Six Tips for Achieving Power Over the Revision Process

I was recently asked how to handle the sense of frustration that comes when a writer feels stalled out during a revision process. My answers were all pretty general, so in the interest of sharing, and of turning my development work for Pelgrane into a web article they’ve already paid for, I share these with you here.

These bits of advice address the momentary feeling of being in the weeds on a project. Chronic writer’s block is a different matter, best addressed elsewhere.

1. Accept the Weeds as a Phase of the Creative Process. Writing is mentally taxing. Revising, doubly so, as it lacks the flow state you can reach during primary creation. Learn to see periods of mental fatigue while improving a manuscript not as signs that something has gone awry, but the result of the effort you’re applying to the task.

Is it hard? Good! Good writing is hard. Good revising is hard. That feeling is a sign that you’re taking the task seriously, sharpening your self-critical faculty, and improving your piece. It can be hard to see while you’re in it, but you’re tired because you’re doing the work.

You may feel lost and bogged down when by any objective measure you are making steady, incremental progress. Self-assessment weakens when you’re tired and/or stressed. You’re doing better than you think.

2. Give Yourself a Break. Let yourself rest, intellectually and emotionally, by taking time to not think about the work. Pursue a relaxing, meditative activity. If weather and health permits, go for a nice long walk. Whatever you do to give yourself downtime, recenter yourself by resting and relaxing, then come back to the work refreshed.

3. Clear the Decks. Other, unrelated minor tasks may be impinging on your concentration by making you feel (again, likely incorrectly) that you’re behind on all manner of obligations. Find a few items on your to-do list you can easily move onto your done list, and knock them off. (Implicit in this is the suggestion that you keep a to-do list to track personal and professional tasks. It helps you see that you don’t have as much stuff weighing on you as you think, and gives you the satisfaction of ticking them off and making them disappear. I use a web/phone app called Toodle-Do.)

4. Get Enough Sleep. Easier said than done, and something I absolutely struggle with myself. But writing and revising are not so much about waiting for inspiration as waiting for a state of mental acuity. Experts disagree on what works, and what works for me may not for you. But one thing is guaranteed to mess you up: not blocking out enough time in your life for full, restful sleep.

5. Refresh Yourself While Working. When mental fog descends during a writing shift, go lie down with your eyes closed and the lights out. I use a sleep mask. Even if you don’t fully nap, a ten to fifteen minute quasi-nap will help regain focus. Also, try the Pomodoro technique, in which you work for twenty minute stretches punctuated by five-minute breaks. I don’t find this useful for primary creation, as it breaks flow, but have had good results with it on revision/development days.

6. Depersonalize the Task. This one’s a tall order, but the most helpful if you can swing it. Seek detachment from the idea of success or failure at the task as a measure of self-worth. Revision is a technical exercise, one that you get better at with time. (But never really defeat—welcome to the writer’s life!) Picture the dullest, least emotionally resonant task you can ably perform: unclogging a sink, cleaning a grill, labeling photo files. That’s revision. Keep judgment out of your rear-view mirror, whether it’s the imagined judgment of your editor or the voice of doubt in your own head. Yes, eventually your work will be evaluated, by yourself and others. However, to avoid rabbit holes during the process you have to seal that thought in a box and put it away. When you’re clarifying ideas and tightening prose you’re just scrubbing the gunk off that grill.

In a previous post, I floated the idea of using events from a prior Dreamhounds of Paris series as backstory in The Fall of Delta Green. This column, first in a two part series, dives deeper on that with a series of FoDG plot hooks centered around the historical figures from the earlier book who survived into the 1960s. You can still use these, supplemented by your copy of Dreamhounds, even if you never played that campaign. But if you did, contriving events so that players interact with characters they played in a previous series provides an extra hit of callback fun.

By 1959, death has already taken many Dreamhounds characters off the board. Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Claude Cahun, Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard, and Kiki de Montparnasse have all passed. Granted, this is the Mythos, so your DELTA GREEN agents might still interact with them during seances, in ghoul tunnels, or after raiding a Mi-Go brain case archive.

Another half dozen die during the sixties: having Breton, Cocteau, Duchamp, Hugo, Magritte or Tzara show up alive requires some attention to dates.

The theorist, arbiter and petty tyrant of surrealism, poet André Breton, does not appear as a GMC in Dreamhounds of Paris. Instead he serves as a nemesis figure your players may have some unsettled scores with with. The agents find him at a cafe called Promenade Of Venus near Les Halles in Paris, where he now restricts himself to a single glass of Beaujolais per visit. Though never able to reach the Dreamlands, to his enduring frustration, he may provide secondhand intel on it. Alternately, he dishes dirt on other movement members, most of whom have left him behind, leaving him to boss around a lesser generation of hangers-on. Like many revolutionaries in their dotage, he has grown culturally conservative, decrying current art movements and new technologies. He exempts from his contempt the young leftist tel quel movement, whose leader, Philippe Sollers, treats his disciples, including Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida, as Breton did the surrealists.

The agents might involve themselves in a 1963 incident where young poets, in alleged tribute to Breton, set fire to his apartment building door, nearly igniting a gas main and blowing the place to kingdom come. The PCs could gain his trust by intervening. Or maybe they’re the ones who commit the arson, as an act of Intimidation. They could also secure Breton’s cooperation through Negotiation, adding to his collection of antique waffle irons. First Aid (used as an investigative ability) identifies his ill health as chronic asthma. He dies, aged 70, in 1966.

The 1960s see filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) embark on the greatest late-career comeback in cinema history. After years spent in the relative obscurity of the Mexican film industry, he shoots the caustic story of a young nun, Viridiana, in 1961. Agents may visit him during its clandestine production in Franco’s Spain. Or they could find him a year later in Mexico, directing The Exterminating Angel, about dinner party attendees who discover they’re unable to leave the room. That set visit must surely lead the agents to a Yog-Sothothian pocket dimension without a clear exit. Other opportunities to talk with Buñuel include the shooting of 1964’s Diary of a Chambermaid with Jeanne Moreau or 1967’s Belle de Jour with Catherine Deneuve.

In his later biography My Last Sigh, Buñuel describes his extremely hazy memory, into which great stretches of his past have vanished. Presumably a side effect of his Dreamlands visitations, the agents may have to overcome this condition with black lotus powder or pineal stimulation from a Tillinghast Resonator.

If looking in the early sixties, agents track down the painter and novelist Leonora Carrington (1917 – 2011) in New York City. In 1963 she returns to her adopted home, Mexico. The agents visit her as she paints her epic mural “El Mundo Magico de los Mayas” (The World of Mayan Magic), which draws on the Popul Vuh and, as you can see by clicking the link, the Dreamlands. Agents may note its dhole-like dragon, tentacular tree, one-eyed cat of Ulthar, as well as its rendition of Yog-Sothoth and a wicker man-esque figure that could represent nearly any other Great Old One. Older and wiser than during her family-defying adventures with Max Ernst on the edge of the surrealist circle, Carrington may require Inspiration before recalling them. She’s no one’s muse, she informs the the agents, but a revolutionary artist with much of her own work left to do.

Filmmaker, artist and writer Jean Cocteau dies in 1963, on the cusp of the sexual revolution that will eventually allow the world to catch up with his unabashed self-realization as a gay man and passionate aesthete. Cocteau recalls the heady events of the 20s and 30s through an opium haze, and can prescribe the combination of dope and sugar he used to make his Orphic descent into the Dreamlands. If his happens in 1960, he must be on the set of his final film, Testament of Orpheus. Though most of Breton’s cabal despised him, he won’t correct agents who call him a surrealist. Should they bring up Picasso, who has recently resumed their old friendship, they see Cocteau’s decades-long unrequited crush flush through his face.

In the sixties Salvador Dalí (1904 – 1989) has achieved the international fame and glory he always dreamed and schemed for, abetted by his formidable wife, the muse and cartomancer Gala (1894 – 1982.) Agents may find these jet-setters in Hollywood, Paris, or the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. While enjoying the freedom of life in Europe and the US, he cozies up to Francisco Franco when at home in Spain. Dalí does this both out of conviction, and his desire to wangle a museum from the fascist leader. The agents may get him to open up by wiring funds to money-thirsty Gala (Negotiation.) Dalí’s rediscovery among the burgeoning counterculture kicks off in 1964. By 68 supple young adherents of the free love generation flock to the beaches of his home in Cadaques. His invitations to model have more to do with his voyeurism than artistic intention. In 69 he signs a deal to create a tarot deck but is unable to complete it, an incident the agents might well take a hand in. To square the debt he incurs by failing to deliver, he resorts to a self-forging scam that will later blot his reputation, signing blank sheets of paper to be turned into bogus prints.

Next month: we conclude with Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Valentine Hugo, René Magritte, André Masson, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, and Tristan Tzara.


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Officially, the Delta Green setting never indicates that the Dreamlands underwent a radical transformation at the hands of Parisian surrealists in the 1920s and 30s.

However, in the privacy of their own Gaming Huts, GMs who ran a Dreamhounds of Paris series and want to connect it to their current Fall of Delta Green games might just indulge in a callback or two.

Careers of key surrealists continued for decades after the Trail of Cthulhu period. As I researched Dreamhounds, I saw how events might unfold after its era—an extended continuity I had no place for. Until now.

The period of surrealist involvement with the Dreamlands reaches a natural endpoint when most of its cast of historical characters flees France in advance of the Paris Occupation.

The book hints that their departure triggers a freezing over of the Dreamlands. The few surrealists who remain in Paris, like the heroic and doomed Robert Desnos, use it as an otherworldly transport and staging area for their Resistance activities.

The post-war period finds the surrealists swept aside by art world trends. In Paris, hardcore Stalinists, including recent convert Picasso, shut them out of the avant garde scene. The center of art world gravity shifts to New York, where abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock and color field painters including Mark Rothko take painting far from the psychological and pseudo-mystical imagery that gave Ernst, Dali, Tanguy and the gang the ability to reshape the Dreamlands.

The sleeping realm thaws out but remains static in reaction to the austerity of the artistic times. The surrealists’ bulb-headed automatons and melting clocks might remain. Or maybe the place reverted back to its old Symbolist, Dunsanian imagery, as seen in Lovecraft’s tales.

In the 60s and on into the 70s, simultaneous with Delta Green’s collision with the Age of Aquarius, a new generation of artists takes inspiration from the surrealists, and from pop culture images previously deemed unsuitable for museum consumption. To various degrees, the likes of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Kiki Kogelnik draw on the influence of advertising and entertainment on the psyche. This allows them to enter the Dreamlands, achieve lucidity there, and begin to alter its environment, just as the surrealists did before them. When your Delta Green agents arrive there, they find its skies dripping with Campbell’s soup cans, weeping comic strip duotone, and cotton-candy colored skulls. Sixties rock mainstreams both surrealism and pop art. In the Dreamlands, this development could find ghouls bobbing their head to a Zappa polyrhythm and Hendrix riffs reverberating through Dyath-Leen.

Agents might look to these new oneironauts for information, or seek out the old school surrealists now enjoying rediscovery and a fame that eluded them during their peak creative years.

Next up in See Page XX, I’ll survey the Dreamhounds characters active in the 60s to see what they might be up to when Delta Green drops in on them for a consultation.


The Fall of DELTA GREEN adapts DELTA GREEN: THE ROLE-PLAYING GAME to the GUMSHOE investigative roleplaying system, opening the files on a lost decade of anti-Mythos operations: the 1960s. Players take on the role of DELTA GREEN operatives, assets, and friendlies. Hunt Deep Ones beneath the Atlantic, shut down dangerous artists in San Francisco, and delve into the heart of Vietnam’s darkness. Purchase The Fall of DELTA GREEN in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

 

As the field of roleplaying expands its audience, and new platforms appear to provide an ever wider array of ways to get material into the hands of gamers, more folks than ever have jumped in to try their hand at writing. Whether you’re working, as an emerging RPG writer, on supplements, adventures, or games, you can increase the appeal of your work by adopting key techniques to sharpen your prose style.

Most writers, myself included, prefer to focus on style nitty-gritty when revising. Worry about it too much during the first draft and you’ll bog down, losing both your thread of meaning and your will to go on. After a while you’ll absorb techniques like the ones given here and instinctively adopt them into your initial writing phase. When you do revise, you’ll then be working from a stronger starting point.

Many of the tips below elevate any piece of writing, but let’s look at them from an RPG perspective.

Before the tips, a caveat: with rules text in particular, you want clear and stylish prose. When those two values conflict, technical precision outweighs style concerns. You may for example need to repeat the same word multiple times in close succession, which you wouldn’t do even in other, more story-oriented sections of the same game book.

1. Replace Inactive Verbs

Almost every emerging writer over-relies on a few frequently used, dead verbs: is, are, be, have. When you can, reconfigure your sentences to favor more specific, dynamic alternatives. Altering sentences to weed out inactive verbs forces you to tune up a sentences in other ways, finding greater specificity or concision.

Mercutio is a hot-blooded young man, driven by a churning intellect and a presentiment of his own doom.

Might become:

Mercutio’s hot blood, churning intellect and a presentiment of doom drive him to flights of poetic fancy.

The first describes him in a static state. The second puts him in action. Nipping out the “is” led us to show the GM more directly what Mercutio might do in a scenario.

The renderers are figures of terror throughout the neighborhood.

Becomes:

The renderers spread terror throughout the neighborhood.

Again, this moves us from situation to action.

The agents must be careful to keep up the pretense, or be attacked by the mutons.

Becomes:

The agents must keep up the pretense, or face a muton attack.

This distills the action into a simpler, shorter, punchier sentence.

Don’t expect to altogether avoid inactive verbs. You’ll find yourself testing and rejecting alternates because they confuse your sequence of thoughts, or require many more words than the original, inactive version.

2. Strike Instances of “Will”

RPG writing frequently puts us in the unusual position of describing a hypothetical future action:

The octopus will pick up the phone.

The monster will run at the PCs.

Amy will withhold that information until she’s sure the group can be trusted.

Dropping the “will” excises an unnecessary word, tightens the sentence, and allows the reader to envision the described action:

The octopus picks up the phone.

The monster runs at the PCs.

Amy withholds that information until she’s sure the group can be trusted.

I’ve been writing RPG books for a long time now, and still during my revision pass spot instances of the dreaded “will” begging to be cut.

3. Shorten Your Sentences

In RPG writing we can get caught up in a tumble of creative thought. As we get those thoughts up on the screen, we tumble from one idea to the next. That leads to overlong sentences that try to express too much. Almost any submission draft from a starting writer arrives full of sentences whose commas beg to be turned into periods. Get chopping!

Under the neon bridge the garoons thrash and cry, haunted by memories of their past lives, seldom heeding the worries of Old Chan, who gazes at them with a worried expression and silently rolls and lights another cigarette, because that’s what he’s been reduced to now.

Becomes:

Under the neon bridge the garoons thrash and cry. Memories of their past lives haunt them. Seldom do they heed the worries of Old Chan. He gazes at them and silently rolls and lights another cigarette. Fate has reduced him to this, he thinks.

Periods give the reader time to stop and take in each idea before moving on to the next. Resist the impulse to slap rope together with a kit-bag of conjunctions. The appearance of “and” near the end of a lengthy sentence often marks a trouble spot in your sentence. Look carefully at the final clauses of your sentences. Many times you can cut them entirely. In other cases you’ll see that they bear little relation to the rest of your thought and should break free to become their own sentences.

4. Remove Passive Construction

This standard piece of style advice still bears repeating. Except when used for (usually ironic) effect, cut out sentences that bury their subjects by shunting them to the end of the sentence, or omitting them entirely.

Dogs all around the neighborhood were terrified by ravager activity.

Becomes:

The ravagers terrified neighborhood dogs.

5. Strip Out Introductory Flab

When revising text, take an extra hard squint at passages introducing new subjects. You may see that you eased your way into the topic with a series of broad introductory statements. If you did, you were probably getting your mental gears going as you found your way to what you really wanted to say. See how many initial sentences you can pare away without cutting into the true meat of your piece.

Ever since the dawn of time humankind has feared the dark. Throughout the ages people have whispered of strange doings in the woods. Combining the dark and the woods together creates unique and special fears. The shadowy beings known as woodhaunts stalk the forests of southeastern Poland.

Becomes:

The shadowy beings known as woodhaunts stalk the forests of southeastern Poland.

GMs sometimes fear that certain RPG abilities give away too much to the players. In GUMSHOE the abilities that most trigger these fears are the ones that actually act as the GM’s best friend.

Intuition in The Yellow King Roleplaying Game is one of these. We can get to that one later.

The classic example is Bullshit Detector—or as it is known in games set in a more genteel era, Assess Honesty.

GMs read the description and worry that the capacity to spot the telltale signs of deception will ruin their mysteries. When you think about it, though, very few mysteries hinge on the simple question of whether a suspect is lying.

Remember, the ability doesn’t necessarily tell the character what witnesses are lying about, just that they’re fudging or withholding something.

Drive this home in play by including witnesses who have an unrelated secret they’re anxious to to conceal, from investigators and everyone else. They’re denying professional screw-ups, cheating on their partners, cooking the books, indulging in a reputation-destroying vice, or hiding their involvement in crimes the investigators don’t care about.

With many investigative abilities, I’ll prompt players who don’t ask to use them. Not so with Bullshit Detector. Players who have it get used to actively invoking it.

When I want to make it dead obvious that a character isn’t telling the truth, I don’t mention Bullshit Detector. Instead I play the GMC as obviously shifty, with darting eyes, a worried look, or blurted phrases.

Even when the investigator questions the main bad guy, knowing that he’s lying rarely does more than confirm an existing suspicion. It rarely moves the team further toward the solution of the mystery. It certainly doesn’t let the group short-cut its way to the ending.

Sure, you’ve got a hunch that he’s hinky, but that doesn’t get you a warrant, or prove to the Ordo Veritatis head office that it’s okay to call in the commandos. It narrows down your range of leads but rarely even serves as a core clue moving you to the next scene.

Yeah, Bullshit Detector tells you that Old Man Grisby is pulling your leg about something. But that doesn’t tell you to go to the ghoul crypt, or reveal his immortal past, or lead you to the confederate who can be bribed into turning over his document collection.

As a GM I find Bullshit Detector most useful in ruling out deception. Players often fixate on innocent secondary characters, deciding that they must be the dread masterminds. Or they might not like what a witness has to tell them, because it contradicts their current speculation on the nature of the case. “Mrs. Chan doesn’t strike you as dishonest,” nudges the players back on track.

In actual play you’ll find yourself worrying less about preserving red herrings than in separating players from incorrect notions they’ve firmly stuck themselves to. Bullshit Detector helps you do that.

See P. XX a column about roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

Buffy’s hometown had one. You fall into one when you open a Hellraiser cube. The Stranger Things gang can’t seem to stay out of them. Like any basic horror trope, the sinister portal to another world fits any GUMSHOE game that journeys into fear.

The default gate we think of in this context exists somewhere else, already halfway to hell: out in the woods, in a basement lab, in the attic of a haunted house.

Your sinister gate could flip the script by appearing in the middle of a busy city, unnoticed as such by thousands of passersby every day. An illusion, or our collective desire not to see that which should not be seen, masks it. Forms it could take include a metal gate across an alleyway, the steel sidewalk hatchway memorably seen in Russian Doll, or a bricked-over old door in the side of a wall that opens… under the right conditions.

The mythology of The Esoterrorists rules out a simple gate between our world and the Outer Dark. When its denizens can move easily into this world, it’s game over: the game’s big threat, the tearing of the membrane, has occurred, and the demon apocalypse has begun. For this game you’d have to adjust the gate trope into more of a pocket dimension. It exists as a metaphysical carve-out, a piece of this world operating under the physics of the other one. The Outer Dark Entity inhabiting it still had to through membrane-thinning summoning magic to create the pocket world behind the gate or door. It can’t leave the pocket dimension, and so has to lure people to step into it before it can corrupt, eat, or otherwise mess with them. To get rid of the creature, the agents must learn how to destroy the gate, sending it back to the Outer Dark. Or maybe getting rid of the creature in some other way causes the gate to disappear.

In Trail of Cthulhu, the gate could take investigators into a non-Euclidean space, the Dreamlands, another time, another planet, or some combination thereof. The pocket dimension might be a minor manifestation of Yog-Sothoth itself. The clues the investigators discover might describe it as an an avatar, spawn or virtual replica of the full deity. It might lure in victims to destroy them, or to mentally dominate them so they can go out into the world to do its bidding. In the indifferent manner of Mythos foes, a sapient dimension beyond the gate could simply exist as an anomaly, minding its own cosmic business, harming humankind by proximity without care or intention. The Colour Out of Space, but in gate form. In that version, scientists and curiosity seekers enter it out of their own tragic desire to understand what should not be understood and experience what should not be experienced. The investigators realize that it’s the flame, and the victims destroyed by it—who share their own mission and personal qualities—are the moths. To end the menace, they must learn more about it, which once again confronts them with the terrible central paradox of Mythos-busting: too little knowledge and they can’t act. Too much, and their minds crumble, and they can’t act.

In three out of four of the Yellow King Roleplaying Game sequences, an innocuous-looking gate seen from a city street could indeed act as a portal to Carcosa. Perhaps people have to have read the play, or at least gained some dread second-hand awareness of it, to perceive and enter it. Or maybe it just sits there, a warp in the world’s logic, for any Belle Epoque boulevardier, Continental War soldier, or curious gig-economy worker to stumble into.

In the Aftermath sequence, set in an alternate present after the fall of the totalitarian Castaigne regime, all gates between worlds have been blasted shut. Your gate can’t go to Carcosa. But it could have come about as a partially successful attempt by fugitive parageometrists to create one. Maybe it has taken on consciousness of its own and must feast on people to survive. Having already snacked on the regime experimenters, it now attracts others to devour. Or it appears as a hell the ex-insurgents’s revanchist enemies try to pull them into.

Alternately, in any sequence, the realm behind the gate might the intangible fortress of a reality-warping Carcosan entity. It’s a lair, not made of rock or drywall or debris, but of changes to the prevailing metaphysic. Like most beasties, it can leave its nest, but is safer and tougher when within its confines. This gives you a monster that can head out into the broader environment to take victims. The Difficulty Adjustment for the creature goes down outside the lair, and up within it.

Or the pocket realm could represent its vulnerability, a sort of battery of impossibility energy it relies on to survive. To banish it to Carcosa, or cause its disintegration, the team must destroy the micro-dimension while the creature is elsewhere.

You could adapt this last idea to The Esoterrorists or Trail just as easily.

Like any GUMSHOE menace, the sort of mystery you choose to weave around your gate helps determine how it works and the information the investigators must gather to overcome the threat. The obvious scenario premise: victims are disappearing into the gate, and the PCs must figure out what’s going on and destroy it. In a forgiving game, like a Fear Itself outing starring feisty kids, previous victims might still be found deep in the weird realm. In typical horror modes, they’ve been long since consumed. Success means preventing others from meeting their fate.

If the gate moves around from place to place, the investigators could uncover about the nature of the threat in an early scene. The mystery shifts from “what is this thing?” to “where will it show up next, so we can banish it?”

Human antagonists might have constructed or conjured the dimension to accomplish some wider goal. There the investigators have to identify them and stop them from realizing their plan.

Finally, a weird pocket realm could appear as a side element. A magician or parageometrist creates it as a trap to lure nosy parkers.

A pocket realm that moves from place to place could even appear as an Antagonist Reaction, waiting on the other side of any door or gate to ensnare the investigators.

When seeking structural inspiration for DramaSystem play, you’ll find the purest sources in literary fiction and realistic drama. With no genre conventions to process, the bones of relationship-based storytelling clearly show through.

The satirical literary novel Startup, by Doree Shafrir, features an interconnected group struggling to stay afloat in NYC’s tech world. You could easily use it as the inspiration for a DramaSystem Series Pitch skewering the same scene. (To which about 20% of you are currently thinking “Oh no, that’s what I roleplay to get away from!”)

I bring it up here, though, for its foregrounding of a key dramatic storytelling technique, the explosive secret. Dramas often hinge on a terrible revelation that instigates the climax, changing everything for the cast of characters. Here Shafrir plants a bomb in pretty much all of the key relationships. Vaguely, to avoid spoilers:

  • a reporter has gained information in a way that will hurt her boyfriend’s career
  • a character has accrued giant credit card debt without telling her husband
  • another character makes his marital unhappiness clear to a colleague, who then gets to know his wife
  • a casual office affair has crossed the line into sexual harassment

These metaphorical bombs build suspense the way a literal bomb would in a thriller. As readers, we know they’re there, and we know they’ll alter or destroy relationships when revealed. In Beat Analysis terms, we fear that they’ll come out, and hope that the people we care about can either keep their secrets or will emerge all right on the other side of their revelation. (Having read more than one novel, we instinctively understand that they will come out, but want our viewpoint characters to avoid that all the same.)

When creating DramaSystem characters, you might add a step where each player describes a bomb that will change their relationship to another PC or PCs when revealed:

  • your husband, Big Axe, doesn’t know that Flowerleaf isn’t his son, but is instead Horse Talker’s
  • you didn’t really have the vision you claimed, so Horse Talker, not you, should be chieftain
  • you didn’t just fail to poison the snake priestess, as Big Axe demanded, but actually struck a deal with her
  • you know exactly where the lost scepter is, but keep it hidden to stop Sharpbrow from launching her peace plan

As a player, you can always set a bomb for your character regardless of whether the GM adds this step. You can do it during character creation, perhaps as an explanation for why you can’t meet another character’s need. Or you can introduce the bomb during the action, calling a scene in which you strike a deal with the snake priestess, check on the spot where you’ve hidden the scepter, or drop a line of dialogue suggesting Flowerleaf’s true parentage.

Players know more than their characters, allowing everyone to enjoy the delightful agony of knowledge, waiting for the bomb you’ve planted to go off.

Finally, as with many DramaSystem techniques, you can use this move in any other RPG game where relationships between the player characters matter.


Hillfolk is a game of high-stakes interpersonal conflict by acclaimed designer Robin D. Laws. Using its DramaSystem rules, you and your friends can weave enthralling sagas of Iron Age tribes, Regency socialites, border town drug kingpins, a troubled crime family, posthuman cyberpunks and more. Purchase Hillfolk and its companion Blood in the Snow in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

A well-designed modular element for an RPG, whether we’re talking about a GMC, location, conspiracy, or occult tome, does more than extrapolate from an evocative premise. The text you write, explicitly or otherwise, indicates to the GM how it will be used in play.

Let’s look at roleplaying’s archetypal modular element, the one that has launched a thousand bestiaries, the creature. Or, if your core game prefers, monster, or foe, or alien life form.

In some cases the utility of a creature, or other modular element for that matter, goes without saying. That happens when the core activity of a game is so hard-wired to its modular elements that their function at the gaming table needs no further elaboration.

Take the venerable first mover and perennial market leader, Dungeons & Dragons. Its core activity is: fight monsters in fantastic environments.

(This greatly accounts for the enduring popularity of D&D and its stickiness as a concept. Not only does it have an exceptionally clear, easily enacted and highly repeatable core activity, it tells you this right in the brand name. Fantastic environment = Dungeon. Monsters = Dragon. It’s all right there.)

A well-wrought D&D creature design requires you to address its activity by showing the GM how it behaves in a fight, and how it interacts with its environment. In 5E, the stat block focuses on the former, and the descriptive text on the latter.

Different iterations of D&D have favored one over the other. The classic “Ecology of the X” magazine article format traditionally goes into way more extrapolative detail on a creature’s relationship to its environment than any DM can possibly put into play at the table. 4E, and its spiritual descendant 13th Age, focus much more on what the creature will do in a fight than in the broader world. A stat block might represent not a category of being, but a particular sort of orc or demon or pirate who attacks in a specific way, with its distinctive spell effect or weapon.

D&D casts such a shadow over trad RPG design that the very term “trad design” might mean “has a little D&D influence in it somewhere.”

It’s easy, then, to lose track of what you’re doing by applying D&D assumptions to the creation of creatures for other games. Making an adversary useful and easily playable in another rules set requires you to step back and consider the core activity you’re writing toward.

GUMSHOE games all have slightly different core activities, all of which can be expressed including the verb investigate.

  • Intrepid volunteers investigate the cosmic secrets of the Cthulhu Mythos.
  • At the behest of a benevolent conspiracy, trained professionals investigate an occult conspiracy to tear apart the world.
  • Ordinary people investigate their way out of horrific situations.
  • Burned spies on the run investigate the vampire conspiracy intent on destroying them.
  • A freelance starship crew investigates interstellar mysteries.

To design a GUMSHOE creature requires not just a focus on the tropes and themes of the setting—an eldritch abomination, a psychically invasive modern horror, an alien life form—but the creature’s role in the investigative action.

GUMSHOE’s emphasis on structure helps you do this. If you look at the scenario format, you can see that a creature might be:

  1. central to the scenario’s key mystery
  2. a secondary obstacle adding challenge and suspense along the way

In case 1, the creature is either the source of the mystery, or adjacent to the source. The PCs have to interact with it in some way to bring the case to a close. That’s your:

  • salt vampire feeding on the crew of the mining outpost
  • resurrected sorcerer bumping off anyone who uncovers his secret
  • ghost taking vengeance on its killer’s descendants

Many instances of case 2 fall into the broader category GUMSHOE calls Antagonist Reactions. When the heroes start poking around, the primary villain sends some lesser creatures to harry them. Secondary creatures might also be keyed to specific investigative scenes, as guardians or obstacles the characters must overcome before gathering clues. Examples include:

  • the gargoyles the corrupt priest sends to trash your studio
  • the mutated dogs in the abandoned lab
  • the faceless homunculus hitman known only as Mrs. Blank

Your description of a GUMSHOE creature might suggest ways it can appear in either role. When writing up Mrs. Blank, you could indicate how she acts when the PCs are tracking her through her trail of victims, and then what she does when she shows up at the behest of the vamp conspiracy to treat the agents to some silencer music.

Accompanying any core activity is a game’s default identity, the description of a typical PC group: ordinary people, trained professionals, burned spies, starship crew, or whatever. Take that into account also as you design your creature. Show the GM how to get the characters into contact with your entity. In other words, your description needs at least one plot hook demonstrating its introduction into play.

Super easy, again, in D&D: unless you say otherwise, the creature occupies the fantastic environment, ready to defend itself when adventurers show up to fight it.

The more specialized the default identity, the more guidance GMs need getting your creature into their games.

Let’s say you’ve designed a ghost that materializes out of printer’s ink. What motivates the typical group for this game to confront it? The answer differs if the PCs are ordinary people (Fear Itself), burned spies (Night’s Black Agents) or security pros who respond to assignments from their handlers (The Esoterrorists, Fall of Delta Green.) The question in the first two examples is “Why do the PCs care?” In the last case, it’s “Why do their handlers care?”

Keep these essential questions in mind as you first envision your creature, and again as you revise your text. You’ll probably spot passages that explore a rabbit hole of iterative detail but don’t figure into a GM’s key concerns:

  1. What does it do in my scenario?
  2. What does that scenario look like?
  3. Why and how do the PCs encounter it?

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

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

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

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

So when creating a Foe description, the designer distinguishes between

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collage art by Dean Engelhardt


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

See P. XX

a column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weak

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

Hit Threshold 3

Weapon -2 to -2

Armor 0-1

Tough but Outmatched

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

Hit Threshold 4

Weapon -1 to 1

Armor 1-2

Evenly Matched

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

Hit Threshold 4-5

Weapon -1 to 3

Armor 1-3

Superior

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

Hit Threshold 3-4

Weapon 2-5

Armor 2-5

Vastly Superior

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

Hit Threshold 3- 4

Weapon 2-4

Armor 3-5

Overwhelming

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

Hit Threshold 2-4

Weapon 4-12

Armor 4-12

Too Awful to Contemplate

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

Hit Threshold 2-6

Weapon 5-12

Armor 4-12


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

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