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.

When asked to explain GUMSHOE, a key part of my standard spiel goes like this:

“GUMSHOE says that it is never interesting to fail to get information. When you use an Investigative ability, you never have to roll a die. If you have the right ability and use it in the right way, you simply get the clue. However, in the case of other abilities, it is interesting, if sometimes horrible to fail—you slip and fall when the vampire is chasing you, or get caught sneaking into the installation, or are thrown from your horse while trying to impress the empress and her sneering courtiers. These are the general abilities, which you do have to roll for.”

By definition I only present this pitch to people unfamiliar with the game.

Old hands, like the people reading this blog, might have a question, though.

How interesting is it, really, to fail at certain classic GUMSHOE general abilities?

Most general abilities lead to clear positive outcomes on failure and negative consequences on failure.

With the various fighting skills, you win a fight or land a blow. Sneaking / Infiltration gets you somewhere you shouldn’t be. Riding, Driving and Piloting avert disaster during chases and other dangerous transportation situations. Stability / Composure maintains mental self-control in weird or pressuring situations. In all cases, success gives the players a triumphant moment, while failure ratchets up the tension.

But what about the resource-related general abilities, you might ask. This list starts with Preparedness, the general ability every other member of the Pelgrane team were mad at me for picking first when we did the “My Favorite Ability” video series. Other examples include Network from Night’s Black Agents and Scrounging from Yellow King Roleplaying Game: The Wars.

On the surface, failing a test with these abilities leads a character nowhere.

  • A Preparedness failure means you don’t have the ingredients for an improvised explosive.
  • A Network failure indicates that your favorite Sevastopol gun dealer can’t sell you a Dragunov SVD because she just got bagged by the GRU.
  • A Scrounging failure establishes that you’ll don’t find a cache of stored rations to feed those starving villagers.

A less astute reader than yourself might consider these uninteresting failures. It is true that they don’t move the plot forward. Still, they carry an emotional resonance, because they allow the players to specifically envision what success looks like.

When you ask if you have explosives ingredients, know a gun dealer in Sevastopol or can locate a nearby food cache, you’re imaginatively envisioning a possible event. This gives you a moment of hope. Readers of Hamlet’s Hit Points will recognize this as an Anticipation beat. Should you succeed, you get a second emotional up moment. (HHP beat analysis calls this a Procedural up beat.) Should you fail, you instead feel disappointment, as the prospect of the explosion, gun buy, or relief operation you were picturing melts away on you. Either way, the failed test carries emotional content — or, you might say, interest.

If you always succeeded with resource-style general abilities, you wouldn’t get that. The possibility of failure, even when it requires you to scrap one idea and find another, is what makes these abilities exciting in play.


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.

He’s written several books and more than one chapter on the subject. In this Pelgrane Press video dispatch, GUMSHOE and DramaSystem designer Robin D. Laws distills it all down to his top game mastering tip.

GUMSHOE divides abilities according to whether failure at that ability can drive narrative. Because it is never interesting to fail to get information, you never fail with your investigative abilities. General abilities, on the other hand, do offer the possibility of something interesting—if often horrible—happening when you fail a test. You can fail to run from the shoggoth while Fleeing, fail to repair your sputtering Cessna’s instrumentation with Mechanics, or fail to keep your wits about you with Composure.

However, just because failure is often interesting doesn’t mean that any given instance of it will always best further the story.

As a GM, you may see no particularly entertaining outcome from a failed test.

  • Failing to Sneak past the security guards, as you have imagined them, doesn’t get you a classic interrogation and escape sequence. Nope, just an exasperating hassle that delays the confrontation with the escaped sapient lab rats.
  • When a character is Riding to impress the hardbitten rodeo clowns, a failed test prevents you from running that scene where they try to recruit the group into their ranks.
  • A Counterinsurgency failure might rubbish the otherwise cool plan the group has spent half an hour cooking up, forcing them back into planning mode.

A common and often useful solution to the boring failure calls for the GM to replace failure with a costly success. You get past the guards but lose 2 Preparedness points when you drop your kit bag. You impress all but one of the rodeo clowns, who later tries to brain you with a wrench. You blow up the revanchist hideout but are identified by witnesses while doing so.

However, the existence of this technique shouldn’t prevent you from doing the simple thing instead: sometimes, you can just let them win!

Success establishes the character as competent and impressive, a feeling the players might not get enough of in a tense session. You get a reward as well, skipping an unneeded complicating factor. In a scenario already packed with action, that wrench-wielding rodeo clown might be one plot wrinkle too many to squeeze in before the session clock runs out.

Even an action that should feel difficult and could yield a rewarding story turn in other circumstances, could in certain instances create more fun as an automatic success.

A failure at the top of a scenario, especially the first one, starts the proceedings on a sour or unintentionally comic moment.

Failures that slow the action just as you’ve gotten it rolling likewise get old fast. If you’ve already got plenty of suspense bubbling, yet another problem to deal with registers as demoralizing overkill.

This doesn’t mean that characters should be able to succeed at unbelievably difficult tasks just to speed your the pacing.

But so long as success feels credible, or can be made to seem that way by your adjusting your description of the situation, you may find the prospect of certain failures overrated.


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.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007. 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I always thought that the great breakthrough of the roleplaying hobby into the pop culture mainstream would occur at a remove. As Hollywood’s obsession with brightly-colored genre properties ready for their CGI close-ups accelerates, I always figured it was only a matter of time before some enterprising producer sniffed out a gaming property and had a big hit with it. Sure, we’ve already had a D&D movie and a Vampire TV show. The comics field also had a long list of disappointing attempts — even some very successful ones, like Superman in the 70s and Batman in ’89 — before the success of X-Men prompted an all-out buying spree for the movie rights to comic book characters. Now that even the fourth-tier comics characters have been parceled out,it seems logical to expect somebody in Hollywood to pony up and knock one out of the park with a Shadowrun or Deadlands flick. (And, hey, I just happen to know a guy who owns this property that’d make a great vehicle for a Chow Yun-Fat / Jet Li pairing…)

Turns out I was, as is so often the case, wrong.

Who would have thought that the multi-million dollar media explosion would take its cues from the ever-so-humble, studiously non-commercial LARP? (Also known as a ‘freeform’ to the Brits in the house.)

All around the world, all around the TV dial, Live Action Roleplaying rules the airwaves.

What? Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed all the LARPS!

Survivor? Big Brother? The Bachelor? Average Joe? The
Apprentice?

After, all, what are they but televised, pre-processed versions of those games of negotiation and hoodwinkery we all know so well? The guy with the goth-style top hat standing on the escalator at Origins, his crossed arms proclaiming his state of invisibility, is involved in the same essential activity as Richard from Survivor or Omarosa from The Apprentice.

The most immediate benefit of this phenomenon is to provide us with a new, more succinct and accessible way to describe our hobby to perplexed relatives and acquaintances. “It’s like a cross between Survivor and Lord of the Rings,” makes up in brevity and easy cultural reference what it lacks in precision. It certainly beats the ever-popular, “Well, you’re improvising a group story, but there are rules, so it’s more like a game, but there’s no ending and nobody ever wins.”

The nobody ever wins part is the second-biggest sticking point that prevents us from expanding beyond the comfortable hobbit warrens of fandom into the culture at large. The only larger obstacle is the requirement that participants exercise their creativity by creating a fictional character and contributing to a group narrative.

You might well argue that without these two elements, you no longer have roleplaying as we know it. Maybe so. Still, there could be great benefits to creating a gateway experience. This hypothetical LARP variant might act as a stepping stone to draw new people to our world. It could contribute to our hobby’s infrastructure by becoming a new sub-category of gaming, like CCGs or clicky-base games. It could move crowds into the convention halls and send traffic into game stores. Every little bit helps.

At the very least, a compare ‘n’ contrast between the reality TV genre provides an interesting thought experiment. What elements do they have that our games don’t?

Competition

Some LARPS provide clear victory conditions; others parcel out awards to an array of winners and generally celebrate the cooperative spirit of group storytelling. Reality-TV games are all about winning and losing. Our hypothetical gateway experience has to be a game in the purest sense, with one triumphant participant left bloodied but standing at its conclusion. Even those of us in the current roleplaying culture who love Settlers of Catan or Panzer Leader tend to be shier about pure competition than society at large, which trumpets its values at every stadium and sports bar.

Clarity

With competition comes clarity. Instead of the multifarious goals of a lovingly complicated freeform, which might revolve around succession in a vampire clan or the raising of a new goddess, reality TV pounds home a single, simple goal: don’t get eliminated.

Packaging

The big difference between reality TV and our kind of game is the spectator element: you can enjoy it passively, the way almost all entertainment in our culture is consumed.

On reality TV, events are heavily massaged through editing, background music, and other techniques of the medium to emphasize conflict, drama, and emotional impact. They build with epic, drawn-out pacing to the crescendo of each episode, in which the evening’s loser is chosen.

Even if you don’t want to play, you want to watch. Watching breeds excitement. It transforms a game into an event.

Punctuation

In Reality TV, player eliminations provide regular dramatic high points, generating a wave pattern of suspense and excitement. Our LARP-like events, on the other hand, give everyone the chance to participate for as long as possible.

The punchier, more ruthless reality games get their charge by having irrevocably bad things happen to certain participants at predictable intervals. There’s always a freight train coming; the only question is who gets tied to the tracks this time.

Emotion

Reality TV focuses the pursuit of primal goals: love and status. Participants seek the approval of others even as they plan to climb over them.

A huge number of these shows are high-stakes versions of the Dating Game, and appeal strongly to women. Although LARPS tend to draw more female participants than other streams of hobby gaming, in general we do a bad job at pitching ourselves to half of the population. Our LARPS tend to blunt emotional interaction by framing them in boy-friendly martial themes, history, and politics.

Relatability

Though few of us expect to be marooned on an island with a cast of buff, half-naked fellow outcasts, many reality games draw on more universal themes of daily life: trying to get along with the other people in your house, looking for a mate, or, as in North America’s latest reality hit, The Apprentice, vying for success on the job. It might be fun to picture a reality show with magic swords and talking dragons, but the imagery of successful reality TV hits much closer to home.

Money

And in the end, most of these shows offer the winners something everybody wants and can relate to: a big cash prize. With a kitty of money at stake, suddenly any game abstraction, any immunity challenge or contrived stunt, takes on a clear meaning.

Therefore, a more mainstream-friendly flavor of LARP would possess the following traits: simplicity of concept, a spectator element, constant suspense generated by dramatic events at regular intervals, accessible emotion, familiar imagery, and a big pot of money.

I can see the creation of a cash-prize LARP circuit as a serious business opportunity for someone with the capital and vision to make it work.

I can also see the result as something that many current players would flee from at maximum velocity.

That’s reality for you.

A column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

I did it again. As heard in a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff, I made up a new term. Since it is easier to cite articles than podcast episodes, and because new terms want to be propagated, I’ll revisit it here.

The term: table sense.

It’s what developers look for when you write scenarios or source material for roleplaying games.

It’s what game masters need from you when they read your material.

Table sense is what it sounds like: the ability to forecast what will happen at the gaming table when the scene, magic item, background detail, monster or whatever it is comes into use.

How do you get it? By playing roleplaying games of the sort you’re writing for. And more importantly: by picturing the play experience as you write, away from your table.

Table sense may be a particular challenge for writers steeped in the story game world, which assumes a high degree of cooperation to jointly create the designers’ very specific preferred structure. They create a shaped or tailored version of agency with strong parameters.

If the designers doesn’t expect you to punch the bartender in their game of Bowler-Hat Show Ponies (to name a currently popular example), storygame players do not allow such loucheness to cross their minds. Instead their characters proudly stick to wearing bowler hats to equestrian competitions, because that’s the premise the entire game tailors itself to.

In games with a more traditional wide-open agency, where the freedom to act as chaos agents lies well within the expansive remit of any core activity, you can be that eventually some player is gonna at least contemplate some bartender-punching.

Using your table sense, as you write a scene with an annoying bartender and characters with fists at the end of the arms, you know to explicitly answer the question: what happens when someone takes this implicit option?

Table sense reminds you, when writing a setting’s deep backstory, to answer the question: how do the player characters learn about this? What difference does it make to them when they do?

When reviewing a scenario you’ve rewritten, table sense allows you to zero in on those moments when you assume that players will conveniently take this or that action that makes your sequence of action work. Once you’ve spotted them, you can ask yourself if they will really do that thing. You can move from there to the panoply of crazy powers, spells, or tech they might be able to deploy to blow past all of the obstacles you have carefully placed in their path.

Table sense tells you, when creating a new spell or magic item, to ask “will a player be excited to get this? What story possibilities does it create?” It leads you to imagine yourself as a player character gaining the item. Do you keep it, or sell it as soon as you can? If you keep it, what cool things might happen? Depending on the game system and its core activity, butt-kicking might be a cool thing, or a very cool thing. Or not a thing at all, in which case, your table sense reminds you that you’ve designed an item for a game other than the one you’re currently working on, and need to highlight and hit the delete button.

When you apply table sense to a description of a Game Master Character, you can spot the elements you’ve written that will be hard or impossible for a GM to activate. Does your grimy trader on a decaying space station dream of a new life in the core Combine worlds? If so, and you’ve also described him as taciturn and unwilling to reveal his true self, your table sense alerts you to a problem. You must then show how the players can overcome his reticence to learn of his yearnings. While you’re at it, table sense allows you to envision at least one situation in which that actually matters to the players.

In other words, as you write, always think about how the GM will take your text and put it on the table.

Table sense differs depending on the system you’re writing for.

The basic unit of fun in 13th Age is the fantasy fight. If the element you’ve created can feature into a combat sequence, your job is done. On the other hand, your description of the taciturn bartender who yearns to move to a great metropolis of the Dragon Empire ought somehow to relate to a fight the characters are headed toward or have just completed.

GUMSHOE’s core activity is investigation. When you create a monster, you have to ask how it might appear in a mystery scenario. A good old-fashioned ravening beast that lives only for slaughter might fit into a mystery. For the most part though you’ll be looking for cleverer, tricky creatures: less Conan, more X-Files.

Table sense also inspires you to structure information in a way that works at the table. The information on Government Lethal Chambers in the Aftermath sequence of The Yellow King Roleplaying Game appears in FAQ format. This cues the GM to introduce a few key facts, and then encourage the players to ask questions about the world their characters grew up in. Those answers, laid out for ease of reference, tell them about much more than these devices. They allow them to imaginatively engage with the alternate reality of the post-Castaigne regime world. The GM could extract that info from a conventionally structured chunk of setting exposition. And indeed, other bits of world background are presented in that format. But for this key setting linchpin, I made a point of going beyond the reading experience to envision how information goes verbal as it passes from GM to player.

You get table sense from GMing, and then GMing some more, and also by GMing.

It fades over time and must be renewed. If you haven’t run games for years, your developer can spot that. She might also be able to pinpoint the era you came up in, and when you stopped.

Table sense acts as the fuel for the imaginative exercise of seeing sessions in progress that use your material.

Passages written with table sense not only avoid pitfalls and maximize fun, but also help the reader to imagine play in progress, and how great it will be to get a group together to run your game or scenario, instead of one of the many others their time and affection.

When choosing his favorite monster, Robin looked to three criteria: ickiness, impersonality, and versatility.


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.

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