

Third, have a purpose in mind. A handout might:

  • Tell a story: Usually, the story of how someone else suffered a horrible fate at the hands of the monster; you want to hint at what might happen to the player characters if they’re unlucky.
  • Suggest a line of inquiry or course of action: Mentioning a location, object, book or individual in a handout can be prompt to the players to investigate
  • Foreshadow the monster: This sort of handout is really just to add foreboding; it doesn’t need to tell the players much, other than “there’s something bad out there, and here’s one trait associated with it”.
  • Hint at unplumbed depths: Handouts are great because they give exactly as much information as you want, and no more. The players can’t ask more questions of a piece of paper; they can’t spend points of Interrogation or Intimidation to learn any more. Therefore, if you want to include vast conspiracies, lost civilisations, or deeper mysteries that are outside the scope of your intended game, use a handout to drop hints of those greater depths.

Here’s a worked example of how to build such a handout.

We’ll start with a Trail monster that isn’t in Hideous Creatures – the Masqut. They’re the reptilian denizens of the Nameless City of the Arabian desert – the things of whom it is written that is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die. The entry in the Trail core rulebook – and in Lovecraft’s story – doesn’t give much detail on the monsters. They’re like crocodiles or seals, they walk on all fours, some of them are mummified, they hate humanity, and there are more of them in a vast cavern underground. Oh, and there’s a spooky wind.

I’m immediately put in mind of Feejee mermaids and other monsters of taxidermy. Maybe an art dealer bought what he thought was an amusing fake, but was actually a real mummified masqut… and then, to highlight the underground nature of the monsters, maybe the earth collapsed under him. “Art” plus “underground collapse” makes me think of Paris and its catacombs; even if my adventure isn’t set in Paris, I can incongruously place this handout in the belongings of some victim of the masqut, prompting the players to wonder what Parisian taxidermy articles have to do with the disappearance of their pal the archaeologist in Arabia.

A quick google turns up this clipping (from https://parisianfields.com/2015/09/13/a-city-built-on-air/). That’s a mundane and explicable tragedy, but we can build off that – if we set up our incident as an unexplained coda to it, we can refer back to that earlier collapse and reuse some of the same language, giving us:

SECOND TRAGEDY IN PARIS

The collapse of another building in Paris is likely linked to recent rain storms and flooding, giving rise to fears that the foundations of the city are being eaten away. The most recent incident involved a warehouse owned by M. Salon, an art dealer and taxidermist, which collapsed into a hitherto undetected gulf below. M. Salon and two of his staff perished in the accident, and his newest acquisition, described as a ‘mummified cockatrice’, was also lost, entombed once more in the depths of the earth.

A little over-wrought, perhaps, but enough to disturb the players…

The Underworld calls! Can you resist its dark lure?

The expanse of the Dragon Empire is as nothing compared to the vast and mysterious realms that lie beneath it. Deep within the Underworld lie adventure and treasure—as well as madness and death. But what is reward without risk?

With The Book of the Underworld, designer Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (Eyes of the Stone Thief, Book of Demons, Book of Ages), reveals the Underworld’s secrets for 13th Age, including:

  • The lands of the Underworld: the Underland, the kingdoms of the Hollow Realms, and what lies within the Deeps
  • The mighty dwarven city of Forge, rallying point for the inevitable war to reclaim Underhome
  • The domains of the Silver Folk elves, and their underground icons: She Who Spins in Darkness, and He Who Weaves with Joy
  • The threats of Malice, the Drowfort, and the four kingdoms of the Mechanical Sun
  • New Icons, forgotten gods, spells, feats, magic items, monsters, and more!

You’ll also find rules for traveling in the Underworld—including ways to make travel montages more interesting (and hazardous!)—and advice for GMs who want to create adventures and campaigns set in the Underworld.

The passage downward lies ahead. Cold air chills your bones, and you can hear the echoes of something huge and ancient stirring far below. Mutter one last prayer to the Gods of Light, set your torches ablaze, and prepare to enter the Underworld!

Author: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan
Developers: Rob Heinsoo, John-Matthew DeFoggi

Cover: Lee Moyer, with Rich Longmore

Status: In development

Tactical Objectives in Trail of Cthulhu

Knowing that the Thing could surely overtake the Alert until steam was fully up, he resolved on a desperate chance; and, setting the engine for full speed, ran lightning-like on deck and reversed the wheel. There was a mighty eddying and foaming in the noisome brine, and as the steam mounted higher and higher the brave Norwegian drove his vessel head on against the pursuing jelly which rose above the unclean froth like the stern of a daemon galleon. The awful squid-head with writhing feelers came nearly up to the bowsprit of the sturdy yacht, but Johansen drove on relentlessly.

  • The Call of Cthulhu

The Trail of Cthulhu combat rules work perfectly well when dealing with small numbers of human-scale foes – a lone Deep One or Byakhee, a few cultists – but they’re less suited to coping with gigantic creatures like shoggoths, vampirish vapours or dark young, or hosts of horrors like ghoul packs or flocks of bat-things. Now, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that such encounters are more the province of pure narrative, or out of keeping with the mood of the game, but sometimes – especially in Pulp adventures – you want to be able to blow up the shoggoth by luring it onto Professor Frank’s experimental electrical generator.

These rules are (very) loosely inspired by the Ashen Stars space combat system and the Yellow King RPG rules.

At the start of an encounter, the players collectively choose one of the starting goals (Retreat, Drive Away/Break Through, Hide, Wound, or Lure). They then make ability tests as normal, trying to rack up successes collectively to meet the number required by a goal.

 

Goal Format

Here’s the format for goals.

Description. What you’re trying to do achieve by pursuing this goal.

Leads-In: What goals you need to achieve before attempting this one.

Leads-Out: What goals you can try for after completing this one.

Successes Required: How many successes you need to achieve this goal.

Abilities: What General Abilities can be used to score successes. One successful General Ability test grants one success.

The difficulty for these tests depends on the monster you’re fighting. In general

Human-size foes: Difficulty 4

Huge creatures: Difficulty 5-6

Cyclopean monsters: Difficulty 6-7

Great Old Ones: Difficulty 8+

Abilities may be tagged asRisky or Vulnerable.

Special: Any special rules that apply to this goal.

Effect: What happens if the group achieve their goal.

Risky & Vulnerable

If a character uses a Risky ability, then if that character fails, the monster gets to make an attack on that character.

If a character uses a Vulnerable ability, then that character gets attacked by the monster after the ability test, regardless of the outcome of the test.

The monster can attack as many times as opportunities present themselves – if six investigators attempt something Risky and fail, the monster gets to make six attacks.

Defending Others

Instead of making an ability test to accrue successes, an investigator can defend another investigator. This requires a test of Scufflingor Shooting; a kind Keeper might also allow the use of Athletics orDriving in some circumstances. Defending others is Risky – if the defender fails the test, they get attacked by the monster.

Switching Goals

If you change goal midway through an attempt, you lose all your accumulated successes. You can only switch to a starting goal.

Investigative Spends

If the player can justify it, an investigative spend might allow:

  • A different general ability to be used to generate successes towards the goal (I use Physics to tune the radio into the star vampire’s frequency – now I can lure it with Electrical Repair)
  • Increase the number of successes yielded by a successful test (Can I use Chemistry for a bigger bang from these Explosives tests?)

Armour and Vulnerabilities

Some Mythos entities are incredibly tough, or even immune to some forms of attack. Others are unusually vulnerable to a particular weapon or substance. Adjust the Difficulty for attacks using Shooting, Scuffling or Weapons as follows:

The monster’s magically vulnerable to this attack: -2

Low armour, big gun: -1

Most attacks: +0

High armour or partial immunity: +1

            Chances of injuring the monster are slim: +2

No chance of hurting monster: Ability cannot be used.

Example: (The Dunwich Horror) In the end the three men from Arkham—old, white-bearded Dr. Armitage, stocky, iron-grey Professor Rice, and lean, youngish Dr. Morgan—ascended the mountain alone. They began with the Hide goal, racking up some successes by trying to spot the invisible monster, then switched to Lure (“through the lenses were discernible three tiny figures, apparently running toward the summit as fast as the steep incline allowed.”) before finally attempting Banish on the mountain-top.

 

Tactical Goals

Flee

You’re trying to get the hell out of there! Everyone just turns and runs at top speed. It’s undignified, but it might keep you alive. Devil take the hindmost!

Leads-In: Any. You can switch to this goal at any time.

Leads-Out:

Successes Required: Successes are tracked individually. The first character to escape needs one success, the second needs two successes, the third needs three and so forth. Add one to the total needed if a character’s bringing a non-combatant along.

Abilities: Risky: Fleeing, Athletics

Special: You can reroll a failed test if you describe how your panicked retreat leads to some misfortune – you drop your weapon, you fall over a cliff, you get separated from the rest of the company.

Effect: You escape. There are no guarantees about your condition or situation when you make your escape – you may fainting, or get lost in the wilderness, or suffer some other humiliation – but at least you’re out of immediate danger.

 

Retreat

You intend to retreat in good order, staying together and leaving nobody behind.

Leads-In: None

Leads-Out: If you switch to Flee, you can keep half your accrued successes.

Successes Required: Two per investigator.

Abilities: Risky:Athletics, Stealth, Stability, Riding (to maintain discipline)

Vulnerable:Fleeing

If the group’s in a vehicle, then add Vulnerable: Driving, Piloting (but successes count double)

Effect: The group escapes the encounter with the monster.

 

Hide

You try to observe the monster

Leads-In: None

Leads-Out: Retreat, Lure, Drive Away/Break Through

Successes Required: 0.

Abilities: Vulnerable: Shadowing, Sense Trouble, Preparedness

Special: You must move on from this goal once the enemy is aware of your presence.

Effect: You may apply half your successes from this goal to your next goal.

 

Drive Away/Break Through

You try to force your way past the enemy, or force the monster into briefly retreating.

Leads-In: None

Leads-Out: None or Wound

Successes Required: Target’s Health /4

Abilities: Risky:Shooting, Weapons

Vulnerable: Athletics, Scuffling

Special:Track the number of natural 6s rolled during ability tests. If the group wishes to immediately attempt the Wound or Hold Out goals after completing this goal, they start with one success in Wound or Hold Out for every six rolled.

Effect: The monster retreats. Add another d6 successes to the number required if the investigators try for the same goal again in a future encounter.

 

Wound

You attempt to actually damage the monster.

Leads-In: None

Leads-Out: Maim, Retreat

Successes Required: Target’s Health/4

Abilities: Risky:Shooting, Weapons

Vulnerable: Athletics, Scuffling

Special: If a character rolls a 1-2 on an ability test, their next action is automatically Vulnerable.

Effect: The monster’s hurt. This doesn’t affect the creature’s abilities, but it’s the first step in destroying the horror (and analysis of the ichor or blood spilled might provide vital clues).

Lure

You try to draw the monster towards a particular location.

Leads-In: None.

Leads-Out: Trap, Bind/Banish

Successes Required: 6

Abilities: Risky:Athletics, Shadowing, Riding

Effect: The monster follows the investigators to a particular location nearby.

Hold Out

You secure yourself in a safe, defensible place and try to hold out for as long as possible. This might involve barricading the entrances, securing all entry points, or trying to endure this monstrous siege.

Leads-In: Retreat, Drive Away/Break Through

Leads-Out: Trap

Successes Required: 4 per investigator

Abilities: Vulnerable:Electrical Repair,Mechanical Repair, Preparedness.

Effect: The investigators hold out until dawn, or until help arrives, or until the attackers depart.

Maim

You attempt to kill the monster. If dealing with a host of horrors, you try to slaughter the greater number of them.

Leads-In: Wound, Trap

Leads-Out: None

Successes Required: Target’s Health/2

Abilities: Risky:Shooting, Weapons, Explosives

Vulnerable: Athletics, Scuffling

Special: If a character rolls a 1-2 on an ability test, their next action is automatically Vulnerable and they cannot benefit from another investigator defending them.

Effect: The monster is destroyed, or at least discorporated.

Trap

You’re going to trap the monster in a physical or magical prison.

Leads-In: Lure, Hold Out

Leads-Out: Wound, Bind/Banish

Successes Required: 4; 6 if the monster is especially strong, fast, agile, can fly, or moves through alien dimensions; 8 if it falls into multiple categories

Abilities: Vulnerable:Athletics, Electrical Repair, Explosives, Magic, Mechanical Repair

Effect: The difficulty of tests in the next goal is reduced by 2.

Bind/Banish

You’re going to use eldritch sorcery or hypergeometry to dismiss the monster.

Leads-In: Lure, Trap.

Lure is only necessary if the monster can only be banished at a particular place (within a magical sigil, atop Sentinel Hill, in direct sunlight).

Trap is optional, but unless the monster is constrained, then it may be able to flee instead of being banished.

Leads-Out: What goals you can try for after completing this one.

Successes Required: Spell’s Inertia/2

Abilities: Vulnerable:Stability

Effect: As per the spell


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.

   where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    

– Allen Ginsburg, Howl

Cthulhu City slides into The Fall of Delta Green like a cartridge into a chamber. As written, Great Arkham’s a nightmare reflection of the 1930s, but updating it to the 1960s is relatively trivial. The sinister gas-masked Transport Police and oppressive surveillance state fit perfectly; mistrust of the government resonates even more after the Kennedy assassination and Kent State. Some specific suggestions to bring the city to the era of the Fall.

  • Old Arkham hasn’t changed – so it’s now an absurd throwback, a foolish or desperate attempt to turn the clock back to a pre-war era.
  • The Depression-era Hoovertowns and hoboes in rotting Salamander Fields become drop-outs, dope fiends and draft dodgers.
  • Hippie communes and flower children dance amid the standing stones out in Billington’s Woods near Dunwich.
  • Mayor Ward is more of a Kennedy-esque figure – young, handsome, inspiring, as compelling and sinister as the Black Pharoah of Nyarlathotep.
  • The city’s textile industry has given way to the military-industrial complex – the Northside factories churn out cryptic, obscure machinery for the war effort, but it’s never clear if the components are for Vietnam, or for some other facet of the Cold War, or some stranger conflict.
  • The international jet set, cosmopolitan and jaded, fly in to the new Danfort Airport in Kingsport from Monte Carlo and Milan, London and Beirut, Baharna and Celephais. The airport crawls with Transport Police, and its bizarre hypergeometic topography means that some would-be travellers have ended up lost in its endless shifting concourses for years, roaming naked and starving past departure gates that never open. Stephen Alzis summers in Great Arkham.
  • The raid on Miskatonic University resulted in the shooting of a half-dozen students by Transport Police. Protests and riots have wracked the city since then; there are regular clashes between Transport Police and students. Anarchist cells meet and plot in the attic of the old Witch House.
  • The Marsh gang import and distribute heroin shipped in the holds of the infamous Black Freighters.
  • The battle between the various cults and factions is no longer so covert. Fringe scientists from the Halsey Institute (formerly the clandestine Halsey Fraternity) openly advocate for experimentation in necromancy and revivification; pamphlets and graffiti on the sides of cyclopean towers advocate for the Witch Cult or the Silver Lodge. Mayor Upton was shot by a brain-washed assassin.
  • Armitage wasn’t a librarian or occult expert – he was a chemist, experimenting with drugs that altered human perceptions to enable them to see the true nature of reality. After the Raid, he went underground, moving from one hidden lab to another, sheltered by the Black Panthers and other groups, manufacturing more potent solvents to dissolve the great illusion and reveal the ultimate truth.

And what is that ultimate truth? The DELTA GREEN setting suggests some new options for the ultimate reality behind Cthulhu City…

  • The Revolution Will Be Dematerisalised: Curwen and his allies mastered hypergeometry and fractured reality in the 1750s. We’re still a colony – it’s simultaneously the 1960s and 1770s, the Transport Police are Redcoats, the revolution is always coming. DELTA GREEN’s a conspiracy founded by Captain Whipple and the “band of serious citizens” who raided Curwen’s house; the characters flicker back and forth between the Mythos-conjured hallucination of the 1960s and the ‘reality’ of the 1770s.
  • Interzone: Cthulhu City’s a surreal nightmare. Monsters on the streets, monsters under your skin. Gangs of shrieking cultists roam the night, pursued by agents of absurd alphabet-soup government departments. The city’s accessed by drugs, or by trauma, or by psychic reflexes triggered by the right poetry. It’s Al Amarj on the Miskatonic.
  • The Vorsht Letters: A DELTA GREEN Agent, Isaac Vorsht, vanished in 1962. His car was found abandoned on a back road near Salem; he hasn’t been seen since. Somehow, though, he’s still sending reports to the DELTA GREEN Steering Committee about his experiences and investigations in ‘Great Arkham’. Vorsht’s reports never seem to acknowledge the bizarre nature of the city, or describe how he got there. It’s as though he’s slipped into a parallel dimension – but if he has, how are his letters getting into the conventional US postal service? Oh – his most recent letter thanked DELTA GREEN for assigning the Agents to his operation. The Steering Committee don’t know what to make of it, but clearly the Agents are fated to investigate the case…
  • Project PLATO: PLATO’s mandate is to prepare a defensive posture for humanity in case of alien invasion. “Great Arkham” is a PLATO construct, a simulation designed to determine how the population might behave if the Mythos were to become more public. Are the Agents under hypnosis? Brainwashed with LSD and subliminal messaging? Critically injured and comatose Vietnam veterans in an electronically generated shared hallucination? Or did MOON DUST just salvage some Mi-Go technology? Are those cyclopean towers actually gigantic brain-cases…

 

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