With most of us stuck at home, either all day or after returning from a day’s work of essential service, we at Pelgrane figured it would be a good time to get plans for video content off the backburner. The contents of my own YouTube subscription list are looking pretty sparse these days, with mainstream producers off-line and scrambling to create their own work-from-home alternatives.

We hope to get some longer-form pieces out to you eventually. As con season rolls around we’ll all be hungering for the panels and events we’d otherwise be enjoying at in-person events.

First though we’re getting our feet wet with a series of Pelgrane Video Dispatches, starting with various members of the team revealing their favorite GUMSHOE abilities.

Once we’re done with that question we’ll tackle others. Feel free to pitch us suggestions to add to our list!

Collect every installment by subscribing to the Pelgrane Channel on YouTube.


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 Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

In the present COVID-19 crisis, many of us, myself included, have canceled our in-person roleplaying sessions to comply with social distancing or shelter-in-place public health regimes across the world.

This Thursday, after a hiatus, I’ll be switching my in-person game to remote. (I’ve just started “Canadian Shield”, an extremely variant Fall of Delta Green series.)

As more tips and tricks for remote play come up I’ll share them with you here on the Pelgrane site. Let’s get started, though, with what I’ve learned during previous forays into online tabletop.

1. Use the platform you already know.

Everyone who has already racked up extensive remote play experience expresses a preference for a particular combo of tools for video conferencing and the virtual play space.

For video, Discord, Zoom, Google Hangouts and to a lesser extent Skype all have their adherents. Each brings its own set of pluses and minuses. In the end your choice of video app may depend on the quirks of each player’s device setup. You may wind up shuffling through a bunch of them before you find the one that happens to function for your entire group.

As far as play spaces go, Roll20 already has resources for 13th Age and GUMSHOE. We’ve just added DramaSystem.

If you’re already familiar with a video conferencing app and/or virtual tabletop, skip the learning curve and use that. It works; don’t fix it.

2. If you haven’t done this before, I prefer Google Hangouts and Slack.

Google Hangouts hasn’t let me down yet. It’s free, and pretty seamlessly handles switching to the person currently speaking. That’s the most important feature of a video app for game play and it does it well. Google has announced that they’re ending this service soon, but if I understand their PR correctly, what they’re actually doing is rebranding their video chat to sound more business-friendly. Google can hook you on a service and then whip it out from under you like a rug, but I’m guessing that we’re safe when this one changes to its new incarnation. I wouldn’t bet on that happening according to its original timetable, either.

For GUMSHOE and DramaSystem, I use as my virtual tabletop a tool not remotely designed for that, the group project messaging platform, Slack. It is a platform I use for other purposes every day and know how to use. I already use it for face-to-face when running The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, having found it the best solution for serving electronic Shock and Injury Cards. When teaching that system I upload a card image to the game’s main channel so everyone can feel its horror. I also drop the cards to each player, in our private message inbox. When they discard cards, I delete them from the private message inbox, so that it contains only the cards currently held.

Maps, images, and other handouts I upload to the main channel as well.

Slack’s advantage over its competitors in its category lies in its ease of use. A newbie can immediately figure out its simple and intuitive interface.

I’d use Slack for any game that relies primarily on dialogue and description, which describes both GUMSHOE and DramaSystem.

In fact I’d probably use it to run 13th Age. I don’t use a battlemap when running that in person, so wouldn’t bother with one in remote play either.

A game that does require a tactical map will naturally push you toward one of the purpose built virtual tabletops. These all have to handle D&D and Pathfinder. If you’re playing a game of that crunchiness online you’ve bought into the extra handling cost.

3. Leave in the Socializing.

Especially now, much of the point of an online game is to feel the connectedness we might ordinarily seek out around a table, at a con, or in a game cafe. The formality of the online experience might tempt you to cut right away to the case. You may know each other less well, or not at all, if playing online. Even so, give everybody time to chat a bit before getting started.

4. Expect a shorter session.

Though this varies for every group, in general the online meeting format promotes an efficiency you may find yourself envying when you return to face-to-face. Video conferencing requires participants to be conscious of who has the floor at any given moment. It reduces crosstalk and kibitzing. People used to conducting real meetings on video tend to step up to help guide the discussion and move toward problem-solving. The software does a good bit of your traffic management as GM for you.

For this reason you’ll find that remote play eats up story faster than a leisurely in-person session. The pace of any given episode more closely resembles the tighter concentration typical of a con game group that has found its rhythm. Your group will likely decide what to do faster, and then go and do it with fewer side tangents, than they would at your regular home table.

When this happens, you may find yourself wondering if you shouldn’t add more plot to keep your ending further away from your beginning. Instead, embrace this as the dynamic operating as it should. If it takes you three hours to hit five or six solid scenes, where in person it would take four, that’s a good thing.

5. Expect a more taxing session.

In addition to respecting the pace your session wants to have, you should aim for shorter sessions because the experience of gaming remotely takes more out of you, and each of your players, than face-to-face will.

Many of you will be sitting in less comfortable chairs than you’re used to being in. Those with home offices may already have been in those chairs for an entire work day already.

The concentration required to pay attention to people on video conferencing taxes the brain more than face-to-face. You’re trying to assimilate the same amount of communication from one another with fewer cues to work with. This tires any group, physically and mentally. Expect that and pace your game accordingly.

When you see a time-consuming setpiece sequence coming up, check the clock to see if you’ll be able to do it full justice given these constraints. Never be reluctant to knock off early and leave folks wanting more next time you all join up.

6: For Slack, use the Dicebot app.

To return to a platform-specific point, the Dicebot Slack app allows any participant to roll dice right in the channel. It easily does the d6 plus spend modifier for GUMSHOE. It inherently reminds players to announce their pool point spends before rolling, another neat advantage over physical dice.

Speaking of games that scorn the battlemap, Dicebot also handles the more complicated positive d6 + negative d6 + modifier roll seen in Feng Shui.

7. Whatever the platform, use a dice app if you players can possibly be coaxed into it.

Some players need that tactile dice-touching fix. I wouldn’t force online rolling on them, but having rolls take place visually in front of everyone does enhance their emotional impact by allowing everyone to see and react to the results.

Dice provide suspense . A die roller, in whatever platform, shares that edge of the seat moment when you see who succeeds and who’s about to take a Shock card.

8. Use a shared Google Doc for note-taking.

Since they’re all on a device anyhow, encourage your players to contribute to the group chronicle by setting up a shared Google Doc. Gussy it up with a graphic touch or two to build tone and theme.

9. Keep online versions of character sheets.

You’d think players won’t lose paper character sheets if they’re not leaving the house, but of course we misplace stuff in our own places all the time.

For GUMSHOE, the highly recommended Black Book app does all of the work of keeping online character sheets for you. It has just extended its trial period for player accounts.

Absent a specific tool, keep updated character sheets in a Dropbox folder or, for games where characters are simple as they are in DramaSystem, in a Google Sheet. I’ve done this for my “Canadian Shield” game.

Stay tuned for more tips. I look forward to the day when I can update this post to remove references to the pandemic as a current event. Until then, stay safe and, as much as you possibly can, the hell inside.

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.

As addressed in an earlier piece, you may want to deploy a nastier set of Shock and Injury cards when playing The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in one-shot format.

The cards mentioned there give you a steeper doom spiral. But some con games may tick along safely until the very last moment, where dramatic necessity demands less of a spiral than a precipitous drop from unharmed to smeared across the streets of Paris. (Or the battlefield, or post-revolutionary New York, or in your neighborhood.)

This will most often happen when you as GM do your subtle and not-so-subtle best to steer the investigators from final annihilation, but the players follow their hearts and charge in headlong, warnings be damned.

When this happened in a con run I GMed last spring, I improvised my way to a result that provided the 50% party kill story logic decreed.

(Long story short: half the group decided to attack the Carcosan doppelgangers who had engineered their participation in the publication of the play. The other half decided to abstain. I pointed out what a big disadvantage this would put the fighting characters in. They remained undeterred. Not because they were foolish, but because it was the fun and fitting thing to do.)

Imposing an enormous Challenge rating to compensate for their unspent Fighting points was the easy part.

When you find yourself in this situation, you can improvise the requisite sudden deaths. But you might want cards to prove that you’re doing it within the rules. Which is what you’ll be doing, when you deal out the cards below.

BRINK OF DOOM

Injury

-2 to all tests.

The next Shock or Injury card you receive becomes your Final Card.

CLIMACTIC DOOM

Injury

Counts as your Final Card.

You are dead. Surviving PCs might take advantage of shattered reality to restore your the ability to speak and move. Even so, you’re still dead and leave play at end of scenario.


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

Belle Époque Paris boasted more occultists than you can shake a stick at. Or, in my case, more than I could fit into The Yellow King Roleplaying Game.

Here’s one who, due to his association with other, more renowned figures, warranted a mention but not a full write-up. Yet he might lead the group into interesting trouble, as he represents that most heedless and danger-seeking breed of creatures—the publisher!

Lucien Chamuel

Alchemical Supply Vendor and Occult Publisher

28, 1867-1936

Lucien Chamuel, or Mauchel, if you want to go by his mere birth certificate, runs the Librairie du Merveilleux in the 9th arrondissement. Despite its name, the Libraire is more an alchemical equipment shop, meeting space and publishing office than a bookstore. For a fuller selection of texts, the art student heroes of your game should seek Edmond Bailly’s Librairie de L’Art Indépendant, in the same occult-ridden neighborhood.

Already a seasoned publisher in his late twenties, Chamuel acts as a sidekick to the better known Papus. Like his mentor, Chamuel practices Martinist mysticism, which reconciles arch-Catholicism and the working of esoteric magic.

With Papus, he founds the journal L’Initiation. It contains not only mystical, quasi-scholarly articles on the occult, but for those who read between the lines, the latest gossip on city’s ever-feuding questers. In 1895 it has already been running for eight years; it will eventually rack up a total of twenty-five.

When the art students need Chamuel to plant a story immediately, he might include it in L’Initiation’s weekly sister publication, Le Voile d’Isis.

Effusive and friendly, Chamuel welcomes new visitors to his shop. Art students shaking his hand may notice the dampness of his palm. He answers the investigators’ questions without their having to resort to anything so gauche as the use of an interpersonal ability. He shows reluctance only when their inquiries portend trouble for him or his esoteric allies. In that case he may quote the title of a famous essay he published: “the supernatural does not exist!” Of course the real point of the article is that it does exist, but is science, not superstition. Arch-Catholic, ritual science, that is.

Two years ago, Papus declared his friend Chamuel the Gnostic Bishop of La Rochelle and Saintes. Like all church leaders the regular bishop of that diocese, once a fortress of the Huguenots, neither knows about nor would approve of this distinction. Papus hands out imaginary distinctions like this on a regular basis. Chamuel accepts them as flattery but would never himself announce them to customers or acquaintances.

Chamuel may take a particular shine to the belle-lettrist in the group. His offerings extend beyond the occult, and he’s always looking for an interesting publication to add to his catalogue. Among his offerings includes a book on the Paris catacombs. In your version of history, it might be the belle-lettrist character who writes it for him, perhaps under a pseudonym.

When they meet him, he might be poring over the texts of a book he is about to publish, by another occult stalwart, Joséphin Péladan. The uninitiated might assume that The Complete Theater of Wagner simply surveys the controversial German composer’s opera works. It does this only to advance a much more important revelation. Parsifal, the book contends, fosters mystical enlightenment in favored listeners, as it did to Péladan during an 1888 performance at Bayreuth. This thread might provide color to an unrelated scenario. Alternately, it brings the art students into contact with Carcosan forces plotting to cloak their activities in the guise of Norse mythology and/or thundering timpanis.

Chamuel’s best seller, one he asks prospective authors to emulate, is Péladan’s How to Become a Magus, part one in a projected seven-volume series, The Amphitheater of Dead Sciences.

In 1895, the shop has only just moved to a new spot, 79 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière. A mere year later it moves again, to 5 rue du Savoie in the 6th. Do the art students trigger a weird event requiring its relocation?

No occultist chooses an anagram for only one reason. Chamuel is not only a reordered version of Mauchel, but one of many spellings for an archangel, Camael. Naming himself for an angel of strength and courage constitutes a Martinist act of sympathetic magic, meant to bind those qualities into himself. His angelic predilections might get him in trouble if a winged, masked Carcosan comes calling, professing to be a projection of his esoteric desires.

Every fashionable man in 1895 Paris looks somewhat like a wizard, due to the current vogue for lavishly full beards. The occultists must therefore work harder to achieve grandiloquent facial hair. Chamuel’s prodigious beard differs from that of his colleagues by billowing out on each side, with his chin more closely trimmed. Unfortunately for our purposes, the one blurry surviving photograph of Chamuel depicts him in late middle age.

As a patron: Sinister forces might have presented Chamuel with the opportunity to publish The King in Yellow. Surely he rejected the text as insufficiently Christian, Wagnerian, or both. Perhaps he recommended the author to Bailly, whose interest in the Symbolist and Decadent movements exceeds his own. Luckily he gave up reading the play long before reaching its mind-shattering second act. Already the details of those who brought it to him have grown jumbled in his mind, like a dream. Realizing in retrospect that the flavor of occultism unleashed by the book contradicts every holy instinct of a good Martinist, he seizes on the art students’ interest in the mystery, urging them to track down the unknown rival publisher who committed it to print.

Amateur investigators of This Is Normal Now visiting contemporary Paris may have reason to discover that the 1895 location of the Library of Marvels has become a Franpix, an upscale groceteria. Occultism suggests that its logo, an apple, means something fraught in this context. Who placed the forbidden fruit at this location, and does it seal something in, or summon it? Likewise, a trip to the shop’s prior location finds the sleek offices of a renovation firm, with a similarly numinous logo of a pyramid folding in on itself.

 


 

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 at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

When the original Fear Itself came out in 2007, horror was in the depths of its torture phase, typified by the Saw and Hostel franchises. Always the most reliable indicator of the zeitgeist, horror cinema reflected America’s anxieties about its place in the world under the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. The early Obama years saw a retrenchment into Hollywood’s recycling ethos, with a spate of remakes recapitulating the shock cinema of the 70s and 80s. Both of these horror cycles predominantly featured casts of young friends and peers facing the hideous fates that await most scare-flick protagonists—the default assumption of the game. One current horror wave, post-dating Fear Itself, places the family unit in the crosshairs of supernatural or monstrous danger. A Quiet Place, Hereditary, Sinister, Bird Box, Us, and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House all evoke fears of family dissolution in the face of threats from without. The more ghostly variants often show the influence of Kubrick’s The Shining. Political in a different way than the previous torture cycle, they touch on domestic economic unease, depicting families fighting to survive, and remain intact, under crushing external pressure. (Although they’re still going strong, I’d categorize these as products of the inward-looking late Obama period. Cultural waves take a while to show up on screens, so Trumpian horror may mark another imminent shift, with The Purge and its follow-ups as leading indicators.) To tweak Fear Itself for family horror, revisit character generation to create a cast of close relatives who will face a terrifying situation together. Start by dropping Drives. The implicit need to protect one another, literally and metaphorically keeping the family together, motivates the characters. Drives ensure that PCs act like horror characters, often giving them a positive reason to head into danger. In a family game, the characters generally seek to escape a situation which continues to ensnare them.

  • They’re socked in for the winter at the creepy hotel.
  • The ghost manifestation follows them even when they abandon the creepy house.
  • Monsters are everywhere and no place stays safe for long.
  • The source of horror is coming from inside the family.

Here, characters investigate to escape the problem, not to burrow deeper into it. The GM must actuate that by keeping the pressure on, driving them toward the information that might just allow them to get through this. During character generation, ask each player in turn to specify their role in the family. You might specify that at least one player must take on a parental role. Or, if no one wants to be Mom or Dad, most characters wind up as siblings—presumably orphaned in an earlier manifestation of the scenario or campaign’s central menace. Some players may try to wriggle free of emotional obligation by creating distant relatives. Redirect the urge to play third cousins or distant uncles. A recently arrived newcomer to the family, such as a new spouse or a biological half-sibling who showed up waving a genetic test, still works. Specify that they’ve had enough time to commit themselves to the family unit. They might have an outside perspective but still need desperately to preserve their connection to the others. In a DramaSystem game you’d then devise a map of blocked emotional agendas that each seeks from the others. Although conflict may exist or arise between PCs, in this case the focus is on coming together against an outside danger. Characters might be distant from another at first; if they survive, it’s because they bond in pursuit of survival. This theme appears in some familial horrors, like The Haunting of Hill House, but isn’t so much a factor in A Quiet Place. Instead start off the collective thinking by asking the group to come up with an answer to the following question: What blow has the family recently endured? Groups who like to dig in and find their own way can take it from there. Ones who prefer to choose from supplied prompts can pick one of these choices, perhaps riffing a variation:

  • We all mourn our missing family member, who was killed either recently, by known means, or many years ago, in an incident we still struggle to understand.
  • We underwent a bankruptcy or are on the verge of one.
  • The head of the family has been suffering professionally.
  • One of us committed a crime that made life hard for everyone.
  • One of us underwent a medical crisis and yearns for tranquility and quiet.
  • One of us was victimized or traumatized.
  • We survived a terrible accident, perhaps of mysterious origin.
  • A weird destiny encircles us.
  • Our family has been cursed for generations.
  • We have just moved house, and we have to make it work.

As GM, you might instead specify a collective blow tied into the premise. That last item on the list fits a classic haunted house outing. A crime within the family might trigger supernatural vengeance. The head of the family in professional crisis could be headed for the psychic break that escalates the horror, because as we all know, ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY. Skip the step where players choose Sources of Stability. Instead, each family member treats all the others as sources, suffering the ill results when one of the PCs fatally succumbs to the horror. Family-based horror works well for convention scenarios, providing an immediate premise and stakes for the players. Save time by handing out pregens with family roles already specified, allowing participants to pick which ones that appeal to them. Some players prefer to avoid the emotional intensity of familial interaction, often for strong personal reasons you don’t want to blunder into. They may have already experienced family dissolution, or regard relatives as people to escape from. In horror, this impulse might be called “Mummies? Yes! Mommy? No!” Be sure to secure buy-in, either by talking to your players at home or clearly signaling the premise of your con game on the sign-in sheet.


Fear Itself is a game of contemporary horror that plunges ordinary people into a disturbing world of madness and violence. Use it to run one-shot sessions in which few (if any) of the protagonists survive, or an ongoing campaign in which the player characters gradually discover more about the terrifying supernatural reality which hides in the shadows of the ordinary world. Will they learn how to combat the creatures of the Outer Black? Or spiral tragically into insanity and death? Purchase Fear Itself in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Because most RPG play advice goes to GMs, we tend to focus on them as the source of possible roadblocks in a session’s pacing. However, although in most game systems players lack the narrative control of GMs, they can also throw wrenches into the machinery of any plot.

I’m not just talking about moments when players shoot each other’s plans down (though that too can easily become a drag if you’re not careful.) No, I’m talking about the moment when the player leaps in, trying to turn a GM yes into a GM no.

As a player, when you hear another player propose an action to the GM, you may from time to time feel the temptation to leap in with a logical objection.

Other player: “I rush out onto the fire escape.”

GM: “Okay, once there, you—”

You: “Oh actually buildings in this part of the country typically don’t have fire escapes.”

Other player [fumes silently]

GM [fumes silently]

Now, put as baldly as that, you may be saying to yourself, “Oh actually I don’t do that.” And, as you are a fine and delightful person and a habitue of the Pelgrane blog, let’s stipulate that you wouldn’t.

But some people do, and you might be surprised if you were to inventory your past in-game utterances. Player-side blocking happens reflexively, and I don’t think that anyone who does it means to or realizes the implications of what they’re doing.

Some of us suffer a particular susceptibility to the urge to block GM approvals of other players’ actions. The temptation can strike players who mostly GM. Plot-hole-seeking viewers who have trouble suspending disbelief while watching genre movies and TV shows can also blurt out action-blocking statements at the gaming table.

As in the scripts you’re spotting implausibilities in, GMs are often letting strict practical logic slide in an effort to empower participation and keep things moving. Busting them on this slows or stops the action, shifting focus to picayune detail, at the expense of the broader narrative.

When you feel the tingle of a plot block dancing on your tongue, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Just don’t say that. At the end of the session you can regale the rest of the group with your superior fire escape knowledge while also implicitly praising the GM for not letting stuff that doesn’t matter kill momentum.

Alternately, in cases where your realism needs simply can’t be contained, find a way to turn a block into an adjustment. Instead of saying that the action the GM is ready to allow can’t work, propose a way that it can.

“Oh actually, there aren’t fire escapes in this part of the country, so likely Sajid watches the burglars from a balcony. Is it maybe made of frosted glass, helping him hide while he does it?”

 

“Nobody wants to see that, smell that…”

When a news story starts with the phrase “In what sounds like a scene from a horror film,” the media monitors at the Ordo Veritatis sit up and take notice.

When a basement floods with gore and bone, as happened in Bagley, Iowa in mid-October, they send a team of investigators, alert to possible Esoterrorist activity.

It might just be that the neighboring meat locker shares a drain with the unfortunate homeowner’s basement. That will certainly be the story the agents spread when they later conduct their Veil-Out.

Or it could be a blutkeller, an Outer Dark manifestation that forms around abattoirs and meat-packing facilities. A spell propagated by Esoterror operatives conjures it into this reality. The working requires the dumping of a human corpse amid animal waste products at the facility. An entity enters the mixture of blood and flesh, either remaining in the facility or slurping down the nearest drain or sluice. It then periodically surfaces to opportunistically attack lone victims, pulling them down into itself and devouring them, ooze-style. When it disappears into a partially clogged drain after an attack, it leaves a portion of itself behind. The blutkeller can come up through any connected pipe, or through demonic multilocation, phase into another nearby underground room. It can only phase into buildings visited by persons who have come into skin contact with its liquid residue. During the mission briefing, the team’s Mr. Verity strongly advises the use of hazmat suits when examining any potential blutkeller effluvia.

The demonic entity lacks solid substance and cannot be fought by normal means. An ingenious team might manage to contain or slow its rampage by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. To permanently banish it from the world, they must place the person who summoned it in its presence. Compelled to attack and devour its benefactor, it shrieks with thwarted rage before a red vortex sucks it back into the Outer Dark.

Until that happens, the summoner gains an infusion of psychic energy each time the blutkeller kills. This attracts luck, positive attention, and physical vitality. Agents may concentrate their search on local individuals gaining sudden wealth, popularity, or fame. To prove their case, they seek evidence that the target researched the ritual and had its corresponding, distinct sigil tattooed somewhere on the body.

It is not possible to cast the spell without expecting an ensuing series of horrible deaths. While agents may regret the necessity of feeding the summoner to the entity, they can assure themselves that the target made its bargain with the Outer Dark knowingly and

[sunglasses off]

…in cold blood.


The Esoterrorists are occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world – and you play elite investigators out to stop them. This is the game that revolutionized investigative RPGs by ensuring that players are never deprived of the crucial clues they need to move the story forward. Purchase The Esoterrorists in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Pity the poor monsters. With Halloween over, they’re nursing hangovers and anticipating fallow months of scant employment over the holiday season.

Here at Pelgrane we love our monsters twelve months a year.

But what happens when you love a monster too much to want your GUMSHOE characters to fight it?

We think of horror stories as featuring monsters as antagonists. Right from the start though, with Frankenstein, the genre has called into question the nature of monstrousness. For every out-and-out fiend, like Dracula, we get a beleaguered beast, like King Kong, we should merely have left alone.

Recapitulating horror tales where we empathize for the Other requires some translation to work in the GUMSHOE format. Investigative horror assumes that the protagonists learn about, and then vanquish, monstrous beings. For this to work the players have to want to see the creatures defeated.

Our key horror games handle this issue by keeping the creatures clearly predatory. The Lovecraftian beasties bedeviling Trail of Cthulhu investigators want to stick our heads in jars or drag us down into the watery depths. The Outer Dark Entities of The Esoterrorists revel in their planned destruction of our world. If they’re misunderstood, it’s by the poor human saps who think they can gain power by letting them through the membrane.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t evoke the more creature-friendly strand of the horror tradition. We do have to exercise some care, ensuring that players can continue to sympathize with their own characters when the monsters they confront turn out to be misunderstood.

Plenty of horror tales have us root for the Other as an instrument of just vengeance. They don’t feature investigators attempting to thwart them. Freaks wouldn’t make a lick of emotional sense if it centered around a team of cops or private eyes trying to protect the cruel Cleopatra and Hercules from terrible comeuppance at the hands of the sideshow performers.

If you’re structuring a GUMSHOE scenario so that the targets of the creatures deserve an awful fate, your players will eventually ask why they’re trying to stop them, instead of helping them.

For example, you might want to explore a social issue through the vengeful ghost trope. At first it might seem appealing to show ghosts of workers killed in 1911’s notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire fatally haunting sweatshop operators. But if you depict the vengeance as righteous, players won’t feel particularly motivated to protect their victims. If you depict the ghosts choosing the wrong targets, you’re making villains out of the people whose tragedy you meant to highlight.

You can answer that question by making your vengeance-seekers unsympathetic from the jump. Sure, Freddie Krueger wants to get back at the children of the people who burned him to death, but they did that to him because he was a serial killer. This, of course, solves the issue by entirely sidestepping it.

A monster can evoke sympathy even as it nonetheless has to be stopped. It might be justifiably enraged after being dislodged from its lair, or transported to the Broadway stage in chains. Still, its inevitable rampage threatens innocent lives, and the investigators have to discover the means to either pacify or destroy the creature before many more are killed. This allows the investigators to feel a sense of pathos when the beast meets its destruction.

Alternately though, you could design the mystery so that they’re trying to find a way to save both the creature and its potential innocent victims. Maybe they need to find the amulet allowing them to pacify the fish-man, luring it safely back to its lagoon. Or the scenario occurs in the creature’s island, grotto or isolated valley, with the heroes figuring out a way to stop the real antagonists, the showmen who want to capture the so-called monster.

A sapient monster might serve as an unwilling antagonist. A lycanthropy victim might be the one who contacts the investigators, begging them to find a way to cure her condition before the full moon next rises. She’s been through the whole routine of chaining herself up at night, but somehow that always fails, leaving her roaming the moors again. So far she’s only devoured cattle but she’s sure that eventually she’ll stumble across the wrong hiker and tear him apart. The real antagonists might turn out to be the sorcerers who cursed her, man-eating werewolves who don’t want the cure getting out, or the sinister researcher intent on using her blood as a pharmaceutical ingredient.

Your tragic monster might have already gone down the path of murder and destruction, while retaining enough self-awareness to regret it. The cannibal clone of a researcher’s dead husband has enough conscience to regret his flesh-eating compulsion. But then, only human meat grants him sustenance, and he isn’t up for suicide. Again, your scenario could give the players a moral choice between finding a cure or simply killing him.

You could twist this into your take on the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. The heroes discover that the killer they’ve been tracking is one of two personalities occupying the same body. Killing or imprisoning the monster means that the affable, helpful and entirely innocent alter ego suffers punishment too. Do the investigators prevail on the good half to make the ultimate sacrifice? Again, solving the mystery by finding a cure provides a less fraught conclusion for players who rebel when presented with no-win situations.

The easiest version of the sympathetic monster is one in which evil humans know of the creature’s existence and are framing it for their own crimes. The snake folk mind their own business in the remote mountains, until meth cookers familiar with his legend start dropping corpses covered in fake fang marks. When the investigators find out that the real monsters are people, they might take care of them on their own. Or, if they’ve established good relations with the reptile people, they might invite them to help clean up the nest of killers threatening their quiet, isolated lives.


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.

Revising your writing requires acute concentration. The first draft may be an act of pure creation, but when you start to patch it up, any tool that can assist your weary brain warrants consideration, no matter how mechanical it may seem.

Almost every writer’s first draft includes stylistic bugaboos that need to be hunted down and eliminated.

For example, you may know that you occasionally:

  • confuse “their” and “there”

  • overuse dashes or quotation marks

  • use “affect” when you mean “effect”

Nearly any manuscript can use a scrub for unnecessary uses of the word “that.” Half the time you need it to retain sense or rhythm. The other half, it’s just sitting there, killing the rhythm of your sentence. Scrutinize each appearance.

In roleplaying writing, when describing hypothetical actions of characters or objects in a game session, you can almost always strike the word “will” and then tighten further:

The truck will come barreling out of the alley at the investigators.

Becomes…

The truck barrels out of the alley at the investigators.

To mention another issue I always go on about, you may know that you use too many inactive verbs: “is”, “are”, and “be.”

Either through an editor or with the aid of a word cloud generator, you may have discovered that you over-rely on certain words or phrases. (Which words pass muster and which you ought to trim is a bigger subject, so for the sake of this discussion let’s stipulate that you’ve identified the words and phrases you want to ration.)

Bugaboos of whatever sort easily slip past the eye when revising. You place them in your document unconsciously. They can remain equally invisible to you when reviewing . Force yourself to see them by using the formatting feature of your word processor’s search and replace feature to highlight each instance of the word or phrase you’re looking for. Search and replace in both Word and LibreOffice* allows you not only to find instances of formatting, but also to add it where none exists. So if you’re looking for all instances of “that”, search for “that” (no formatting) and replace with “that” (highlighted.) Before beginning the revision in earnest, repeat the process for each bugaboo you want to spot.

As you comb through your text, your selected errors and problems jump out at you in blazing yellow. This makes it harder to mentally screen out the stuff you’re looking for.

Is this annoying? Yes, and that’s a plus. After a while you’ll have cut or un-highlighted so many instances of your target word or phrase that you might just rewire your brain so you make that mistake less frequently during the initial draft phrase.

Editors love writers who show progress by overcoming their familiar bugaboos. Using a trick to get there doesn’t count as cheating. And even if it did, they’d love you all the same.


*Google Docs, deliberately feature-light, does not provide for this. Yet another reason why nothing you write for professional publication should be composed exclusively on Google Docs. It’s fine for first draft, if you find it convenient, but when readying for submission you need the formatting capabilities of an actual word processor.

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