A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Previously in See Page XX, I laid out a two part sample outline for a Yellow King RPG: Paris series. By popular demand, I’m now going to do the same for the next of the game’s four sequences, The Wars. As before, this is a starter framework to show you how it might be done, not the only way to do it or a pattern to lock yourself into. Even if you start out following it in detail you’ll discover better ideas for your group when the players get involved and surprise you with their contributions to the emerging storyline.

This outline contains more episode ideas than you’ll likely need, allowing you to pick the hooks your players will most enjoy. Some make sense only if you already ran a Paris sequence for the same group. Others can be collapsed into one another, by mixing and matching subplots.

Village

Start with an episode that leaves the squad to their own devices as they encounter a mystery that allows them to interact with other people. The village scenario, in which the soldiers protect, and then come to suspect, a tiny community on their side of the lines, fits this bill perfectly. Which is why “A Feast for Wolves,” the introductory scenario in the book, uses this pattern. Use that if your players haven’t run through it before, which they probably haven’t. When creating your own variation, start with the squad traveling to the site of the scenario, so that along the way you can introduce the hazards, technology, and background weirdness of the alternate world weird war.

Damned Peculiar

Devise the second scenario around one of the squad members’ Damned Peculiar Thing. The boredom of a routine mission turns to terror when one of these old fears comes roaring back to confront the group.

Does the photographer find ghosts in his recon photos? Time to track down some ghosts.

Does the lieutenant dream of walkers driven by corpses? Your scenario is about encountering undead enemies and learning how to deactivate them.

Does the former med student dream of a dead forest where the other PCs all lie blown to bits? The scenario starts with an awakening from that dream and then leads into that exact forest.

Creature Callback

The squad’s assignment to bring back photographs of an installation not far behind enemy lines escalates in difficulty when the players confront a monster their predecessors encountered in Paris, now repurposed as a weapon of war:

  • Murderous automatons recall the animated sculpture that escaped from the art students’ garret.
  • A unit of korrigan spies trains to use their hypnotic powers to lure enemy soldiers to their deaths.
  • Gargoyles have signed on as enemy shock troops.

Masterminding the creature cadre is a new secondary villain. You might bring back an ageless secondary villain from Paris, such as a vampire or Carcosan noble. Or introduce a new big bad who features in this sequence only. Like any recurring villain introduction, the squad learns about the new antagonist but has to execute flawlessly to permanently deal with them right off the bat. In which case, they deserve to win. Because how, oh how, will you ever think of another bad guy for them to fight instead?

Bunkered and/or Hunkered

The squad humps it to an isolated outpost to find out why the soldiers who are supposed to be holding it aren’t answering their boîtenoire. The site might be a pillbox, the remains of a medieval tower, or a literal bunker. When they get there they find blood spattered all around and plenty of signs of a hideous struggle. Rear echelon orders them to hold this eerie location. And then night falls, and the horrors of the dark woods come creeping out to do to them what it did to the last squad. It’s a haunted house scenario in camo gear, with the perfect reason not to flee the house—the squad has been ordered to stay. (In my own playtest game this was the scariest scenario of the sequence, hands down.)

Sinister Experiment

By this time the squad has pieced together enough of the events behind the events to realize that that strange squiggle against a yellow background signals bad news, and that anyone wearing a pallid mask may not have humanity’s best interests at heart. In this scenario they spot those marks of damnation around a friendly complex they’ve been assigned to protect. The sinister military experiment might be:

  • human brains transplanted into walkers
  • a super soldier serum synthesized from Carcosan blood
  • reality grenades that warp time, space, and reality.

Perhaps your secondary villain runs the experiment. Or maybe it’s time to reintroduce the king or one of his daughters, looking suave indeed in a medal-festooned general’s uniform.

How does the squad protect its own side from the moral and metaphysical doom that will surely result if this experiment reaches the battlefield?

Installation Attack

Follow up that moral quandary with a straightforward military mission to enter enemy territory and, as per the plot of countless war movies, take out a radio tower, munitions cache, or bridge. To get there they must fight or evade their way through enemy soldiers and creatures. Once there, a mystery surrounds the installation. Something unearthly is happening there. Maybe the target has gone missing entirely.

In another twist, the squad encounters a septuagenarian American, perhaps a once-famous artist or writer who pulled an Ambrose Bierce-style disappearance decades ago. Yes, it’s a PC from the first sequence, turned GMC, who is either incidentally present and in need of rescue, or has given in to Carcosa’s blandishments and now works to further global reality breakdown. Use the latter option only if you trust that the player will enjoy it. If the former PC has broken bad, allow a path that allows the present characters to redeem him. (In my game, the player’s new character shot the previous one summarily dead, and he wasn’t even up to anything. And much fun was had by all.}

Next month, the back half of this sequence outline for The Wars.


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.

During the Paris sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, the art student characters may while a decadent evening at Montmartre’s Cabaret du Néant—or as they may know it, the Cabaret of Nothingness. Seated at the coffin-like tables of its Salle de Intoxication, they order from servers dressed as monks and morticians. Overhead dangle skeletal chandeliers. The drinks come in skull-shaped cups and are named after diseases: Consumption Germ, Leg of Lively Cancer, Cholera From the Last Corpse. The first is crème de menthe.

We can’t bear to name this delicious drink after an illness so instead will pay tribute by calling after the establishment itself. Don’t forget to tip your undertaker!

Cabaret du Néant

1 ½ shot dark spiced rum

½ shot red vermouth

½ tsp vanilla extract

½ can coke

Stir, serve on the rocks.


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.

This cocktail isn’t as brilliant an invention as the GUMSHOE mechanic of the same name, but it’s mighty tasty all the same. If you’re drinking it, you have by definition planned in advance to have the ingredients on hand.

Preparedness Test

1 ½ shot Kraken spiced rum

½ shot red vermouth

½ can aranciata rossa

3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters

Stir. Serve on the rocks.


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

To discard most Shock cards, characters in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game pay a price or take a risk. There’s an easier way to make this Shock Card disappear.

Shock Card

2 shots bourbon

½ shot cherry brandy

1 shot red vermouth

2 dashes Angostura bitters

½ can limonata

Stir, serve on the rocks.


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.

In the reality horror world of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, a redmedic is a parasitic humanoid guised as a doctor or nurse.

In our reality, it is a refreshing cocktail starring muddled fresh strawberries.

Redmedic

2 shots gin

¼ shot gum syrup (or simple syrup)

3 dashes rhubarb bitters

3 – 5 strawberries

½ can club soda

Muddle strawberries and syrup with extreme prejudice, add other ingredients, stir. Serve on the rocks.


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.

Today’s cocktail brings lightless deliciousness from the Lake of Hali.

Black Lake

2 shots Cachaça

2 shots chilled espresso, incl 2 tsp sugar or sweetener

6 shots water

2 dashes mole bitters

½ tsp vanilla extract

Stir. Serve on the rocks.

Requires the advance prep of making and chilling the espresso, but more than worth it.

A Scenario Hook for Ashen Stars

The lasers pick up a contract for what appears to be a simple rescue mission. The massive freighter Never Given has lost faster-than-light capability and has become lodged in a translight corridor.

Characters with Astronomy or Forensic Engineering want to hear that last bit again. Lodged in a translight corridor? That isn’t possible!

Well, replies the client, it might not be possible, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening. Worse, the freighter’s presence prevents other ships from using the corridor. In an area with few FTL jump points, the accident threatens catastrophic shortages on a dozen worlds.

Hails to the Never Given garner nothing but static and garble. The contract calls for a crew to establish contact with them, rendering whatever aid is required to get that ship moving again.

The mostly automated ship runs with a skeleton crew. Once aboard, the lasers discover the survivors suffering from acute sensory disruption. They’re hallucinating, experiencing their memories of the Mohilar War. Like everyone, including the investigators, they lost all recollection of that conflict when it ended. Whatever they’re reliving, it’s traumatic, and jacking their medical readings into the danger zone.

Not long after boarding, the lasers start to flash back to their own repressed war histories.

Through investigation, the group discovers that radiation from cutting-edge computer components in the cargo hold has altered the temporal frequency of the entire ship, causing everyone on board to exist in two times at once. As they race for a fix before they too succumb entirely to the chrono-hallucinations, they must ask themselves—do they stay in their altered states long enough to learn more about the Bogey Conundrum? Or do they decide that the knowledge of the war ought to remain in the box some unknown force so dramatically put it in?


Ashen Stars is a gritty space opera game where freelance troubleshooters solve mysteries, fix thorny problems, and explore strange corners of space — all on a contract basis. The game includes streamlined rules for space combat, 14 different types of ship, a rogues’ gallery of NPC threats and hostile species, and a short adventure to get you started. Purchase Ashen Stars in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

In this story hook for preteen weird investigation in Fear Itself, excitement over Mars exploration turns to alien terror in a sleepy small town.

The young protagonists assemble when assigned to a group class presentation about the latest NASA rover mission to Mars. They establish their group dynamic while poring through images on the NASA site on a Zoom conference.

As the discussion wanes, one member of the group hears an alarming bashing sound outside the house. This character is alone in the house for reasons you ask the player to specify. They go out to check and see the Mars rover sorting through their trash cans. Seeing that it’s been spotted, it rattles away, vanishing from sight despite its ungainly construction.

The group might gather to search for it then. Or become alarmed the next day, when they stumble across a raccoon, coyote or other example of local wildlife, subjected to the same sort of dissection described in accounts of cattle mutilation. Nearby: tread tracks that look awfully like the probe.

Inquiries to NASA get the brushoff. But then the kids see government investigators show up to ask questions. And then disappear, their vehicle still running by the roadside.

The group hears of more sightings, but only from their classmates. Whenever they’re asked about it, adults either convincingly say they’ve seen nothing, or enter a glazed-over state indicating that they’ve had their memories tampered with.

The kids see that second group of adults constructing something at night, moving about robotically, as if under external control. After observation—with the threat of discovery and a chase—they can determine that it is a corral of some kind.

Seen up close, the probes do not quite match the NASA versions. Lines that ought to be straight instead display organic irregularities. The metal breathes. A camera blinks, revealing itself as an eyeball.

By capturing one of the probes and making a Science spend they can not only communicate with it but compel it to reveal its story. It belongs to a shapeshifting alien race. Its people encountered the probe on Mars and took it for Earth’s dominant life form. Not long after their raiding ship landed in the old quarry outside town, they realized they’d chosen the wrong form. But never mind—they’ve still managed to move about, psychically enthralling enough victims for the slaughter to soon commence. Those space agency investigators seemed an impediment at first, but quickly became an appetizer for the great feast to come.

Only the young are immune to their psychic powers, leaving our heroes alone to destroy the corral before it becomes a slaughterhouse, taking out the shapeshifters and their ship. Build your conclusion around the players’ plan, throwing in a surprise obstacle or two along the way.

Probe Monsters

Abilities: Aberrance 14, Athletics 4, Fleeing 12, Health 4, Psychic Blast 10

Hit Threshold: 3

Armor: None

Awareness Modifier: +1

Stealth Modifier: -2

Damage Modifier: +3 (psychic blast vs adults); -2 (psychic blast vs teens or younger)

Aberrant Powers: Can alter its outer surface to a frequency outside the human visible spectrum, spending 1 Aberrance per adult observer or 2 per younger observer to become effectively invisible. Can erase itself from the memory of any adult on a 1 pt Aberrance spend and gain obedience from an adult on a 2 pt spend. Refreshes Aberrance at dusk each day.


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.

The paintings of the Russian-born French artist Jean Béraud (1849-1935) offer a trove of inspiring images for the Paris sequence of your Yellow King game. Straddling the warring Impressionist and Academic camps, he specialized in scenes of everyday life and worked during and beyond the game’s 1895 setting. Like the action of a typical scenario, moods range from the glamorous to the seedy. Players might find their own characters in his signature scenes of late night drinking. As Game Moderator, you might spot any number of GMCs on his canvases. He portrays places as evocatively as he does people, allowing you to illustrate scenes set anywhere from the ballet to the streets.

1895 finds Béraud at the height of his fame, having won the Legion of Honor the year before. If he shows up, play him with the sardonic edge seen in many of his images. He sits on various exhibition committees. The artists in the group may meet him as he decides whether to admit their work into one of the city’s prestigious competitions. Do the investigators have to pressure him to withdraw from exhibition a mysterious painting depicting the hideous action of a notorious play?

Typical player characters if I’ve ever seen them.

This investigator is about to give up on Bonhomie to get the next clue from this hardcore absinthe enthusiast, and switch to a little Steel.

The group’s Muse wonders if she’s been stood up for her appointment with a mask-wearing gentleman.

As the Sculptor spins theories, the Architect takes notes.

Use the Society ability to pry loose the decadent secrets this louche character can spill.

If you can’t find a witness at a smoky cabaret, it’s time to try an outdoor ball, lit by those fancy electric lights the city is now known for.

Shop for food and information at the legendary market of Les Halles.

When in doubt, create an accident as a diversion.


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

Most writers, whatever form they favor, fade into obscurity after their deaths. That goes triple for playwrights. The number of stage writers whose works are still produced in the English-speaking world is very spare. And only a handful of those wrote originally in other languages: chiefly Chekov and Ibsen, and also the Swedish realist turned Symbolist August Strindberg (1849-1912.)

Unsurprisingly, Strindberg looms even larger in his home country, where his novels, plays, essays, and paintings are also considered important. The Red Room is considered the start of the modern Swedish novel.

In translation, he is chiefly known for plays, most notably the hard-hitting family dramas Miss Julie (1888) and The Father (1887.) Known, but less often produced, are his later occult-influenced Symbolist works: A Dream Play (1907) and The Ghost Sonata (1908.) In the first, a daughter of the Vedic god Indra descends to Earth to engage in various allegorical encounters. The second includes, in addition to the titular ghosts, a woman who slowly transforms into a mummy.

What happens during the break between his early realism and his later proto-surrealism that might be of interest to GMs and players of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game? Funny you should ask. He moves to Paris, where he drinks a lot of absinthe and gets mixed up with the occult—right when your art student player characters are getting into trouble there.

In 1895, Strindberg is 46 years old and once again without a wife. His earlier stage works are known and respected in Paris, though they lack the bravura spectacle of the sorts of plays Sarah Bernhardt (YKRPG: Paris p. 115) chooses. Speaking of Bernhardt, Strindberg has become fast friends with the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha (YKRPG: Paris p. 115), whose Art Nouveau poster designs for Bernhardt productions such as Gismonda have become the hit of the town and will forever define the graphic look of the period.

Strindberg and Mucha share an interest in the occult and mystical. The artist refers to his studio as a profane chapel, using it as a salon to chat about the esoteric with such fellow enthusiasts as the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (YKRPG: Paris p. 120) and novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans (YKRPG: Paris p. 119.) Huysmans, you’ll recall, writes decadent novels later name-checked by Lovecraft, and remains under the thrall of a recently deceased Rasputin figure, the ex-priest and accused Satanist Joseph-Antoine Boullan.

As a result of his paranormal inquiries in mid-1890s Paris, Strindberg experiences a shattering psychic break, entering what is known as his “Inferno period.” In his 1897 novel Inferno, written in French, he fictionalizes his experiments with drugs, optics, alchemy and paranormal botany. While in the throes of his personal inferno he succumbs to pronounced paranoia. Entities he calls “The Powers” subject him to psychic attack, as punishment for the crimes of mankind. He owes this martyrdom, he says, to his past misdeeds.

Self-induced hallucinations described in Inferno include an incident where his fictional counterpart walks through Paris in the aimless flaneur style that will later be used by the surrealist Dreamhounds of the 20s and 30s to evoke magical connections. At Montparnasse station he randomly chooses a train to get on. He disembarks at the village of Meudon, where he encounters a “Roman knight in gray iron armor.” Yes, he realizes it’s a pile of melted blacksmith’s slag, but never mind that. An alchemical vision appears before his eyes, leaving behind leaden seals giving him a choice between his wife’s initials, or a king’s crown. In the novel, he selects neither.

But in reality? A psychic break among a traveler in occult literary circles around 1895? Surely Strindberg has either read that consciousness-shattering play, The King in Yellow, or heard enough about it to have its contents sink into his absorptive, sensitive artistic awareness.

That so-called Roman knight, who left him a choice between earthly ties and the crown of the king, sounds a lot like a Carcosan. So do “The Powers,” whose punitive aspect fits the pallid-faced nobles from the shores of Hali.

Another scene from Inferno features the narrator’s visit to a resort, where he hopes to rediscover his peace of mind. Instead he realizes that his rival in alchemy, Dr. Popoffsky, has followed him there. Having mastered the secrets of poison gas by murdering his own wife and child, Popoffsky now menaces the Strindberg figure. Terrified and weeping, the narrator retreats to his room, where a vaguely human shadow appears on the wall. Paralyzed, he stares at this being, which he dubs the Unknown, as it passes an electrical current through him over a three hour period. When he finally regains the power of movement he rushes into the corridor, only to find the floor attendant missing. He asks for another room, but the only one available is directly under the one he is sure contains his enemy’s electrical machine. Is it Popoffsky, or is that merely a guise of a Carcosan menace?

Your player characters can investigate the sinister truths Strindberg later transforms into the material of this hallucinatory, paranoid novel. You can find a plot hook like the above on nearly any page.

A PC victory against Carcosa might account for the subsequent transformation that lifts Strindberg out of this period and back into productivity. He embraces Swedenborgianism, the safest and most benevolently boring of the period’s mystical movements. At the end of 1896 he returns to Sweden and finds a circle of new literary friends in the university town of Lund.

In later sequences you might echo the characters’ brush with Strindberg by having their successors attend a production of one of his works. Frequently censored in his lifetime, Strindberg’s plays may only now be permitted in Aftermath’s post-authoritarian America. This Is Normal Now characters might catch a production that casts one of his earlier, more popular works in the weird expressionist style of his later plays. I once saw a brilliant version of The Father done this way. The one you describe might have a few more yellow signs in the corner.


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

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