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

 

Illusion Utility Spell

1st – disguise self

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

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

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

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

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

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

 

1st – illusion

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

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

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

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

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

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

 

1st – cloak

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

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

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

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

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

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

 

3rd – message

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Quick action to cast

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

5th – enter dreams

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

Daily

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

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

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

 

7th – symbol

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Transmutation Utility SpellShadows Over Eldolan cover

1st – feather fall

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Free action to cast

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

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

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

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

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

 

1st – hold portal

Ranged spell

Daily

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

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

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

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

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

 

1st – disappear

Daily

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

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

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

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

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

3rd level spell: A backpack and its contents

5th level spell: A big sack

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

9th level spell: Pretty much anything.

 

3rd – levitate

Ranged spell

Daily

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

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

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

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

 

3rd – animate

Daily

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

The object completes one task, then stops moving.

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

5th level: A piece of furniture

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

9th level: Wake up, you lazy mountain!

 

3rd – transmute element

Daily

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

Possible transmutations, any of which can be reversed.

3rd level: Rock to mud

5th level: Lead to gold, fire to ice

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

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

 

5th – water breathing

Range: Close-quarters spell

Daily

Quick action to cast

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

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

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

 

7th – wall

Quick action to Cast

Daily

Ranged spell

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

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


13th Age combines the best parts of traditional d20-rolling fantasy gaming with new story-focused rules, designed so you can run the kind of game you most want to play with your group. 13th Age gives you all the tools you need to make unique characters who are immediately embedded in the setting in important ways; quickly prepare adventures based on the PCs’ backgrounds and goals; create your own monsters; fight exciting battles; and focus on what’s always been cool and fun about fantasy adventure gaming. Purchase 13th Age in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Some Suggestions

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

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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

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

Simple vs. Thriller

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

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

Down vs Hurt

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

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

Common vs. Rare Abilities

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

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

Other Modifiers

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

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

Spending Patterns

A related question to GMC design is “how many points should the bad guys spend on each roll?” Do you go for efficiency (“spend enough to guarantee a hit”), verisimilitude (“the alarm hasn’t been raised yet, so the guards probably think they’re taking pot-shots at squirrels, not shooting investigators – I’ll spend one point”) or other concerns (“Bob’s PC is at low Health already – I won’t spend to give him a chance of making it out alive”).

Some games (like Ashen Stars) suggest spending patterns, so a lumbering alien beast might spend points slowly at first, then build up (0/1/2/4), whereas an ambush predator front-loads its attacks (4/3/0/0). Personally, I tend to have cannon fodder spend 2 points per attack, and play the named bad guys according to their personality.

Numbers (Generally) Don’t Matter Much

GUMSHOE’s primarily a player-facing game. Some variants, like QuickShock or One2One, don’t even use pools of points for bad guys, just flat modifiers. The important question is always “what’s the Difficulty for the player characters?”, not realism or careful game balance. Human and human-adjacent characters operate in a relatively narrow range, so you can’t go far wrong by sticking to 3-6 points in an ability for minor foes, 6-12 for major threats. (Monsters are a different matter – and beyond the scope of this article!)

Quick Templates

(For Fear Itself, Esoterrorists, or Trail of Cthulhu)

Mook

General Abilities: Athletics 2, Fighting 3, Health 2

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: +0

Weapon: Knife (-1)

Armour: None

Sentry or Criminal

General Abilities: Athletics 4, Fighting 4, Driving 4, Shooting 4, Health 4

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: -1

Weapon: Knife (-1) or Pistol (+0)

Armour: None

Big Bruiser

General Abilities: Athletics 6, Fighting 8, Health 8

Hit Threshold: 3

Alertness Modifier: +0

Stealth Modifier: -1

Weapon: Big Club (+0)

Armour: None

Cult Assassin

General Abilities: Athletics 8, Fighting 10, Shooting 6,

Hit Threshold: 4

Alertness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: +1

Weapon: Sacrificial Knife (-1) or Big Handgun (+1)

Armour: Cult Robes (2 points)

When Ruth Tillman picked ghouls, she scooped Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan for his choice of Favorite Monster. Surely that won’t happen a second time.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

Big Bloody Spoilers for both The Zalozhniy Quartet and The Persephone Extraction in this article. Don’t read if you’re a Night’s Black Agents player. Here, have some deliberate disinformation so you don’t accidentally read anything important.

 

  • DRACULA’S BEHIND EVERYTHING

 

  • EDOM STANDS FOR ENGLISH DEFENDERS OF MAGIC

 

  • YOU ARE UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF THE VAMPIRES

 

  • IT’S ALL THE OCEAN GAME.

 

  • STAY ALERT TRUST NO-ONE KEEP YOUR LASER SIGHT HANDY

 

  • PELGRANE’S GOING TO LICENSE COUNT DUCKULA FOR A GUMSHOE KIDS/NBA CROSSOVER ANY DAY NOW

Continue reading »

In the latest installment of their play by clip game, Gar’s character makes a shocking discovery upon making his rendezvous with the Thing in the River, and Robin breaks down the fine art of the auto-success.


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

Beat the scores of our top single or team contestants as our Virtual Pub Quiz unleashes fiendish questions from Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Cat Tobin, and Wade Rockett.

Is that dolphin charismatic or sinister? Grab a glass, virtual or actual, and find out.

A 1933 teletype machineVirtually every group of player characters in The Wars possesses a boîtenoire, a wireless teletype machine that enables swift communication between the unit and headquarters – and, perhaps, other channels.

Even setting aside any supernatural elements, military communications are a rich source of horror. When encountering someone face-to-face – say, a commanding officer ordering you to advance into the teeth of enemy guns – you can quibble, plead, challenge, or otherwise appeal to one fellow human. A typed message offers no such leeway. All the players have is the brute text, unyielding, as cryptic or as unambiguous as the GM desires. Are the commanding officers coldly cruel, clueless, deranged or actively sadistic? Or have they been taken over by Carcosan horrors? The players can’t tell from the text…

The boîtenoire’s a great way to deliver handouts to the player characters; send them briefing documents or orders as boîte-noire messages. You can even do in-character session write-ups in the form of dispatches sent by the squad in the field.

Getting Technical

The operation of the boîtenoire is simple:  type your message, press send, and off it goes. One key question that the Wars is silent on, however, is the question of addressing – how do you tell the box where to send the message? Some options:

  • Closed Channel: Your boîtenoire only communicates with headquarters. There’s no addressing; it’s fixed when the box is constructed. Maybe headquarters has a master box that can communicate with multiple subsidiary units, or perhaps the devices are constructed in pairs, inextricably entangled with one another.
  • Frequency: A boîtenoire has a frequency selector; send a message, and any boxes set to that frequency receive the message. Does each unit have an assigned frequency? Do enemy boxes work on the same frequencies (requiring coded transmissions – which, of course, in the parlance of boîtenoire operators, are referred to as ‘masks’), or does physics now bow to different national flags? Picking up messages meant for another unit lets the GM hint at horrors elsewhere on the battlefield.
  • Code: Each box has a unique identifier; any message tagged with that code gets delivered to that box and that box alone. Messages cannot be intercepted – but anyone with your code can send you messages, and you have no way to reply or verify their identity unless they include their code in the message. What form does this code take – a string of digits? A passphrase? A cryptic sigil?
  • Addressed: For something more overtly weird and surreal, the boîtenoire works like a post office run by unseen angels. You literally address your message like a conventional letter (“Room 239, Hotel Splendide, Rue Jaune, Arles”), and if there’s a boîtenoire there, it gets the message; otherwise, it’s lost in the ether. While in the field, units must find semi-valid postal addresses to receive messages. (“Quick! What’s the address of that bombed-out hovel?”)
  • Desire: The box just… works. Enter a message, and it’ll be delivered to headquarters, or to the squad in the next valley, or to the spotter dragonfly circling overhead.

Getting Scary

For more overt supernatural weirdness:

  • Messages Out Of Time: In my campaign, the first boîte-noire showed up in Paris, as a gift to the characters from their unwanted new patron Cassilda. She communicated with them through the box – but they also got a bunch of meaningless messages about troop movements and artillery bombardments which made no sense to them at the time. Later, in the Wars, I intended to reuse those messages as transmissions to the second set of player characters. Messages from the future can hint at dire fates or give the players a chance to avert some catastrophe. (If you’re feeling really ambitious, you could even take the conceit of the Armitage Files and feed it through a boîtenoire.)
  • Messages From The Dead: From the classic “the guy in the other trench we’ve been talking to all session – he was killed in action a year ago” to using the machine to conduct seances, there’s a lovely creepiness to early telecommunications. Did Thomas Edison invent the boîtenoire through his research? Might the player characters pick up unsent letters from their Paris incarnations?
  • Messages From Beyond: Of course, any Carcosan technology falls under the dread rule of the Yellow King. How can the players trust what they receive from the box? What happens if the boîtenoire clatters, and the message begins: STRANGE IS THE NIGHT WHERE BLACK STARS RISE, AND STRANGE MOONS CIRCLE THROUGH THE SKIES…

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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