When I run The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in one-shot format, I improvise based on the Deuced Peculiar Things players specify. I provide them with this set of Paris pregens, which leaves the Deuced Peculiar Thing open for all but the Belle-Lettrist. I use that essayist character to cheat my way to the fun, and the core motif of the game. That character gets a Deuced Peculiar Thing indicating that somehow maybe the publication of the play is their fault, in a fuzzy way they no longer comprehend.

I open the action in the art students’ favorite cafe, Le Veau Gras (Paris p. 99), setting the tone of the game by inviting the characters to commiserate over their overindulgence of the night before.

As I prepped for my recent online game for top tier Kickstarter backers, imagine my surprise when I realized that I never designed Injury cards to portray hangovers! How could I have possibly done this so many times without that vital piece of design work? It’s like creating D&D and forgetting fireball.

Why it’s almost as if I was involved in the production of a cursed roleplaying game, in a fuzzy way I no longer comprehend.

Well, best not to think of that, as we Bohemian artists say.

Anyhow, I whipped up this pair to introduce the concept of Shock and Injury cards to the players.

HUNG OVER

Injury

After 1 or more scenes, discard by complaining that others don’t care enough about your hangover.

WHAT YOU DID LAST NIGHT

Injury

-1 to Focus tests.

After 1 or more scenes, discard by remembering a problem you caused during last night’s festivities.

These require Difficulty 4 Health tests to avoid. If they were Shock cards, tempting players to burn Composure, I might be more merciful and assign a Difficulty of 3. Health isn’t typically as precious in these one-shots so I can afford, for rule-teaching purposes, to start with the typical Difficulty.

As Injury cards go, these are not especially onerous. The minor card of the pair doesn’t even impose a mechanical penalty, except for the standard incrementally increased threat of having your investigator removed from play for having too many cards of one type in hand.

I also took care to give the cards discard conditions that are both fun and easy to meet. The discard conditions demonstrate how cards work in general as they nudge players to contribute to the establishment of tone.

Every time I’ve run this, the story has moved on from this simple scene to a radically different direction, from animated statues, to climactic bloodshed on the Pont Neuf bridge, to a time loop that trapped the investigators in the room where they were designing a float for the annual Art Student’s Ball.

Whatever introduction you use to draw your players into the Carcosan terrors of the Belle Epoque, I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll find some way to make use of these new cards.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

While developing collaborators’ scenarios for Black Star Magic, I found myself puzzling out a design style question arising from a particular feature of QuickShock.

In previous iterations of GUMSHOE, and most other games with hit points or a hit point-like function, characters can theoretically leave play at any time. In all GUMSHOE games characters can die physically, ending their stories and requiring players to create replacements. In our various horror games, characters can also exit after cracking under intolerable mental strain.

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game follows that pattern: your character can shuffle off in both ways. Unlike games with traditional hit points (Health points in GUMSHOE) or Sanity / Stability points, YKRPG characters take their final curtains after receiving a predetermined number of Injury or Shock cards. After 3 or 4 cards, depending on how forgiving the GM has chosen to make her game, they’re outta there.

My scenarios provide ample opportunities to take Injury and Shock cards. In fact, one of the key requests made by playtesters was STOP MURDERING US SO HARD.

One or two of my more forgiving colleagues, on the other hand, just might have submitted scenarios including a less-than-fatal number of Injuries and/or Shocks.

This raised the question: is that poor form?

A scenario for standard GUMSHOE might make the prospect of death unlikely, by going light on scenes featuring fights or physical hazards. Likewise it might feature only a handful of Stability or Composure tests. But depending on how many points players have invested in key pools, you can’t say for certain that the scenario won’t dispatch a PC or two.

In QuickShock you can count the number of times the characters might take cards, and see that it doesn’t equal the Final Card threshold.

That’s before taking edge cases into account, though.

In an ongoing game, one or more characters may already have Continuity Shock or Injury cards carried over from previous play. This drops their effective thresholds for receiving new cards. If you have the Injury card Circulatory Damage, you start every scenario being able to receive one less Injury additional card than you did when you began play. A scenario that deals out a maximum of two Injuries could, if you get both of them, end you.

Also, the GM, responding to surprise player choices, may wind up improvising additional fights, hazards, and disturbing events. When these go wrong they hand out cards over and above those listed in the scenario. “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario” must always be read as “You can’t die from the cards listed in the scenario, if you only do what the scenario predicts you might do.” Those of us who have ever run a game know how big an if that is.

In yet another also, the GM never tells the players that a scenario includes few Shock or Injury cards. It’s not the actual likelihood of investigator demise that creates suspense in play, but the threat of it as perceived by the players, that delivers the emotional freight. When you get the last card listed in the scenario, you have no way of knowing that there aren’t a boatload more of them still potentially to come. Unless you read the scenario afterwards, you’ll never see that you were actually safe.

For those reasons, I decided that it should not be a requirement that every published scenario hand out enough cards to potentially kill off a character.

Also, with rare exceptions, Shock and Injury cards impose other penalties on the characters who receive them. That’s why they exist. Unlike a quantity of lost hit points, they create lingering effects that impact the story. They sit in front of the players, reminding them that something has gone wrong. Something that must be addressed. The anxious desire to get rid of these awful, nagging cards mimics the fear and unease of the characters. Even if you can only get one card of a given type in a scenario, when you get it, you generally really want to get rid of it. One card you remember getting, or struggling to discard, exerts a greater impact than some Health points you lost and then refreshed.

Even if that weren’t the case, a philosophical design question remains: is it somehow cheating, or poor form, to introduce the possibility of character demise when it can’t actually happen? A D&D or 13th Age game assumes you’ll be fighting up a storm over most evenings of play. But if a particular adventure has you intriguing your way through a trade dispute with little chance of taking an ax to the face, you likely consider that a refreshing change of pace. After a while you’re going to want to get back to the core activity of battling and looting, jotting down hit point losses as you go. But the adventure where the stakes aren’t the characters’ survival doesn’t register as a cheat.

For a scenario to engage the players, they have to care about something. They must want for X to happen and fear that it will not. The prospect of character death exists in games as a default set of stakes: do you live or die?

In the mystery scenario that GUMSHOE offers, you always have another measure of success, other than “am I still breathing at the end?” When you figure out what’s going on in time to prevent disaster, see justice done, or simply slake your curiosity, you’ve won.

As long as your choices lead to either good or bad consequences, those consequences don’t have to be Shock or Injury cards in order for players to walk away from the table remembering a gripping narrative.


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

Basic Shock Deck

Apprehension, panic, terror, and collapsing causation!

This optional accessory helps The Yellow King Roleplaying Game GMs select and hand out Shocks during in-person play. Its card selection focuses on the varieties of fear and emotional disequilibrium most likely to afflict investigators into any reality-altering Carcosan mystery. Perfect for on-the-fly scenarios or abrupt sidetracks into hallucination and shattered consciousness. This deck assists GMs who prefer the solid slap of a physical card against the game table you can plunk before players when their characters stare into the uncanny and wish they hadn’t.

Basic Injury Deck

Bullets, blades, tumbles and absinthe overindulgence!

This optional accessory allows The Yellow King Roleplaying Game GMs to quickly grab and dish out Injury cards during face-to-face play. Its card selection focuses on the sorts of harm most likely to occur in any investigation into reality-bending occult horror. Ideal for improvised scenarios or sudden swerves into unexpectedly dangerous territory. This deck assists GMs who prefer the tactile charms of a physical card you can plunk before players when their characters lose fights or run afoul of hazards.
Contains 76 cards, with 2 copies of each Minor Injury and 1 of each Major Injury, corresponding to a wide variety of heroically harmful situations. Includes those essential workhorses of the game, post-healing Secondary cards like “On the Mend” and “Precarious Recovery.” From the mild drowning of “Cough, Choke, Splutter” to the memorable agony of “Fearsome Gut Punch,” this deck contains more than enough smackdowns to keep your investigators reeling with adventurous consequence.

Each purchase of The Yellow King RPG from our website, or a bricks-and-mortar retailer, includes the following downloads:

  • PNG files of all Shock and Injury cards from the four core settings
  • PNG files of all Goal, Chit & Hit cards from the Aftermath setting
  • A PSD format blank template of the Shock, Injury, Goal, Chit & Hit cards
  • A GIMP format blank template of the Shock, Injury, Goal, Chit & Hit cards
  • PDF of the 76-card Basic Shock deck
  • PDF of the 76-card Basic Injury deck

If you’d like print versions of The Yellow King RPG Basic Shock & Basic Injury decks, you can get them from the links below:

 
US & Canada – buy the Basic Shock Deck from DriveThruRPG
 
US & Canada – buy the Basic Injury Deck from DriveThruRPG
 
 
Customers outside the US & Canada – buy the Basic Shock Deck from Pelgrane
 
Customers outside the US & Canada – buy the Basic Injury Deck from Pelgrane

Standard GUMSHOE already treats Game Master Characters somewhat differently than player characters. Most notably, it advises that, in a fight, they drop at 0 Health, rather than going through the impairment thresholds that allow some PCs to keep going after hitting negative points.

The QuickShock GUMSHOE system, which debuts in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, goes even further in separating the two types of character. For PCs, Health now bears no resemblance to hit points. Players use it to avoid certain types of injury outside combat. But they don’t risk keeling over when all their pool points have been spent. Instead you are too physically wounded to go on after you’ve gained 3 or 4 Injury cards. (This depends on whether the GM has chosen the tougher Horror mode, or the more forgiving Occult Adventure.)

Game Master Characters don’t collect Injury cards. The ones you choose to fight can die, if the group has chosen “Kill” as its objective. They can be hurt, if you have chosen “Beat Up.” The GM gives this condition story consequences, as needed, but it isn’t measured by numerically. (If later on you fight that Foe again, you could get an adjustment in your favor on the Difficulty number you’re trying to beat with your Fighting ability. That hardly ever happens, though.)

Outside of combat, the GM doesn’t use rules to determine whether GMCs suffer gruesome fates. That remains part of the narrative.

So when creating a Foe description, the designer distinguishes between

  • effects on investigators, as represented by Injury cards (or, in some edge cases, Shock cards
  • effects on GMCs, conveyed purely by description

The designer of a foe called a radiation beast might write:

Investigators coming within 15 m of the beast make Difficulty 4 Health tests to avoid Injuries, Minor and Major—Radiation Poisoning/Internal Bleeding. Other humans become faint and feverish, suffering hair loss and low blood pressure. Unless rushed to the hospital for treatment, they die. A Difficulty 4 First Aid success stabilizes all victims, keeping them alive without hospitalization for up to 12 hours.

Or the Foe designer can kick the question of how to handle GMC injuries to the Game Moderator:

Other humans sicken or die, depending on the needs of the scene.

Option 1 gives the players a way to interact with GMC injury, bringing in First Aid as a counter. Option 2 keeps flexibility in GM hands.

Whichever approach you take when writing up Foes, the bifurcation between PCs and GMCs is a factor that requires different thinking in QuickShock GUMSHOE than in other trad or trad-like games you may be used to.

Something to keep in mind when QuickShock joins the GUMSHOE SRD, not long from now.

Collage art by Dean Engelhardt


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

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Should you decide to play The Yellow King Roleplaying Game using the baseline version of GUMSHOE found in previous games, such as Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, or The Esoterrorists, you’ll want to translate its Foe stats.

You might also decide to snag YKRPG creatures to mess with investigators from another game, and need to perform the same maneuver.

Here’s a guide to doing that, but first, standard disclaimers apply.

In no version of GUMSHOE are creatures designed according to a formula or template. They always require eyeballing and adjustment as you move from initial conception to finished set of game statistics.

Never let the rough number ranges here take precedence over what you think makes sense for a creature.

Also remember that you can always increase the threat represented by a particular monster up or down by creating situational factors that confer advantage or disadvantage on the PCs in the particular fight you want to stage.

Difficulty Modifiers in QuickShock make this explicit, also highlighting ways that information gathered by the PCs can assist them when the story gets to the fighty bit. This is a concept you can easily steal for baseline GUMSHOE, as Difficulty modifiers exist in that game, even though they don’t appear directly in the foe descriptions.


When converting, use the foe’s Relative Challenge as a rough benchmark for the range of stats it might have in baseline GUMSHOE.

Some games split use more combat abilities than the other. For this purpose we’ll use “Main Fighting” and “Secondary Fighting” as placeholders for Scuffling, Shooting, Weapons and the like. Assign them as needed for the theme of your creature and your game’s genre.

You’ll have to assign Stealth and Alertness modifiers to QuickShock creatures, which do not include those numbers. Use the theme of the creature to decide how easy it is to sneak up on the creature, and how easily it sneaks up on others.

Glance at the Injury cards a creature dishes out, as sometimes an otherwise unimpressive enemy comes with cards nastier than you’d expect, which you’ll want to take into account when assigning Weapon damages. In the case of exotic attacks with lingering effects, use the card text as inspiration for special attack details. You may wish to steal these from existing standard GUMSHOE creatures, finding one that plays the same sort of trick.

Hit Threshold is as much a factor of creature size or other descriptive qualities as a matter of strict progression up a ladder of menace. A gigantic but formidable creature might have a Hit Threshold of 2; a small and weak one, like Lovecraft’s Brown Jenkin, might be hard to hit.

Once you’ve finished, eyeball the results and fix any number that seems oddly high or low given the concept of the creature.

Anyone with sufficient time on their hands to backwards-engineer the conversion kits from standard to QuickShock GUMSHOE will spot instances where I moved a creature into a different Challenge ranking for YKRPG than a literal reading of its standard stats would call for. When it comes to creature conversions between any two systems, theme should always win.

Weak

Athletics 4-9, Health 2-4, Main Fighting 5-7, Secondary Fighting 3-5

Hit Threshold 3

Weapon -2 to -2

Armor 0-1

Tough but Outmatched

Athletics 6-8, Health 6-10, Main Fighting 7-16, Secondary Fighting 6-10

Hit Threshold 4

Weapon -1 to 1

Armor 1-2

Evenly Matched

Athletics 9-12, Health 7-9, Main Fighting 9-12, Secondary Fighting 5-7

Hit Threshold 4-5

Weapon -1 to 3

Armor 1-3

Superior

Athletics 7-12, Health 8-18, Main Fighting 13-20, Secondary Fighting 7-9

Hit Threshold 3-4

Weapon 2-5

Armor 2-5

Vastly Superior

Athletics 10-30, Health 14-21, Main Fighting 18-28, Secondary Fighting 13-23

Hit Threshold 3- 4

Weapon 2-4

Armor 3-5

Overwhelming

Athletics 18-36, Health 32-40, Main Fighting 23-27, Secondary Fighting 18-22

Hit Threshold 2-4

Weapon 4-12

Armor 4-12

Too Awful to Contemplate

Athletics 30-50, Health 30-50, Main Fighting 28-32, Secondary Fighting 22-27

Hit Threshold 2-6

Weapon 5-12

Armor 4-12


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

Shock and Injury cards in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game are balanced assuming ongoing series play. When running a one-shot you may want to consider altering existing cards to make them nastier, or creating new, more intensely horrible ones. As in any horror game, players in one-shots often embrace the death spiral and find it perfectly in genre to end the session with a notable casualty count. YKRPG cards allow you to end their characters either physically or mentally. Given the reality horror motifs of its setting, you may find yourself leaning toward the latter.

I recently ran a game in the “This Is Normal Now” sequence for the gang on Dragonmeet eve in London. In addition to having a range of existing cards ready to serve to them, I cooked up a few tuned to the theme of the scenario—including this awful specimen:

In an ongoing game, something this harsh might be suitable for a climactic episode or the farewell to a player who has to drop your game for another commitment. Otherwise it’s way too brutal. Single cards that threaten to take your character out of the game do exist, but generally have much more forgiving discard conditions than this one, which requires you to pass the menace along to another player.

I don’t see myself using this card outside the context of this particular scenario. If I did, I’d drop the first effect line. There’s just too much going on in this card and the players found it confusing. The beneficial effect that tempts you to hold onto the card, endangering yourself and encouraging you to do bad things is something that works better in ongoing play. In a one-shot, the enticing circumstances don’t occur often enough.

As you might infer from the card title, the scenario was an homage to The Wicker Man, but with the dark impulses behind Brexit substituting for original film’s sexual panic. Players took on the roles of a Romanian short term construction crew, bound together by family ties, hired to complete an unfinished giant hollow wooden man in time for a music festival on March 29, 2019. (If you’re going to pay tribute to a classic, make that obvious as soon as possible, then add some other twist. The reference should never be your big revelation, because someone’s likely to guess it sooner than you planned.) I told players they could discard a card for free if they guessed the scenario’s title: Hard Brexit. No one got it, though Ken came up with a solid self-referential podcast pun, based on its setting in the town of Brampton.

Some readers may be hovering over your keyboards asking if we’re going to publish this, but it would be well past its topical sell date long by the time we could get it out. Anyway, all you really need is “Carcosa + Wicker Man + Brexit” and you’re good to go. For bonus points, perform a quick search of the local weirdness of a spot that cast the referendum’s densest Leave vote.

The card above is the Major Shock from a pair; here’s its Minor partner.

And here is another pair of custom Shock cards I didn’t wind up using. You can apply these to any Yellow King game, one-shot or not.


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

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes a couple of design innovations that first appeared in Cthulhu Confidential and imports them back into multi-player GUMSHOE. Most notably, its QuickShock sub-system uses cards to represent the specific ongoing consequences of mental and physical harm. Importing them into previous GUMSHOE games isn’t a simple matter, and at any rate QuickShock’s speedy one-and-done fight resolution doesn’t fit the vibe of every setting.

Another change, on the other hand, could easily apply to any GUMSHOE game. In fact, we’re already building it into the recently announced new edition of Mutant City Blues.

This change drops the ratings and pools associated with investigative abilities. Instead of having a varying number of points to spend on non-informational benefits, each character starts play with 2 Pushes. You can spend a Push to gain a benefit from any of your investigative abilities. (Or in some edge cases, a benefit untethered from any of them.)

Here’s the relevant section from YKRPG:

Pushes

Characters can spend Pushes to gain benefits tied to their Investigative abilities. They never have to spend Pushes to get information, especially not information vital to moving forward through the story to solve its main mystery.

For example, you could spend an Art History Push to:

  • acquire a painting you covet at a bargain price
  • establish a friendly prior relationship with a famous artist appearing in the current scenario
  • deflate a bullying sculptor by exposing the technical flaws in his work
  • impress a snob with your fine taste, winning her confidence

You never use Pushes on General abilities.

Some Shock and Injury cards can be discarded by spending a Push.

On occasion the GM may allow players to gain benefits not connected to any ability in the game, in exchange for a Push. For example, a player might ask if a flammable haystack happens to be situated conveniently close to a farmhouse she wants to burn down. That isn’t under the character’s control in any way, but for the cost of a Push can be put within the player’s.

Your character starts each scenario with 2 Pushes.

Unspent Pushes do not roll over from one scenario to the next.


A few specific effects may in rare cases give you an additional Push. Mostly though you don’t refresh them until the current case ends and a new one begins.

Pushes simplify and speed up the introduction of extra benefits into a session. They encourage you to go for a benefit only in key story moments. Also they skip a lot of head-scratching over what might or might not be a useful and appropriate expenditure of points for each separate ability.

We’ve also heard about a few GMs who assume, never mind what the rules say, that PCs can no longer gather information with an investigative ability after spending its pool to 0. Removing the numbers next to the investigative abilities on the character sheet should eliminate stop folks from reaching this mistaken conclusion.

Adding Pushes to an existing GUMSHOE game, or your own adaptation of the core rules to another setting, involves a few simple steps:

  • Drop the current text regarding investigative points. This includes references to the costs of specific spends in ability descriptions, scenarios, and so forth. You may decide that less than spectacular 1-point benefits can be had for the asking, and do not cost a Push.
  • Add the above text, changing examples as needed.
  • Adjust the number of investigative build points. It now becomes the number of investigative abilities in the game, divided by the number of players in your group. You may want to tack on an extra 2-4 points for a large group with unpredictable attendance, or for groups who prefer to have the workhouse abilities like Bullshit Detector and Reassurance duplicated within the group.

Alternatively, you could drop investigative build points altogether, either:

  1. dividing the abilities into 6-8 kits inspired by the setting’s basic character archetypes
  2. distribute abilities between members of the group by going around the room at the first session, allowing each player to pick one ability at a time until all of them have been allocated to at least one PC

Choice 1 reinforces the genre of your game, and works even if all of your players fail to make it for the first session.

Choice 2 allows more freedom of character concept and may thus appeal more strongly to experienced GUMSHOE hands. But you’ve got to get everyone in the same room (or online channel) to make it happen.

In the first case, abilities from unchosen kits are distributed during play, so that the first player who needs a given ability gets it. The player supplies a snippet of background detail explaining how they picked this up. Characters aren’t suddenly flash-learning the discipline, but rather mentioning for the first thing something they’ve been able to do all along. Make sure that these abilities wind up being distributed roughly equally between players.

Sample kits for The Esoterrorists might look like this:

Professor

Archaeology

Architecture

Art History

Astronomy

History

Linguistics

Federal Law Enforcement Agent

Bureaucracy

Forensic Accounting

Forensic Psychology

Interrogation

Law

Research

Homicide Cop

Bullshit Detector

Cop Talk

Evidence Collection

Interrogation

Intimidation

Local Knowledge

Medical Examiner

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic Entomology

Natural History

Pathology

Photography

Reassurance

Debunker / Stage Magician

Anthropology

Chemistry

Cryptography

Explosive Devices

Flattery

Occult Studies

Techie

Ballistics

Data Retrieval

Document Analysis

Electronic Surveillance

Fingerprinting

Textual Analysis

Con Artist

Flirting

Impersonate

Languages

Negotiation

Streetwise

Trivia

(Were I designing The Esoterrorists from the ground up to support kits, I might collapse some abilities into one another, and throw in some additional Interpersonal abilities so every kit can have at least one. But that covers the existing abilities.)

The upcoming new iteration of the GUMSHOE SRD, promised as part of the Yellow King Kickstarter, will include Pushes, along with all other elements designers will need to release their own QuickShock games.


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 Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, Mutant City Blues and Fear Itself. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Open Gaming License or the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is now out of my hands and progressing through the next stages of production on its way to actuality.

Thanks to the eagle efforts of our dauntless playtesters, I received lots of extremely useful feedback on game play, resulting in a number of changes to the final version.

Kickstarter backers have a preview version representing the state of the manuscript as of mid-summer last year. Playtesters saw and played intermediate versions from the fall and then the end of last year.

The most consistent message from testers was that the game was deadlier than I thought, cycling through PCs at a higher than expected rate.

And here I was worrying, based on the foe-smashing exploits of my own in-house group, that the combat system was too lenient!

If you have a previous draft, then, you’ll see a number of changes to lengthen investigator lifespan.

Foe Difficulties have been scaled down.

More of the foes at the higher end of the Relative Challenge scale now appear with additional ways to lower their Difficulty numbers by gaining information about them before you fight them.

Starting general ability build points have been nudged upwards, to give you more points to spend on key survival abilities.

Perhaps most effectively, the text now explicitly gives players guidelines for the number of points the system expects them to invest in such character-preserving abilities as Fighting, Composure, Athletics and (in The Wars) Battlefield.

Also in The Wars, Scrounging, a theme for an ability in search of a vital game purpose, can now be used to refresh other characters’ Battlefield ability. That’s what you use to avoid bombs, barrages and other means of mass death on the front lines of the Continental War. Scrounging now mirrors the way Morale can be used to boost Composure for PCs in that sequence and in Aftermath.

To complete the adjustment, GMs can now choose between two toughness settings, Horror and Occult Adventure modes. In Horror, your character leaves play after accumulating 3 Injury cards or 3 shock cards. The more forgiving Occult Adventure mode takes you out after 4 Injury or 4 Shock cards.

Another common theme in playtest reports: players hated paying Tolls. These mandatory point spends, which you can make from any combo of Athletics, Fighting and Health, model the low-grade wear and tear you suffer even when you win a fight. Weaker foes now have Tolls of 0, so you don’t start to deal with Tolls until you’re fighting someone big and bad. Also, Tolls dropped across the board.

I didn’t dump them entirely. Experience with past systems has shown that players also resist a combat system that lets them emerge from a victory totally unscathed. The final rule strikes a balance between two opposing flavors of cognitive dissonance.

On my final design pass I eliminated a number of rules that went unmentioned by playtesters and unused in my own group. They hit the cutting room floor for not generating enough engagement to justify their presence.

In Aftermath I removed War Footing, a state of high alert players used to be able to declare for their characters. It gave them a bonus to Fighting and a penalty to Composure—the idea that they were risking their hard-won adjustment to civilian life by falling back into their insurgent mindset. War Footing didn’t get used because players had to remember to invoke it, and already had plenty of other stuff to think about. Also it has to be a hard tradeoff to achieve its thematic end, and brains don’t like those. As one of those ideas that shows a certain logic on paper but never pays off in practice, War Footing hit the bricks.

Another rule that added complexity for a thematic payoff that paid off was a distinction, in This is Normal Now, between sapient and non-sapient Foes. My original thought was that it ought to be harder for the ordinary people of that final sequence to kill intelligent beings. In the end I dropped it in favor of a simpler set of foe difficulties. If the distinction had factored into player decisions in an interesting way it could have justified its existence. But in an investigative game a Difficulty bonus doesn’t much change who the PCs choose to attack and who to run from. So out it went.

The greatest number of revision waves happened in the Shock and Injury card sections. Familiarity with play honed my feel for the sorts of effects and discards that made a splash, and which ones fell flat, were hard to implement, or rarely applied.

So for example The Tremors, a workhorse, low-intensity Shock card, started its life looking like this:

Your next Interpersonal Push costs 2 Pushes.

Discard after it applies, or at end of scenario.

But in the final version has become more overtly interactive:

-1 to Presence.

Discard by going to a scary location. Discard by initiating an encounter with a scary person, creature or entity.

The updated version prompts action, where the original makes a particular, not terribly common action less likely or impossible.

While remaining true to its core idea that failing to gain information is never entertaining, GUMSHOE has continued to evolve since its debut more than a decade ago.

Someday I may well find myself creating a bunch of new sub-systems for some genre or setting we haven’t tackled before, tossing about half of them before the book goes to layout.

All with the help of our indispensable playtesters, who we can’t thank enough for making our games better.

Collage illustration for The Yellow King Roleplaying Game by Dean Engelhardt


The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is Pelgrane’s mind-shattering, era-spanning game of reality horror based on the classic stories of Robert W. Chambers. Coming in December 2018.