Sebastian Münster’s sea monster chart (1544)

The Iron Sea: this is fine.

The Dragon Empire’s potential for rich stories and adventures isn’t even close to being exhausted—its various regions are left half-finished so GMs and players can have fun filling in the blanks, but we envision it being culturally, ethnically, economically, agriculturally, culinarily, and religiously diverse. Approaching a town on the sunny southern coast you might find gently-sloping green hills, olive groves, wheat fields, and vineyards bursting with grapes. Venture into town and you may come across a busy market with stalls selling food with complex spices, a temple to the sea gods, and an amphitheater that dates back to the age of the Wizard King. Head northwest to Foothold, and you might find tall forests, lumber camps, craggy mountains with dwarven mines, fur traders, rugged fortifications, offerings to placate the dark gods, and hearty stews.

Nevertheless! Some have asked us what lies beyond the map of the Dragon Empire. What place does it occupy in the larger world? For that, I’ll direct you to the Book of Ages and its description of the Age of Corsairs, when the Dragon Empire opened maritime trade routes with other lands beyond the Iron Sea, and the pirates who prayed on this shipping grew strong enough to challenge the Empire.

Here are some of the details of that age from the Book of Ages (which also includes new PC races, monsters, and magic items). Feel free to make the 13th Age an age of sail and trade in your campaign, or have the PCs be the first brave explorers who discover—or rediscover—lands beyond the Dragon Empire. If sail and trade with the outside world are common, the major change to the default setting will be that the Iron Sea’s storms and monsters either haven’t yet made the sea impassable, or have been subdued by one of more icons.

An Age of Sail and Trade

Adventurers and explorers have discovered new lands beyond the Empire, and trade ships now sail through the Koru Straits and out into the Iron Sea!

The wizards of Horizon have developed magical forms of navigation using celestial beacons that enable ships to cross the deeps. This is a marvelous time, especially for the merchants of Highrock and Glitterhaegen who benefit most from this growth in trade. However, dissatisfaction grows in other parts of the Empire, and would-be pirates—aided by ambitious black and green dragons—have built their own ships and begun raiding the trading vessels along the coast. 

Alternate Icons

The icons of the Age of Corsairs reflected the spirit of that age. If you wish, you can replace any of the default icons of the 13th Age with one of the icons below, or merge them. For example, you could replace the Prince of Shadows with the Captain of Corsairs; but you could also decide that the young Orc Lord felt the lure of the sea, and is now a pirate king!

The Captain of Corsairs is the great rival of the Emperor. There have been many different Captains—some were bloodthirsty, brutal thieves, but others were clever diplomats and wise rulers. The Captains rule from the great port city of the Harbor of Gulls.

The Explorer is a famed adventurer who travels the world. She will vanish from the Empire for many years at a time, then return with fabulous treasures and tales of distant lands. Sometimes, she travels by ship; on other occasions, she sets off on foot or through one of the Archmage’s experimental portals. (Other modes of transport employed by the Explorer on occasion: kidnapped by derro, tied to a roc, flung by a catapult, flung by a giant, flung by a giant catapult [along with her twenty companions and their horses], stowed away on a flying castle, eaten by the Stone Thief ).

The Merchant Princess‘ wealth is said to rival even that of the Dwarf King. Her trading fleets sail out of Glitterhaegen and Highrock, and return laden with gold and silver from distant lands. Money buys power, and the influence of the Princess easily eclipses that of the Archmage and the Great Gold Wyrm in the imperial court.

The Serpent is a green dragon whose power is second only to his ambition; he desires to become the new Green, upgrading the Three to the Four and obtaining the strength and respect (and treasure hoard) due to one of the great dragons. He has allied with the Captain of Corsairs to bring down his rivals, and some suspect he has bewitched the High Druid.

The King Below is the ruler of the sahuagin. Under the coral crown and bloody banner of the king, the freshwater sahuagin of the Fangs join with their salt-water cousins in a war against the surface. At times the Captain of Corsairs has been able to ally with the sea-folk, but for the most part, the sahuagin recognize no difference between one ship crammed with prospective slavemeat and another.

Lands Beyond

Book of Ages lists 13 lands that might exist beyond the storms and ship-eating monsters—though if you prefer, they could be reachable by land travel. Here are some samples:

Far Eld: A grim, rainy land of small, grim, damp villages and grimmer, damper fishermen. Lots of monks, hermits and druids. Eld’s not entirely in this world—parts of it phase in and out of some faerie realm, and only the locals know when these gates open and close.

The Edgelands: The atoll of the Edgelands surrounds a huge hellhole. It’s a barter town, a devil’s market where traders can buy goods from the infernal realms in exchange for coin and souls.

The Archipelago: Like the Dragon Empire, the lands of the Archipelago have their own icons. Here, there are a hundred minor icons, each one ruling a different island. Over time, the islands have come to reflect the nature and desires of their rulers, so each one is radically different to its neighbors across the straits.

Fortuna: In Fortuna, magic items rule. Humans are seen as soulless meat golems unless ensouled by the vibrant spirits of magic, and are only considered really alive when loaded down with enough items to have their ‘animal instincts’ overridden (in other words, more magic items than one’s level allows). Fortuna’s awash with magic items, but they’re not for sale—taking them is a crime tantamount to kidnapping.

Eiswyn: Eiswyn is a glacial realm of ice and snow, of barbarians and furry monsters. The ruins of an ancient civilization lie frozen in the glacier, so when the barbarians aren’t off raiding warmer lands in the summer, they spend their winters cutting into the ice to excavate treasures and dangers from a past age.

Get the Book of Ages by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan here.


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.

When I asked the 13th Age Facebook group what they’d like me to write about in this month’s column, the first response was, “Sword & Sorcery for 13th Age! Some ideas for tweaks, reductions and hacking.” My initial reaction was, “No freaking way can I turn a game specifically designed to emulate the heroic fantasy genre into a game that emulates the swords & sorcery genre without a LOT of work.” But my brain just wouldn’t let it go. How would I approach such a project if I limited myself purely to tweaks, reductions, and (minimal) hacking?

And so, that’s the topic of this month’s 13th Sage. These are some ideas on how I as a GM would approach such a campaign, based on my experience with the genre. Others might do it differently, and better.

Let’s go!

Wait, what’s swords & sorcery?

Not familiar with S&S? These design guidelines for Swords of the Serpentine do a good job of capturing the essence of the genre. The classic works of fiction you’ll want to refer to are the Conan and Kull stories by Robert E. Howard, the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories by Fritz Leiber, and the Elric of Melnibone stories by Michael Moorcock.

Customize the Dragon Empire and its icons

Given the nature of the challenge, I think setting the campaign anywhere except the Dragon Empire is cheating. I went back to the Book of Ages for ideas on how to make it feel more like a setting for swords & sorcery adventures. Here are some versions of the Dragon Empire it inspired for me:

  • A single, powerful sorcerer-king reigns over a dark Empire composed of small kingdoms and a handful of city-states.
  • Long ago, a deathless sorcerer commanding an army of the living dead conquered half the Dragon Empire. Until they reach Champion tier, characters will go on adventures in the kingdoms of the living, outside of this realm. A lot of bad guys in this campaign would be necromancers, sorcerers seeking to live forever, death priests, and maybe a vampire or two.
  • Under a weak Emperor, the Seven Cities grow in power, splitting the Empire into seven squabbling city-states.
  • A highly cosmopolitan and powerful Dragon Empire opens maritime trade routes with other lands, and pirates band together to prey on this shipping—growing strong enough to challenge the Empire.

Speaking of which, one could create a decent array of swords & sorcery icons by picking and choosing icons from various ages in Book of Ages. I strongly suspect swords & sorcery doesn’t lend itself well to a setting populated by 13 demigodlike icons. I’d limit myself to seven, looking to the 7 Icon Campaign PDF for inspiration and ideas. I would also give them names instead of just titles.

If non-human sentient species are rare or non-existent in this campaign, you might reskin the non-human icons as humans that fill the same archetypal role. For example, the Orc Lord could become “Krahsh-Thukult, Warlord of the East” and the Elf Queen “Elidyr, Queen of Lost Lemuria”. A standard in swords & sorcery is that power, especially magical power, is innately dangerous and corrupting. As a result, only one or two icons might be heroic. Most will be ambiguous or villainous, and all of them are a hazard to adventurers’ health. (Just consider how much trouble allegedly friendly gods and wizards cause Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.)

There’s considerable cross-pollination between swords & sorcery and Weird Fiction, and two immensely talented designers have proposed a Dragon Empire where the icons are drawn from the writings of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft. If you’re interested in taking 13th Age in a swords & sorcery direction, definitely read Kenneth Hite’s article “Call of Chicago: Re-skinning, Genre-Drifting, and Triskaidekasizing” and Ruth Kitchin Tillman’s Eldritch Icons project.

PCs are always, or almost always, humans

Demi-human player characters will probably be rare (or even non-existent), so I’d use the mechanic of human cultural traits found in 13th Age Glorantha to make human PCs more varied.

I might frame demi-humans as being from a certain land. For example, gnomes could be “the people of distant [NAME], who are small of stature and skilled at confounding their enemies in battle.” Elves might be reskinned to be the last remnant of an ancient, mighty civilization that sank beneath the waves, living in seclusion in small numbers and practically a myth now. (See also how Fritz Leiber handles the ghouls of Nehwon. They’re basically human, except for their invisible flesh.)

I’d like to say that there can only be one demi-human PC at most in a group, but I’m not sure how I’d enforce that without feeling like a jerk. So I might disallow them until we’ve been playing for a while, have a better feel for the setting, and want to try something different.

Eliminate or heavily restrict magic-using classes

The use of magic (“sorcery”) is rare in this setting. This is contrary to how most RPGs in the D&D family tree handle magic, so we should figure out an interesting reason for it. Whatever the reason, sorcery in such a campaign will be innately dangerous, unnatural, and corrupting. Here are a few reasons sorcery might be rare in a swords & sorcery 13th Age campaign, several of which could be combined:

  • Sorcery is forbidden by Imperial edict, for any number of very good reasons. (But also because it threatens Imperial power.)
  • Sorcery causes harm (physical, mental, and/or spiritual) to the sorcerer. See the bit about the price of magic below.
  • Sorcery somehow causes harm to the world in the sorcerer’s vicinity. Maybe it’s instantaneous, and one or more living things takes damage or sickens or becomes corrupted. Maybe it’s an effect over time, so that the area around a sorcerer’s lair gradually becomes a corrupted, diseased, underpopulated wasteland.
  • Sorcery is the creation of an ancient, malevolent, intelligent species and is thus taboo. Good candidates include evil dragons, rakshasas, serpent people
  • Sorcerous power comes from a mighty patron, who will require a terrible price. Dragon Empire icons in the 13th Age who would make good patrons include the Three, the Diabolist, a reskinned Elf Queen in villainous or ambiguous mode, and a reskinned Archmage in villainous or ambiguous mode. We might also include a revised, sinister, Prince of Shadows.

There are no clerics, paladins, or wizards. Rangers won’t cast spells, unless perhaps they have limited access to some kind of nature-themed sorcery (such as the ice magic known to the women in Fafhrd’s clan in The Snow Women.) Druids might work, but their magic would be, again, sinister and dangerous. See how Ken and Ruth handle druids and the deep woods in their articles linked above.

If there are any magic-using PC classes in this campaign, they’d probably be the necromancer from 13 True Ways, and the demonologist from  Book of Demons. These are deeply flawed and unpleasant people who are clearly meddling in things best left alone by mortals. It seems weird not to use a class literally named “sorcerer” in a swords & sorcery game, but the spells from that class honestly don’t feel like the type of magic I see in what’s commonly considered S&S fiction.

Magic: summoning, items, backgrounds, and rituals?

Sorcerers in this genre rarely cast what we think of as “spells” in fantasy RPGs. But summoning a giant serpent, or a fire elemental? Entirely appropriate. Summoning is central to the aforementioned demonologist and necromancer classes; but we could also say, “no magic-using classes, period” and make summoning available to any PC who’s willing to pay the price. You’ll want to use 13 True Ways, Book of Demons, Summoning Spells, and Sorcerer Summoning.

A lot of “sorcery” in this type of fiction relies on what we call “consumable magic items” in the game. I’d make potions, oils, and runes readily available to heroes who know where to find such things. Just…don’t ask who made them, or how.

Want to be able to close a door, blow out a candle, or perform some other normal, minor action using magic? Maybe spend points in a Background called something like “Minor magic” and make a skill roll using Int or Cha.

Want to create a fog that hides your fleet of warships? A storm that lashes your enemy’s forces? A fire that consumes a village? That sounds like ritual magic, something that takes time and costs you something significant. This might only be available to a magic-using class, or it could be available to any PC who has the right knowledge or resources (an ancient scroll, forbidden tome, enchanted amulet, etc.)

Set a terrible price for sorcery

I’ve been talking about prices and costs, so let’s address what that could look like. If it’s a mechanical cost, a PC might spend recoveries or take damage in order to perform minor sorcery—or maybe there’s a chance one of the other PC’s in the group will take the loss. Major workings might require the permanent loss of recoveries or hit points. We could instead impose a narrative cost. For example, the demon you petition for help will take something important from you sometime in the future. Maybe a PC doesn’t know what the price will be, only that it’s something unpleasant and cumulative. The GM could keep track of a PC’s use of sorcery, then at an opportune time, have something awful happen such as an attack hitting an ally  instead.

As mentioned earlier, this also lends itself to an externalized cost: using sorcery hurts other people, and the natural world. Perhaps sorcerers have the choice to either pay the cost themselves or have others pay it, and most of them prefer the second option. I recommend checking out the Corruption rules in Swords of the Serpentine for details on this approach. (That game includes a useful Effect of Corruption on Locations table.)

Another take on the cost of magic worth considering in an “all, or most, magic is summoning magic” approach is an increased likelihood that whatever they summon into the world will break free of their control and do something extremely bad. This could be handled mechanically by hacking the dismissal rules, or narratively by letting summoners know that the more they summon creatures, the more likely it becomes that I, the GM, will decide it’s time to pay the piper.

Make magic items dangerous

I’ve talked about consumable magic items, but what about true magic items, such as magical weapons, cloaks, amulets, and so on? My suggestion: they are all cursed. Every one of them. They’re quite powerful, more powerful than the non-cursed items presented in the books; but they will screw you over somehow. Just ask Elric. Cursed items are introduced to the game in 13 True Ways, and Loot Harder contains several (like the Wizard’s Skull) that would be fantastic for a swords & sorcery game.

I’d give  true magic items a major curse, and let the characters know about the curse along with the item’s powers. That way, they will have to make an interesting choice: take the item and become more powerful, but suffer the effects of the curse? Or reject cursed sorcery, and trust in steel and their wits?

Monsters: natural, unnatural, and aberrant

Who will out heroes fight? I’m thinking that they’ll most often be challenged by foes I’d categorize as “natural”, and less frequently by foes I’d call “unnatural”. Rarest of all are foes I’ll call “aberrant”. Here’s what that looks like:

Natural: “normal” creatures such as humans, apes, wolves, bears, and boars. Especially large and tough animals will usually fall into this category.

Unnatural: creatures such as degenerate beast-men, skeletons, zombies, ghouls, serpent people, and animals that are supernaturally large and deadly or strangely-behaved (see Leiber’s sword-wielding squid in “When the Sea-King’s Away”) due to sorcery or demonic influence. Also, most sorcerers, necromancers, evil priests, and frenzied cultists.

Aberrant: these will probably be the foes PCs face in the climactic battle of the adventure—the sorcerer, priest or necromancer whose power has made them inhuman; the tentacled horror in the forbidden ruins; the giant serpent in the temple’s inner sanctum; the mechanical warrior from a long-ago age. To ensure the element of surprise, I might use the 13th Age DIY rules to convert a lot of monsters from Hideous Creatures: A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos into unnatural or aberrant foes.

For me, the battles in a typical swords & sorcery 13th Age adventure would probably progress in this order: the heroes fight natural foes first, then progress to unnatural foes, and finally face off against aberrant enemies.

That’s all I can think of off the top of my head! I’m sure this column will lead to a lot of discussion in the various 13th Age groups, forums, and subreddits, and I look forward to seeing your ideas.


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.

Some of the most powerful roleplaying experiences I’ve ever had have come from running DramaSystem games. Starting with the Hillfolk roleplaying game, and continuing with Blood on the Snow and Series Pitch of the Month, DramaSystem offers a wealth of setting options for players to inhabit, and create compelling stories of interpersonal conflict and emotional drama. You might choose to play in 1930s Shanghai, a steam-powered flying city, a post-scarcity future of art and murder, a magical alternate-history Russia…even humanity’s universal unconscious.

However, DramaSystem is primarily designed for campaign play. What if you want to run a game at a convention? The challenges are significant. You have limited time to create an engaging story; you probably don’t know your players (and they probably don’t know each other); and it’s entirely possible they signed up for your session, not because they’re dying to play emotionally-charged dramatic scenes with strangers, but because they had time to kill and the setting sounded interesting.

Here are some tips that I, and other GMs and players, have learned during convention play.

Tell the players up front that this game is about character conflict, and player conflict

The most challenging DramaSystem game I’ve ever run was the one in which the players were too darn nice. Nobody wanted to be a jerk, so they never made strong demands, never used drama tokens to take away someone else’s narrative power, and never withheld anything that was asked of them.

Emphasize again and again that this is a game about interpersonal drama, conflict, and powerful emotions. Beyond that, make sure your players understand that DramaSystem is a game of player antagonism. Unlike other games they’re used to, they won’t be cooperating against some outside threat, or working together to achieve some external goal. They’ll be trying to get each others’ characters to grant emotional concessions—things like love, respect, forgiveness, friendship. Things those characters don’t want to concede.

Offer a manageable number of roles and dramatic poles

My series pitch The Secret of Warlock Mountain lists more than 20 possible roles the players could take in the game, from “ship’s captain” to “dream-haunted oracle”. You can certainly let the players choose from a long list, but I like to take six to eight roles and create very simple playbooks for them. (To see examples, download the playbooks for Hillfolk and Secret of Warlock Mountain on the DramaSystem Resources page.) This helps avoid players becoming paralyzed by too many choices, and also helps me run the game—I know that a given convention game of Warlock Mountain will involve some configuration of Captain, Doctor, Scientist, Elder, Comic Relief, Teenager, Criminal, and Soldier. This gives me a good idea of what kinds of relationships and stories I’ll be facilitating as the GM.

Likewise, there are a vast number of dramatic poles that a player character might have. I like to fill in each playbook with three dramatic poles per character—the players can either choose from those options, or come up with their own.

Max out the number of “I want from them/they want from me” relationships

DramaSystem character generation normally continues until every character is the object of at least two other characters’ wants. This is fine! However, I’ve found that it can enhance play at a convention to keep going around the table until every character wants something from every other character, and is the object of a want from every other character.

This approach gives players more flexibility, because now every character is a potential source of drama (and drama tokens) for every other character. Callers feel more freedom to include anyone they wish in a scene, because no character is “wasted” due to a lack of dramatic conflict with the other participants. It also gives every player something interesting to do in every scene: nobody is there in a purely supporting role.

Ignore or minimize the procedural rules

Whatever the setting, DramaSystem game sessions should stay laser-focused on the tensions and conflicts within a small, tightly-knit group of player characters. These characters might at some point fight orcs, sabotage a bridge, or plan a daring heist; but all of that is just background to their drama.

The goal of a convention game is to show your players a good time, and give them a sense of what makes the game fun and distinctive. With DramaSystem, that’s collaborative storytelling, player-vs-player conflict, and the drama token economy—not the rare instances where characters engage in procedural scenes.

You can keep the session drama-focused by ignoring or minimizing the game’s procedural rules. Instead, encourage the players to handle procedural scenes as dramatic scenes. Maybe their group of soldiers is trying to break out of a World War II prison camp, but what’s really going on in that scene is the boiling tension between the wealthy Bostonian Lt Thorndike and Sgt O’Malley, whose father was murdered by Thorndike’s uncle. You can give such scenes a procedural feel by asking questions and introducing threats. (“Up ahead you see something you didn’t expect, that will make the escape harder. What is is? How do you deal with it?”)

Other options include:

  1. Using the 13th Age RPG montage mechanic, where every player has the opportunity to narrate a challenge and a solution.
  2. Using one of the stripped-down procedural resolution methods.

Nurture the drama token economy

Drama tokens are the currency of DramaSystem. Make sure the players understand that an important part of the game is amassing enough tokens that their character has the power to influence what happens in the story. With enough tokens, their character can crash scenes where they aren’t wanted, duck out of scenes they don’t want to be in, force other player characters to do what they want, and resist being forced. This game is working when drama tokens are changing hands, passing from one player to another. If the players don’t push each other or resist being pushed, that won’t happen, and the game will remain drama-free and un-fun.

Every dramatic scene ends with an exchange of one or more drama tokens. If the petition is willingly granted, the granter earns a drama token—from the petitioner if he has one, or from the kitty if not. If the granter refuses, the petitioner gains the token— from the granter if she has one, or from the kitty if not.

In a convention game, I recommend letting players take drama tokens from the kitty for a longer period of time than you would in a campaign session. If, early in the game, Joan grants Jeff’s petition, and Jeff has a token, ask Joan to take her token from the kitty instead of from Jeff. This method increases the number of tokens in play more quickly, which heightens the suspense and raises the stakes. Pointing out to the group that a couple of players have two or three tokens in front of them causes everyone to realize that those characters now have more narrative power than the others. This creates an incentive for the other players to make difficult concessions or challenging demands, so they can take tokens away from those players and use them to push their own agendas.

Remember that the GM calls scenes too

It’s easy to get so caught up in the story the players are creating that you forget the GM takes a turn as well! You can use your scene to tighten the screws, or bring together characters who haven’t yet played out a dramatic scene. You can also mix things up by bringing characters together in a different combination than previously—if the rebellious daughter is never alone in a scene with her mother, throw them together in a stressful situation, and see what happens.

Further reading

Want more tips? Blood on the Snow includes a chapter of advice on running DramaSystem one-shots, including agreeing on a story outline beforehand, and stronger GM control over the narrative.

Good luck running your next DramaSystem con game, and have fun!

A column about roleplaying

By Robin D. Laws

Work on the Yellow King Roleplaying Game has been chugging along since the Kickstarter closed in July. A master document containing the elements of Absinthe in Carcosa is now in the hands of hand-out artist extraordinaire Dean Engelhardt. In the months ahead he’ll be transforming them into a unique and stunning presentation of the setting sourcebook format. Art direction is well underway for the four books that comprise the core game.

The first playtest round, focused on Paris, is now in progress, with actual play reports beginning to filter out into places like the GUMSHOE Facebook community.

With Absinthe turned over to Dean, I’ve turned my attention back to completing the core game. This task entails both the three remaining introductory scenarios and the many stretch goals crowdfunded by you (or gamers like you.)

Here’s a taste of the latter—a few of the GMC profiles from the Occultists of the Belle Epoque stretch goal.

Did you miss the Kickstarter? The Yellow King Roleplaying Game Pre-Order exists just for you.

Camille Flammarion

Astronomer and Science Fiction Writer

53, 1842-1925

The polymathic Camille Flammarion crosses not only the streams of science and spiritism, but throws the arts in for good measure. He believes both in evolution and the transmigration of souls, continually improving as they find new incarnations throughout the universe. His science fiction titles, such as Lumen and Imaginary Worlds, envision alien life from a naturalist’s perspective. Like Albert de Rochas he applies the scientific method to parapsychological research. Since souls go to other planets after death, he reasons, manifestations at séances must emanate from the extra-sensory powers of the mediums who conjure them. Always ready to write a foreword or appear at an occult talk, he might be found in the corners of any event held by any other figure in this chapter.

Physically his mane of white hair, incisively cocked eyebrows and flowing Van Dyke underline his grand old man persona.

As a Patron: Flammarion might recruit the heroes to round up copies of the book, drawing on his contacts in the scientific and occult communities.

Alexandre Saint-Yves

Synarchist

53, 1842-1909

Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves, the Marquis d’Alveydre, invented the term synarchy to refer to the secret rule of mankind by occult masters. He believes that Abraham and the Hindu deity Ram are really the same figure, a primordial lawmaker and father of all peoples. Though the surface world has lost touch with the truth, millions dwell in Agarttha, a subterranean realm benevolently overseen by a trinity of rulers: a Brahatmah (God-soul), Mahatma (Great Soul) and Mahanga (Great Path.) It relocated underground, far below the plateaus of Tibet, during the Hindu dark age three thousand years ago, protecting its people and advanced technology from encroaching disaster. He knows this because he communicates with Agartthan officials telepathically.

The Marquis claims the power of astral travel. When characters ask about it, he proves notably stingy with the details.

He writes the popular Mission series of books in which various groups are issued instructions for bringing about the synarchy on the surface world: Mission to the Sovereigns, Mission to the Jews, and so on. When not occupied with synarchy he studies possible commercial applications for seaweed.

Saint-Yves became independently wealthy through marriage and was granted his title fifteen years ago by the Republic of San Marino. Describe him as a dour-looking man with a thick, pensive mustache.

Charles Richet

Physiologist and Parapsychologist

45, 1850-1930

A gaunt man with searching eyes, the physiologist Charles Richet studies a range of medical subjects and is destined to win the Nobel Prize for his work on anaphylaxis. His interests range from aviation to theatrical writing. The investigators however will care most about his role as a scientific psychic investigator. Last year he coined the term “ectoplasm” to describe the strange material mediums produce during séances. He believes that paranormal powers exist but will all be rationally explained through scientific inquiry, without the need to invoke spirits or an afterlife. In our reality, he falls for, and in at least one case helps to cover up, hoaxes perpetrated by mediums. In the universe of the Yellow King, he might instead fail to see the supernatural causes behind their effects.

Richet dedicates himself to pacifism, eugenics and hardcore racism, especially against blacks. Calibrate the way you deal with these last two according to your group’s desired level of unsavory social realism.

Léo Taxil (Gabriel Jogand-Pagès)

Conspiracy-Promulgating Con Artist

41, 1854-1907

Setting a pattern unknown to our own innocent age, pundit Léo Taxil (real name Gabriel Jogand-Pagès) masterminds a convoluted series of hoaxes, in which he appears to ricochet between extreme ideologies, selling books and calling attention to himself all along the way. He started as an anti-clerical rabble-rouser, writing books that mock Biblical inconsistencies or depict Catholic ecclesiastics engaged in Sadean debauchery. He infiltrated occult circles, convincing Jules Doinel (above) and others that he was one of them.

Ten years ago he staged a public conversion to Catholicism, tarring Freemasonry with similar sensational slanders. Taxil is the one who took Levi’s famous image of Baphomet and forever associated it with Satanism. He described a global conspiracy, the Palladium, led by a Masonic worthy of Charleston, South Carolina named Albert Pike. Three years ago he published the best-selling The Devil in the 19th Century, introducing to the world the reformed Satanist arch-priestess Diana Vaughan. Anecdotes include her encounters with incarnate demons, including a crocodilian specimen that plays the piano. He is now writing her first-person book of prayers and confessions.

Two years from now he will announce a press conference with Vaughan, at which he instead reveals that it was all a hoax. Reverting to his original persona, he says he has been showing the stupidity of the Church’s fear of Freemasonry.

But that’s the historical timeline. Might the ambient madness of Carcosa cause thoughtforms of the demons described in Taxil’s books to realize themselves?

See Page XX

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Since Cthulhu Confidential’s arrival in foyers and post office boxes worldwide, a couple of folks have asked me how one might go about combining GUMSHOE One-2-One with Trail of Cthulhu’s standard multiplayer format.

The short answer is, uh, I didn’t design them to fit together like that.

The rest of this column will consist of a longer answer that boils down to, uh, here’s a few things you can try but they’re not playtested so get ready to kludge on the fly.

When designing One-2-One my goal was not to seamlessly port the player from solo to group play, but to make the solo play as fun and functional as possible in its own right. Making the two games interoperable would have introduced a layer of complexity that taxed One-2-One GMs and players to no immediate payoff. A big chunk of the audience for One-2-One turns out to be people introducing previously unfamiliar friends and loved ones to roleplaying, so that would have been a serious mistake.

Tuning the game for solo play meant reexamining basic elements we take for granted in multiplayer, like hit points that slowly tick away and can lead to a character’s death at any moment in the story. To serve the one-player format, I came up with Problem card mechanism, which is not only different from Health pools in standard GUMSHOE, but in a completely other ballpark.

So that leaves us with two games that share an overall feeling but on the granular level don’t plug together.

The easiest way to merge them is to move from one to the other without ever looking back.

If you’ve been running a Trail series for one player, you can work with them to adapt that PC to One-2-One. Conversely, once you recruit a new crop of players to start a Trail series, you could then turn that One-2-One PC into a ToC investigator.

The key word here is adapt, not convert.

Mathematical conversions from one system to another almost invariably wind up with weird imbalances and often a less playable character than you’d get by starting from square one.

Tell the player to keep in mind what she knows about her character from having played her, and especially what the investigator has actually done in the course of scenarios to date. Forget the numbers; remember the core concept.

For Trail, go through the standard steps of character creation, recreating the idea of the One-2-One PC in that system.

To adapt into Cthulhu Confidential, sit down with the player to follow the recommendations for new character creation on p. 294 of that book: around 14 investigative abilities and 18 dice in general abilities, with no more than 2 dice per ability.

Since the ability lists differ, you’re not trying to get everything to line up absolutely. Think of this as resembling the process by which a character from a comic or series of novels becomes the protagonist in a TV show: it’s the broad strokes that matter.

A One-2-One character will need Sources to fill her in when she runs into a clue her abilities don’t illuminate. If you’re moving the investigator from an actual multiplayer Trail game, that’s simple—just use the other players’ characters, who you’ll now be portraying as GMCs.

If you were playing Trail solo, work with your player to invent outside experts she can consult as needed.

When devising scenarios, remember to limit the number of times the investigator will need to call on Sources.

Having a character who moves between Trail and Confidential poses the biggest design conundrum.

If the character suffers the shattering of a Pillar of Sanity in Trail, you may wish to acknowledge that in Confidential with a Continuity Problem card. Whether it imposes a story or a mechanical effect or both depends on the situation. Other ongoing consequences of past Trail events might also become One-2-One Problem cards. Conversely, you could reward exceptional problem-solving in a Trail session with an Edge card that can be spent to good effect in the following Confidential episode.

Going the other way around, you might decide that Continuity Problems picked up in Confidential might come into play in Trail.

Narrative-based card effects, as with “Charlie Chaplin Owes You” (CC p. 139), are the easiest to pull off. Your player’s detective, self-taught physics genius Ethel Peaslee, gains the movie star’s confidence when the two of you play your version of “The Fathomless Sleep.” Then, in a Trail session, her player makes use of that card, getting the entire group into an exclusive garden party to brace an otherwise unapproachable witness.

Continuity Edges that exert a mechanical effect in One-2-One might grant a +1 bonus to some or all general tests. Continuity Problem cards could likewise impose a -1 penalty.

Like the design of the Problems and Edges themselves, this is all situational. You’re not doing much more creative work than you would normally do when constructing a One-2-One scenario.

Crossing the streams might see you building individual side quests into an epic Trail series. An investigator might come back from the Dreamlands, the Plateau of Leng, or the twisting boulevards of Los Angeles to share the results of an individual mission undertaken between this Trail scenario and the last one. After the group decides to steer clear of a disturbing mystery in Trail, a player can follow it up solo in Confidential.

Think twice before running One-2-One interludes only for certain members of your group. If one or two players are having a richer experience because they’re getting to also play Confidential with you, the remaining members of the Trail game may come to feel like second bananas. You might be able to remedy this by building in hooks that require the frequent soloists to cede spotlight time to the others in multiplayer mode. That gem Ethel found in D’yath-Leen might provide the key to finding J0e Morgan’s long-lost sister, say. Be doubly wary of an imbalance of perceived attention when you’re personally closer to the One-2-One player(s) than the ones who only take part in the Trail game.

This is all speculation, as I have yet to try to interweave the two games and don’t see that as a likely possibility for my own GUMSHOE play. If you do give it a whirl, let us know how it goes!

See P. XX

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

On a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, Ken and I talked about ways players can organize the information they gather over the course of a GUMSHOE investigation. And now I’m going to organize some of those thoughts into this column for yet easier access. It’s not recycling, it’s thematically germane!

Let’s assume a whiteboard (real or virtual), cork board (ditto) or shared document controlled by and viewed by the players.

Practically speaking, you almost certainly want to select one player to enter the notes onto your medium of choice. If everybody can add notations whenever they please, the board will soon descend into a chaotic dog’s breakfast of competing jottings.

When you’re taking notes for yourself alone, for example on a lecture, you know the sorts of the notes you need and can decide what to write down accordingly. Here, however, you’re working to help a group of people put their thoughts together and devise a plan for action. To that end I’d recommend dividing your board up into a few basic sections that become familiar from one scenario to the next.

The Big Question

Since you’re all trying to figure out a mystery through the eyes of fictional characters acting in an imagined environment, maintaining mutual focus can be challenging. It may seem simple, but to stay out of the weeds it helps to constantly remind yourself just what they heck you’re currently trying to determine.

One way to do this is to head your whiteboard with the overarching question you’re trying to answer. The process of agreeing on what that question clarifies much from the outset. Having it staring at you in big letters keeps you on the same path as the scenario develops.

The type of question varies not just from one genre to the next but in different scenarios for the same GUMSHOE game. Big questions for various scenarios might be:

Who killed Nadia?

What’s lurking at the bottom of the mine?

Who keeps sending hit men to try to murder us?

Where is Quandos Vorn?

Who assaulted that mutant vigilante?

In some games the question changes as you learn more.

You might identify the alien being at the bottom of the mine, but realize that the real question is: who put it there, in hopes of triggering a catastrophe?

Once you find out that the conspiracy trying to kill you is made up of vampires, the question becomes: how do we destroy their spy network before they get us?

Open Leads

By far groups get themselves into the greatest confusion in investigative games by trying to answer the big question before they have enough clues. Speculating as to what’s going on allows players to interact with each other, which is fun. When the group just hangs around in the hotel room or in the library spinning out theories, they’re safe from danger, from having to make tough choices, and from making embarrassing mistakes. But the game is all about exposing your characters to those very risks. Sustained chatting and planning can be thinly disguised turtling. Worse, unfounded speculations can enter the group consciousness as things you’ve actually established as facts.

Often groups unconsciously blank on leads they’re too chicken to follow up on. Any scenario worth its oats requires the PCs to talk to people they’d otherwise have every reason to avoid. Players typically exhaust every impersonal method of information gathering before they’ll talk to even the meekest witness.

Cure these syndromes by constantly reminding yourselves of the avenues of investigation you have yet to explore. Make a list of open leads, crossing off or erasing entries as you send your characters out to engage in those scenes. It might look something like this:

Mugsy Eagan

the farmers across the way

the well

the professor who was nosing around last year

Eventually you’re going to have to talk to Mugsy. Even though his name is Mugsy, and that’s a giant red flag.

When you have no open leads on your list, two possibilities pertain:

One, you finally do have all the facts and can now set about assembling them into an answer to your big question.

Two, you’ve missed or forgotten a core clue from a scene you’ve already played out, and need to either remember what it was or go back and uncover that lead.

Scenario-Specific Notes

The other key areas on your whiteboard vary according to the nature of the scenario.

Most scenarios revolve around a cast of Game Master Characters. In that case, a list of key players helps you to piece together their relationships, and thus whatever backstory or horrible truth you’re trying to reconstruct.

When your objective explicitly has you dismantling an enemy organization, whether we’re talking esoterror cell or Night’s Black Agents vampire network, the classic enemy org chart format serves you well. It helps you figure out not only what’s going on but who to target when you start to hit back.

In a classic murder mystery, that area on your whiteboard becomes a table of possible suspects, with columns for motives, incriminating details, and exculpatory clues.

For a survival horror scenario, you might be trying to assemble the things you need to get out of a situation alive. There you’d want to make a want list of items you’re looking for, crossing them off as you gather them.

You might think that sandbox play doesn’t need a whiteboard. For example you might be playing Dreamhounds of Paris, where as members of the surrealist movement you explore the Dreamlands, altering them for your own consciousness-exploding purposes. You might have a Big Question to answer in the waking world, but also an area of places you want to poke at next and changes you want to wreak in the Dreamlands. A particularly organized team of surrealist sandboxers might jump between two sets of notes, one detailing Parisian activities and others a to-do list for Kadath and beyond.

Every List is a To-Do List

Although you’re often trying to work out what other characters did in the past, organize your whiteboard to always suggest actions, ideally implying a list of things you can do next.

Whether you’re answering your Big Question, choosing the next of your Open Leads, or engaging with the section of your board specific to the demands of the scenario at hand, everything on your whiteboard should spur the team to concrete action.

Page XX

A Column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

When we of the Pelgrane-Industrial Complex write and test GUMSHOE scenarios, we take care to avoid short circuits—moments that, early in play, could conceivably allow the investigators to abruptly move to the end of the story. The dissatisfactions of short-circuiting are various. The players miss out on all the fun interactions, problems, and thrills set out for them to explore, leading to a feeling of anti-climax. You never want to end a scenario with the players wondering, aloud or implicitly, “Is that all there is?” Nor do you want to end a play session after an hour when the group expected at least their standard three to four hours.

Less well considered than the problem of short-circuiting is its opposite number, the need to hot-wire. Hot-wiring, a term I just made up*, refers to the process of cutting material from a scenario to fit a rapidly diminishing time window. You may need to hot-wire because:

  • you have too much adventure left for one session, but not enough for two.
  • one or more key players won’t be able to make it next time.
  • you’re running a one-shot, perhaps at a convention.
  • a key player has to bail early on this session.

The less linkage between scenes in an RPG scenario, the easier they are to hot-wire. In an F20 game like 13th Age, you can drop a couple of the fights. Where the connective tissue between battles seems too hardy to dispense with entirely, you can even elide your way to the climax with a few lines of description: “After several days fighting your way through the orc lands, you finally find yourselves standing at the foot of the Crusader’s grim tower.” Hillfolk’s scenes are so modular that you can stop at any time. Additionally, the narrative driving remains as much up to the players as the GM. And of course in The Dying Earth the picaresque characters continually skate on the edge of comeuppance, with a closing explosion of chaos to rain down on them never further away than the nearest Pelgrane nest.

GUMSHOE, however runs on way scenes connect to one another. Ripping out those circuits means finding the quickest route between where the characters currently are and a climax that makes sense and feels right. GUMSHOE is an investigative game, meaning that players want to come away feeling that they investigated something. Finding clues is the core activity, so you can’t elide that away from them. It would be like skipping not only the connecting fights but the epic final throwdown in a 13th Age run.

To hot-wire a GUMSHOE scenario, find the final scene you want to land on. Some scenarios present multiple climactic scenes based on player choices. Most converge the story into a single final scene, in which certain choices may be foreclosed, penalized or rewarded depending on what the protagonists have already done so far.

Given a choice of climaxes, pick the one that you think the players can work toward most efficiently without feeling that you shoved them onto a greased slide. The ideal hot-wire job doesn’t appear as such to the players. The way to achieve this is to still give them opportunities to be clever. The difference now is that the reward of that cleverness becomes a faster propulsion toward the finish line.

If given one final scene that can play out in various ways, quickly scan for the payoffs it provides to past decisions. See how many of them the players have already made, and how many still lie uncovered. If you can find a way to route them through some or all of those choices on the fast lane to the climax, great. Otherwise, them’s the breaks when you’re rewiring on the fly.

Your main task? Identify the shortest logical-seeming route from the current scene to the end point. Look at the section headers for the various Lead-Ins to that scene. Skip back to those scenes and locate the core clues that enable the investigations to reach it. You may find one or several.

Linear scenarios can be harder to hot-wire than ones that provide multiple routes to the conclusion. A journey investigation as found in Mythos Expeditions may have to use the narrative elision technique to get from the problem at point C in the wilderness to the final one at point J.

Where the climax boasts more than one lead-in, pick the core clue that you can most easily drop into the situation at hand. Or find a core clue that gets you to that penultimate scene, letting the players take it from there.

Let’s say you’re running a modern Trail of Cthulhu scenario** using abilities imported from The Esoterrorists. The climax occurs after hours at an aquarium theme park, where Deep Ones orgiastically empower themselves by tormenting killer whales. The investigators are partway through the scenario, having discovered the fatally slashed corpse of a rogue marine biologist in a gas station bathroom. As written, the corpse lacks ID and the investigators have to crack other scenes to learn who the victim was and then discover she was onto something fishy† at the aquarium. The investigators can discover the latter clue one of two ways: by tracking down and winning over her justifiably paranoid wife, or cracking her notes, as found in an off-site backup.

To hot-wire that scene to lead directly to the orca-torturing aquarium orgy, plant a clue to the off-site backup on the corpse. In the original, the murderers took her purse and car, to cover their tracks. After you hot-wire the scene, they were interrupted by a station employee while trying to steal the vehicle, and fled. This allows the team to find the victim’s tablet on the back seat of her car and use her Dropbox app to access her file. Present this so they have to, as would be usual, search the car for clues, and then figure out that her files might be accessible from a file storage interface app. That way they still get to feel like they’re doing the work of GUMSHOE investigators, feeling a sense of accomplishment as they screech toward their final assignation at that theme park.


*In its roleplaying context. Settle down, car theft enthusiasts.

**Warning: scenario does not yet exist. But GUMSHOE is OGL now, hint hint.

†Honestly extremely sorry about that. I am writing this the day before Gen Con, and it is also very, very hot.

The holidays and emergency present shopping beckon, so I will be relatively brief, and promise a full update including biz stuff in the next issue. Remind me to tell you about International Pelgrane Day, then, too.

Out this month: 13 True WaysThe Book of Loot and Shadows of Eldolan in pdf; and Vendetta Run – A survival-horror frame for Fear Itself and Owl Hoot Trail set in the worst and weirdest West is out as a stand-alone PDF or as part of Ken Writes About Stuff.

13th Age

I’d like to start with an apology for the delay in getting the 13 True Ways PDF out to you – a rather convoluted set of circumstances combined to make it a December release – but it is at least in your hands a month after it was in stores. 13 True Ways Kickstarter backers can expect to see their dice rewards going out in January.

We’ve made up for the delay be releasing The Book of Loot PDF and the Shadows of Eldolan PDF at the same time – and The Eyes of the Stone Thief video, a taste of what’s to come if you pre-order now.

Next Year

  • You can look forward to the 13th Age Album by James Semple and team (you can get a taste of the music the Making of video and on SoundCloud) next month
  • The 13th Age Monthy subscription kicks off early next year with Dragon Riding.
  • Iconic Battles Scenes (working title) consists of 39 sets of four themed encounters, one Adventure, one Champion and one Epic level for each icon is in playtesting, as is Shards of the Broken Sky and Strangling Sea – both adventures for 13th Age.
  • The Organized Play program now has hundreds of GMs running 13th Age in stores, at conventions and for their game groups. It’s free to join and you get free adventures to run. Sign up here.
  • Demonology by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and Iconic Organisations by Rob Heinsoo and ASH LAW.

Night’s Black Agents

Ken Hite and Gareth Hanrahan are writing and wrangling to create content for the Dracula Dossier kickstarter – and you can still pledge for a while longer – go here.  The Kickstarter has been a shot in the arm for Night’s Black Agents, and I’m happy to welcome hundreds of new players to the fold.

All the stretch goals and other items for NBA constitute what we’ll be releasing next year, but there may be a surprise in the pipeline, too.

Trail of Cthulhu

Coming in the New Year

2014 will see the release of Fearful Symmetries and the Book of the New Jerusalem – Paula and Steve Dempsey’s setting for Trail of Cthulhu in which you play an occult group facing a terrible evil you must fight with magic. But will magic take your humanity from you?

Scott, Paul and Matthew continue work on The Poison Tree – there will be some visible playtesting and demos from the team next year.

More GUMSHOE

  • Robin D Laws has gone back to GUMSHOE design for an entirely new version codename GUMSHOE121
  • TimeWatch is on track – we are pushing for a first draft at the end of February – and it will be our core book release for GUMSHOE next year.
  • Accretion Disk for Ashen Stars – we will get this out before the end of March.
  • There has been a heated  and one sided internal discussion over the merits of a GUMSHOE compendium. Do let us know what you think.
  • Fear Itself 2nd Edition, with adventures.
  • Another GUMSHOE core book, which we’ll announce next time…

More Everything Else

An indie book, more gaming advice and Gareth’s Drone Game at the very least.

Until Next Time…

Thank you everyone for making this company a viable concern. Buying and playing our stuff makes it possible for us to make more amazing stuff. So, please keep doing that

Now, I hear the call of a mince pie, so until the New Year … keep gaming!

 

last doorEarlier this month, Phoenix Online Studios invited us to co-sponsor a short-short-short fiction competition to promote The Last Door Collector’s Edition. We’re all for creepy 8-bit Lovecraftian horror, and gladly joined in. Five prize winners got a Pelgrane PDF of their choice (and all of them chose either Trail of Cthulhu or Bookhounds of London); and 5 winners got a free copy of The Last Door.

Here are the winning entries for your enjoyment:

The 5 Pelgrane Press PDF winners:

She didn’t give me her name. I gave her mine. When she left the bar, she took it with her. – Paul Kirsch

Napping in a crowded metro, a whisper in my ear: don’t wake up. – Victor Ribeiro

“The ‘virus’ is an idea,” she said, “spread via sentence. It commands me to obey.” Chuckling, the doctor replied, “The ‘virus’ is an idea…” – Steven Marsh

As her hand slipped from my grasp, I marveled at its rate of descent compared to the other parts of her body. – Philip Gonzales

A step, drip, cold, door, dark. A step, twist, claw, fur, flare. It’s ok, you can’t see anything wrong. Or anything at all. A step. – Linda Evans

The 5 winners of copies of The Last Door:

I woke before dawn & warmed my shivering wife before returning to slumber. I woke again with a scream when I realized she died a year ago. – Brian Webb

He told me to get a bottle of wine from the cellar. I suppose that’s what he told the rest of these women to do, too. – Kyle Williams

Frightening was hungry eyes, watching me from the gloom. Terrifying was knowing I’d seen them before, every time I’d gazed into a mirror. – Noah Baxter

A bump, a creak, a faint rustle; all from me. I wait till you feel safe with these sounds. Then, as you sleep, I emerge from the shadows. – Gerry Bibaud

Slowly the words formed. We are legion it said. He stared at the readout from the quantum correlation encryption experiment. – Christian Mintert

13th Age at Origins 2014Many thanks to our GM team and all the players who attended our games at Origins this year. We sold out of all of our games, and even squeezed in some walk-ups in the scheduled games. Kendall Jung did an amazing job of managing our play events at the show. Onward to Gen Con!

Free RPG Day

Make Your Own Luck, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s prequel to the upcoming Eyes of the Stone Thief campaign, is our contribution to this year’s Free RPG Day — you can get it on Saturday, June 21 at your nearest participating game retailer. We’ve heard that some stores are giving GMs their copies in advance so they can run the adventure on the day of release, so you might want to ring up your local store and see if they’ve scheduled a play event.

(Because some folks have asked: Free RPG Day is a retailer-sponsored event created to support game stores, so we’re not giving away PDF copies of the game.)

Make Your Own Luck: Live Play Crossover Event!

In much the same way that Nick Fury assembled the Avengers, for Free RPG Day we’ve assembled a team of players to play Make Your Own Luck via Google Hangout and Roll20 on Saturday, June 21st at 3:00 PM EST / noon Pacific:

Join us live on Aaron’s YouTube channel on Saturday, and watch the mayhem unfold.

Upcoming Adventures

Domain of the Dwarf King will go live soon. At Rob Heinsoo’s request it features a dwarf centipede. (I guess I know what Dutch horror movie Rob watched last night.)

Domain of the Dwarf King concludes the Orc War trilogy, and will see the final defeat of General Gul. Or not — that’s up to the adventurers.

The next big Organized Play installment after Domain of the Dwarf King is the first of our champion-tier games: Escape from the Diabolist’s Dungeon!

State of Play

We’e now up to 1186 GMs running Tales of the 13th Age worldwide, on every continent except Antarctica. If you know anybody in an Antarctic research station who wants a copy of 13th Age let us know!

Previous Entries