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

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Give a Clue

The heart of the GUMSHOE system is its method of ensuring that players always gather the clues essential to the solution of a mystery and lots of other supplementary information as well provided that they have the right investigative abilities, and describe their characters look in the right place and/or perform the right actions. Some potential players have of the game have concluded is that the removal of random determination from the clue dispensation process must render it dry and mechanical. The reality of the play experience is that it is just as fluid as in any other mystery game.

The reason for this fluidity lies in the freedom granted the GM to dispense clues in various ways. These keep the investigative scenes spontaneous and interactive.

Until now, these methods have been implicit in the scenario text. I’m confident that GMs instinctively get them in play and in a way am reluctant to pin them down too much, for fear of overriding good on-the-spot judgment for what appears to be a heavily prescribed set of techniques.

With that caveat, here are some terms to codify the methods GMs use to provide clues in GUMSHOE:

Immediately Apparent

An immediately apparent clue is supplied to the player without action on the character’s part. All an investigator with the governing ability has to do to spot the clue is to enter the scene. Ideally, the GM scans his master list of investigative abilities, on which the ratings of the various PCs are marked, picks the most likely investigator with the ability, and announces the clue:

[indicating a particular player]: “You can tell right away that the hieroglyphics on the statue are phony modern gibberish.”

Here the GM is responding to a passage in the scenario that says:

Archaeology shows that the hieroglyphics on the statue are phony modern gibberish.

There are two reasons to treat a clue as immediately apparent: believability and playability. Believability holds that clues where anyone acquainted with the ability in question would logically spot something on a cursory inspection should be provided without prompting. On the other hand, playability dictates that essential clues which even good players are unlikely to look for should also be made immediately apparent.

Certain clues are immediately apparent without abilities. If there’s a gun hidden under a bed, and a player asks, “What’s under the bed?” they don’t need Evidence Collection to find it. All they need is a pair of functioning eyes.

Action-Dependent

Most clues are action-dependent, meaning that the players must specify that they’re doing something before the GM provides the clue. The action taken can be very basic: searching the room, looking for fingerprints, taking a closer look at that painting in the corner. Or it can be quite specific: gathering fibers, performing a centrifuge test, smelling the air for the distinctive tang of werewolf.

GM: Jenkins hands you a photograph, of what appears to be a sasquatch standing in a stand of bullrushes.

Player: As an experienced photographer, I want to know if the image of the monster has been faked.

[The GM refers to the scenario notes, which read:

A check for fakery with Photography shows that it is a composite image.]

GM: It’s a composite; the shadows in the figure don’t match the direction of light in the background.

Shifting Clue Types

The wording of GUMSHOE scenarios suggests which of these two categories the clues fall into, without being absolutely explicit about it. I toyed with the idea of making these more definite, by marking them with icons. Ultimately I decided against this, because the most important thing about clue dispensation is to pay attention to the progress players are making and adjust on the fly. Most immediate clues can be turned into action-dependent clues as needed, and vice versa.

If your players are slogging their way through a mystery whose basic backstory just isn’t registering, you may want to supply suggested actions, effectively turning an action-dependent clue into an immediate clue: “Your Forensics experience leads you to check inside her mouth, where you find a strange parasitic infestation.”

On other occasions it is more satisfying for the players if you strongly hint at a suitable action, rather than providing the clue outright:

GM: Jenkins hands you a photograph, of what appears to be a sasquatch standing in a stand of bullrushes.

It strikes you as off, somehow.

Player: I check it for signs of fakery!

Although you might expect the players to regard this as an unsubtle shove in the right direction, many players are not only content to receive hints like this, but still feel a sense of accomplishment simply for going on to fill in the obvious next action. The more frustrated a group becomes, the greater the emotional reward for pouncing on a hint.

Always allow the players plenty of time to take actual active measures before you start hinting them in a fruitful direction.

This idea can be spun in the opposite direction. If your players are especially proactive, you can reward their initiative by converting immediately apparent clues into action-dependent ones.

GM: The wall inside the burial chamber is covered in old hieroglyphics.

Player: Aha! Are they phonetic or logographic?

GM: Neither. They’re gibberish — modern forgeries.

Players are more able to show off their characters’ brilliance in areas they are themselves acquainted with.

All in all, the degree of effort players must go through to accumulate clues is a matter for constant and sensitive adjustment, based on factors including session pacing, the group’s concentration level, and players’ personal knowledge of character abilities. The defaults suggested by the scenario wording are no substitute for a GM’s judgment and attention. Knowing when to push and when to let the players push you is an essential component of the GM’s craft. You are probably already doing it, unconsciously, but by paying more active attention to it, you can further sharpen your presentation.


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

Distractions are Your Friend

Using Props and Toys in Your Game by Jamie Maclaren

Role-playing is a very specific type of group interaction, but many of its features are not unique. There are many activities that involve sitting, talking, sharing goals, expressing opinions and creating tangible things through joint creativity.

I worked as a trainer for five years and was constantly amazed by its similarities to the role of GM, especially when it came to engaging the group. And, I soon noticed noticed that something I had given little attention to in my games was attention span, which as a trainer was always a consideration.

Attention Span

Attention Span is widely used in the media in a negative context, how kids are having it eroded by exposure to television for example. But it is clear that we all have a finite attention, and it tends to be stretched out when we are doing things that we enjoy or are heavily involved in.

These facts can lead to problematic ways of viewing attention span, here are some examples that might arise in a game, from the perspective of the GM:

My player is not concentrating, are they are bored by my game, are my plots and scenes dull?

Or, from a player thus:

Whoops, I got a bit distracted! It’s the GM’s job to keep me entertained? it must be his fault.

The reasoning is based on a dismissal of the idea that we all have finite attention spans, and the false logic that, because we can stay concentrated for longer during things we like, it must be a measure of enjoyment.

I really like some three-hour films, but I hate having to sit in a seat, in the dark, for that long without a break, is it the director’s fault, mine, television’s brain rotting effect, or is it the cinema insisting on maximising the number of viewings? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but consider it from the perspective of a role-playing game.

Distraction & Disengagement

Distractions are everywhere and much advice to GMs encourages you to remove distractions from play, I sometimes wonder if this advice is driven by fear that the game will never be as interesting as that 2000 AD stack in the corner, or that DVD collection on the shelf. But, judging from the constant references to Star Wars or Monty Python at most role-playing tables I have sat round, distractions don’t even need to be present to have their effect.

Following inevitably from distraction is disengagement. We have all been there; at some point, we zone-out of the activity we are engaged in and our minds just go elsewhere. We are taught by grumpy school teachers, or impatient parents, that this is wrong or rude, but it happens anyway.

Consider this radical thought, maybe our attention span can’t be used to reliably measure our interest, sometimes we are just more tired or more interested in the other things going on in our lives. Maybe it’s no one’s fault that we drift off into our internal worlds, once in a while, and maybe someone showing signs of distraction or disengagement is just as interested in what is going on as everyone else, just not at that moment.

Using Distractions Positively

A trick I picked up as a trainer is to use distractions to your advantage and not to try and banish them from the environment. Distractions don’t need to be in the room with you, but it helps if they are, because the act of distraction and disengagement can be made more obvious, and more obvious is good.

If someone is beginning to become distracted in a game, their mind will start to wander, and being the naturally curious creatures we are, start to seek other things in the immediate environment to engage with, it’s not a concious choice. Even if we are drifting into an purely internal world, we often play with things to hand in a distracted manner.

How many times have you found yourself idly playing with the dice, doodling, altering trivial things on a character sheet, or just chewing on a pencil.

The trick, as a GM, is to use this inclination to your advantage. Instead of banning fiddly stuff from the table, and squashing those fidgeting habits, put things on the table on purpose. Make it more likely that your players will do visual things when they are distracted, and if you can, make some of that stuff relevant to the game.

Maps, charts, relevant books with cool pictures, printed handouts have all been covered by role-playing advice for years, as a way of keeping players focused on the game. And they do that job well, as a way of engaging more of the senses and providing varied ways to present information.

A player idly flicking through a handout or checking out a map when they are not involved in a scene, is a player who is allowing his mind to wander, and with relevant material this can aid creative thought at exactly the time when the player is looking for something to engage with.

But, however relevant a thing is to your game it can provide indicators of engagement, a visual clue that the player is becoming distracted. Of course, what they are doing can’t provide a window into their head. A player taking an interest in a map could just as easily be thinking about how the map was drawn, printers, paper stock, or their use of colour in an important work presentation.

The visual clue is, in itself, a valuable tool, it gives you insight into the players attention, it is an indicator that the player is disengaging. It is important that this is seen in context, we all let our minds wander constantly, a disengaging player may re-engage in very short order, possibly much more actively due to the creative possibilities of distraction.

This is where distractions unrelated to the activity at hand come in. A player staring blankly at the wall behind you may not be noticed, but a player picking up a toy tank and rolling it around the table, sighting potential targets, is definitely disengaged, even if you are playing a war related game. And far from wanting to discourage that, I would prefer to know when a player is that distracted from the game.

Acting on Distraction

So we have a table full of different types of distraction, and we are keeping an eye out for visual clues that the players minds are wandering, but what should we actually do when we notice them?

Well, for a start, if you put things out on the table you will be amazed at how often they get played with. This is probably why most advice says remove them, because we don’t often acknowledge just how distracted we are, most of the time.

First off it’s important to actively encourage this playful approach, make it clear that you approve of it, by referring to it in positive ways, “That Mech is cool isn’t it” is better than “Hey! Put that card deck down I’m talking”, but both can have the effect of re-engaging with the person. The idea is to let everyone be comfortable at the table and comfortable with their own distractions.

Use that stress toy informally, to chuck around “it’s your action, catch”, or that toy gun to emphasise when someone is on the spot. In other words use the toys to have fun, that’s their primary role after all. Don’t try and enforce things with them like “you need the ball to speak” just make them part of a low pressure environment

It is far easier to call for a break, or talk about changing things to make the game more interesting, when the distractions are out in the open and not disapproved of. “I think we need a break, because I’m more interested in what your doing with that tank than I am in the game right now” is a good way to handle a total disengagement, without blaming the individual. It has to be better than “we have obviously spent too long in this diplomacy scene because you are not listening to a word we are saying”, even if it’s what you really mean.

Hand in hand with how easily and casually distracted we can be, goes the fact that we are easily engaged by change, so if two or three people are showing signs of disengagement it is probably time to change the activity a little. This may be the time to have those proverbial ninjas burst through the door, or switch scenes to get the story moving forward. A change really is as good as a break, a change in activity can double attention span. Even if you are involved with only some of the players you can always use another player’s disengagement to your advantage by asking him to look up that elusive rule, or handing him a handout for the next scene.

So in summary, distractions and disengagement are going to happen whatever you do, and they are often no-ones fault. You can choose to try and banish them and drive them out of sight, or you can embrace them and work with them. Props and toys at the table can provide you with an easy and fun way to provide visual indications that they are happening and to make reference to them without blame.

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. 

Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Started Loving Losing Control

by Fred Hicks

When I sit down at the table, I’m looking to feel.  I want my character’s triumphs to exhilarate me, and when he makes a bad decision, I want to squirm—and as an audience to his story, to feel my concern for him deepen (and, honestly, to enjoy how he’s sunk himself into yet another predicament).

While I wouldn’t call myself a full-bore immersionist in my play—I’m entirely comfortable spending some time outside of my character’s head—I do like to identify with my character.  At the very least, I’m best off when I feel empathy for him, even if I’m deciding that he’s going to kiss the wrong girl, let his greed lead him into a trap, or otherwise set himself up for some pretty awful consequences.  Heck, as a fan of TV shows like Farscape and Rescue Me, it could even be argued that bad decisions and nasty consequences are a need—even a craving—for my entertainment tastes.  If my hero isn’t in over his head and isn’t at least partly to blame for putting himself there, it’s just not good enough.  In the end, that’s how I build that sense of identification with my character—you and me, kid, we’re in this together.

When I’m playing “traditional” style games, achieving this can be a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition.  In these games, I usually don’t have a lot of choice in what sorts of things are going to get thrown at my character’s head, and the ability to get my character into deep doo-doo is dependent to a great extent on the ability of whoever’s running the game to step on up and douse me in sufficient amounts of predicament-juice.

So with that as my complaint (if it can really be called that), a number of folks I know would say, “Fred my man, you need yourself a story-game,” and to some extent they’re absolutely right.  A story-game (to the extent I’m familiar with the term) often gives players direct or strong authorial control over the circumstances of their characters.  If the players want their characters deeply embroiled in bitten-off-more-than-they-can-chew shenanigans, the players have enough control over the game to directly assert what those circumstances are.  In short, they have the power to author their own pain.

This is big mojo—and I’ve made plenty of use of it whenever I’ve played story-games.  But more often than not, the experience still feels a little hollow to me.  I can come up with a great character and jam his life up but good, producing a fun story, but it’s still missing that essential ingredient that I crave: identification.  All of this ability to author my own pain ends up falling flat, divorcing me from those emotional ties to my character.  It puts me into a stance where the character is a piece on a board to be moved around through a story.  As an audience, I may enjoy the stories that result, but it tends to come off as an action movie rather than a drama—a heavyweight on the explosions and cool effects, but light as a feather on the heartstrings.

A common thread I’ve found in many of these circumstances is that two things are going on.

The first problem: I’m retaining too much control over my character.  This means I lose the sense that the events of the story are happening to him; when I author my own pain, I’m both the guy making bad stuff happen and the guy that the bad stuff is happening to.  The problem, of course, is that I know what I’m doing to myself, so the surprises and twists and turns are few (or even nonexistent).

The second problem: Too often, the process of making decisions in the game is made outside of the character’s perspective.  It’s an odd thing, given that stories are anchored to characters, but in story-games I’m often seeing story trumping character—and for me at least it really ends up hollowing out the experience, leaving it all surface and no depth.

As I’ve come to realize this about my own play, I’ve started to analyze things more carefully, looking at the times when games have given me what I want, and trying to determine what’s made it work.  Commonly, I find myself identifying with my character when I don’t feel I have control over the things happening to him: my discovery (as a player) of what’s happening to my character does not precede my character’s discovery of it.  We’re going through the process of discovery together, and that’s how the story gets a chance to play close to my heart and, crucially, to make me feel.

So if I were so bold as to think I could request it of the design community, this is what I want: story-games that don’t put me in the driver’s seat.  For all the non-hippie sensibilities of traditional style games, I’ve come to feel they have something right by putting a lot of control over my circumstances into someone else’s hands (most often the GM).  Without that, even at a crowded table, I can end up feeling like I’m playing a solo adventure.

For a long while, I thought that this problem was just inherent to a lot of principles of story-games, but in some inextractable way that I couldn’t put my finger on.  Then I got a chance to play in Bill White’s superlative Ganakagok game at Dreamation 2007.  Ganakagok is “the bomb,” as they say in the old country, and despite being in a position where I was deciding (as a player) that some awful things would befall my character, despite having my hand deep in authoring events and circumstances befalling other characters, I still had a strong, strong sense of identification for my tribal truth-teller who, once trapped beneath the ice and drowned, became a cannibal ghoul and eventually sank into the depths to transform into the cancer that gnaws at the heart of the world.

Something special was going on there, and I think I figured out why.

Ganakagok does several things which, together, produce an amazing game-play experience that preserved my empathy for my character.  At the heart of all of those things is a common thread: everyone gets a chance to participate in every scene, but only in a way that happens through the “lens” of their characters.  Even when my character is not physically present in a scene, he can affect that scene through his possessions, others’ memories of him, and so on.  This is gold.  By making sure that I don’t ever step out of “my guy” to affect the larger story of the world, I remain identified with him without ever losing sight of the big picture.

This is a strange and magical kind of unity that Bill has crafted, here: a game where character and story interact and exist as peers, but where one cannot be affected at all without the use of the other.  My authorship of the story does not occur without the involvement of my own character.  And that is where my heart starts to beat with newfound warmth for the stories arising from play.

Ganakagok makes character and story into an inextricable pair, like a key and its lock, and it has already started to affect my designs—my 2007 Game Chef entry Schizonauts was among the first.  Much of that game follows Ganakagok‘s example, from its turn structure (which guarantees everyone participates in every scene), to the ways that absent characters can still be a part of scenes as they play out.

At the end of the day it might seem like Ganakagok is defying my “rules” for what I want—it sounds like I’m authoring my own pain here.  That raises the question: by forcing me to interact with the story through the lens of my character, has my control-concern been defused?  Well, a little, yes—but that’s not the whole of it.

Truth be told, I have much less control than it looks like—gloriously so, since that’s a fast track to joy for me. Here’s why: when everyone participates in every scene, there’s a ton of extra input to what’s going on besides my own (and besides the GM’s for that matter).  My voice, ultimately, can’t ever be the only one to speak as to what befalls my character.  In the end, the system enforces the idea that I don’t have total authority my circumstances—and I love my character (and the game) all the more because of it.

And that’s sort of a gaming full circle, isn’t it?  Traditional style role-playing games, it turns out, have been doing it the way I want it for ages.  But where they failed was in giving me too little control over guiding the story to the places I wanted it to go, leaving me without any authorship over the story I was in.  Rightly, they pushed me towards story-games and said “here is what you’ve been missing.”

But—at least in large part—much of what I’ve found in this previously undiscovered country was too much in the other direction.  Story-games fail (most correctly, story-games fail me) when they don’t limit my control effectively.  I want the game—through the system, through the efforts of the other players at the table—to steal my freedom, and in so doing, to give me the surprises that can only come as the result of random dice rolls and wacky, beautiful, unexpected ideas from my fellow players.

Perhaps this is why my own game designs—Don’t Rest Your Head and Spirit of the Century among others (though I can hardly take sole credit for the latter)—show signs of mixing traditional and story-game sensibilities, as do a few other games out there (such as Chad Underkoffler’s PDQ system games).  I want this combination because the tug-of-war between no-control and total-control (over the story) is best resolved (or at least most easily found) by fusing elements of both styles, allowing the player some control over the story to get the most of what he wants for his character, but still animating that story with strange and unexpected events, surprising and delighting him as his character descends further into peril.  By and large, that’s still pretty unexplored territory, though day by day it seems like the story-games and traditional sets are blending more and more together.  For a guy like me looking to feel something at the table, it’s an exciting time to be a gamer.

Always one to show his work, Noah Lloyd shares his number one technique for running table top roleplaying games in the latest Pelgrane Video Dispatch.

GUMSHOE divides abilities according to whether failure at that ability can drive narrative. Because it is never interesting to fail to get information, you never fail with your investigative abilities. General abilities, on the other hand, do offer the possibility of something interesting—if often horrible—happening when you fail a test. You can fail to run from the shoggoth while Fleeing, fail to repair your sputtering Cessna’s instrumentation with Mechanics, or fail to keep your wits about you with Composure.

However, just because failure is often interesting doesn’t mean that any given instance of it will always best further the story.

As a GM, you may see no particularly entertaining outcome from a failed test.

  • Failing to Sneak past the security guards, as you have imagined them, doesn’t get you a classic interrogation and escape sequence. Nope, just an exasperating hassle that delays the confrontation with the escaped sapient lab rats.
  • When a character is Riding to impress the hardbitten rodeo clowns, a failed test prevents you from running that scene where they try to recruit the group into their ranks.
  • A Counterinsurgency failure might rubbish the otherwise cool plan the group has spent half an hour cooking up, forcing them back into planning mode.

A common and often useful solution to the boring failure calls for the GM to replace failure with a costly success. You get past the guards but lose 2 Preparedness points when you drop your kit bag. You impress all but one of the rodeo clowns, who later tries to brain you with a wrench. You blow up the revanchist hideout but are identified by witnesses while doing so.

However, the existence of this technique shouldn’t prevent you from doing the simple thing instead: sometimes, you can just let them win!

Success establishes the character as competent and impressive, a feeling the players might not get enough of in a tense session. You get a reward as well, skipping an unneeded complicating factor. In a scenario already packed with action, that wrench-wielding rodeo clown might be one plot wrinkle too many to squeeze in before the session clock runs out.

Even an action that should feel difficult and could yield a rewarding story turn in other circumstances, could in certain instances create more fun as an automatic success.

A failure at the top of a scenario, especially the first one, starts the proceedings on a sour or unintentionally comic moment.

Failures that slow the action just as you’ve gotten it rolling likewise get old fast. If you’ve already got plenty of suspense bubbling, yet another problem to deal with registers as demoralizing overkill.

This doesn’t mean that characters should be able to succeed at unbelievably difficult tasks just to speed your the pacing.

But so long as success feels credible, or can be made to seem that way by your adjusting your description of the situation, you may find the prospect of certain failures overrated.


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

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007, but could prove useful for the many subsequent GUMSHOE systems.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

On a fundamental structural level, RPG sessions are their own beast, and are unlike movies, TV, and books. However, these related storytelling forms are always worth looking at for inspiration. Many of their surface techniques remain unplundered by GMs. Most notably, the tricks they use to compress time and make proceedings less boring demand further study, if not slavish emulation.

For example, let’s look at the differences between a story of investigation as it plays out in a TV cop show as opposed to the way they usually unfold in an RPG.

In a cop show, each encounter or interrogation generally a few important points of information. Then the script quickly moves onto a new scene in which another character provides more information.

Often, though not always, the investigators must score a win by overcoming the informant’s reluctance to spill the crucial beans. The informants’ reasons for reluctance, and the means necessary to overcome them, will vary enough to disguise the formula and keep the proceedings entertaining.

You can’t break it down to a formula, but often the informant:

A) provides one clue

B) rules out one possibility

and concludes by

C) supplying a third nugget of information pointing the investigators to the next encounter.

RPG interrogations tend to unfold in actual time. In that, they’re like real police interviews: given the chance, the PCs will ask every question under the sun, looping around, repeating themselves, and amassing great reams of information from each informant, which they’ll then try to sift for the crucial point.

This poses a challenge to you as GM, because you want a sense of forward movement, to build excitement and stave off boredom and paralysis. Players become easily confused in investigative scenarios. Unlike real cops, they’re picturing their nonexistent people talking to your nonexistent people. As they go, they’re filling in the imaginative blanks, often mistakenly. The more editing and pre-sifting of information you can do for them, the happier they’ll be, and the more satisfying the episode’s pacing will seem.

By imitating a cop show trick, you can keep each interview quick and to the point. No one in a cop show has time to talk to the cops. (Maybe this is why most of the best cop shows are set in New York City, where no one has time for anyone.) The random group of eccentrics and semi-outlaws who compose the average adventuring group will earn even less time from the basic NPC civilian.

Here’s a form you can use for each interviewee in an investigative adventure:

  • Reason for Reluctance:
  • Overcoming Reluctance:
  • Clue supplied:
  • Possibility Ruled Out:
  • Next contact:
  • Cut-Off:

Just like a cop show screenwriter, you’ll want to create as many different reasons for brushing off the PCs as possible, for variety’s sake. Informants crucial to your storyline will require reasons directly related to the motivations you’ve preset for them. For walk-on characters, you can choose reasons at random — or start with the reason and build the character from that starting point.

Examples can include:

Complicity: Informant peripherally involved in the crime.

Confusion: Informant is cooperative, but his perceptions are muddled.

Greed: Informant seeks payoff before talking, and drives a hard bargain.

Guilt: Informant has done something bad, but unrelated to the mystery, and fears that this is what the PCs are investigating.

Hostility: Informant has good reason to hate adventurers as a group.

Ideology: Informant belongs to a group or class politically opposed to the PCs or their patrons.

Loyalty: Informant wants to protect someone she (rightly or wrongly) assumes to be the target of their investigation.

Paranoia: Informant assumes PCs are his (real or imagined) enemies.

Preoccupation: Informant more concerned with his own pressing business or agenda than with helping the PCs.

Snobbery: Informant considers himself social better of PCs; recoils at the thought of associating with them.

The manner in which the PCs must overcome the informant’s reluctance arises from the nature of that reluctance.

Complicity: PCs must convince informant they know what he did and can arrange for worse treatment if he doesn’t talk.

Confusion: PCs must sort through informant’s scattered recollections for the important fact.

Greed: PCs must pay him off, or convince him he’ll be worse off if he doesn’t talk.

Guilt: Must assure informant that her particular misdeeds are not their concern.

Hostility: PCs must mollify the informant, or use leverage his grudge against him with intimidation tactics.

Ideology: Informant must be shown how cooperation benefits his faction.

Loyalty: Convince informant cooperation will lead to a better outcome for the person she’s protecting.

Paranoia: Either reassure or terrify the informant.

Preoccupation: Show how lack of cooperation will hurt the informant’s business or cause.

Snobbery: Show how cooperation will lead to the PCs’ speedy departure.

Alternate methods of persuasion should always be possible. Otherwise you risk falling into a variant of the classic plot bottleneck, in which there’s only one way to get a particular piece of information on which all forward development depends. PCs should be able to intimidate snobs or bribe paranoids. For variety’s sake, ensure that no single tactic works on all informants.

Structurally, any investigative adventure consists of a trail of clues leading like bread crumbs from one encounter to the next, so the nature of the clue is up to you.

The next contact positions the encounter within that structure, telling you which new scene the character will point the PCs toward. In a cop show, the leads find the clues in a particular order. If you can prepare several different orders in which the clues can be assembled, you face less chance that a dead end point will arise in mid-scenario. (Putting the encounters on index cards helps if you intend to shuffle them as you go.)

Finally, under the entry labeled cut-off, slot in the reason for the NPC to conclude the encounter after the PCs have squeezed it for all of its information and entertainment value. It’s easier to get NPCs out of scenes in a modern setting with busy schedules and ringing cellphones, but self-respecting supporting characters in any era or genre should be anxious to get on with their own lives as your sense of expediency dictates. Cut-offs may refer back to the character’s original reluctance to talk. A snob wants to shoo uncouth PCs out of his manor as quickly as possible. A paranoid wishes to escape an imagined threat. If the PCs haven’t slapped the cuffs on a complicit character, he will want to leave the jurisdiction as soon as possible.

Unrelated cut-offs work just as well, and provide an added sense of reality to your world. Mundane details like crying babies, overflowing sinks, cookpots in need of tending, escaping horses, or goods in need of protection from the rain all provide otherwise helpful NPCs excuses to bring their discussions with the heroes to an end.

I’d stick around and elaborate, but you have all the clues to piece it together. I have an owl to feed. Or something! Good luck with that investigation, now!

by Lisa Padol

When I first started running the Dracula Dossier, setting up the 1894 group, one of my players wanted a special relationship with Dracula. They wanted to have had their character have met Dracula as a child and for Dracula to have taken a liking to them. After all, the player argued, just because one was an evil serial killer, it didn’t mean that one couldn’t, you know, like someone.

I said no, and while I was correct at the time, it wasn’t for the reason I gave, as I eventually figured out. The reason I gave was that I was holding by what Ken Hite had said: There are no nice vampires. There are no good vampires. There are no vampires who are your PC’s friend.

And this is all correct, but doesn’t actually touch on the real reasons. “This person is first, last, and in between a villain” says nothing about having special relationships with PCs.

No, there were two reasons that I came to realize actually mattered here:

1. You do not get to be the special one in an RPG. EVERYONE needs to be special. 

This has an obvious fix, of course. Give everyone a special relationship. The player wasn’t asking for others not to have this, and multiple special relationships do not dilute the game. They are all unique, just as snowflakes are.

Also,

2. I didn’t yet know enough about my Dracula to figure out how this would work. 

It’s the second that was more important, as we were beginning the campaign at the time. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, who the PCs would be, how they’d interact with each other and with Dracula. I had no idea we’d have a session 0.5 or that one of my players would create a unique Fiasco set for it, or that this would define the starting relationships among the PCs.

The 1894 leg of the campaign was something of a glorious disaster that still worked better than it should have. I was feeling my way with Dracula. I knew he was Nicolaus Olahus, but not what he wanted or how he was planning to get it or how the Edom recruitment plan had been shaped. I used Count De’Ville, and later decided that he was acting far too incompetently to be Dracula. Obviously, he was someone who’d been turned into a vampire by Carmilla, yep, that’s what I meant to do all along.

I created secret passages on the fly, trying to figure out between sessions where they led and why. I dumped far too much of the Hawkins Papers and other handouts on my hapless players, who struggled to figure out what this meant for them, for their characters, and for what they should actually do. I rewrote sections of Dracula and handed four chapters of the reworked novel to players without bothering to highlight the new material.

I spent the time between sessions recalibrating and trying to account for apparent contradictions and gaping holes in what passed for my plot. And, I managed to fit the pieces into a narrative that actually made some amount of sense.

And by the end, though I’m not sure I saw it then, the PCs had special relationships, each one different.

One PC did indeed have an odd relationship with Dracula in play. She was a psychoanalyst who personally knew Freud. Dracula / Olahus was fascinated by this new field of learning, and their relationship grew out of their interaction in the game.

This was the only special relationship with Dracula, but not the only special relationship. The player who made the initial request created a woman who had seen faeries as a child and had married the man who’d bought her family home so that she could continue to look for them.

And she found them. They convinced her to go travel the universe with them, going into a faerie mound. Her NPC husband followed her.

The faeries were actually mi-go, and traveling the universe means what you’d expect. The player created a very different PC, but seemed happy that the original PC and her husband were traveling the galaxy in mi-go brain cannisters. She pointed out that the happy, if deluded, couple could return to the campaign in the present day, something I’m very much contemplating. The mi-go are not Dracula, but are very much a faction in my Dracula Dossier, and, I hope, an interesting one.

Another PC was bitten by Count De’Ville, which was a mistake on my part. Instantly:

  • The player played the PC as trying to cut herself off from the flow of information.
  • The other players made plans without the PC, including plans to deal with the PC fatally, if necessary.

In other words, while the character had a unique relationship with a vampire, the player had less to do. This is not good. I’ve got a rules hack to use for the future which will probably make this sort of thing less of an issue, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the first hint that a PC is compromised cripples player agency. You don’t want to do that.

However, at the end of the 1894 leg of the game, the PC had been freed of vampiric influence. De’Ville was dead. The player thought about this, and decided that the PC would approach Carmilla to say, “Your lieutenant died. I think that means you have an open position. I would like to fill that.”

That was fine because it did use player agency. The PC became mostly an NPC, with one exception: I let the player play her in the 1977 leg, with mixed success, again due to suboptimal GMing calls I made. But, the character is still around and has enjoyed a unique relationship with a vampire that is very different than the psychologist’s unique relationship with a vampire.

One of the other PCs had a special relationship with someone in Edom, and ended the game deciding to take over Edom from the inside and reform it. And, while he was at it, perhaps he’d look into non-vampiric forms of immortality. As with the PC mentioned above, he returned as a PC in 1977, but as with her, he’s mostly mine now.

The final player had a little bit of everything, in a way. His PC felt personally betrayed by De’Ville because the PC used De’Ville’s diary from his vampire hunting days as a Symbol. Destroying De’Ville made him feel vindicated. He was also a close ally and friend of the PC who psychoanalyzed Dracula, and they had friendly arguments over various symptoms of vampirisim and What It All Meant.

And, he was the half-brother of the woman who went off with the faeries. Two of the other PCs had seen through the mi-go illusion and were shaken, but he was not. He stayed in his half-sister’s ancestral home, training her son in the ways of hunting vampires, and eventually joined his half-sister and her husband on their travels throughout the galaxy.

As should be obvious, the 1894 leg was full of bumps, fits and starts, and mistakes, but was also a fair amount of fun and set the foundation for the rest of the campaign (which… also involved a lot of mistakes, including a repeat of the one involving compromising a PC). We’ve been playing on and off for about five years, I think, and are now in the final leg of Dracula Dossier, set in 2015, starting with the death of Sir Christopher Lee.

The group has changed a little, as folks dropped in and out of the various mini-campaigns and one-shots. It currently has 5 players, 4 of whom were in the original 1894 leg.

Well before the 2015 leg started, I got a similar request from a different player, a request that her PC have a special relationship with Dracula, for Dracula to be obsessed or fascinated with this PC, who, like her 1894 PC, is a psychoanalyst. The player wants to have a chance to resolve some of the issues we never were able to bring to a satisfying climax.

As before, my gut reaction was “No!”, but this time, I was well aware that my gut was incorrect.

For the 1894 leg, I couldn’t agree to anything specific in terms of the relationships folks would have with Dracula because I didn’t even know who he was. For the 2015 leg, I know EXACTLY who Dracula is now. I know what he wants and why and how he plans to get it. Sure, there are details I need to work out, but I know why he might have a special relationship with the player’s character and how that might work, at least as we begin play.

I am not sure I can provide the closure the player wants. While a valid concern, it is not, however, a reason not to try. We’ll have to check in with each other to make sure we’re not misinterpreting things, but that’s true in any RPG.

And one thing the player had the 1894 PC say stuck with me. She said that she was Nicolaus’s last chance, that he’d steadily lose what little empathy he had left with humanity. And I think it makes sense that she was correct. And I also think that, whether or not the 1894 PC and the vampire ever met again, in some way, Nicolaus never stopped arguing with her in his mind. Both were disappointed in each other, and… by all rights, there should be play in this.

And, as for the Special Snowflake issue, and the answer is not “No, you don’t get to be the Special One with the Special Relationship to Dracula.” There are better answers.

One is to give everyone a special relationship to Dracula of some kind.

Another is to give everyone a special relationship to someone who, if not Dracula, is as cool as Dracula in their own way. I have a lot of pieces in play, including the mi-go who are also the faeries and who also run the Scholomance (and one of the other PCs accepted an invitation to take a whirlwind tour of Mars and Jupiter. Her brain has since been restored to her body), several different factions of Edom, an Israeli counterpart of Edom, and walking products of elder thing technology, all of whom are represented by NPCs (some of whom are former PCs). And that’s before we get to Edward Kelley / Abraham van Helsing…

There really is enough specialness to go around.


Lisa Padol has been running GUMSHOE since Eternal Lies came out. She needs to remind herself that she doesn’t have time to playtest everything for Trail of Cthulhu, the Yellow King RPG, and Night’s Black Agents.


The Dracula Dossier reveals that Dracula is not a novel. It’s the censored version of Bram Stoker’s after-action report of the failed British Intelligence attempt to recruit a vampire in 1894. Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan have restored the deleted sections, inserting annotations and clues left by three generations of MI6 analysts. This is Dracula UnredactedFollow those clues to the Director’s Handbook, containing hundreds of encounters: shady NPCs, dangerous locations, conspiratorial nodes, and mysterious objects. Together they comprise The Dracula Dossier — an epic improvised, collaborative campaign for Night’s Black Agents, our award-winning vampire spy thriller RPG. Purchase the Dracula Dossier starter kit bundle 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.

This article about the Dying Earth RPG originally appeared on DyingEarth.com.

The Dying Earth RPG as an alternative roleplaying game system
by Lynne Hardy

If you don’t know what a roleplaying game is, read this article about the Dying Earth RPG instead.

Fantasy was the inspiration for the first roleplaying games, and amongst the inspirations for the earliest games was the work of Jack Vance. Indeed, more than one fantasy magic system has been designed according to tenets laid down in the Dying Earth books. If you are unfamiliar with the Dying Earth, there are four books, currently available collected into one volume in the Fantasy Masterworks series by Millennium.

Whilst not the high fantasy associated with elves and dwarves, the world is fantastical in both detail and outlook, covering a range of tone and character. The first book (The Dying Earth) is a collection of tales of a darker nature than the latter three, but all touch on the perverse nature of mankind in his dealings with his fellow creatures in a world that may descend into deadly darkness at any moment.

There are many fantasy roleplaying games available on the market these days, all with varying levels of complexity and background support. Indeed, it seems quite surprising that a game solely based on the Dying Earth took so long to appear considering both when the stories were written and its influence on the beginnings of the hobby. As is often the case, it was worth the wait.

Even if you haven’t read the novels, the game has a lot to offer. In fact, when my group was playtesting the rules, none of us had read them and I’m still the only member of the group who has. Although you will undoubtedly get more from the game if you have read the stories (as with any game based in a specific setting), this game is sufficiently well written and supported that lack of prior exposure is not the handicap it has been in other games. There is enough of the familiar, no matter how skewed it has become in what is, basically, the far distant future of our earth, to give everyone something to hang their metaphorical hat on. And hats are very important in the Dying Earth, a place that can be best described as one of almost (but not quite) chivalrous roguery.

Although this article is primarily aimed at experienced roleplayers curious about a new setting or system, newcomers to roleplaying should also find something of use in this game. The system is simple, being based on an easily available die, the standard d6. There are game statistics representing your character’s abilities. These abilities are bought with points and can be improved through experience and there are even different levels of play. At first glance, it could be mistaken for just another fantasy game, but the design approach is almost as skewed as the world in which the game is set, giving an interestingly different feel to other games.

First, character statistics: In the Dying Earth, swordplay is deadly. As in the books, it is much better for the character to rely on his ability to talk his way out of a dangerous situation than to face down his foe, weapon in hand. Unfortunately, your character may be just as easily bamboozled by spurious logic and had better know it when he hears it. In game terms, this translates into the two most important skills, Persuade and Rebuff. Of course, it never hurts to know how to handle oneself in a fight, giving you the next two skills of Attack and Defence.

Each of these skills is represented by one of six “styles”. For example, Persuade has the styles Charming, Obfuscatory, Glib, Eloquent, Forthright and Intimidating, which determine the particular manner of your speech. These styles can be chosen or rolled randomly during character creation. Whilst allowing fate to take a hand garners you extra character creation points, if you have a particular character in mind its always best to pick those styles which best suit your ideas. The range of each style is sufficiently broad so as not to provide a straight-jacket to characterisation but clear enough when stuck for inspiration, either during gameplay or character creation.

As well as the four main skills, there are also abilities, resistances and, of course, magic. The list of abilities is mercifully brief (but more than sufficient), which helps to make character creation a swift and pleasant task. Resistances add a small but interesting touch to gameplay. In the Dying Earth, people are much more prone to indulging their every whim – after all, the sun may go out at any minute. There are six resistances, which determine a person’s ability to maintain clarity of thought when faced with a variety of temptations. Although often a minor component of the game, it adds further depth to the system.

And then there is Magic, a very powerful force in the stories. It is a difficult skill to learn and master, particularly at the highest levels, but even the lowliest person can attempt small tricks or cantraps. As with the major skills, there are six styles of magic each describing a particular approach to spell casting. All magic is, in truth, performed by elemental beings and powerful mages bind and command the larger of these entities to do their bidding. But as with all things in the Dying Earth, care is needed when dealing with these creatures – after all, everyone is out for themselves.

There are three different levels of play, each named for a character in the novels. The lowliest of these, Cugel, starts with the lowest number of creation points, with Turjan and then Rhialto having increasing numbers of points to represent the higher power levels of those characters. Points are spent on abilities, skills, resistances, health and magic as best fits the character, although there are recommended minimums and maximums for each level.

The actual mechanics of the system appear easy enough: 1-3 on a d6 is a failure and 4-6 is a success. Skills and abilities can be used to affect the outcome of the die roll. At the beginning of a game, a character has both a rating and a pool for each skill. Whilst the rating does not change during the gaming session, the pool will increase and decrease. For example, Richard’s character Karybdis is attempting to persuade a merchant to give him a discount. He rolls a d6 and gets a 2 – a failure. He can now use his Persuade pool to alter that result. By spending one point from his pool, he gets to reroll the die and this time gets a 5 – a success (providing that the merchant does not now Rebuff him). Certain die rolls affect the pool in special ways and it’s never a good idea to run out of points (although pools can be refreshed during the course of the game). This lends a very tactical edge to an apparently simple system; there are times when its better to just let a bad roll go. All of that may sound quite complicated, but its actually one of the most straightforward game mechanics I’ve ever used. I can’t cope with complex systems and this one has never got in the way of my games (or made me give up in despair half way through reading the rules).

Another unusual touch is the presence of “Taglines”. These Vancian quotes are intended to introduce the players to the sometimes flowery language of the Dying Earth. Use of a tagline within the game rewards a player with a varying number of improvement points, depending on the skill with which it is employed. Most people find them a little off-putting at first, but they can be extremely useful when trying to get a feel for the background. They can also be very funny and humour is just as important as every other element of the game design.

Then there is the Tweak. Developed for more experienced players in Cugel’s Compendium, a tweak enhances a particular ability under special circumstances. They can give a variety of advantages depending on what skill or ability they apply to and can even allow you to spend points from one pool on a roll based on another pool. Whilst not essential for play, they again add to the atmosphere of the game.

That’s enough of mechanics. What of the potential for roleplaying? Whilst the Dying Earth is richly detailed in parts, Jack Vance left huge swathes of it undescribed. This is very useful when running a game set here. There is enough detail in the main rulebook on the setting that you can actually pick it up and hit the ground running, and yet you still have space to develop your own peculiar whimsy within the world. If filling in the details isn’t to your personal taste, though, you won’t be left stranded, as support material is available from a number of sources. In terms of setting, there are already the Kaiin and Scaum Valley sourcebooks, as well as a variety of articles in the Excellent Prismatic Spray supplements.

The Kaiin sourcebook details the largest city in the Dying Earth and is an open source book – there is no GM only material. This gives the players an unprecedented level of input into creating adventures set in the city and really lends itself well to collaborative play (as well as allowing worn out GMs a well-deserved rest). The Scaum sourcebook is more traditional in its approach, but has a wealth of useful information on the most heavily populated areas of the world.

The character creation system is actually very helpful towards roleplaying. Not only do the various skill styles help to visualise a character, the different levels of play also have very distinct atmospheres. Cugel level play is perhaps the most easily recognisable from other fantasy games – lowly characters struggling to survive in the face of overwhelming odds. It can have great humour as well as great triumphs. In keeping with the harsher nature of the stories in which Turjan appears, the middle power level has a darker tone, with greater struggles and more powerful foes. As to Rhialto level, arch-mages can do what they please (within some limits) and are free to explore new ages and new worlds as well as engage in petty rivalries and sundry scheming diversions.

If you are looking for a change, I can recommend the Dying Earth RPG. My group has played pretty much everything at some point in our gaming careers and we were very much taken with this one. The books are well written and are an entertaining read as well as beautifully presented. The game can be as complex or as simple as you wish to make it and it is very flexible towards most styles of play. It won’t suit every group’s tastes – no game can – but for an entertaining diversion once in a while, or for a sustained alternative fantasy campaign, the Dying Earth is very much deserving of your further attention.

And don’t forget your hat.


The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

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