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.

Along with many other historical figures of 1895 Paris, characters in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game can meet Alphonse Bertillon, who pioneered both the scientific and pseudoscientific strains of criminal forensics. He appears in the Paris book; we also discuss him in this episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff.

The mug shot remains his most credible lasting contribution to criminology. His effort to increase the reliability of police identification left behind a historical record you can now access via the Metropolitan Museum’s open access collection.

In other words, Bertillon left YKRPG GMs a rich trove of handouts for their Paris games. Obligingly, he took these in the exact historical era the game focuses on. As you’d imagine from a photographic record of arrests, many of the folks pictured clearly hail from the hardscrabble side of life. However you also see a number of dapper individuals, because many of the shots are of suspected anarchists. Given the era, they might indeed have been involved in deadly bombing plots—or were rounded up simply for their radical views or connections.

In some cases you might want to leave on the framing matter, and present the players with actual mug shots—perhaps provided to them by Bertillon himself. I’ve left on the frame for the first of the examples below.

To use them as images of GMCs the art students talk with during their investigations, simply crop off the frames.

As their arrests took place nearly a 130 years ago, I’m sure the subjects won’t mind being recast as fictional figures in your game. You could invent characters and then search for a mug shot to match. Some tantalizing historical details remain attached to the images. You can use them as the basis of your GMCs. With these as starting inspiration, you might flesh out your characters and then build a scenario around them.

This fashionable fellow was Alphonse Grégoire, a 27 year old mechanic arrested as an anarchist. The naive observer would attribute his dazed expression to the flash of a late 19th century camera. We know better: obviously he recently read the forbidden play, and sees visions of Carcosa behind the lens.

Men outnumber women in the mug shots, as they do in any lock-up. Again the political arrests help us out here, as in the case of accused anarchist Caroline Herman, a 33 year old couturier. You could cast her as any middle class woman of formidable aspect.

Okay, clearly a player character snuck into the mix here. I kid you not that this is a 19 year old sculptor named Minna Schrader, charged for “associating with malefactors.” What investigator hasn’t been booked by the gendarmes while gathering scuttlebutt in the wrong cafe? As a seasoned occult-buster, she knew to blink during the shot, rendering it less useful to police.

Images of working class folks also abound. House painter Émile Barbier might have seen something unwholesome from high up on scaffolding. He also looks like he could take care of himself in a dust-up, and might be anything from a henchman or mastermind in a Yellow Sign conspiracy.

The collection gives you some selection of older characters. This 72 year old mattress maker gave the surnames Guelle, or Guelle, but was also known as St. Denis. He looks like he’s been drinking away his hallucinations after glimpsing the shores of Lake Hali.

These are just a quick sampling, so be sure to check out the full assortment.


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.

When Kanye West commissioned a hologram of her late father as a birthday present for his wife Kim Kardashian, he was giving a gift to her, no doubt about it. But wasn’t he also giving a gift to us, as Game Moderators looking for perfect scenario seeds for the This is Normal Now sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game?

West reportedly programmed this holo-tulpa-revenant to describe him as “The Most, Most Most, Most, Most Genius Man in the Whole World.” Gosh, how are we going to make this entirely regular spousal behavior into something creepy?

The simplest option is to simply have the hologram of a celebrity relative go berserk and start attacking people.

Alternately, a player character receives the gift of a hologram as a misguided gesture of affection, and must cope with the consequences.

In a baroque option, the hologram might come to the investigators, having somehow learned of their expertise in Carcosan-related problems. It suspects that it will be used as a murder weapon, or has already been. Invested with the conscience and personality of its deceased template, it wants to reveal the unknown culprits and then return to oblivion. It needs the player characters’ help in doing that.

Later the group might stumble across a covert community of sapient holograms. They fear exposure and wish to continue living among humans. The investigators might be tempted to sympathize with them, until they realize that the holograms have been protecting their privacy by murdering not only their original creators, but anyone else who stumbles onto their secret.

In all the above cases, the hologram gains the power to interact with its physical environment from a passage from The Yellow King embedded as comments in its code. An upgrade to a new software version, without the passage, deactivates them for good—if the team can figure out how to administer it. Until then, Kill results in combat merely dissipate them for a few days.

Numbers: 1 (or as many as the group)

Difficulty: Superior (Escape 5, Other 4, Kill 5)

Difficulty Adjustments: -1 if you know what it is; -2 if you have the Computers ability and have read its code; -1 if another investigator in the fight gets the previous bonus

Toll: 2

Tags: Construct

Injuries, Minor and Major: Holo Swipe/ Holo Strike


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.

 

For the “Mr. Wilde’s Wild Halloween” one-shot of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game I ran recently on Twitch, I knew the action would open with the investigators heading to a party. To fit both the occasion and the reality-bending theme, and to demonstrate to the audience how Shock and Injury cards work, I decided to kick off by giving the characters the chance to partake of recreational drugs. The existing cards that fill this role are themed specifically to drunkenness, and appear in the Paris sequence. The contemporary This Is Normal Now setting called for cards with titles that could refer to a broader range of substances.

The cards from the existing pair are also a touch on the complicated side, calling for more rules explanation than I wanted to get into. So I created a pair of cards with simpler mechanics and titles fitting a wide range of mood-altering substances. You too may find these useful in your game.

Characters avoided these cards by scoring Difficulty 4 Health successes.

If you watched the game you may recall that only Cat’s character failed, taking the minor card, “High.” I gave it a relatively easy and common discard condition in the hope that the audience would get to see it removed. Which is what happened, so I owe the Actual Play spirits a solid.

Unlike “Tipsy”, the minor card in the drunkenness pairing, “High” lacks the “Non-lethal” tag. You could add it back in if you prefer. However, with harder drugs you can easily rationalize why a dose gone awry could finish off a character who has already sustained multiple injuries. Even a safer drug might turn out to be laced with something fatal, or exacerbate existing wounds, should “High” occur as a Final Card.

Like “Tipsy,” you’ll note that these are Injury cards, not Shock cards, reflecting the characters’ decision to ingest a recreational poison. Their minds might be altered, messing with their Focus tests, but by a chemical rather than emotional source.


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

A colleague currently running The Yellow King Roleplaying Game recently asked me what happens when one of your players determines to seek out “The King in Yellow,” the fictional play that brings mental dissolution and reality shattering supernatural effects to all who read it.

The answer is: why, you credit the genius of the game designer for expertly luring this player into this elegant and entertaining trap.

The player has just given the teacher an apple, and the teacher is you.

A protagonist of your story has chosen to act exactly like the protagonists of Robert W. Chambers’ four original stories. Like the protagonists of stories others of us have written in filling out the boundaries of Carcosa.

In all four cases, Chambers presents the acquisition and reading of the play as part of the antecedent action. Their doomed antiheroes have already absorbed its decadent terrors. One of them swore never to read it, yet discovers it on his shelves, its contents already burning in his brain.

When I run YKRPG: Paris, I generally start laying hints suggesting that as part of antecedent action the characters no longer recall, they did more than merely read it. Somehow they took a key role in bringing it to publication.

In my one-shot con runs, the book makes an appearance more often than not. The online game I ran for Kickstarter backers ended with a showdown at the printing firm about to flood the streets with fresh copies.

Unlike the Necronomicon, The King in Yellow is no rare, antiquarian tome. It is a recently published book suppressed by authorities in England and France. While Lovecraftian volumes seem to want to remain arcane, the play wants to propagate. Like many a government action, the banning of the book may have been indifferently executed, leaving plenty of copies still in circulation.

In my home series, the Parisian characters acquired and burned several copies. Having them confiscate and destroy the book made for a fine button marking the conclusion to a particular mystery. Sometimes rumors of a copy kicked off the scenario. On other occasions it appeared incidentally, after they were drawn into the mystery by other means.

Of my groups’ many fine qualities, the one that stands out here is their ability to portray their characters as truly afraid of horrific eventualities. They handled the captured books with appropriate care, handing them over to an efficient Teutonic agency for disposal. Still, they couldn’t help but crack a copy open and see that the frontispiece illustration resembled the work of the Landscape Artist. The Poet read enough of it to note unnerving similarities in vocabulary and meter.

If one of your characters wants nothing more than to read the whole play from cover to cover, you’ll find the Shock card pairing on page 69 of the Paris book: The Self Crumbles and Moral Vertigo. Both impose discard conditions that will motivate a character who reads the play to destroy the copy he read.

What’s that you say? More than one character read it? Oh goodness! Well now they’ll have to find one copy per afflicted investigator!

Even if only one character scanned the decadent pages, what’s to say that the book remains on hand waiting to be destroyed? This slender volume sometimes acts as if possessed of a sinister will, coming and going on its own recognizance.

YKRPG is a game about recurrence. When characters over its four-sequence arc continue to not only find but read the book, you might create variants of “Moral Vertigo.” The original card tempts the reader of the play to commit murder.

Another might bend them toward political insurrection, as it does Mr. Wilde in “Repairer of Reputations.”

Other possible effects for alternate cards:

  • The character sees ghosts.
  • In stressful situations, on a failed Sense Trouble test, the character hallucinates Carcosan threats where none exist.
  • When the character discards any other Shock card, roll a die. Odd: card is not discarded.
  • When players mention that a particular action would be foolhardy or heedless, the reader of the play makes a Composure test. On a failure, you flash the action forward to the moment after she has gone and made exactly that mistake.

You may sense that players expect a hunt fraught with obstacles. In that case, oblige them. The hunt first leads to an illicit bookstore that sold its last copy hours before their arrival. Then the group finds a forgery. After that they hear that a book collector owns one—but when they arrive at his villa, blood pools around his corpse, the book is gone, and evidence at the scene points to them as primary suspects in his murder.

As with any player-driven quest, you want to extend it just until it reaches the point of frustration, then satisfy the goal just as it is starting to feel impossible. Since this is a horror game, you’ll want to follow that up with a twist, in which finally gaining the long-sought item ushers in a new set of problems.

As seen in the story “The Yellow Sign,” reading the play can summon the king himself. There he shows up inside a corpse he has animated, delivering immediate and fatal punishment. In your game he could appear as a murderous art critic, sadistic general, former regime official, or venture capitalist. He toys with the character for an entire sequence, slowly escalating his menace until a final showdown that may result in the character’s freedom—or destruction.

After a sustained effort to acquire the book, you might throw the player for a loop by revealing it as something altogether different than the rumors suggest.

It might be:

  • an elaborate cryptogram teaching one or more spells, taken from the upcoming Black Star Magic.
  • a gateway that pulls the reader literally into Carcosa.
  • a devouring entity that feasts on the consciousness of its readers.
  • a completely blank book, whose destructive power over febrile minds derives entirely from the reader’s own imaginings.

Players who swear to track down the book have embraced the premise and are asking you for surprise and trouble. Satisfy them, doling it out in exquisite doses.


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

You’ve found your way to Carcosa, and the bleak shores of Hali. A boatman, his visage concealed by a cloak, poles his way up to you. You ask for passage across the black lake. He leans forward, his caul falling partly away to reveal a mask-like visage.

“And what do you have to offer in return, my friends?”

Of the interpersonal investigative abilities, the ones you use to get information from people you talk to, Negotiation is a GUMSHOE staple.

Pretty much any mystery you read features a scene in which the detective makes a deal to get information. She might offer to intercede with a prosecutor on behalf of an arrested crook. Or promise a reporter that he’ll get the scoop when she closes the case. Most commonly, the offer comes in the form of just plain cash.

That last choice, the carefully folded, era-appropriate denomination of paper money, requires no creativity on the part of the player.

Once you get to more complicated tit-for-tats, however, you may struggle to come up with the roleplaying side of a negotiation. What offer do you make, and how do you make it?

This becomes more difficult still when you’re trying to wring something worth more than words from the character. Maybe you want the GMC to lay off your group while you enter her territory. Or to make peace with the clan across the river. Or to pretend she don’t know it was you who blew up the abandoned warehouse with all the vampires in it.

Start by giving some thought to your offer before you commence the scene. Players most often get stuck when the enter into a negotiation without an offer in mind. The GM might expect you to learn more about a character you’re talking to, so that you can figure out what they want. Mostly though he’ll be glad to see you take the initiative and show that you understand that you have to give something to get something.

Consider the scale of the request you’re making. A big ask calls for a big payout. When preparing to approach a character, ask not only what they want but how much they might want it. A favor that costs your negotiating partner little is easier than one requiring a major sacrifice of property, status, or ambition.

Players most often fail at negotiation when they realize, to their shock and horror, that the other party expects a concession of roughly equal value. “Wait, I want unfiltered access to the Necronomicon from Henry Armitage, and he wants me to go all the way to Machu Picchu and drop this amulet in a well? How dare he?”

A GM who portrays negotiations realistically may start out with a bigger request than the character hopes to receive. You may be tempted to break off talks when you hear the scope of an initial demand. Instead, try offering less and see where the point of resistance really lies. Professor Armitage might accept a lesser favor than the Machu Picchu trip, but isn’t going to loan you that book for nothing. Every time it leaves the library, the university’s liability insurance goes up!

In general, your GM wants you to move the story forward by succeeding at a negotiation. Make the offer credibly tempting and you’ll likely get what you want. That might entail a side quest that leads you into another fun scene of challenge and trouble, but that after all is what you came to the table for.

This doesn’t mean that the GM will let you negotiate successfully with every GMC you encounter. Negotiation will overcome small or intermediate obstacles, not the central scheme of the primary villain. Expect to be shut down when trying to bypass all of a scenario’s conflict and danger. When you get stonewalled, indulge in a bit of metagaming and ask yourself how anticlimactic it would be to actually get what you’re asking for. If the answer is “very much so,” you know that there’s no way your GM is going to let you away with that. Look for other, more thrilling and hazardous ways to resolve the central dilemma. As with any fruitless path you choose, the GM is probably signaling you to try a different approach. Your main enemy may refuse to talk altogether, send an emissary to insult you, or waste your time while setting up an ambush, or to quickly dismiss your offer. Any of these choices give you a chance to push the story forward, even if you don’t get everything you want exactly as you want it. The GM is using a “yes, but” technique, making something fun happen, even if it isn’t the successful bargaining session you were hoping for.

To sum up, the following list of questions may help you to formulate your position as you go in to negotiate for information, a favor, or other benefit.

“What does this person want?”

“Is that at all compatible with what we want?”

“If not, what do I have, or what can I do, to get them closer to what they want?”

When the answer to question 1, is “beats me,” you might consider doing some more investigation before opening talks. A third party could supply a more straightforward and revealing account of the character’s position than she will express directly.

When the answer to question 2 is no, you can shift footing to some other approach. In GUMSHOE, that might mean Intimidation or some other aggressive means.

Questions 1 and 3 prime you to expect to give a quo to get your quid. In most RPG situations, the readiness to yield a bit is most of the battle.

Don’t let pride sink you. Be ready to occasionally lose a bit to eventually win a lot.

You can tell Negotiation is a crucial part of roleplaying because we made a shirt about it at the Ken and Robin merch store. Unlike much in life, wearing it is a win-win proposition.


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.

Game Moderators seeing the Push rules in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game and now second edition Mutant City Blues sometimes ask how to import them into previous GUMSHOE games.

To recap how Pushes work, players get two of them per scenario. They can spend Pushes to gain non-informational benefits from their investigative abilities. For example:

  • A Painting Push lets you say that you had a work accepted to the group show at the haunted gallery.
  • A Reassurance Push allows you to calm a terrified witness, so that he follows your instructions and stays out of harm’s way.
  • With a Chemistry Push, you can synthesize an antidote to the venom of the snake that just bit your comrade.

Previous GUMSHOE games have you allocate a number of points to each ability. This gives you a pool of points, which you can spend to gain the same sorts of benefits. The GM decides whether a benefit costs 1, 2, or sometimes even 3 points.

To use Pushes in a GUMSHOE iteration with investigative points, convert scenarios as follows:

  • Some scenarios charge you for non-core clues—information that doesn’t lead you directly to another scene. Never require a Push for this. (In fact, I’d personally drop this entirely in any version of GUMSHOE, and always provide all information for free.)
  • When a benefit costs 1 point, provide it at no cost if the player suggests it unprompted.
  • Otherwise, when you see a 1-point spend listed in any scenario, and you think it would be useful or cool or otherwise gratifying enough to suggest to the player as a possibility, it costs 1 Push. If it seems marginally useful and not worth a Push, ignore it entirely.
  • Any benefits costing more than 1 point cost 1 Push.
  • If you think your players will find the benefit of a 2+ point spend overpriced, provide it for free (if asked) or let it go unmentioned.

A very small number of abilities in the crunchier GUMSHOE games, such as Ashen Stars, call for point spends to power particular effects. These probably require case-by-case design work to adapt to the Push rules. As a rule of thumb, a clearly useful special benefit either costs a Push or can be used at no cost, but only once per session.


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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